Which simply means that the affinities running through rock and roll today are not as obvious as they seem. What Zevon-as-Sex Pistol comes down to is violence; even counting the unrecorded “Belsen Was a Gas,” there’s more violence in Zevon’s repertoire than there was in Rotten’s. It’s not the outlaw-myth pseudo-violence the Eagles popularized on Desperado, either. If Zevon opened his first Asylum album hanging himself with the same corny rope (in “Frank and Jesse James”), he cut himself down by the end (in “Desperados Under the Eaves”). Right below the surface—with Zevon, the surface is usually a joke—Zevon’s songs speak of a fascination with violence as a means to life, of a need to touch it, to come to terms with it. You won’t get to the bottom of Excitable Boy simply by noting that its subject matter includes contract killing, the Congo civil war, revenge murder, psychos, the Mexican revolution, rape, the Symbionese Liberation Army, necrophilia, and mutilation, but you won’t completely miss the point, either. Excitable Boy could just as well have been titled Red Harvest.
There is something that invites one to go beneath the fey surface of “Excitable Boy” (“And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home… Well, he’s just an excitable boy”—all to the tune of pretty oo-wahs by Linda R.) or the sentimental surface of “Veracruz,” the plaint of a rich Mexican family squeezed by American troops on the one side and Zapata on the other. There is something that convinces you that the perfect rocker, “When Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” is about a smack dealer, not a bandleader, and that “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is much more than a gloss on the Irish war ballad. What it is—and it’s also what makes Zevon kin to Rotten—is the suppressed violence of Zevon’s singing. Rotten’s whole persona was based on the illusion that he suppressed nothing; that was how he generated tension, made you squirm. Zevon does the same with the dust-to-dust tone in which he tells the story of Roland the headless gunner (a mercenary recruited by the CIA in Norway and eliminated by his employers in the Congo), with the headlong plunge onto the railroad tracks in “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” on Warren Zevon, with the cavalry-charge cries of “Hah!” he uses to sign many of his best tunes. Listening to Zevon’s deep, raving voice, you feel his chest is about to burst from all he’s holding in. Zevon suggests that he knows a secret, but can’t—or won’t—tell us exactly what it is: for our own sake, or for his.
This isn’t to say that Zevon, or anyway his songs, belongs on a critic’s couch. “Werewolves of London” is funny; if it’s really about Zevon’s urge to run amok and eat people, it’s still funny, and what’s funny about it is that it’s queer; it makes no sense. “Better stay away from him/He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim,” the singer says of his monster. “I’d like to meet his tailor.” What? “His hair was… perfect.” This is Randy Newman without rationalism. In the same way, “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” a quick sketch of an excitable boy who keeps looking for ever more elaborate forms of trouble (“Dad,” he wires from a casino in Havana, “get me out of this”), really is just a joke, just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But the song is also a fairly neat summation of 20th-century American foreign policy south of the border, or of American behavior anywhere: “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” as our history tells us, is the true meaning of “In God We Trust.”
I’ve contradicted myself trying to relieve Zevon of absolute seriousness before getting absolutely serious about him, and that’s inevitable, given the kind of artist Zevon is: for an American, an utterly traditional sort of artist. Like Mark Twain, Newman, Preston Sturges, or Raymond Chandler, Zevon is both a subversive masquerading as an entertainer (to himself, and to those who watch him most closely) and an entertainer masquerading as a subversive (to himself, when he feels he’s failed to get across what he has to say, that he’s sold out, or that what he has to say isn’t truly subversive at all). Like his forebears, Zevon is a first-rate craftsman who works close to his unconscious (and, sometimes, to that of his possible eager audience). He’s on friendly terms with demons, to tell what he knows, equally determined not to be taken as the bearer of bad news (what other kind does one hear from demons?), and so finds safety and solace in humor—or, when humor does not work, in irony or sardonicism. No true American artist ever announces, as Johnny Rotten does in “God Save the Queen,” “WE MEAN IT, MAN”: rather, he says he’s only kidding.
Despite what may be in store for Randy Newman if it’s true that the success of “Short People” sent him back to work on “a broader insult,” I realize it’s been a while since a performing artist, or even a writer, has been lynched in the United States. But it remains true that what the American popular artist fears, what contradicts and may destroy his urge to tell what he knows, is isolation—not only the loathing of his fellow-citizens, which he may actually court as proof that he makes a difference, but their inattention. To attempt to reach a popular audience—which is what good rock and roll singers like Zevon do for a living—with songs about headless African mercenaries, nice boys who do in their girlfriends, and the like, is no easy thing, nor any sort of trivial act. To attempt to unsettle a popular audience—which is what artists like Zevon do for their own peace of mind—is much harder: you may put out the strongest stuff you know, and it may bounce right off the audience, or be absorbed without a shudder.
