Warren Zevon, according to the latest legend, goes after the cockroaches in his kitchen with a gun. The same Smith and Wesson .357 magnum, Dirty Harry's favorite, that snuggles up to a plate of vegetables on the inner sleeve of Zevon's new album "Excitable Boy."
Warren Zevon is the brand new bad-boy darling of the Los Angeles music set, and his neo-Hemingway reputation is spreading ever eastward --with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt (the undisputed royalty out here), not just because he's been a lurking presence through recording session work and songwriting and two previous albums -- but because "Excitable Boy" is full of songs that bludgeon and tickle us. Such as the taut little tunes about a mercenary soldier who gets his head blown off; a crazy who rubs pot roast on his chest, then rapes and chops up his prom date; a werewolf sipping pina coladas in London's Trader Vic's; and an evocative song about U.S. troops entering Veracruz in the Mexican-american War.
At least one writer has called Zevon the Sam Peckinpah of rock. For those bored with Barry Manilow, for those who think Randy Newman's "Short People" was cute and tame, Zevon is a curiosity.
"Excitable Boy" has been a surprise hit, selling well since its release a few weeks ago. Jackson Browne produced the album, Linda Ronstadt sings on it, members of Fleetwood Mac play on it. Ronstadt's latest single, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," is a Zevon composition.
"I would like people to think my work is a serious effort ," he says, "but a good part of it is intended to induce laughter as opposed to shudders and shivers."
That picture [of the gun with the vegetable] came to mind and it struck me as entertaining and suggestive in various ways on various levels. I had soul-searching discussions with my friends about it -- is it a satire of the album or an embodiment of it?"
Zevon chain-smokes Marlboros and drinks straight vodka from a small glass. His drinking habits are mentioned almost as often as his interest in violence. Zevon readily admits that violence fascinates him. In "Excitable Boy," after the subject has killed his prom date, the lyrics go:
"After 10 long years they let him out of the Home
Excitable boy, they all said
And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones
Excitable boy, they all said."
I don't think the American public is as dumb as TV programmers would have us believe. If I write something obviously violent, I presume it's obviously funny at the same time. Violence in every other (entertainment) area besides songs is not intended to be taken seriously."
His voice, a deep rumble, sounds like it's in revolt against the liquor. my voice never cracked or changed. I think it sounds like an adenoidal whine."
Blond, 31, and slightly paunchy, Zevon lives with his wife, Crystal, and 19-month-old daughter, Ariel, in an old house in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. The house has an orange door with a huge poster for the movie "The Gauntlet" behind it; a concert grand piano dominates the living room, but is in danger from the leaky upstairs bathroom. In one corner of the living room a large Babar the Elephant sits in his own little overstuffed armchair. A perfectly nice home; not a gun in sight.
"I've written songs just in the spirit of fun and then reconsidered them, I thought they might be too strange for human consumption. I don't really set out to write with any attitude; if I had an attitude about writing I might be more prolific." Later he adds, almost wistfully, that his songs "seem too strange to be sung. Jackson Browne and Jimmy Webb, they write songs."
But Zevon (and his writing partners, including Browne) writes songs that are almost movies. At least one tune from "Excitable Boy," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," may be more than the figment of a bent imagination. Co-written with David Lindell, "who's had some extremely adventurous activities," Zevon says, "Roland" tells of a machine-wielding soldier of fortune from Scandinavia who fights in the Congo. The CIA orders his head blown off by another mercenary, Van Owen.
Roland, headless, seeks revenge and gets it. His machine gun ends up with Patty Hearst. "I kept thinking when David was telling me all this, 'Is he putting me on?' He swears it's absolutely true. He changed the names to protect 'us.' The line between that kind of life and surreality is so 'thin . . . just the idea that it could be fact is disquieting."
In 1974-75, Zevon lived in Spain, playing piano and singing in a bar. That's where he met Lindell. Zevon grew up mostly in California, but the family moved often. His father, a Russian immigrant (the family name was Livotovsky before his grandfather changed it), "looks like George Burns." His father was a professional gambler, a card player. Pretty romantic stuff for those who haven't lived with it.
"We always had enough to eat, but it was definitely. . . up and down," Zevon says. "Friends tell me I should write a screenplay about it." He shakes his head no. He is not close to his father and doesn't communicate with his mother. But his own family appears much tighter. Crystal and Ariel will accompany him on his tour, (he'll be in Washington next week) an unusual display of familial unity, especially in rock circles.
Zevon has been working at music "all my life." Early in his career he was a bandleader for the Everly Brothers and he's worked on recording sessions for other artists and written songs almost constantly. "Excitable Boy" is his third album; his first, "Wanted Dead or Alive; Zevon," recorded several years ago, is never mentioned in Zevon's official biography. "It's generally regarded, by people whose opinions I respect very much, as a mere tragic error in judgment, careerwise. . . but I have a soft spot in my heart for it."
His second album, "Warren Zevon," came out last year. "It was the California sound," he says as the corners of his mouth tighten slightly to indicate his amusement. He would like his next finished project to be the symphony he's been composing for some time. "I've been talking about that too many years. One whole movement is finished." He's had no academic training in classical music.
It's unlikely that he will soon finish this symphony, since he plans to spend most of this year on the road, and then he will record another album of unusual songs to placate those people out there who revel in the knowledge that Warren Zevon actually did rub pot roast on his chest.