He stares out the side of his eyes, black turtleneck and blond hair on a fire-red album jacket, looking just slightly suspicious. At the bottom, also in red, is the title "Excitable Boy" (Asylum 6E-118) superimposed on the black. Pulling out the record, we see the sleeve: a lushly photographed dinner plate -- carrots, peas, potatoes, a erabapple/lemon twist/parsley salad --and a very large Smith and Wesson revolver.
That is the introduction to Warren Zevon's second Asylum album and the music that emerges proves that Zevon may well become one of the most important songwriters of the late '70s.
Zevon is no stranger to the rock scene. He's written for Linda Ronstadt ("Hasten Down the Wind," "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," etc.) and worked closely with Jackson Browne, who produced "Warren Zevon" (Asylum 7E-1060) and coproduced "Excitable Boy" with Ronstadt band member Waddy Wachtel.
His first album racked up critical kudos in Time, Newsweek and other publications and infinitum. In fact, Zevon is the only rock 'n' roller in recent memory, besides Bruce Spring, steen and the Sex Pistols, to get such big play in the national news press.
So why isn't Zevon a household name? Primarily because he doesn't write hits. What he writes are social comments featuring characters just idiosyncratic enough to escape mass detection. Remember that was the rap on Randy Newman until "Short People," an idiosyncratic hit if ever there was one, and keep your ears open.
While "Warren Zevon" followed the Southern California/laid-back cowboy pattern of melody, Zevon's lyrics came across slightly bizarre and greatly affecting. "Excitable Boy" is much more gritty musically and, this time, Zevon's words are plainly outrageous. The title cut, which sounds very much like a tongue-in-cheek variation on Andrew Gold's hit single "Lonely Boy," contains verses like this:
"He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom, Excitable boy, they all said. And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home. Excitable boy, they all said."
Lest you think the album is a bit macabre, let it be pointed out that there is also a brilliantly composed love song ("Accidentally Like a Martyr") and a playful, if barely ominous, desperadotype number ("Lawyers, Guns and Money").
Zevon also busts out of the traditional West Coast formulas with a blistering "Nightime in the Switching Yard," displaying a rhythm so hot that it nearly melts the stylus. The song evokes the whines and rumbles of a train without using a mouth harp, and the very last line is "listen to the track" --You can almost hear the steel.
The album is effective because, like Randy Newman, Zevon often contrasts his striking lyrics with their spry, smiling musical arrangements. "Werewolves of London" doo-wops right along as Zevon warbles things like "Little old lady got mutilated late last night." At this rate Zevon might become the Sam Peckinpah of popular music.
For all its blood and guts, "Excitable Boy" comments on street violence, poverty and the war mentality (as opposed to war itself) in a unique and intelligent manner. He also details a historical scene in "Veracruz," but handles it more allegorically than similar tales like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" or "Pancho and Lefty."
The major reason for the improvement in the overall sound of Zevon's work is his latest horde of supporting talent. Besides Browne's vocal support and Wachtel's guitar, there are helping hands attached to most of the Ronstadt/ James Taylor/Browne contingent (Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar and Ronstadt herself), John David Souther, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie (the Fleetwood and Mac of the same name), and various studio superstars. Still, though the music is rockier and more uptempo and the hooks more numerous, there probably isn't a hit single on this album either.
That's more the public's loss than Zevon's because he is a songwriter who deserves to be heard. His kind of imagination and perverse sense of humor are rare in contemporary music and "Excitable Boy" is nothing if not imaginative (and, come to think of it, a bit perverse). My advice is to get Warren Zevon before he gets you.