Record to own: Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon


A few days back, I managed to dig out my critic’s hat and laid down Holy Commandments as far as music was concerned. I went all fire and brimstone on our combined patriotic duty to clean up our act. Well, I’ve sort of made a fudge. I sinned, and like the heretic I am, no amount of flogging will wash away my shame. Not one, not even a single mention of Letterman’s favorite musical prodigy was made. I’m speaking of that wacky Chicago born genius, Mister Warren Zevon; God rest his soul.
I’m here to make amends and seek penance; have mercy on my debauchee ways.
In 1976, the Z-man was in Paris, racking his brain and praying for inspiration to lance his butt with the proverbial lightning bolt. Yes, he was just coming off the high that a second album gifted him with. But, seeing as how the first was a stillbirth failure, both artistically and commercially, the musician was sweating bullets. His next record would make or break him. This was, in his point of view, the real second endeavor. Panic wasn’t just a word, it was a twenty-four hour boogeyman pulling at his ankles.
The tantalizing fear, and churning expectation that comes with the sophomore release was profound. It was that moment where creativity finally comes into question, and you’re no longer simply exorcising your devils. This is every artist’s crux. You’re not only in the shadow of your last success, but expected to break new ground. You’re skating on a paper thin ice-sheet, each crack of permafrost; each sizzle of rupture moaning into your insecure ear: “you’re nothing more than a one hit wonder.” The record industry swims with the blood of musicians, who couldn’t cut it past their debut.
Luckily, for us music lovers, some things clicked. The tune deities smacked the fright away and impregnated Warren with seeds of perfection. Off the plane he skated – at least in my narrative. Past the highway. Boot-kicking in the door at Asylum record. A wide-eyed CEO stood dumbfounded, trying to remember who this upstart was. Warren, mouth boiling with righteous rabies, smacking a cedar desk, with the tolls of his – no doubt – narcotized mind. Stacks of papers and music sheets, falling like a brick. Telling the fat-cat: “argg here thar’ be gold!” And like a Spanish galleon, the man wasn’t kidding.
The record’s name: Excitable Boy. An eerie blend of sounds and strange juxtapositions. Contradictory emotions and atmosphere. Notes and lyrics, leap frogging from dark and macabre, to joyful and humorous. If the album had a twin in the movie industry, it would have been a dark comedy; something by John Waters or Tarantino. Each line of note, is in urgent need of professional help and truck-loads of pharmaceuticals.
The ghostly ballad of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“is a mixture of Soldier of Fortune, Cold War hysterics and John Irving.
The belly busting South American adventures of a “gringo”, that ends with a panicked plea for help: “send ‘Lawyers, Guns and Ammo‘.”
And who could forget those rascally Doctor Who loving Werewolves, with a penchant for beef chow mein.
Then there is the romantic heavy, and incredibly insightful, “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Tenderness on the Block.”
Hell, for the price of the album, you also get a history lesson in the moving “Veracruz.”
Finally, the eponymous “Excitable Boy,” a tune so catchy and whimsical, you’ll find yourself singing the verse out loud, and later on fall flat on your ass with the realization that it’s about a mass-murdering psychopath. “That explains why H.R. urgently wanted to see me…” Trust me, it’s a nice jingle, with the most horrible and succinct acts of lunacy ever spun into a track.
Go out, listen to this record, add it to your collection. After you’ve experienced it a few times, drop me a line and give me an explanation as to what the cage was for. Really, what was he going to do with the cage? It still freaks me out.

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