Warren Zevon’s life was one of patterns. As a person with OCD, patterns were knitted into the fabric of his daily life as well as his life overall. Some of the patterns were creative and inspiring, as one of the 20th centuries most brilliant rock composers. Some of the patterns were destructive, as Zevon struggled with substance abuse and a cycle of broken relationships. But these patterns flavored Zevon’s life and informed his work, helping to craft him into a fascinating character to those who knew and loved him. C.M. Kushins brings Zevon back to life for readers in this new biography, but be prepared as a reader to be stunned by both the creative genius as well as the disturbing realities of an often-destructive person.
If you’re unfamiliar with Zevon’s music, you will first recognize him for his biggest hit, “Werewolves of London.” If you know that song, you’ll know that Zevon often wrote with a wry sense of humor and a penchant for theatrics throughout his music. He was critical of the world with a sort of biting, angered quality. Kushins writes of Zevon’s, “signature tongue-in-cheek humor and playful sense of shock value.” (90) That seems to just about summarize his life.
As Zevon rose to fame on the backs of songwriting, some solo and some for other projects, he began to get connected with the “who’s who” of Los Angeles and Hollywood. The culture of those places included considerable substance abuse; it was part of the lifestyle that Zevon and his fellow creatives had made a part of their lives. While some could enter into destructive behavior and still produce, Zevon found the pressures of the music industry overbearing. The fame and the alcohol fueled his internal anger. (103)
My take on the book, though, is that if you are a fan of Zevon’s music you will really enjoy learning all of these “behind the scenes” tidbits. As a biography, it is excellent. Kushins covers everything from interviews with family members and fellow band mates to critical coverage in media outlets. In fact, one of those critics commented on Zevon describing his, “droll, rusty-voiced delivery tinged everything with sarcasm.” (178) That depiction of a performance a bit later in Zevon’s life seemed to summarize his performative ethos quite well. He was wild and unruly at times, but the messages of his songs often poked holes in society. He was a quintessential rock man with a penchant for composition rather than just jamming.
So the book is probably not for everyone, but it is certainly for those who want a deep dive into the life of Zevon. Some of his characteristics come across as abusive and may be difficult for people to read. But it’s important that Kushins included these to make sure that the book is not hagiography for Zevon fans. This is a book that might not make new fans of Zevon, per se, but will certainly help diehards learn more about an artist who was quite enigmatic during his life.