For all its sordid details and bad behavior, sexual, chemical and otherwise, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Crystal Zevon's mammoth oral history of her ex-husband Warren, is an act of devotion as much as a work of pop-music anthropology. Pitched squarely to cultists and fanatics, the book offers a warts-and-all avalanche of journal entries, reminiscences, and testimonials delving deep into every facet of Zevon's career, from his early days on the fringes of the Southern California rock scene to his booze-fueled late-'70s heyday to his bottoming out in the '80s and late-period comeback. Zevon is a great subject, but his ex-wife shows a disconcerting unwillingness to separate the good from the bad. There's a great rock bio somewhere in here, but readers will have to wade through a lot of superfluous nonsense to get to it.
Unsurprisingly, Dead is strongest and sleaziest when documenting Zevon's nightmare reign of vodka-sodden, pill-popping, sexually rapacious terror in the late '70s. Things quieted down considerably once he embraced sobriety, but he didn't exactly turn into a choirboy: Among other ugly revelations, the sober Zevon was still the type to trick a groupie into getting an abortion by promising her a glamorous life as his road girlfriend that magically disappeared the moment the procedure was performed. Zevon's commercial comeback after he learned about his impending death from cancer gives the book a heartbreaking, deeply satisfying conclusion, but it'd be a lot more powerful if it weren't preceded by such an abundance of mundane details. A vague recollection of enjoyable time spent with a buddy doesn't automatically become riveting because the people involved are Zevon and Bruce Springsteen.
If nothing else, Dead is a comprehensive list of every celebrity Zevon ever befriended, from tough-guy character actor Michael Ironside to sap merchant Mitch Albom. In its exhaustive inventory of famous people met, pleasant afternoons spent immersed in conversation, and thoughtful gifts received, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead unwittingly recalls Bill Clinton's similarly exhaustive and exhausting memoir My Life. It's safe to assume that the last thing a hellcat like Zevon would have wanted would be to remind anyone of a politician.