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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