Dollar Bin Darlings is a regular column wherein we profile a record you can likely pick up in your local store's bargain bin, or maybe even at a nearby thrift shop. In our third installment, we take an in-depth look at Warren Zevon's 'Excitable Boy'.
If you possess a set of ears and access to a radio, you've heard Warren Zevon sing before. Most likely, the song you heard was "Werewolves Of London", his biggest hit and most famous number. The song is a three and a half minute escapade of horror movie monsters, oddball characters and Chinese take-out. Some critics have said it's a ripoff of "Sweet Home Alabama". Others have written about the deep hidden meaning of the song. Zevon and his band have always maintained the song was written as a goof while working on a record with Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers. Whatever the case, the song is the headline of Zevon's legacy and regardless of how many times it's played it still manages to brim with energy and verve. It is an encapsulation of the entire Excitable Boy LP.
By 1977, when it came time to record Excitable Boy, Zevon had amassed quite a coterie of musicians to work with; Jackson Browne was a friend and agreed to act as producer, just as he had done on 1976's Warren Zevon LP. Linda Ronstadt had already had a hit with "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" and was more than happy to provide backing vocals. Longtime collaborator and pal Waddy Wachtel assisted with production and played one thing or another on every track on the record. Jennifer Warnes, Mick Fleetwood, J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff and John McVie also lent their talents to the project. It was a veritable who's who of the Southern California rock scene in the mid-70's.
Supporting cast aside, what truly shines on Excitable Boy are the songs. Zevon is a lyricist with a cunning and uncanny wit that is peppered with devilish humor and Freudian wordplay. His main characters are very often told in third person and these portraits are almost always filled with harsh, and sometimes off-putting imagery like the excitable boy rubbing pot roast all over his chest and Roland the headless Thompson gunner stalking headless through the night. The heroes - and anti-heroes - of Zevon's songs are portrayed as quasi sympathetic comic book characters with outlandish behaviors and mannerisms that seem fascinating just in being themselves, and are made further more so by Zevon's use of an awkward sort of plain speaking. It is as if these beings could only come to life in the mind of a man such as Warren Zevon.
While much of the lyrical content of the record is playful and even light, there are headier themes at play. "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" spins a yarn of a fictional CIA mercenary in colonial Africa, while "Lawyers, Guns and Money" splays out the tale of Cold War paranoia and entitlement smashed together in a third world hellhole. For all of the humor and tongue-in-cheek snark in the lyrics, Zevon's words never seem heartless or carefree. Even in his funniest moments, it always seems as if he is on the verge of telling us a grand secret of the human condition, if only he could stop laughing long enough to share it.
Musically, Excitable Boy flows very much like a 70's piano based rock record. Zevon's keyboard parts and lead vocals form the primary drive and melodic content of the songs, but the backing band is tightly wrapped around these central elements to build a foundation that compels the compositions to greater heights. It's easy to see why the album has become the focal point of Zevon's legacy. Excitable Boy captures Zevon at his playful and rakish best, while fusing him with an all-star backing band that seems more than eager to take these nine songs outside of the singer/songwriter realm and turning them in to a piece of idiosyncratic and remarkable rock and roll. Much of Zevon's catalog is very strong, but he never, ever made a record better than Excitable Boy.