Happy 40th Anniversary to Warren Zevon’s third studio album Excitable Boy, originally released January 18, 1978.
My friend Jason and I, both English majors in college, have an ongoing debate about Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” the last track on Excitable Boy. Specifically, the line “I went home with the waitress / The way I always do / How was I to know / She was with the Russians too?” We’re endlessly trying to figure out whether Zevon meant “How was I to know she was a KGB spy?” or “How was I to know she was also sleeping with a whole bunch of Russian mobsters, in addition to me?” or “How was I to know that she, like me, was also with the Russians?”
We’re never going to solve this riddle, but it’s one of about a thousand we’ll never get an answer to. It’s part of a summer ritual, a return to our college town for 24 hours to drink wine and catch up in a sort of simulacrum of our twenties. We are older now, the hopeless romance that defined us at 22 is a wistful memory. But there will always be Zevon to play; his music has been a part of us for as long as I can remember. We’ve passed his music back and forth between us; mixtapes, road trip sing-a-longs, text message quotes on our way to work.
But even before Jason, Excitable Boy was always part of my DNA. My earliest memory is watching the door on the Asylum Records label spinning around and around on my dad’s turntable in our living room. This story probably explains more about who I grew up to be than any psychiatrist or hypnotist could ever diagnose—early exposure to “Roland The Thompson Gunner” + Raymond Chandler = crime writer. This album was the first play when I created #RecordSaturday, and “Accidentally Like a Martyr” is one of the major chapter titles in my novel The Big Rewind.
“Johnny Strikes Up the Band” is my favorite Zevon tune. It’s a warm way to ease into the album and best listened to with the soft crackle of vinyl behind it. The album will get darker from here on out, but there is no way to listen to this and not feel as though it is instantly summer in the park, waiting for the local bandleader to start his set.
And then it gets weird.
More than a few writers I know have expressed that they’ve always wanted to write a whole novel around “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” It would be tough to beat the original, a moody, muted tale of betrayal, murder and mercenary ghosts, all in under four minutes. But of all the bastards who populate Zevon’s music, perhaps there is no sonofabitch more dastardly than Van Owen, who turns on our titular gunner, only to find himself stalked across continents before being done in with a shot to the back of the skull.
In addition to being the last song Zevon played live, on The Late Show With David Letterman in October 2002, it’s a favorite of screenwriter David Koepp, who named Pete Postlewaite’s and Vince Vaughn’s characters in Jurassic Park: The Lost World for the song’s two main characters.
Oppositely upbeat, the titular “Excitable Boy” is nevertheless in the same storytelling mode, gradually amping up the tension—all casually brushed off by the adults in the song—before the inevitable rape/murder of “Little Susie.” Pillowed by Jim Horn’s bright Springsteen-esque saxophone, the sardonic number separated Zevon from the pack of bland singer-songwriter contemporaries like Billy Joel and The Eagles.
(FUN FACT: I introduced myself to my friend Matthew by buying him a copy of this album, on vinyl, and handing it to him at a party before walking away. I’m mysterious/quirky like that.)
“Werewolves of London” is, of course, Zevon’s most recognizable tune, to considerable detriment. It’s pulled out every Halloween, it’s ripped off by Kid Rock (in what should be considered a war crime) and it was inexplicably covered by Kids Bop, where a chorus of cheerful tots bleat about how “a little lady got mutilated late last night.” But it’s much more clever than your average novelty song, with an inescapable piano riff and a killer guitar solo by Waddy Watchell.
(I have been to Lee Ho Fook's. It’s closed now, but when my now-husband and I went to London in 2005, I insisted we have dinner there. They did not, nor have they ever, had Beef Chow Mein on the menu.)
But closing out the A-side is “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” which showcases Zevon as an intimate romantic, a side that remained mostly hidden in his story-songs. The ambling, stair-climb piano that underscores, and later, closes out “Martyr” is his most beautiful, most heart-wrenching, and one that has always been hovering in the spaces between Jason and I.
“I only had a brief flirtation with heroin, never a tragic love story,” Zevon writes in the liner notes to the compilation I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Brief though it may have been, it was enough to inspire two songs; “Carmelita” on Warren Zevon and “Nighttime in the Switching Yard,” a Trainspotting-esque little ditty. Normally songs about heroin freak me out (see also, Steely Dan, “Time Out of Mind” Failure, “Dirty Blue Balloons,” et cetera) but there’s something incessantly charming and funky about this one. With the genius Jeff Porcaro on drums and veteran session man Bob Glaub pounding out a relentless, disco-infused bassline, it’s hard to walk away from.
“Tenderness on the Block” is a minor misstep, a syrupy little tune that retains echoes of “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” off of Warren Zevon. The song itself is fine, except that it comes sandwiched between the heartbreaking “Veracruz” and the sardonic “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” I’ve never trusted “Tenderness on the Block,” somehow, because this is Zevon and we’ve already been through “Excitable Boy” and “Roland” and “Werewolves.” I can’t help but think that this song is Carmelita’s origin story. “She’ll find true love / and tenderness on the block.” Sure she will, Warren. Sure.
Zevon died in 2003 at the age of 56, having never quite recaptured the brief fame this album brought him. Still, it’s hard to believe Excitable Boy is 40 years old. It hasn’t aged a bit, doesn’t betray any cheap ‘70s production values or subject matter. A new vinyl pressing has been issued, but if you really want to get a good listen, find an old copy at your local record store. Awooo indeed.