When I started getting back in the habit of buying records again, I shot my pal-slash-occasional-collaborator Daniel Butler a short list of albums to keep an eye out for at the place where he works.
None of my requests were in stock at the time, though he did send me a copy of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as a Christmas present and followed it up a few months later with another much-coveted selection…
…Warren Zevon’s 1978 LP, Excitable Boy.
(By the way, Daniel has just released a nifty new digital comic story with Adam Prosser titled Nightbeach you should immediately buy. It’s only 99 cents, so there no excuse.)
I got onto a Zevon kick a few years back, when his sardonic weariness and idiosyncratic subject material managed to bypass my deep-seated aversion to Seventies singer-songwriter set. “Werewolves of London” — the “dumb song for smart people” which has overshadowed Zevon’s wider body of work — was the key.
A six year old kid may not respond to odes to depression and diminished expectations sung by some Malibu-dwelling neo-folkie, but rampaging lycanthropes are something he could (and I did) get behind when the oh-so-familiar opening kicked in after a long block of James Taylor and Poco cuts on my parents’ stereo. Forget fire and rain, give me soft rock with a fangs, claws and a body count.
“Werewolves” aside, it took a couple of decades before I was able to get past Zevon’s connections to the rest of the coked-out SoCal Seventies rock crowd, drop my puritanical biases, and delve deeper into his discography. There were countless treasure to be found in there, but I took a particular shine to his eponymous 1976 album and Excitable Boy. There’s a joyously off-kilter vibe to both, which reminded me a lot of what Nick Lowe was doing in the context of the UK’s “pub rock” scene — spiking easy sentimentality with subtle yet mordant vemom.
It especially comes through on Excitable Boy, where the retro-rocking titular track manages to accomplish more in three minutes than American Psycho did in four hundred pages. (The “joke” premise of the song has also assumed additional relevance in an age where the bias-driven distinction between “terrorist/thug” and “troubled kid” has been vociferously called into question.) The song is bookended by two other slices of the melodically macabre — the mercenary ghost story of “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” and the happy hour horrorshow of “Werewolves of London.”
Beyond the brush war hauntings of “Roland,” the specter of geo-political nightmares raises its non-supernatural (but no less terrifying) head in both “Vera Cruz” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Even the more traditionally themed cuts on the album — love songs, introspective reveries, and a dance track — are delivered with a sense of world-weariness both comforting and slightly unsettling.
Excitable Boy is very much a “me time” spin, ideally on a weekend afternoon during the chilly season while Maura is out running errands. Drop the needle on side one, flop back on the sofa with a book, a warm throw, and (in a few minutes time) a living blanket of animals, and let the magic wash over my semi-dozing self.
Except for when “Werewolves of London” come on, because I have to sing the “AHH-WHOO” parts to the Rock Stupid Puppy while he tries to lick my face.