On January 18, 1978 Warren Zevon released Excitable Boy, the best selling album of his career. With the help of the US#21 hit "Werewolves of London", Excitable Boy became a Top 10 hit, peaking at US#8. The album finished at #11 in the year's Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll. My favorite song on the album is "Lawyers, Guns and Money", my go-to karaoke tune.
Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge—to the point where Warren got friendly with the waitress. One day he says, “A friend of the waitress has a cabin up in the mountains. She’s off tomorrow and she’ll take us there. We can get a little mountain experience.”
The three of us get in my rental car. We’re going to spend the night up in the mountains and come back the next day. So, we’re driving through a sugarcane field and Warren’s sitting next to me. The girl is in the backseat. I ask how long before we get up there. She says, “Oh, ninety minutes.”
She goes on to say, “I’m sure my friend won’t mind if we break in.”
I say, “Oh, shit. Warren, I can see it now. A telegram to Joe Smith: ‘Dear Joe, please send lawyers and money.’”
And, Warren says, “Joe, send lawyers, guns, and money.”
And then I say, “Warren, we’re not going up there.”
He says, “You’re right. Back to the bar.” So, we went back to the cocktail lounge. On two cocktail napkins, he wrote “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”
Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy is the best American rock and roll album since Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run (1975), Neil Young's Zuma (1976) and Jackson Browne's The Pretender (1976). If there's not enough firepower in that statement, let's cock the hammer on another. Thus far, the Seventies have introduced three major American rock and roll artists -- Browne in 1972, Springsteen in 1973 and Zevon -- and I have every confidence the music of all three will be even better in the future.
Oddly enough, Zevon, the apparent newcomer, preceded both Browne and Springsteen into the studio. His first record, an exercise in self-produced/self-induced psychedelia called Wanted Dead or Alive (Imperial, 1970), went deservedly unnoticed, and it wasn't until 1976, when his career seemed all but dead, that he got another shot (largely through Browne's persistence), this time with Asylum. On Warren Zevon, his aim was truer but he hit too many targets, and there was some confusion whether he was just another sensitive (albeit unusually tough) singer/songwriter or a Magnum-cum-laude rock and roller who ate gunpowder for breakfast. His first tour answered that question, and the new LP blasts the bull's-eye into smithereens.
An intuitive artist, Warren Zevon's often both smart and crazy enough to shoot first at the most explosive subjects, then figure out the ramifications of whatever the hell he's bloodied later ("Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money"). He's like Sam Peckinpah trying to work out the obsessions in something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Though clearly no dumdum, Zevon, like Peckinpah, sometimes refuses to rely upon academic intelligence and pragmatic perspective to pull him through. And on Excitable Boy, his self-confidence and craftsmanship are so inherently forceful he's able to bypass self-consciousness and secondary concerns altogether. These songs stand up and look you right in the eye. They're so good damned good no one could miss them.
Now I'm hiding in Honduras
I'm a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan,
he's not surrendering; he's just acknowledging he's fucked up the quest again and now needs power to fight power.
Though it's not exactly confined to quarters here, Zevon's anarchic obsession will never get time off for good behavior either. His heroes are too excitable ("Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best/ ...And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest") and generally find themselves in situations as absurd as those in Norman Mailer's An American Dream, which "Lawyers, Guns and Money" resembles:
Well, I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians, too?
It would be a mistake to define Zevon solely by his outré limits, however. He's a son, a husband and a father, and this cycle is seldom slighted in his work (e.g., "A Bullet for Ramona," "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" and "Backs Turned Looking down the Path" on previous records). Here, "Veracruz" functions as a haunting synthesis of history and honor, codes and obsessions. Like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, it's a dream about exiles acting with integrity when their entire way of life is dying, but it's also about families in peril, mourning old dreams while moving inevitably toward new ones.
"Tenderness on the Block," written with Jackson Browne and reminiscent of Browne's "The Only Child" and "Daddy's Tune," projects and reflects upon a happy and satisfying father/daughter relationship, but "Accidentally like a Martyr" is a hard-as-nails love song about a love that's been irredeemably lost. Rarely has a remembrance been so sad and glorious, so lovely and forlorn. For some reason, the chorus made me think of Lew Archer, the private detective created by Zevon's friend, mystery writer Ross Macdonald. In The Doomsters, Macdonald wrote:
For once in my life I had nothing and wanted nothing. Then the thought of Sue fell through me like a feather in a vacuum. My mind picked it up and ran with it and took flight. I wondered where she was, what she was doing, whether she'd aged much as she lay in ambush in time, or changed the color of her bright head.
Pictured on the inner sleeve of this album is Zevon's .44-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver resting on a dinner plate filled with his wife's cooking. The photograph is titled "Willy on the Plate," and it tells the whole story. Warren Zevon wants it all -- and, on Excitable Boy, that's exactly what he gets.
Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon's second album (well, really his third album, but if he doesn't want to mention Wanted Dead or Alive, I'm sure as hell not going to bring it up), is just about the damnedest piece of vinyl that's come along in years.
