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Excitable Boy
Warren Zevon

Asylum 118
Released: January 1978
Chart Peak: #8
Weeks Charted: 28
Certified Gold: 4/17/78

Warren ZevonWarren Zevon's Excitable Boy is the best American rock & 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 & 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 & 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.

Warren Zevon - Excitable Boy
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Like Wanted Dead or Alive and Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy shares a passion for larger-than-life historical figures (or those who would emulate them), elemental forces and codes of behavior often associated with courage and honor. But Zevon's would-be heroes ("Should have done, should have done, we all sigh") sometimes unwittingly shoot for the moon when it's reflected in a puddle of water under their tangled feet. Like the characters in Graham Greene's The Comedians, they're so tragicomically confused about glory they don't know up from down, quandary from quarry, but they do know they're either running after or running away from something big -- and, in their zeal and commitment, that's all that matters. There's not much irony here, but a lot of heart. When the picaresque protagonist of "Lawyers, Guns and Money" sings:

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.

When Warren Zevon need more power on this album, all he has to do is snap his fingers. For, if Excitable Boy is clearly a singular triumph, it is also a collective one. Brassy as Zevon is, he's given comparable backing by the rhythm sections of three superlative rock & roll bands (Linda Ronstadt's, the Section, Fleetwood Mac), exceptionally crisp and complementary production by Jackson Browne and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and the kind of sound quality (by Greg Ladanyi, who engineered Browne's Running on Empty ) that most musicians would kill for. Musically, Zevon's stalwart singing and rigorous, razor-sharp piano playing hold down the fort, while Wachtel, who brandishes an armory of guitars, takes the high ground with such audacity he nearly steals the action at times. On "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" (like the second LP's "Mohammed's Radio," a "tribute to rock & roll"), Wachtel simply picks up the song and carries it away, giving it back only for the vibrant vocals.

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?

"Caught between the rock and the hard place," Zevon's "innocent bystander" shouts sendups that make sense and statements that don't. "Werewolves of London" is one of those indescribable, half-sung/half-spoken, stupid/profound anthems that captures something of a city and a time. With Wachtel's guitar prowling through the rolling fog like Jack the Ripper, Zevon reduces the whole world to a mythic howl, and you feel exhilarated. "Rowland the Headless Thompson Gunner," cowritten by ex-soldier of fortune David Lindell in Spain, is an ersatz Irish ballad about betrayal, revenge and death in Africa ("They can still see his headless body stalking through the night/In the muzzle flash of Roland Thompson's gun") that somehow winds up with Patty Hearst in Berkeley. The title song sounds both harmless and bouncy until you listen to the lyrics, which could have been scrawled in blood by Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

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 & 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.

- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, 3-23-78.

Bonus Reviews!

Warren Zevon's first album was too good to be true. At least, that's how I began to feel after publicly praising it to the skies and then living with the thing for a few months; the doubts rankled. For all the brilliance of many of the songs, for all the clever changes Zevon was able to ring on genre clichés (the genre being the L.A. School of Cool personified by, among others, the Eagles and Jackson Browne), the suspicion remained that perhaps he was just as sappy and parochial at heart as the people his work, however crazily, seemed to echo.

Consider, if you will, the kinds of characters he dealt with: groupies, rock musicians, gamblers, and outlaws. Pretty standard stuff, frankly, right out of the Hollywood Rock Handbook. When he portrayed down-and-out Angelinos wasting away in seedy music-biz hotels, did it really matter that he was setting up a bizarre musical joke whose punch line was a massively orchestrated ode to the hum of an air conditioner? Or, when Linda Ronstadt recorded (presumably with the author) his "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" as a straight lament, did this prove that it was all in the irony of the beholder? Were dime-store sentimentalities like those in Hasten Down the Wind the rule and his off-the-wall rockers the exceptions? In short, was Zevon just a West Coast wimp who had gotten lucky?

The answers, I'm happy to report, are yes, no, no, and -- emphatically -- no. In fact, I feel slightly silly for having worried, because Excitable Boy, Zevon's second effort, presents a vision of rock-and-roll that has absolutely nothing to do with the slicked-down Seconal sound of Seventies California pop. It is a vision that is as hilarious, idiosyncratic, and wonderfully sick as any in the music's twenty-year-plus history, a vision so uncompromising and intelligent that nowhere on the record is the scent of kitsch even faintly discernible. All that and a backbeat as well.

The songs themselves run about as wide a gamut, musically and lyrically, as you can imagine. There's a genuine rock anthem ("Johnny Strikes Up the Band") and a disco evocation of George Antheil's "Ballet Mécanique (Nighttime in the Switching Yard)." There are tales of American playboys gaming at the tables of pre-Castro Havana in the company of Russian waitresses, of the Mexican gentry who watched their lives go up in smoke as Zapata's men took Veracruz, of the headless ghost of a Norweigian soldier of fortune who prowls the Dark Continent hell-bent on revenge, and of an English werewolf with an impeccable hairdo drinking piña coladas at Trader Vic's. There's a cartoon violence and genuine passion. There's a hint of the Coasters' Fifties juvenile-delinquent stance in the title tune, some glorious early-Sixties Brill Building romanticism ("Tenderness on the Block"), and even some tongue-in-cheek cynicism ("Accidentally Like a Martyr") that seems to presage the Eighties. Best of all, there's the spectacle of the Elektra/Asylum house band, featuring (usually ever-so-tasteful) Ronstadt guitarist Waddy Wachtel, playing flat-out rock-and-roll as if they'd just discovered that loud noises can be liberating ("Lawyers, Guns and Money"). And that reinforces my suspicion that, on top of everything else, Zevon is one hell of an arranger and leader.

