Warren Zevon is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. His quick wit, dry, understated demeanour and rampant cynicism make for some of the best music ever produced. He’s one of those few geniuses that wrote good songs, and also wrote good songs. A combination of sound and verse which, even today, gives Dylan a run for his money.
Perhaps no clearer example of this is Zevon’s 1978 album, Excitable Boy. It is, both critically and commercially, the man’s magnum opus; with a track listing touching on zombies, lycanthropy, and bloody battle. Such a bestiary is tackled with humour and conviction, in some of the best ballads and rockers from the 70s.
Excitable Boy is chiefly immortalised in the popularity of its biggest single, ‘Werewolves of London’. It became his only Top 40 U.S. hit, and remained his signature song long after his premature demise in 2003. And it’s no enigma as to why. It’s soft rock fusion of Zevon’s piano and sparing guitar licks are punctuated only by tongue-in-cheek verses and defining howls. ‘Ah-hoo! Werewolves of London!’ – such an iconic chorus; one you can tell Zevon is having fun with. His verses, of a ‘little old lady’ getting mutilated, or the titular beast getting a Pina Colada with seeming indifference are wholly him. The driving backbeat makes each and every passage pass by easily, and it’s just a great song. If Zevon finished Excitable Boy with only that one track, it would be impressive (somewhat interestingly, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie – both of Fleetwood Mac fame – performed on ‘Werewolves of London’.)
But the truth is, Excitable Boy has a slew of ‘Werewolves”. Take the opener, ‘Johnny Strikes Up The Band’, a more innocuous tale of a titular guitarist whose band is bound to cure all. The references to Johnny and Freddy/Freddie lead some to speculate it’s about everyone’s favourite stadium band, Queen – but either way, it’s easy-going six-string lulls you into a more than worthy taste of what’s to come. And it’s probably as simple as Zevon gets on this album.
‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’ has a title out of some Marvel B-list issue from the late 1950s, but it’s one of Warren Zevon’s most beautiful compositions. Detailing the story of Roland – the best Thompson gunner around – who goes on to fight in the Congo Crisis of the early 60s as a mercenary, the soldier of fortune is taken out when America deems him a problem, and makes a deal with his comrade, Van Owen. This results in Roland becoming a headless spirit/zombie/circle where appropriate, stopping at nothing until he takes his vengeance. The ethereal background vocals during the song’s multiple choruses are downright chilling, and Zevon’s nonchalant attitude makes for one hell of a story narrator. Nevertheless, the piano soars higher and higher as you find yourself cheering this restless spirit on.
David Letterman – lifetime friend and artistic ally to Zevon – requested he play this on his last The Late Show With… appearance. It would end up being Zevon’s final live performance. And I’m okay with that.
‘Excitable Boy’, the record’s title track, is possibly my favourite. Combining the crunchy guitar and graceful piano of ‘Werewolves…’, it’s another great example of Zevon. ‘Well he went down to dinner in his Sunday best, Excitable Boy they all said. And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest, Excitable Boy they all said’ is a stellar opening; drawing from Zevon’s own bizarre experiences to convey a younger man, shy in society, but trying his best. As the track progresses, however, the boy’s habits grow more concerning, such as biting an usher’s leg in the dark. By the third verse, we realise the true horror,
‘He took little Suzie to the junior prom, Excitably Boy they all said (Excitable Boy). Then he raped her and killed her, then he took her home, Excitable Boy they all said…’
Is it some stark commentary on the behaviour of men in society, how people simply dismiss all that as ‘boys will be boys’? Is it a darkly macabre tale out of Zevon’s mind, or the blackest humour imaginable? We’ll never know, but it’s the type of thing this songwriter excels at. Such chilling ballads, but enwrapped in utter meaning and complexity. By the time our excitable boy exhumes little Suzie’s grave and makes a cage with her bones, no one’s laughing. But you can’t stop singing along to it – particularly with back-up singers to lay on the contagious chorus.
‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’ is the first of Excitable Boy’s real ballads, and it’s so perfect. Reflecting Zevon’s divorce and the effect it had on his life, it throws off the shawl of cynicism and shock humour for instead, something real. ‘We made mad love, shadow love. Random love and abandoned love…’ – so simple. But you can really hear the pain and nostalgia in his voice. ‘Night Time in the Switching Yard’ is something entirely different. Pure funk. With seemingly no story, there’s speculation that the track is innuendo to shooting up, and general salaciousness of the night. It’s certainly one of the further out points in this album, but groovy nonetheless.
‘I heard Woodrow Wilson’s guns…’ is delivered beautifully from a wavering Warren. ‘Veracruz’, Excitable Boy‘s seventh track, is nothing short of explosive. It doesn’t pack a V8 guitar, fiery chorus or thundering backbeat, though. Told from the point of view of someone living under Wilson’s U.S. occupation of Veracruz in 1914, it deals with facing one’s homeland dying, and once again proves a testament to Zevon’s songwriting genius. Each and every time he delivers that short opening line, the intensity kicks into a whirlwind – like cannonfire in the chest.
‘Tenderness on the Block’ was co-written with Jackson Browne during one particularly inebriated evening. The song’s message is age-old, of a father realising he must let his little girl grow up, and discover true love on her own. It’s far from Mexican conflict or beasts of the night, but it’s still a great track, with some well-punctuated guitar.
The album’s closer, ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’ drips with sarcasm. Inspired by a cab ride in Cuba, it captures the fleeting sense of someone on the run; namechecking mafia, gamblers and living as a fugitive in Honduras. All the while Zevon asks for those three little things sardonically, in the midst of infectious hand claps and rip-roaring riffs. A fitting climax for this Illinois boy.
Excitable Boy is perhaps the closest Warren Zevon ever got to worldwide acclaim, and boy does he deserve it. It went platinum in the U.S. in 1997, and reached No. 21 for six weeks on its release. But I feel it really deserves more recognition, particularly today. ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’ holds shades of an early ’80s Fleetwood Mac, with the rockier tracks boasting something almost Heartbreaker-esque. Not that Zevon is quite Tom Petty; but he certainly stands out by himself. Some of his metaphors and imagery would be provocative by 2021’s standards, let alone the late 1970s. But he captures each and every trouble with respect – going only as far as he can with tongue placed firmly in his cheek.
It’s just a great classic rock album. And that’s all there is to say. Zevon went before his time, and Excitable Boy is proof of his genius, cut so tragically short.