29 August 2006

Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy

Several friends have asked why I have yet to feature a Warren Zevon album in my Tuesday album series. I’m a bit mystified myself. Zevon is one of the great music loves of my life, just a couple of notches below R.E.M. His songs have struck a chord in me for nearly thirty years. And I miss having him on this earth.

I was introduced to Warren Zevon my freshman year in college, soon after Excitable Boy was released in January 1978. My roommate was dating this cool grad student, Tom, who brought over the album and insisted that I listen to both sides three times straight. I rarely rebuff cool guys who force music on me, so it went on the turntable that minute. And I fell head over ears in love. The tracks were funny and alive, heartbreaking and honest. He rocked. He crooned. His voice was evocative, full of feeling and humor and sarcasm. I’ve loved Warren since that winter evening.

Warren Zevon was lumped with the 1970s Southern California sound — Eagles, Jackson Browne (who produced this and his previous album), Linda Ronstadt. Other than his locale and the appearances by those folks on his albums, I never saw the connection. Totally different vibe. Or maybe it’s because I love his music, and the rest of those SoCals generally bore me.

He was (and, damn, I hate referring to him in the past tense) a brilliant lyricist. Very literary. His play on words, his unexpected rhymes, his wonderful storytelling (do you know how hard it is to write an entire story in twenty lines?) were amazing. He was definitely an original.

I saw Warren Zevon in concert probably ten times. He was a brilliant performer who understood and enjoyed his audience. He always played a good mix of his fans’ favorites and his new stuff. He was quite the charmer onstage, too. I always stood right up front, and he’d often wink and asked how I liked this song or that one. I’d always giggle and blush; I think he enjoyed that.

Have I mentioned I once kissed Warren Zevon?

And now to the album.

Excitable Boy is best known for “Werewolves of London.” I love the song. It’s witty and weird, clever and catchy. But it makes me sad that it’s the only song most people know from Zevon’s oeuvre. His catalog is rich with beautiful ballads and kick-out-the-jams rockers. Not many can pull of cynical and sincere, but Warren could. You “Werewolves”-only folks are missing out on some musical treasures.

I met a cute guy once at his own party. Bit of spark on both sides. As is my wont, I checked out his CD collection to see whether or not he was worth my time. I complimented him on owning Excitable Boy. He responded that he owned it just for “Werewolves of London,” that the rest of the album was crap and littered with songs about Vietnam. I did not leave my number on his fridge.

“Werewolves” isn’t the weirdest tune on the album. The title track is. Sick, twisted, funny. And it still makes me laugh, even after thousands of listens. Who doesn’t love a pop tune about a psychotic killer? Well, he’s just an excitable boy. I want to rub a pot roast all over my chest one day.

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“Accidentally Like a Martyr” is the perfect anthem for loneliness. It’s always at the top of my break-up playlist (yes, I can be quite the Douglas Sirk queen post-dump). Heartbreaking lyrics, accompanied by a haunting piano. The lines Never thought I’d ever be so lonely / After such a long, long time / Time out of mind always punches me in the gut.

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“Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is the theme song for the troublemaker in all of us, supposedly penned after a night of partying in Mexico. Raucous rock beat, raucous story. Who doesn't love this song? Hank Williams Jr. did a decent cover a few years ago.

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The rest of the album (and I feel like I’m giving them short shrift; all but one or two are glorious):

“Johnny Strikes up the Band”: A great tune to open an album, it's a wonderful ditty that, for me, captures the excitement before a concert.

“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”: Another great story from Warren. I’ve always heard that “Roland” was written about a mercenary Zevon and his then-wife met in Europe in the mid-1970s. While Googling about this album, I read several sites stating it was Warren’s metaphor for the Western interference in the Congo in the 1960s. I can’t confirm either … but it’s a great story-in-a-song.

“Night Time in the Switching Yard”: The only track I’ve never been wild about. It sounds dated, very seventies to me. And it’s the only track on the album that Warren didn’t write. Connection?

“Veracruz”: A beautiful historical ballad, with a Spanish verse that adds flare.

“Tenderness on the Block”: Good pop tune (cowritten with Jackson Browne) about letting your little girl grow up. Shawn Colvin covered it in 1992.

There will be at least three more Zevon albums covered on Tuesdays. If you’re a fan, check back regularly. If you’re not familiar with him, I hope the selections I’ve included here leave you wanting more and send you to the CD store.

Postscript: Dave Marsh wrote a good article about Zevon in the March 9, 1978, issue of Rolling Stone. It’s worth a read to get a feel for Zevon at that time.

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At 8/29/2006 08:13:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

I'm one of those that falls into the Werewolves and Reconsider Me categories but I'll endeavour to change that on your say so Beth. I'm an impressionable boy apparently.

At 8/29/2006 08:21:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

Ah, "Reconsider Me" ... what a beautiful song on a brilliant album. Did you listen to the three Bolt-ed tunes? Give Warren a chance, Dale; you can whine back if you don't like him. He was Letterman's favorite, you know.

At 8/29/2006 08:47:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

I don't have much by him but I remember being quite upset when he passed away because I bought one of his last albums (may have been his last) called "The Wind" and it was excellent.

