Thursday, November 11, 2010

Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (A Review)

Warren Zevon's 1978 album, Excitable Boy, might be one of the best albums to come out in the 1970's. At the very least it's a necessary antithesis to the mellow SoCal sound of The Eagles and Jackson Browne. The songs on the album have all the Zevon trademarks; flair, biting dark humor, and a wonderful collection of antiheroes.

The album opens with “Johnny Strikes Up The Band” which is kind of tribute to Rock N' Roll.

“Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” is Zevon showing off his intelligence with a dynamic piece of historical fiction that was co-written with David Lindell, an ex-soldier of fortune. The song is a dark ballad about a mercenary seeking revenge against the man who killed him deep in the Congo. “Time, time, time for another peaceful war/ Norway's bravest son/ But time stands still for Roland 'til he evens up the score.” When the now headless Roland finally tracks down his murderer, “Roland aimed his Thompson gun - he didn't say a word/ But he blew Van Owen's body from there to Johannesburg”. Unfortunately for Roland, killing Van Owen doesn't end his torment and his is forced into an afterlife of mercenary work including a strange run in with Patty Hurst.

Next up is the classic tune “Excitable Boy” which in grotesquely humorous tale of a boy and his obsessions.

“Werewolves of London” is Zevon's most famous song. It's also possibly one of the silliest videos ever made. The song is a comedic tale of a stylish werewolf loose in London. He eats beef chow mein, has a tailor, and even drinks pina coladas at Trader Vic's. “ahhhooooo werewolves of London/ Draw blood.”

After the comedy comes the heartbreak. “Accidentally Like a Martyr” is one of Zevon's best songs. “We made mad love/ Shadow love/ Random love/ And abandoned love/ Accidentally like a martyr/ The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder.” The song was notably covered by Bob Dylan and also provided him with the title of his 1997 release Time Out Of Mind.

“Nighttime In The Switching Yards” is Zevon getting down and funky, including a fat bass line and a full-on P-funk guitar riff.

“Veracruz” takes the album in another direction. Opening with the line “I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns”, the song is another piece of historical fiction. The song is about the occupation of Veracruz by the United States military in 1914. President Wilson had ordered the Navy and Marines to take control of the port and city after he received word that Germany was sending weapons to Victorino Huerta, who had taken control of the Mexican Government, much to the displeasure of Wilson. Ironically the arms shipment to Mexico, originated from the Remington Arms company in the United States. The guns and ammunition were shipped from Hamburg, Germany, to Mexico allowing Remington Arms a means of skirting the American arms embargo. Showing yet again, that capitalism always beats out nationalism.

“Tenderness on the Block” is possibly the least interesting song on the album. It's a quick and simple song about a young girl coming of age.

Excitable Boy ends with an anthem and Hunter S. Thompson's theme song, “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” The narrator of the song finds trouble at every turn, whether he's taking home a waitress who happens to be affiliated with the Russians (before the fall of communism), gambling in Havana, or hiding out in Honduras. But like any crafty and desperate man, he keeps going even when he's “stuck between a rock and a hard place/and down on my luck”. He's also smart enough to ask for help when things get truly desperate, “Send lawyers, guns and money/The shit has hit the fan.”

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