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Classics Corner, Music

Classics Corner: Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy

Natalie Del Castillo

ndelcast@radford.edu

Warren Zevon’s musical flight through life was much like other artists when he was young. He had random projects that would eventually lead to him working solo. His first solo album Wanted Dead or Alive did not do well in sales which made his attempt at a second solo album, a flop. Zevon would spend the early 70s touring with the Everly Brother, playing keyboard. While the Everly Brothers split and went their separate ways to make solo albums, Zevon kept touring and recording with each of them, separately.

In the summer of 1975, Zevon moved to Spain after being unsuccessful in his first attempts at solo albums. He only spent a short amount of time in Spain, but his escape to Europe led to meeting David Lindell, a former mercenary who helped compose a track for Excitable Boy called “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

After his stint in Spain, Zevon came back to the United States and ended up rooming with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, who were yet to be discovered. The talented Jackson Browne produced and promoted Zevon’s self-titled third album in 1976. Warren Zevon has a long list of gifted contributors which included a majority of the artists that would make up Fleetwood Mac, members of the Eagles, Bonnie Raitt and more. This album truly showed Zevon for who he was; an artist who showed fans his darker, ironic side through his writing. But the best was yet to come.

Zevon was different from most artists. Excitable Boy came at the end of a decade that had begun with so many artists trying to make a change. Peace and love were the themes of the early 70s and by 1978, the release of Excitable Boy, that hippie movement was slowly exiting. This album is full of the dark comedy and lyrical excellence that Zevon began to show people in his self-titled album.

This nine-track record runs at a little over 31 minutes and kicks off with “Johnny Strikes Up The Band.” This track catches fans off guard because it is rare for Zevon to be anything but gloomy and this song screams optimism. It tells the story of Johnny, a man who cheers everyone around him up and brings happiness when he begins to play with his band. Zevon brings you back to his usual humor noir with “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” The track tells the story of a dead man seeking revenge upon the man who killed him but unfortunately, his vengeance doesn’t end his anguish. This was the last track Zevon performed in front of an audience on the “Late Show with David Letterman” before his death.

The album’s title track “Excitable Boy” is bizarre yet amazing. It’s bright, piano-driven melody makes it so hard to take any of the lyrics seriously. “Werewolves of London” is the most famous track on the album, with good reason. It’s a ridiculous story of a stylish werewolf running free in London. The album takes a 180-degree switch when the next track begins to play. “Accidentally Like a Martyr” shows that Zevon is a brilliant artist. If other artists attempted that switch, it would seem like they are uneven but Zevon’s music just flows so consistently. This track is one of those songs that you love when you are coming in and out of love yourself.

While the first side of the album is the strongest, side B keeps up its part and holds up equally, track by track. The only track that may be slightly out of place would be “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” because of its dated sound. “Veracruz” is a slightly somber track that impeaches U.S. imperialism but Zevon refrains from making it sound like a sermon. “Tenderness on the Block” is a good transition to the last track on the album, the cynical and wild “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”

Through his music, Zevon was a sort of social misfit, but he never disappointed fans. His albums’ re-releases made for better sales and spots on the charts but unfortunately, Zevon would not live to see Excitable Boy’s re-release. Zevon always shared in interviews his life-long phobia of doctors and that he rarely received medical attention. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and refused any treatment because he did not want it to debilitate him. He succeeded in putting out his final album The Wind which ended up receiving two Grammys after his death.

Zevon may have endured a hard ending, but he showed his loyalty to music in his last year and stayed true to his popular song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

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