Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

40 Years Later, Warren Zevon’s Legacy Is Still Haunted by Werewolves

on January 27, 2018, 12:00am

Anyone who knew Warren Zevon prior to 1978, the year his breakthrough third album, Excitable Boy, was released, could tell that he was bound to put out a record like it. The record, Zevon’s lone unqualified public smash, most famously featured a headless Thompson gunner and a werewolf with a taste for chow mein. Some of these eccentric creations can be chalked up to late nights afloat in alcohol: Zevon’s good friend Billy Bob Thornton describes “Werewolves of London” as being written on “a sea of vodka” in the VH1 documentary on the making of Zevon’s final album, 2003’s The Wind. But Zevon’s taste for the macabre predated Excitable Boy. One choice quotation, featured in the oral biography of Zevon compiled by his first wife, Crystal, entitled I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, serves as an early sign of where he would go as a songwriter. After hearing the news of JFK’s assassination over his high school loudspeakers, Zevon looked to his friends and said in a JFK accent, “Jackie, I’ve got this real bad pain in my head.” The headless ghost mercenaries, werewolves, and criminals of Excitable Boy sprung forth from that quip.

Excitable Boy remains the primary gateway into Zevon’s music for new listeners, due primarily to “Werewolves of London”, a charming novelty song that wouldn’t rank among his 20 best tunes. Sure, it’s got a catchy chord progression, and the deliciously dark line “Little old lady got mutilated late last night” might be the best use of consonance in a pop song ever put to tape. Zevon, however, was much more than death’s jester. At his very best, he contends with the greats in the singer-songwriter mold, a fact acknowledged by the wide range of tributes to him after his passing in 2003, with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Bob Dylan playing his songs in their live shows. For all of the genius in Excitable Boy, the album also distorts the rich trove of songs in Zevon’s discography. It’s an understandable place to begin one’s experience with him, but in many ways it’s also the wrong one.

To this day, Zevon is primarily regarded as a cult songwriter who had one major hit (“Werewolves of London”) and a couple of still-popular tunes (“Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, “Keep Me in Your Heart”). The uninitiated might look at the tracklist of Excitable Boy and conclude from its stack of classics that it represents a unique distillation of Zevon’s style. But for every “Werewolves of London”, there’s an oddity like “Nighttime in the Switching Yard”, a catchy but insubstantial disco number that achieved what Daft Punk’s 2013 act of retroism Random Access Memories attempted nearly four decades later. The cynicism of “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” remains quintessential Zevon, but its bookend at the beginning of the album is the peppy “Johnny Strikes Up the Band”, which might as well be a Billy Joel song.

Excitable Boy isn’t the only Zevon album to contain its share of oddball moments. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980) has the goofy “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado”. My Ride’s Here features an earnest but silly Dave Letterman cameo on the hockey tune “Hit Somebody!”. But Excitable Boy contains the sharpest contrasts between peak and weird Zevon. “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” opens up the album pleasantly but inoffensively and is then followed by the black comedy of the dazzling “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”. The tender “Accidentally Like a Martyr” joins “Hasten Down the Wind” and “Empty-Handed Heart” in the surprisingly deep list of sentimental Zevon songs, yet it rather abruptly segues into the throwaway disco of “Nighttime in the Switching Yard”. Like Zevon himself, Excitable Boy has a tempestuous personality, veering from brilliance to material that is more a product of its time than it is of Zevon’s creativity.

Still, Zevon’s fluff songs have their merits. He called “Werewolves of London” a “dumb song for smart people,” a fair label given that most novelty songs don’t contain such a profundity of cultural references. The surreal image of a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s may be the product of an endless fount of vodka, but it’s nonetheless brilliant and endlessly quotable in its own right. Still, the ups and downs of Excitable Boy are a marked departure from the near-flawless Warren Zevon two years before it. The self-titled album may lack the sensational subject matter of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” or the comic novelty of “Werewolves of London”, but it has to its credit the baroque piano figure in opener “The French Inhaler” and the masterful “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”, arguably Zevon’s crowning achievement in songwriting. Excitable Boy’s successor, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, has its own bumpy moments, but it also showcases Zevon’s desire to merge his singer-songwriter style with the classical composition he grew up studying.

