Singer and songwriter Warren Zevon was born in Chicago in 1947 and raised in Fresno. He was drawn to music early, eventually leaving high school to move to New York and pursue his career. He and school friend Violet Santangelo had a minor hit with Follow Me as lyme & cybelle. He wrote jingles and contributed songs to other artists — including the Turtles — while finding his feet in the industry. In 1969, he released Wanted Dead Or Alive, a mediocre album that barely hinted at his talents. After doing session work and tour support, he drifted back to California, rooming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks before they joined Fleetwood Mac and befriending Jackson Browne. Browne produced 1976’s Warren Zevon, a stunning album that announced to the world that its author was a force to be reckoned with. Zevon displayed in full force his cinematic songcraft, mordant wit, and mixture of realism and irony with a dash of politics. The follow-up came in 1978 and achieved commercial success that Zevon had not expected and would never match.
||January 18, 1978
||Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel
[US Hot 100]
- Johnny Strikes Up the Band
- Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner
- Excitable Boy
- Werewolves of London [#21]
- Accidentally Like A Martyr
- Nighttime In the Switching Yard
- Tenderness On the Block
- Lawyers, Guns and Money
Johnny Strikes Up the Band is a perfect launching point for the album, a celebration of music’s power and a lament at the state of the world. It welcomes the listener to Zevon’s world and has a wonderful LA sound. Leave it to Zevon to set ’em up just to knock ’em down. Up next is Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a dark exploration of mercenary life, political corruption, betrayal, and revenge. The violence is leavened by his detached, whimsical delivery, but just as the whole thing seems like a darkly comic story, Zevon summons up the spectre of Patty Hearst. The injection of headline reality anchors the lyrics nicely and proves the power of Zevon’s writing.
Excitable Boy is the singalong story of a disturbed murderer, perhaps the creepiest song to ever feature Linda Ronstadt’s harmonies. Like Roland, it’s a (very) darkly comic tale with a very real hook, looking at what society accepts and excuses. It’s the perfect title track, capturing the noir balladry of the song cycle nicely. The next track is Zevon’s only Top 40 hit, Werewolves of London. It’s somehow apt that another archly ironic track pigeonholed Zevon as a novelty act. A wonderful nod to the power of celebrity, the song is one of his most fun, right down to the goofy wolf howls in every chorus. Anyone doubting the dark core of the song should listen to his spot-on delivery of the line “his hair was perfect.”
Side one of the original vinyl ends with one of his finest songs, the aching ballad Accidentally Like A Martyr. While most famous for his sly asides and dark observations, Zevon had a powerful ability to craft love songs, especially those dealing with loss. His delivery is quiet and powerful as he celebrates the inevitable end of a love affair.
Like the first side, the second starts with a danceable track, Nighttime In the Switching Yard. It’s mostly a chance for the band (a great assemblage of LA studio talent) to show off, but it also hearkens back to the train songs that populate early 20th Century blues. A nice nod to his roots — with a good beat — it’s almost a throwaway but provides a nice bit of breathing space. Veracruz is a historical ballad of international politics and interventionism. It showcases Zevon’s interest in how American values impose themselves throughout history and a tender love song to boot.
Tenderness On the Block is a great nostalgia song, a powerful let-your-children-grow-up track. It could be cloying in less capable hands, but mixed with the other material on this disc works very well. The underlying message seems to be that we all need to grow up to deal with this world and we might as well do it with the love and support of our families. The final track is a virtual theme song for Zevon’s career. Lawyers, Guns and Money is a great story song and a political anthem worthy of Bruce Cockburn. Wrapping his stories, politics, wit, and deadpan delivery into one perfect package, Zevon leaves us laughing even as we wince.
FURTHER LISTENING: Warren Zevon’s career was a spectacular series of highs and stumbles, punctuated with addiction and long breaks in recovery. He worked with an amazing array of musicians and had a huge (if barely commercially rewarded) impact. Warren Zevon is a great collection that properly announces his talents and is the equal of Excitable Boy if slightly less consistent. My favorite of his other albums is the dark reflection on modern life, Transverse City; it was panned on release but has held up well as an eerie warning of the age of Facebook. Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2002 and given only months to live. He focused on his final album, The Wind, with the help of his talented friends. It’s a fitting finale to his career and one of his best efforts even disregarding the circumstances. His work has been anthologized a number of times; the best overview is 1996’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. It’s missing the last couple of albums but the 44 songs are a solid overview of his talent and career.