I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

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By Crystal Zevon (Ecco, $27)

"All good stories," Warren Zevon once observed, "end in death." As a writer, Zevon knew the value of a big finish. By the time he passed away in 2003, at the age of 56, from a form of lung cancer, he'd managed to create a finale worthy of one of his best songs, closing his life and career with the gold-selling album The Wind and with a long, memorable goodbye. One of Zevon's final wishes was for his ex-wife, Crystal, to author his biography. He implored her to not shy away from exposing the most lurid and unflattering aspects of his life when writing the book, telling her, "You've got to tell the whole truth, even the awful, ugly parts, 'cause that's the excitable boy who wrote them excitable songs." Her nearly four-year effort - during which she conducted close to 90 interviews and pored over dozens of private journals - has resulted in this remarkable history. As its title suggests, the book is an unflinching look at an always complex, frequently unpleasant, ultimately singular figure. Zevon's peers - Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young - lauded his work, but Zevon joked that he was "a folk singer who accidentally had one big hit"; he saw the success of 1978's "Werewolves of London" as an aberration in a career that was as commercially frustrating as his work was brilliant. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is testament to Zevon's remarkable life: His childhood - his father was a Jewish gangster, his mother a Mormon - and his early years knocking about the Los Angeles music scene are as entertaining as his later, more publicized successes and as interesting as his battles with booze and self-destruction. Crystal, a journalist and a media activist, has constructed an utterly riveting tale that spares nothing and no one - including herself - detailing Zevon's addictions, infidelities, and most intimate moments in an effort to make this rare and troubled talent understood. - Bob Mehr