Look, what more could you want from him? Excitable Boy gives you the guitar raunch of the Rolling Stones, the wit and verbal facility of Randy Newman (perhaps Zevon will go Newman one better by getting the subject of equal rights for lycanthropes onto the American breakfast table), and some fantasies that make Elvis Costello's seem as mundane as Barry Manilow's. Clearly, this is the first truly subversive album of 1978. Miss it at your peril.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 5/78.

Excitable Boy is good. Genuine good. Powerful good. Funny and sad and horrifying (and one of the nicest things is that you can't always tell which is which), and interesting (it'll make your little ears perk up, and how many LPs can you say that about these days?), and you can even dance to it if you want to.

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. Someof this and some of that. Disoriented separates. A combination dinner -- Heartrender Helper on the plate with a Hari-Kari Pop-Tart. (Or a Smith & 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 lite 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 teir 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 perfervid imagination.

- Coleman Andrews, Phonograph Record, 3/78.

Zevon's second album proves to be a more balanced and cohesive set of true-to-life tales of day-to-day living. His lyrics, no matter how morose and down, nevertheless reflect reality and the sad but true deficiencies in the human condition. Zevon's first album was critically acclaimed, and this followup should add further credibility to the artist's songwriting ability. Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel (of Linda Ronstadt's band), and Russell Kunkel (of Browne's band), support Zevon's piano. Ronstadt, Karla Bonoff and Jennifer Warnes fill in with some harmony. Best cuts: "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," "Excitable Boy," "Nighttime In The Switching Yard," "Veracrux," "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner."

- Billboard, 1978.

The further these songs get from Ronstadtland, the more I like them. The four that exorcise male psychoses by mock celebration are positively addictive, the two uncomplicated rockers do the job, and two of the purely "serious" songs get by. But no one has yet been able to explain to me what "accidentally like a martyr" might mean -- answers dependent on the term "Dylanesque" are not acceptable -- and I have no doubt that that's the image Linda will home in on. After all, is she going to cover the one about the headless gunner? A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The excitable boy at his macabre best -- macho madness exposed, well-coiffed monsters resuscitated, and another vote of confidence for the legal profession. Zevon's demons were obviously in proper orbit when this mad minor masterpiece was hatched. And, oblique or not, there is a compelling tenacity to "Accidentally Like a Martyr." As always, the instrumentation and production are fresh and effective; what Warren lacks in vocal flexibility he compensates for with a nicely nuanced delivery and damn fine lyrics. The overall quality of the songs is excellent, the wonderful "Werewolves of London" being the closest Zevon's come to a hit single (No. 21). The CD's sound, while spacious, has a slightly muffled quality to it, which is too bad. A

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

A disappointing followup to Zevon's beautiful and ambitious debut, his sensitivity is sacrificed for mere weirdness. Nevertheless, there's some fine music here. * * * *

- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Warren Zevon's dark streak runs rampant on Excitable Boy, notably on the title track about an eternally coddled sociopath. The album is uneven, but it contains some of his best-known songs, including the hit "Werewolves of London," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns And Money." * * * *

- Daniel Durchholz, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Further reading on
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Forget the Eagles -- the Excitable Boy, Mr. Bad Example himself, takes the cake and rubs it all over his chest on this acidic release that represents LA with a bitter twist à la "Lou Reed West." A wildly creative work rife with werewolves, headless gunmen and wanna-be mercenaries, delivered with sardonic wit and a rough snarl, it brought him to the forefront of the California singer-songwriter class and nearly catapulted him to stardom. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Excitable Boy is indispensable for any '70s singer-songwriter library; Zevon could nearly out-sensitize co-producer Jackson Browne, while also writing wackjob paeans to psychos and mercenaries. A

- Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly, March, 2007.

Warren Zevon's third album is filled with sad sacks, schemers, and strange characters who could have wandered from the pages of 1950s-era pulp novels. Among his creations are a crazed mercenary killer named Roland; pampered and self-obsessed elites wreaking havoc with the lethal combination of "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"; and the denizens of a bizarre stalker underworld ("Werewolves of London"). Then there's the wierdo of the title track, who murders his date for the Junior Prom. The townsfolk shake their heads as they gossip: He was always an excitable boy.

These songs are delivery systems for the wit and wisdom of a black humorist (a trenchant observer of humanity who more than once was compared to Mark Twain), and so often operate on several levels at once. They're freakshow-on-the-sidewalk portraits, and at the same time caustic commentaries on a nihilistic society obsessed with escaping reality whenever possible. Like Randy Newman and a handful of others, Zevon (1947-2003) weaves acute observations into his narratives; the lyrics might be acidic, but they're also unapologetically smart, laced with references to history and thinly disguised outrage over current events. As he follows the exploits of "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," for example, Zevon slips in questions about the misadventures and miscalculations of U.S. foreign policy. And no matter what message is carried by the words, Zevon's unkempt, defiantly casual delivery offers another level of comment, the audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

Zevon had the sardonic edge from the start -- his debut is even more astringent. But after this, Zevon, the son of a professional gambler, descended into a years-long vodka binge that hindered his output. Though subsequent works contain smatterings of genius, Excitable Boy is Zevon's most fully realized album, and the one that established him as a refreshingly dour voice in an L.A. singer-songwriter scene defined by puppy-dog sweetness. It's also his most-varied collection, with straightforward three-chord rock anthems ("Lawyers, Guns, and Money"), anxious attempts at funk ("Nighttime in the Switching Yard"), and one forthright piano ballad ("Accidentally like a Martyr"). A sincere, beautifully wrought song, it's the one to play for people who think Zevon spent his whole career howling like a werwolf.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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