It has a crazy a combination of moods and qualities as anything since "Shoot the Piano Player" or maybe "Cyrano de Bergerac." It's a real mix-and-match affair. Some of this and some of that. Disoriented separates. A combination dinner -- Heartrender Helper on the plate with a Hari-Kari Pop-Tart. (Or a Smith and Wesson on the plate with a bunch of glistening vegetables, as depicted photographically on the album's inside sleeve -- and don't think nobody noticed the cilantro on the plate, oh Mexican madness, where the parsley ought to be, Warren, because we did.)
What we're talking about here is being all over the emotional/literary/musical map: Parts of this album as as good as anything on The Pretender or Prisoner In Disguise, but parts of it are also as good as anything on The Spotlight Kid or Armchair Boogie.
When it comes to artistic sensibility, this fellow obviously has, as they say, a ready versatility of conviction. Studio time in the switching yard.
The first thing to remember about Excitable Boy is not to let the cast list fool you. It's produced by Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel, all right, and the musicians include Kenny Edwards, Leland Sklar, Russell Kunkel, and Wachtel himself, and the back-up singers include Browne, Edwards, Wachtel, John David Souther, Karla Bonoff, the ineffable Jennifer Warnes, and Linda Ronstadt -- but what comes out somehow manages to be something quite different from the usual California jamming, the ordinary California pap.
None of that tequila rock here. This stuff is pure mescal. The kind with a worm in the bottle. A worm and a little clown who pops up and scares you when you pull out the cork.
The best songs on the album -- the ones that are most impressive on early hearings and that hold up time after time -- are "Werewolves of London" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money."
The former (with John McVie and Mick Fleetwood in the band) has a big, generous, open-armed rhythm motif, and lyrics full of surrealistic mock-metaphor. "Better stay away from him" Zevon sings at one point, "He'll rip your lungs out, Jim/I'd like to meet his tailor," That's one of the more straightforward sequences.
"Lawyers, Guns and Money" is sort of the polar opposite of, say, "Margaritaville" -- the plaint of the scrapping activis, not the passive raconteur -- the snake in the corner, not the lizard in the lounge. Again, the music gladly takes the listener in, thereby heightening the sense of serio-comic desperation the song exhudes.
"Johnny Strikes Up the Band" is an is a upbeat, vaguely Springsteenian rocker. If the album has a single on it, this is it.
The title song is funny in the way that those old EC humor comics of the '50s were funny. As Mad used to have it, "Humor in a jugular vein." Still, there's something engagingly, and appropriately, boyish about the song -- particularly apparent in the proto-bubble-gum background vocals by Warnes, Ronstadt and Wachtel, andin the ingenuous ease with which Zevon throws off lines like "He raped her and killed her, then he took her back home."
"Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" is a heroic ballad with Irish overtones about a Norwegian mercenary who is assassinated by the CIA, but whose headless ghost still roams the world in search of, well, a little action. (The words here are apparently mostly by Zevon's friend, David Lindell, who apparently mostly knows of whereof he speaks.)
"Accidentally Like a Martyr" is a simple, appealing, lost-love ballad by Zevon, with an especially ambitious, and naggingly successful, quadruple rhyme based on "mad," "shadow," "random," and "abandoned.
" Nighttime in the Switching Yard" is the album's obligatory disco track. (If this had been recorded last year, it would have been done with a reggae beat.) It's hard to figure what it's doing here at all, with its almost non-existent lyrics andits rather uncomfortable-sounding rhythm track (which resembles that on Joan Baez' "Time Rag") -- though it is apparently a distillation of a longer, more serious, more intriguing story-song.
"Veracruz" is an extremely well done historico-romantic south-of-the-border ballad -- reminiscent of, but better than, Tom Jans' "Distant Cannon Fire." It is literary in the best sense, using slightly oblique references as commonplace ("I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns," etc.) and sketching hints of storylines with the lightest possible touch.
"Tenderness of the Block," co-written by Zevon and Jackson Browne, is a little bit obvious, and a little bit condescending -- guys in their early 30's shouldn't undertake to lecture guys in their 40's or 50's about how to raise their teenage daughters, because both the guys in their 40's and 50's and the teenage daughters know more about life than guys in their early 30's do -- but it has the usual Browne-knows sensitive appeal, and Zevon sings it with reassuring distance.
Zevon changes gears frequently, dramatically, even excitably. He covers all the bases, and with a casualness that seems almost naive -- as if he doesn't realize quite what he's doing, but figures that it's working so far...
Warren Zevon may be as friend on cocaine, burritos, and Perrier as the next laddie of the canyons, or he may not be. But what it sounds like he's fried on is looking out the window at the trees too long, and reading too many good books (hardcovers!), and getting too much good old-fashioned Rapid Eye Movement slumber -- the kind where you dream real dreams and know they're dreams.
Or maybe he's just a good singer/songwriter with a perverted imagination.