“Albert Einstein was a ladies man
While he was working on his universal plan.
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a Genius”
This is one of my favorite lines from Warren Zevon’s modestly-titled gem “Genius.” It’s a brilliant song – at once hilarious, scathing, dark, and vulnerable. And it epitomizes the career, and the life, of one of America’s most under appreciated musical talents.
Reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon’s biography of her late husband, it very quickly becomes clear that Warren Zevon was a genius in every sense of the word. As some might jot down a grocery list before running out to buy tomatoes, Zevon would dash off entire symphonies on the back of cocktail napkins in full musical notation for instruments which he knew how to play or could figure out how to play in the time it’s taken me to type out this sentence. He liked to brag about being tested as having the highest IQ ever in Fresno, California. Whether there ever was such a test, it would be a risky proposition to bet against his IQ.
Zevon was a voracious reader and would veer from Stephen King to Russian history to Catholic theology to Norman Mailer. His apartments were always strewn with books and, as a friend noted, he read every single one. Zevon was not a person to buy a book and not read it. As his good friend and novelist Carl Hiaason writes, “A prodigious reader…he could talk knowledgly about Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, or Micky Spillane, all in the same conversation.” This vast body of literature informed his songwriting in a way that made Zevon one of the most admired and creative lyricists around. His songs veer from flat-out goofy (“Werewolves of London“) to cheerfully dark (“Life’ll Kill Ya“) to plaintively earnest (“Don’t Let Us Get Sick“). But each one displays a way with words that was the envy of many of his novelist friends. Stephen King summed it up pretty well: “When I listen to some of the stuff Warren wrote…I think if I could write something like that, I’d be a happy guy.” That’s pretty high praise from a guy who’s put more words to paper that probably anyone else on the planet and is damn good at doing so.
Genius as he was, Zevon was far from a saint – as was probably to be expected given his profession as a rock musician. Drugs, alcohol, and smashed up hotel rooms are par for the course in that line of work. Yet, as he went beyond most others in terms of creative abilities, his bad behavior also crashed through boundaries. In a song titled “Mr. Bad Example,” there’s a line that goes “I like to have a good time and I don’t care who gets hurt.” This is certainly autobiographical. In addition to alcoholism, drug abuse, and fits of narcissistic rage, Zevon’s life was littered with other instances of darker, more despicable behavior. He beat his wife. He cheated on every girlfriend he ever had. In a particularly disturbing incident, he impregnated a fan, lied to convince her to have an abortion, and then refused to talk to her again. In short, he could be a disgusting human being.
But he could also be a loving father, a caring friend, and a sincere partner. When he chose to be, if ‘choose’ is the correct word. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is told through the eyes of those who knew him so there is no professional psychological analysis at play. Yet, it is clear from the stories of his friends and relatives that there was a battle going on between his better and his baser instincts with the later often winning out. While this made for a train wreck of a personal life, it’s a conflict that permeates his music in such an important way that, were he not as twisted, it’s easy to imagine him not having been such a successful and creative artist.
In 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 55. A week or so before he finally passed, he told his ex-wife Crystal to tell his story. “You are my witness,” he said. “The story is yours. But you gotta promise to you’ll tell ’em the whole truth, even the awful ugly parts. Cause that’s the guy who wrote them excitable songs.” I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead certainly tells the whole ugly truth and, in the process, helps us to better understand this flawed and tragic genius.