C.M. Kushins' Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon opens with Zevon waking up in the middle of the night, confused and scared. The narrative quickly spirals into madness from there. Soon Warren is holding a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum, aiming it at an approaching vehicle. When Zevon finally makes out the driver's face, he realizes it's himself. Then he wakes up again.
The preceding paragraph contains a horror movie trope and is steeped in noir. It's also strange, pregnant with the promise of violence, and feels dangerous. Those elements pop up time and again in Nothing's Bad Luck, a superb biography of mysterious and brilliant singer/songwriter Warren William Zevon.
Zevon was born in Chicago in 1947. His mother, a Mormon, soon divorced his father, a bookie, gambler, and boozer who was a small-time mobster and would be in and out of Zevon's life. After a rough childhood that included ever-changing household situations and constant moving from place to place, Zevon, a "pockmarked and inherently shy" teenager found refuge in music. He "used both his musical skills and sarcasm as tools to win friends and attention from girls."
His life-long love affair with music started at an early age with classical music and then moved on to rock and roll. It would be the one constant in his life. By the time Zevon was 20, he was heavily into songwriting and in 1976 released his first record, Warren Zevon, which received critical acclaim. For the rest of his career, Zevon would battle alcoholism, drugs, and internal turmoil while building a career that made him a rock star. Finally, he entered rehab in 1984. Sobering up produced the album Sentimental Hygiene, released in 1987.
Unfortunately, what could have been a long career would be cut short when Zevon, clean and living a relatively healthy lifestyle, was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. He died the following year, shortly after releasing his final album. Relying mainly on interviews with friends, family, and fellow musicians, Kushins offers an honest, complete view of the life of this enigmatic musician from a multiplicity of angles.
Kushins has a line early on that frames the entire biography: "For Warren Zevon, music and danger would forever be entwined." Nothing's Bad Luck is a celebration of Zevon's creative genius, but also an exploration of the darkness that lived inside him and the way drugs and alcohol shaped his life and career. Zevon was one of those artists for whom there was no dividing line between real life and persona. As a writer, Zevon drew inspiration from everything around him, but also spent a lot of time and effort doing everything in his power to inhabit a reality that echoed the darkness in his songs. This is something he pursued regardless of his responsibilities and the consequences of his actions:
"Warren had become a father, but that did little to curb his penchant for late nights, booze, and drugs. He insisted they fueled his creative energy. Those activities had always been a part of his process, but with the stress of producing material for a follow-up album and two mouths to feed, they had become habitual. As the stress mounted, Warren's behavior sometimes took a dark turn. Some nights, he would disappear — usually crashing on friends' couches or checking into seedy motels with bottles of whiskey and hordes of drugs, immersing himself in the atmosphere that inspired his pulpish lyrics."
While it follows chronological order and the interviews are extensive, Nothing's Bad Luck breaks away from the dry, matter-of-fact style of most biographies. Instead, it frames events in a way that add to Zevon's mystique. He was a fascinating, mysterious figure whose songwriting skills made him a legend, but also a man who battled alcoholism and drug addiction for decades — and someone whose inner demons included jealousy, anger, gambling, pills, verbal abuse, and depression. While these are present in the book, Kushins does a great job of exploring Zevon's alcoholism. He saw alcohol as a "creative stimulant," like most of his literary heroes. He believed this so much he even gave himself a nickname: F. Scott Fitzevon. It was also his medicine: "Alcohol had long been his solace during frequent bouts of depression, writer's block, and self-doubt."
Warren Zevon went from having a cult following to being recognized as one of rock music's most influential songwriters and being named along giants like Bob Dylan. He was a poet with a knack for using popular culture and his own imagination to craft songs with lasting storytelling power. Unfortunately, he was haunted by his addictions, which touched every sphere of his life. Kushins has delivered a nuanced, in-depth, loving look at this complicated figure, one that helps cement him as one of the most complex and captivating musicians of our times.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.