Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Zevon had a spotty career, derailed by alcoholism and a lyrical approach that was never going to win him any mainstream success. I think you can get by with a few of his albums and then a greatest hits. Not every Zevon song is great, but many of them are excellent. Check out his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman – a big fan – from 2002, when he was in an enjoy-every-sandwich race against a cancer diagnosis; he was the only guest for the entire hour.

What I Think of This Album

This is the one with the hits:  “Werewolves of London;” “Lawyers, Guns and Money;” “Excitable Boy;” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Though actually only “Werewolves” was a hit, and the others are just popular amongst music fans. Still, this was Zevon’s best-selling album, and it’s hard to argue with. More accessible than his self-titled album, it married his impish, boundary-pushing humor and bleak worldview to slick, catchy arrangements, once again expertly played by the cream of L.A. session musicians and guest stars.

“Johnny Strikes Up the Band” is another music-will-save-us-all tune, though it leaves something to be desired, lyrically; Waddy Wachtel (producer of the Church and others) plays a great guitar solo. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is a lengthy ghost story of a wronged mercenary (“the CIA decided they wanted Roland dead”), with Zevon evoking Roland’s lasting influence on unrest in Ireland, Palestine, and California. Zevon wrote this with his friend David Lindell . . . wait for it . . . a former mercenary. “Excitable Boy” amps up the discordancy, setting a story of a young man whose behavior progresses from odd to socially unacceptable to horrifically criminal, to the concern of apparently no one, as all excuse his actions as those of “an excitable boy,” to the most hummable melody of Zevon’s long career, punctuated by the “oooh-oooooh” of Linda Ronstadt (among others); Ronstadt would cover this song, though undoubtedly with different lyrics. “Werewolves” is irresistible, with its saloon piano, iconic “ah-oooooohs” and Zevon’s clever asides (“I’d like to meet his tailor”); John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac play rhythm on this, and Wachtel again plays the excellent guitar solo.

“Accidentally Like a Martyr” is a powerful song of lost love (“The hurt gets worse / And the heart gets harder”) that owes something to Dylan (the title, at the very least, is totally Dylan-esque). “Nighttime In the Switching Yard” is terrible – a lite-funk workout that is so obviously filler, it is offensive. “Veracruz” hearkens back to the prior album, plundering history – the U.S. occupation of Veracruz in 1914 – much like “Frank and Jesse James” did, and employing the same sort of understated arrangement and stylings. “Tenderness On the Block” is another of those unusually-titled Zevon songs – a trademark of his – that has some nice guitar and piano; Jackson Browne get a co-writing credit here. The album closes with the white guy favorite, “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” a breezy yet desperate (not to mention, baroque) plea for help from a callow young man in over his head in Latin America, who fortunately has Daddy to bail him out.

The Best Thing About This Album

I mean, it has to be “Werewolves of London.” Draw blood.

Release Date

January, 1978

The Cover Art

Terrible. Look, I love Zevon, but I can’t imagine the ego it takes to just put your face on an album cover. It’s also lazy.

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