As is the case with many artists, the biggest public appreciation of Zevon’s career did not coincide with his strongest material. His final three albums, which scholar George Plasketes groups together with the title “Deteriorata” in his monograph Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles, culminated in the release of The Wind and his passing and finally led to a long overdue critical re-evaluation of his work. (In my humble opinion, too many people continue to sleep on 1991’s Mr. Bad Example, a top-five Zevon effort.) But still today, the entry point into Zevon’s career is “Werewolves of London”, which will cause misleading expectations for anyone looking to get into his body of work. Zevon may have written the best dumb song for smart people, but his smart songs are where his greatest treasures lie.

If any song on Excitable Boy functions as a microcosm of Zevon’s brilliance, it’s the title track, which superficially sounds more like a genre experiment like “Nighttime at the Switching Yard” than a Zevon essential. He utilizes a sprightly piano chord progression that’s accented by doo-wop female backup singers, who echo the main refrain of the song: “‘Excitable boy,’ they all said,” he sings, to which the singers assent, “Excitable boy!” At a quick 2:43, “Excitable Boy” would be a trifle in the hands of a lesser lyricist, but Zevon uses the upbeat music as a bleak juxtaposition with his lyrics, which remain one of the best depictions of how male psychosis is facilitated by a permissive, patriarchal society.

The song begins, like so many Zevon songs do, with a strange character study. “Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said/ Then he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said,” he sings. The boy then comes to harm others, biting “an usherette’s leg in the dark” at a movie theatre. Up to this point in the song, however, the boy appears to be an unruly kid in need of some guidance and discipline, not a criminal. A saxophone then joins the female vocalists as the track seems to segue into a jubilant instrumental section, only then to have Zevon take the song in the darkest possible direction. A boy who just seemed odd then becomes pure evil: “He took little Suzie to the junior prom/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said/ Then he raped her and killed her, then he took her home/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said.” In this turn, Zevon’s song can come across as rape apologia, taking the suffering of a young girl and using it for blackly comedic effect. But the true terror of the song culminates not in the description of the excitable boy’s heinous act, but in the continued repetition of the refrain: “‘Excitable boy,’ they all said.” Nothing is said about the “they” on “Excitable Boy”: is it the boy’s family? His teachers? His community?

Zevon chooses a nameless, faceless “they” because society as a whole enables the excitable boy. By utilizing a harsh contrast between the cheery music and the grave lyrical matter, he highlights the ways in which society not just allows but even facilitates “excitable” behavior. Had those in the boy’s life done something other than mutter, “Boys will be boys” after he bit the usherette, Little Suzie – to say nothing of all the other women in the boy’s life – they could have avoided becoming victims of the violent misogyny in which the boy and those who enabled him participate. In the final stanza of the song, the music quiets down just a bit as Zevon narrates: “After 10 long years, they let him out of the home/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said/ Then he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones/ ‘Excitable boy,’ they all said / Well, he’s just an excitable boy.” The extremity of that action could connote mental illness, but as disturbing as the excitable boy’s actions are, Zevon’s attention centers on the “they” who let him out of the first place, the “they” who can’t see that “excitable” euphemizes the boy’s atrocities and the wider cultural standards of masculinity in which he participates.

Listening to “Excitable Boy” in 2018, Zevon’s diagnosis of toxic masculinity feels all the more relevant. The unrelenting dark humor of the song disqualifies it from being crowned a #MeToo anthem, but that very humor is what makes it an effective depiction of how a patriarchal culture attempts to bury its worst criminal excesses. Zevon himself was a participant in that culture; one of the important revelations of the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead oral biography is the extensive detailing of his abusive and aggressive personality during the years in which his alcoholism went largely unchecked. He was far from a blameless criticism of masculinity. Some of Zevon’s wrongs documented in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead are serious, and even those closest to him don’t try to write him a free pass. In that way, “Excitable Boy” distills not just the injustices of patriarchy more broadly, but also certain dynamics in Zevon’s own life that he spent the latter half of it rectifying. “In the songwriting business,” Zevon told Jody Denberg, “There isn’t a section for fiction and nonfiction. It’s all mixed together.”