At 8/29/2006 09:39:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

Ben, The Wind was his last album. Warren began recording it after he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. It's a beautiful, heart-wrenching, honest album, and will be featured soon. It just hurts this fan too much to write about it. Not long before he died, David Letterman gave him an entire show -- three songs, a great interview. I have MP3s of the show, and may post them here one day.

At 8/29/2006 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Old Lady said...

Great review. Makes me nostalgic

At 8/29/2006 12:55:00 PM, Blogger gizmorox said...

Would you hate me if I said I was born the year you were a freshman in college? *ducks*

I haven't heard much Warren. I'll have to look him up.

At 8/29/2006 01:13:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I could never hate you, Gizmorox! Your taste in music is much too good. I don't mind being old; I had some great times before you were born, and got to experience the punk, post-punk, and new wave eras firsthand.

At 8/29/2006 01:26:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I'll definitely check them out at home Beth. Lately I've been reading a little more at work during quiet moments but turning on the audio would drown out the inanity of the colon cleansing babes all chatting around me and bring them nearer.

At 8/29/2006 01:27:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Be sure to smear a pot roast all over your chest before listening. It will add to the experience.

At 8/29/2006 05:48:00 PM, Blogger haahnster said...

"'Excitable boy,' they all said..."

GREAT album, Beth! There's another piece of vinyl I need to dig back out. Of course, I need to get home first. But, that's a different story...

Wonderful write-up, as usual. You rule!

At 8/29/2006 08:29:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I do rule, Haahnster! And so do you, if you also still own this on vinyl. I have it on vinyl, cassettee, CD, and in MP3 format.

I hope you get to go home -- and stay home -- soon.

At 8/29/2006 10:50:00 PM, Anonymous Glassmeow said...

"Send lawyers, guns and money, the sh*t has hit the fan..." probably one of the best lines ever written.

*sheepishly admits to owning no personal Warren Zevon, but will probably go hunting at Everyday Music based on this post*

At 8/29/2006 11:04:00 PM, Blogger The Wandering Author said...

I think Lawyers, Guns, and Money is my favourite, followed by Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. Excitable Boy isn't far behind, either.

I remember one time I was singing part of Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner over to myself; I didn't realise there was anybody around until I caught a couple of people giving me very odd looks.

Or there was the time I was riding in a car with a friend when he was pulled over by the cops - I just managed to hold back from singing "Send lawyers, guns, and money..." In fact, I've got a clip of that on my computer; when there's a crash, that's the sound that plays. It makes the annoying a bit more amusing.

There are people who don't like Warren Zevon??? Sheesh!

At 8/30/2006 12:39:00 AM, Blogger Tenacious S said...

Beth, saw the Letterman show live that night. I can't listen to The Wind without crying at some point. I lost my own mom to cancer in the same time frame. The lyrics are so sharp. Really, I can't listen. So beautiful, such a loss.

At 8/30/2006 11:57:00 PM, Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

A friend related to me that when he visited the New Trader Vic's, he saw a Beth sipping a pina colada, and her hair was perfect.

Beth's Cup of Coffeyyy

At 8/31/2006 07:02:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

GLASSMEOW: Hit that used record store today. Since you're a Peter Buck fan, start with Sentimental Hygiene; Berry, Buck, and Mills back him on on most of the album ... and there are appearances by Stipe, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan.

THE WANDERING AUTHOR: I need to add "LG&M" to my PC warnings; that's brilliant! And if there are non-Zevoners out there, they need to stay out of my universe.

TENACIOUS S: I watched that show live, too, and the tape over and over. I think The Wind is one of the most beautiful, honest albums released in years. I haven't been able to listen to it since my dad died; it's time to pull it out again.

WRITEPROCRASTINATOR: That's the best comment I've received ever!

At 9/02/2006 11:00:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Beth, I'm listening to some Warren this morning and am just awed by the funny, sad and brilliant Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)?

Also found a version of Raspberry Beret that said WZevon & REM. It's him singing and does sound a bit REMish but is that them backing him up?

At 9/02/2006 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

Glad you're listening to Mr. Zevon this morning! He's worth the exploration.

"Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)": Warren had a great way of writing funny stories, didn't he? And I hope you caught David Letterman's "Hit Somebody"; they supposedly recorded it after a Late Night appearance, and Paul Shaffer's in there, too.

Raspberry Beret: Excellent ear, my friend. That would be the Hindu Love Gods album you're listenting to. Hindu Love Gods was one of R.E.M.'s names they'd use when they wanted to play around Athens and not be R.E.M. Berry, Buck, and Mills backed up Warren on much of Sentimental Hygiene (and I think much was recorded in Athens), and that was a jam session they recorded late one night. Supposedly WZ and my boys were never happy that it was released ... but I bought the album the hour it hit the stores.

At 9/04/2006 07:45:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Thanks for the background info. You're the go to on Warren and the boys for sure! Love the *insider* information.

At 8/20/2007 01:44:00 AM, Blogger Casey said...

I just discovered your blog by googling Zevon.

It's great and I will visit regularly.

Here is a link to my "Excitable Boy"

I invite you to drop by.


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