While classic rock associated with the Halloween season typically conjures the ghosts and ghouls of Alice Cooper records and the iconic androgynous style of Tim Curry, there is another album — a definitively superb collection of songs — that stands equally as tall. It’s a record that muses about the grotesque, yet one can’t help but bask in its lyrical beauty. Song by song, here’s why Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy must be in your listening rotation this week.
Produced by Jackson Browne, this 1978 classic put Zevon on the map. In the same way David Bowie guided one of his songwriting idols, Lou Reed, toward contemporary relevance with Transformer, Jackson did the same with Zevon. Like Reed, however, Zevon’s stardom was relatively short-lived and while he boasted a prolific career, it was often one of the ‘songwriter’s songwriter.’
Excitable Boy kicks off with Johnny Strikes Up The Band, one of the decisively less intense numbers on the record. In a brilliant way, though, it sets the stage for what is to come. An ode to Johnny Carson’s innate ability to provide escapism for the middle and lower classes via the Tonight Show, this opening tune reminds the listener of the necessity of having such an escape, especially with the horrors Zevon is about to bring in tow.
“Through sixty-six and seven, they fought the Congo War. With their fingers on the triggers, knee-deep in gore. For days and nights they battled the Bantu to their knees. They killed to earn a living and to help out the Congolese.”
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner remains one of Zevon’s most haunting lyrical explorations. Roland, a merc-for-hire, sets out for the Congo to capitalize on the Congo-Zaire conflict. Roland is a part of the Stanleyville Mutinies, an ultimately pointless bloodshed. The CIA gets wind of Roland’s prowess with the thompson gun and hires one of his buddies by the name of Van Owen to kill him.
After Van Owen is done with Roland, he becomes Roland the Headless. Spookier yet, he’s now a ghost on a manhunt. Of course, Roland eventually kills Van Owen and wanderers through war torn countries for years thereafter, settling personal scores in Lebanon, Ireland, Palestine, and so on and so forth — all areas in conflict during the time this album came out.
The namesake of this album, the Excitable Boy, starts off innocently enough. He’s out to dinner in his Sunday best! He’s rubbing pot roast all over his chest and going to the movies! Okay, I don’t remember the pot roast-rubbing phase of my youth, but I’m willing to give our Excitable Boy the benefit of the doubt. Everyone’s a bit odd when they’re 16, right?
Well, then the Excitable Boy rapes and kills little Suzie at her junior prom, brings her body back to her parents, and gets institutionalized for a decade. He’s just an excitable boy, though! Surely a decade in “a home” will set him straight. It doesn’t. He digs up her grave and “builds a cage with her bones.” It’s unclear what’s more disturbing: turning poor Suzie’s bones into a cage, or the idea that the Excitable Boy needs to put something in a cage.
The genius of Excitable Boy lies within Zevon’s masterful hand over macabre humor. Everything that happens in the song is immensely distressing, but as the people around the Excitable Boy explain – he’s just that excitable! He’s treated like Brock Turner getting a six month sentence for “outercourse.”
If Excitable Boy hasn’t made the listener stop and take a shower at this point in the record, the listener is treated to the album’s radio hit, the well-traveled Werewolves of London. The horrors of the iconic single aren’t as real as Congolese warlords and certifiable teenagers: they’re well-dressed werewolves eating and maiming their way through the city. It’s certainly the most charming ballad to mythical creatures this side of 1978.
Heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, Accidentally a Martyr is a somber jaunt through “abandoned love.” (A deep Dylan cut from this era, actually.) The loneliness of the track perfectly juxtaposes the gleeful nature of everything preceding it. Zevon doesn’t linger long, however, because Switching Yard soon replaces melancholy musings with funky, repetitive jams designed to craft an atmosphere similar to that of a train station in the dark of the evening. One can’t help but picture Zevon’s werewolf bounding from car to car in hot pursuit of its next victim.
Veracruz is written from the standpoint of someone under American occupation of Veracruz during the Mexican revolution in 1914. Anti-imperialist sentiments aside, Veracruz is a sobering account of being stuck in the middle of a frightening conflict. In contrast, Tenderness On The Block explores a woman’s departure into young adulthood. Terror is contrasted with innocence in the latter half this record.
The album closes with Lawyers, Guns and Money, the story of an entitled trust fund brat whose recklessness winds him up in a bad situation that even his rich father can’t get him out of. Inspired by a bizarre cab ride in Cuba, Zevon’s finale to Excitable Boy elegantly encapsulates the album’s incredibly whirlwind of blood, gore, bad decisions, and innocence.
No, Excitable Boy isn’t as overtly horror-influenced as an Alice Cooper record. It’s not The Ramones’ Pet Sematary. This album should be in your rotation all year, not just this week. With that said, there’s something about Excitable Boy that aligns with the spirit of Halloween. It pokes fun at the macabre while embracing youthful innocence. It doesn’t shy away from ghosts, werewolves, and murderers. It’s a delightfully frightening excursion through one of the twentieth century’s best songwriter’s work and its eerie cast of characters remain poignant today.
Have thoughts on Excitable Boy? Did you rub your chest with pot roast in high school? Please let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @iambrettstewart.
Feature photo courtesy of Klaus Hiltscher.