The circumstances involving most of Warren Zevon’s life up to the release of Excitable Boy, his most famous album, are fairly extraordinary. The son of a small-time criminal associated with Mickey Cohen, Zevon spent his formative teenage years at Stravinsky’s house with now marginally famous composer, Robert Craft. That is evidence enough to give any of Zevon’s records a re-spin, but Zevon’s history inside the Laurel Canyon subculture is even more interesting and might be the bulk of the reason you should search for Jackson Browne in the background of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Excitable Boy is a memento from a sort of fantastic era, from one of the era’s myriad forgotten souls.
To say Excitable Boy perfected some sort of ’70s singer-songwriter archetype would be an overstatement (Miami Vice proto-soundtrack “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” affirms this), but Zevon’s most well-known work is a trip through the funny and tragic parts of an era in which most rock stars lost their desire to affect change. The alcoholic Zevon spun yarns on Excitable Boy (notably, the title track) that were meant to merely please and laugh at pleasantly. No hard-wrought, impossible-to-access music here—just a consistent product with a healthy slice of humor noir unlike any of Zevon’s peers.
If the laundry list of guests contributing to the album gives Excitable Boy its credit, the circumstances surrounding “Roland The Thompson Gunner” establishes the outlaw mentality that so many Laurel-ites ultimately failed to achieve. Zevon, spending time in Spain, met David Lindell, a barman who was working as a mercenary for rebels in Africa at the time. The story of Roland is the story of David, a man who would never again appear in popular culture, save for the myriad references to Zevon’s song. If an album’s lyrical quality is based on the objective honesty expressed, the computer judging such quality might blow up after hearing the trio of “Roland,” “Excitable Boy,” and “Werewolves of London.”
Zevon’s lyrical dexterity is one rarely imitated, even if his dark humor is often replicated. The fact that the songwriter mostly wrote in quartets of lyrics for verses, and an always surprisingly good hook for a chorus bellies the excellence of Zevon’s tongue. He slips “then he raped her and killed her” before “then he took her home” into the song almost unnoticeably. Excitable Boy’s macabre humor is actually akin to “Family Guy”‘s better moments—often offensive, but still well put together and laughable.
It is precisely these silly jokes (“he’ll rip your lungs out Jim/ heh, I’d like to meet his tailor”) that keep Zevon both one of the more memorable trinkets from an already very memorable era and one of the periods oft-glossed over pop-smiths. His place in a historical context isn’t anywhere that of Bowie or Springsteen (nor should it be), but it also isn’t anywhere near fellows Fleetwood Mac or Jackson Browne, even when Excitable Boy proves a tough foe against both Rumours and The Pretender. Where Springsteen and Bowie represent a specific feeling, an emotion rooted in the context of the era, Zevon has unfortunately become a silly afterthought—something to sing along to in bars and then laugh about the lyrics. The sad tale of Excitable Boy is the profound effect it could’ve had on rock ‘n’ roll were it taken a little bit more seriously.
But the idea that rockers have to struggle to affect change, or bear some personal narrative to be considered credible ended any chance Zevon had of making Excitable Boy a worthy entrant in the pantheon of great ’70s records, but it belongs there, simply because of its unbelievable creation and its creator’s even more unbelievable muses and mentors. Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy is a singular record, a combination of dry humor noir and nearly pitch-perfect pop-rock, never to duplicated.