Warren Zevon: the Werewolf on Mobile Fidelity

If music reflects the life of the person who created it—if, for example, we can hear Mozart's inner turmoil in his operas—then Warren Zevon's song catalog is uncommonly revealing. Headless mercenaries, killer rapists, and yes, impeccably dressed werewolves with a taste for pina coladas are all part of the colorful world of WZ's twisted imagination and especially of his masterpiece, 1978's Excitable Boy.

As with all things Zevon, it's not quite that simple. Averse to doctors, Zevon, who famously admitted on the Late Show with David Letterman, "I might have made a tactical error not going to a physician for 20 years," was diagnosed with advanced mesothelioma in 2002. It's been theorized that he contracted it as a child playing in the asbestos-lined attic of the Arizona carpet store owned by his gangster father, Stumpy Zevon.

Hellbent on recording one last album, Zevon threw all he had left into The Wind, which reached #12 on the US album charts and for many would eclipse Excitable Boy. Laboriously constructed while its principal was fading fast (and falling off the wagon after 17 years), The Wind's notoriety was ensured by a guest list that includes Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, and Bruce Springsteen, who shared a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance for "Disorder in the House." Singularly poignant moments like a cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" ensured its fame. Released two weeks before his death in September 2003, The Wind was both showered with praise and draped in sadness. Original LP pressings as well as a 2023 limited-edition LP reissue have both lately grown ridiculously expensive ($100+) on the secondary collectors' market.

However, back in 1978, when Zevon was a legendary imbiber and all-night, every-night party miscreant, he made the record that he should be most remembered for: Excitable Boy. Filled with classics (and five singles), it made him a star and reached #8 on the US album charts. Recently reissued by Mobile Fidelity on two 180gm LPs cut at 45rpm, Excitable Boy's now warmer, larger, more detailed sound reinforces the notion that despite the emotional pull of The Wind, this collection of catchy, at times zany, originals is Zevon's most defining artistic statement. (The new Excitable Boy is also available on SACD.)

As he was dying, Zevon insisted his ex-wife Crystal write a no-holds-barred book about him. The result—I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon—is a collection of interview excerpts elicited by Crystal and arranged chronologically according to Zevon's life story. There are observations from Springsteen, Browne, Thomas McGuane, Dave Berry, Jon Landau, and many others. It is an unconventional but hugely effective example of a music biography done right. About Excitable Boy, its co-producer/guitarist Waddy Wachtel said, "Warren and I were shattered after working on that record, and it's one of the best things he ever did as far as I'm concerned."

Cynical, skeptical, and a closet intellectual of sorts, Zevon had a curiosity that ranged across history, politics, and more personal subjects like self-sabotage and nagging vulnerabilities. Zevon was also fascinated by pop culture and was a dedicated horror film fan. Comparing the making of Zevon's movie monster hit "Werewolves of London" to "Coppola making Apocalypse Now," Wachtel adds that most of the budget for the album went into capturing that one song: "It took seven bands to record—the hardest song to get down in the studio I have ever worked on." Eventually, after several rhythm sections were tried, someone suggested Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. "It was a nighttime session, and we did a take, did a second take," Wachtel continues. "Jackson [Browne, who coproduced Excitable Boy with Wachtel] and I looked at each other after the second take: 'That was pretty good wasn't it?' Mick Fleetwood says, 'Keep going, keep going.' Now it's like 6 in the morning and we're at take 66 or something, and I looked at Mick and I said, 'I think we're done.' Mick looks at me and says, 'We're never done, Waddy.'"

Opening with the marching "Johnny Strikes Up the Band," the short, nine-song Excitable Boy is a prismatic trapdoor into Zevon's dizzying psyche. "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," a favorite of lifelong Zevon supporter Letterman, is part horror story, part political manifesto.

The title track is Zevon's trademark black humor, with Jennifer Warnes and Linda Ronstadt on "oooh wha" background vocals. One of the album's ballads, "Accidentally Like a Martyr," sung in Zevon's signature maudlin tone, details a hazy, uncertain regret. The near-disco of "Nighttime in the Switching Yard" is a puzzling if well-done change of pace. The album closes with Zevon's finest or at least funniest original, "Lawyers, Guns and Money," which was written on two cocktail napkins after a near-disastrous experience in Hawaii: "Now I'm hiding in Honduras/I'm a desperate man/Send lawyers, guns, and money/The shit has hit the fan."

Finally, brilliant visionary albums often have sly, insightful artwork. Here, the inner sleeve, with its indelible image of a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol atop a dinner plate full of food, is a visceral part of the Zevon legacy, along with the music this album holds.

Glotz's picture

that the US government was less than transparent about it's dealings in Central America last century. Loved this album for its truth about humans in other spaces as well. Great to see it released by MoFi.

PeterG's picture

I reconnected with this album 6 months ago after a 30 year hiatus. I had remembered the pop of it, but not the rock...it rocks!