CK Retro Review: Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon

Against all odds, Warren Zevon found himself high on the pop charts in 1978 with his album Excitable Boy. Propelled by his biggest hit, the quasi-novelty single “Werewolves Of London”, Zevon cracked the Top 10 albums chart, rarefied air he would never again reach in his career. Those radio listeners who bought the disc were confronted with a typically bizarre cast of characters sketched out by Zevon, including murderers, mercenaries, and trust-fund troublemakers. It’s not as thematically unified as its self-titled predecessor, but there is a lot to love here.

ONE STAR

9. “Nighttime In The Switching Yard”- Some rock bands like The Stones and The Kinks were able to impose their identities on the disco form and come up with great singles. Zevon, not so much.

THREE STARS

8. “Veracruz”- Zevon and co-writer Jorge Calderon picked a relatively obscure, testy moment in the history of American-Mexican relations to remember, one which resulted in a battle and U.S. occupation back in 1914. Using exotic instrumental touches was a good idea, although the song as a whole is more well-intentioned than affecting.

7. “Johnny Strikes Up The Band”- A good-natured opening track about a charismatic bandleader and his effect on all those who enter his orbit, the song is given a typically crisp rendering from the top-notch session men who rolled with Zevon. The quiet bridge is a nice touch as well, expertly setting up the crunching return to the main groove.

6. “Accidentally Like A Martyr”- A Bob Dylan favorite, as evidenced by his decision to cover the song around the time of Zevon’s illness and his use of the phrase “time out of mind” as an album title. Elegantly sad, it doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but the regret is palpable and Zevon plays and sings with great feeling.

FOUR STARS

5. “Tenderness On The Block”- Jackson Browne, who once again produced the album (along with Waddy Wachtel), co-writes here, and you get the feeling that he probably did the bulk of the work. The finesse and precision, in terms of the meter and rhyme scheme, is very characteristic of Browne’s work; you could easily imagine the song on Hold Out. In any case, it exquisitely captures a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in all her promise and poetry.

4. “Werewolves Of London”- You don’t get to choose your signature song, and I’m not sure if Zevon would have chosen this, as lucrative as it may have been for him (and, thanks to Kid Rock, his heirs.) Those who only know him from this get a glimpse of the humor, even if its cartoony here, but they miss out on the darker places that humor could reach as well as the delicacy of feeling he could deliver almost better than anybody. But it’s still always a fun listen, thanks to that chugging piano riff, the winding guitar licks of Wachtel (who co-wrote with Zevon and his frequent collaborator Leroy Marinell), and a lycanthropic tour of London that includes the Queen and Chinese food.

FIVE STARS

3. “Excitable Boy”- I suppose you could find some social commentary in here if you dig deep enough, but I feel like it’s just Zevon getting his jollies juxtaposing a wicked piano groove and bubble gum-flavored backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt and Jennifer Warnes with a story about one of the most sinister protagonists in rock history, one whose reign of terror takes place under the watch of rationalizing adults. For my money it’s even a surer pop shot than “Werewolves Of London,” and it’s maybe a truer representation of the Zevon ethos as well.

2. “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”- Zevon befriended a former mercenary named David Lindell and wrote this tale of violence and vengeance with a supernatural twist with him, thus beginning a tradition of his choosing offbeat songwriting collaborators. Roland’s indestructibility seems to be Zevon’s subtle way of commenting on the way clandestine wars sanctioned by back-room dealings will persist, a point made more explicit by the laundry list of hot-button locations in the final verse. You don’t have to get into this on a political level at all to enjoy Zevon’s tale though, a scorching screenplay in song.

1. “Lawyers, Guns, And Money”- Great songwriters, like Dylan with “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and Cohen with “Everybody Knows”, can cut through the BS and tell you how the world really works in all its depravity and phoniness. Zevon does it here and yet, by getting inside the muck and the mire with a ne’er-do-well character, provides a cathartic blast that somehow makes it all bearable. Since most of us are on the wrong side of the titular trio most of the time, it’s fun to live vicariously through this punk for a few minutes, especially with some of the fiercest backing music in Zevon’s career serving as the soundtrack.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

 

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