The shudder is what Zevon is after, I think, but just as The Big Sleep is a great mystery before it is a good statement about corruption, Excitable Boy is a rock and roll album before it is anything else. You could listen to Waddy Wachtel’s guitar rolling off “When Johnny Strikes Up the Band” for months before bothering with Zevon’s words, or the way he sings them. You could take simple pleasure from the harmonies on “Roland,” just as you might have taken simple pleasure from the strings on Randy Newman’s “Sail Away.” You could ignore the fact that it’s the fragile grace of those harmonies, as it was with Newman’s strings, that scrambles the mood of Zevon’s ghost story. The harmonies make Roland’s headless odyssey seductive, until we’re implicated in Zevon’s story of a hired killer, brought over to the killer’s side, just as, for a moment, we might have believed the carny pitch of Newman’s slaver. Not that Excitable Boy always hold its shape; there’s filler (“Nighttime in the Switching Yard,” a banal funk riff that Zevon disguised as an actual song by placing it first on a side), and a stupid youth-must-be-served number Zevon wrote with Jackson Browne and sings with embarrassment, as if he’s reluctant to admit that it exists. The album is too short—barely 30 minutes—which means you have to keep getting up to turn it over, because it’s so intriguing. Roland the headless gunner stalking the man who killed him, then turning up years later to hand his gun to Patty Hearst, fades into junkies celebrating the return of their man to the projects, who fade into the excitable boy making a cage out of the bones of the girl he killed a decade before—and they all fade back into the singer in “Desperados Under the Eaves,” who thinks, in a jump no more comprehensible than the one about the werewolf and his tailor, that in L.A. the sun looks “angry through the trees,” that “the leaves look like crucified thieves.”
Warren Zevon’s humor and his sentimentality—like the smooth-faced kid you see in the cover photo on Excitable Boy (“Retouched,” says Zevon) do the same job as Mark Twain’s disclaimer to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” In other words, disarm the audience, get their defenses down, and then maybe you can do your work, without, of course, anyone quite noticing just what your work is, to produce that shudder, endless in its possibilities, and likely as invisible to the artist as it is to the victim, if the artist is lucky enough to have any victims.
So while we wait to see what Zevon’s edge might cut, we have the latest word from perhaps the most interesting rock and roller this country has produced in the last few years: a man who can rock out with Graham Parker, who can throw lyric punches even Newman might not be able to slip. That Zevon has from the beginning tried to see himself as a dangerous man, as a disturber of the peace, is clear from the title of his long out-of-print first album, Wanted—Dead or Alive; over time I hope we find out how dangerous he really is. If a song like “Werewolves of London,” which is out as a single, becomes a hit, Zevon might—as Randy Newman may, but probably won’t—settle for humor without subversion, if in fact that is what “Werewolves” is, and I’m not half as sure of that as I was when I began this piece.
In the end, it does all come down to humor: to what degree one can use it both as pleasure and politics, to what degree a joke can seduce not only an audience but its author. And the best question—subversive as entertainer, or vice versa?—is never settled. In 1942, Preston Sturges made a comedy called Sullivan’s Travels, about a comedy director who wants to make a serious movie about real people and real problems: a Movie with a Message. The director, Sullivan, goes on the road, to discover the bitter truth about the country and its people; riding the rails, seeing the kind of treatment the poor get, his resentment rises, and it lands him in a prison camp. There, his identification gone, one of a miserable crowd, he discovers that humor—a cartoon the prisoners are watching that lifts them out of their despair as nothing else could ever do—is the greatest gift one can give, and Sullivan resolves to go back to comedy.
It’s a wonderful movie, but its premise isn’t quite convincing—nor did it, it seems, altogether convince Sturges, who must have written and shot the film at least partly out of self-justification. For the climax of Sullivan’s Travels is just that subversive Message the movie has so beautifully discredited; Sullivan, we barely remember by this time, wasn’t falsely imprisoned: he’d smashed a railroad bull over the head. But the moment it’s discovered who Sullivan is—the famous Hollywood director all America’s been searching for—he’s out of jail, free and clear, the legatee of the magic of peekaboo American justice. The other prisoners, left behind, can watch comedies.
Or, as Warren Zevon said to me when I asked him if the gun pictured on the inside sleeve of Excitable Boy was his: “Not that one.”
Village Voice, March 6, 1978