The major-chord piano music and uptempo quality of “Excitable Boy” make it somewhat natural that “Werewolves of London” follows it, but lyrically “Werewolves” is a sharp deviation from the cultural commentary of the track before it. The distinction between “Excitable Boy” and “Werewolves of London” represents a miniaturized version of the Zevon most people experience and the authentic Zevon that to this day continues to receive little attention.

The mish-mash of high and lowbrow on Excitable Boy lives up to a particularly sharp quotation of Zevon’s given to Newsweek in the late ’70s: “Whereas one of my songs may come off sounding like a satire on The Eagles,” Zevon mused, “It may actually be homage to Bartók.” Zevon, of course, found ways to simultaneously achieve ostensibly contradictory directives. “Excitable Boy” itself shows that Zevon’s music isn’t just fodder for Halloween standards (“Werewolves of London”) or elegiac piano numbers (“Accidentally Like a Martyr”). He wrote songs in the vein of the Laurel Canyon music scene in which he participated (“Mohammed’s Radio”), hard rockers (“Jungle Work”), folk tunes (“Backs Turned Looking Down the Path”), and even hymns (“Don’t Let Us Get Sick”). In that way, Excitable Boy does capture something about Zevon’s entire career: like the man itself, it contains multitudes, and at the level of songwriting it spans the forgettable and the undeniable.

Yet, in revisiting Excitable Boy, a crucial question arises: what if Zevon’s commercial breakthrough had happened with a different album? If the album sales were as effusive as the critical praise for Warren Zevon, would he easily be included on shortlists of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters? Had the proto-cyberpunk of 1989’s Transverse City hit it big, would Zevon have primarily been understood as a literary songwriter and chronicler of the impending technological age? Counterfactuals, those ever-slippery things, are difficult to imagine, and we’ll never know what could have been with certainty. But one thing is for sure: if the common cultural entry point for Zevon wasn’t “Werewolves of London”, requiring people to say, “Hey, you know the guy who wrote ‘Werewolves of London’? He actually wrote some really brilliant stuff,” the sophistication of Zevon’s lyricism would be much more likely to get a fair shake from both critics and listeners.

One of Zevon’s greatest lyrical feats is the song “Genius”, a track on My Ride’s Here co-written with his friend Larry Klein. The song sports some truly great comedic lines (notably, a line about Albert Einstein “making out like Charlie Sheen”), but is noteworthy for its final lines, which read like something Zevon would have wanted put on his gravestone: “If only I could get my record clean/ I’d be a genius.” The power of the line derives in large part from the recognition of his past misdeeds, but it also speaks to the experience of encountering his music as a new listener after his death. I, like many, discovered Zevon after hearing “Werewolves of London” on the radio one day, but after hearing the song, I did what I discovered too few people actually do: I delved into the rest of his discography. After making it through The Wind, I told my 13-year-old self, “I have to go see this guy live.” The year was 2005. In attempting to look up shows, I found he had died two years prior.

Part of my discovery is attributable to not having constant access to the internet, to say nothing of my extremely nascent knowledge of how to navigate it. Most of my friends and family only knew Zevon for “Werewolves of London” and some of the other Excitable Boy tunes, so when I listened through his albums I was only taking the music in and not much of his story. (The astounding and comprehensive I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead came out in 2007 to fill in the gaps). But I like to think that another reason why I believed I could go to a Warren Zevon concert in 2005 is that so much of his music, Excitable Boy included, exudes not just a familiarity but a comfort with death, so much so that I tacitly assumed the reaper would let Zevon die on his own terms. To an extent, he did: his goal was to record a definitive album in the final stretch of his terminal diagnosis, and The Wind is exactly that. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Zevon even now feels imminently, brilliantly alive.

Excitable Boy has some of those moments. Yet, when looking to Zevon’s numerous other achievements, particularly those that fell by the critical and commercial wayside, I can’t help but feel that the primacy of Excitable Boy in the cultural memory of Zevon distorts his artistic achievements. After all these years, we’re still trying to understand the record that Zevon wanted to make clean. But even through the prism of Excitable Boy, for all its ingenuity and imperfection, the genius is still there.

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