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  • Tales of the Neon Netherworld

    (no author given, 1978)

    IA few years back, just before his career heated up and Warren Zevon started turning out some of the spookiest, saddest, and most startling songs in pop music, he was jamming at a friend's house and wondering why no one would let him play lead guitar. "Well," teased his pal, Bassist LeRoy Marinell, "you get good ideas. But then you get too excited."

    "Yeah," said Zevon. "I'm an excitable boy."

    He kept that exchange in mind . Excitable Boy is the title of Zevon's new record, his second in as many years. It continues further along into the neon netherworld explored in his first major album. Zevon sings songs of madness and delight, all about spies and mercenaries, traitors and lost lovers, spooks, werewolves and other halfway creatures of the night. Quite characteristically, his "excitable boy" shows up in the title cut (co-written with Marinell) transformed into a raging madman, whose exploits are chronicled with sardonic relish.

    Well he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
    Excitable boy, they all said
    And he rubbed the pot roast over his chest
    Excitable boy, they all said

    This wrought-up lad moves on to higher, wider-ranging transgressions -- from biting an usherette on the leg to raping and killing "little Suzie," his date at the junior prom. Yet each exploit is explained and excused by the same hard-rocking ironic chorus: "Well, he's just an excitable boy."

    Zevon is equal parts berserk satirist and strung-out romantic. He can write desolating love songs with racked refrains like, "We made mad love/Shadow love/Random love/And abandoned love/Accidentally like a martyr/The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder." Perhaps most conspiciously, he's a superb storyteller, running true to the tough, hard-eyed tradition that embraces both writers like Raymond Chandler and filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah. One of the most commanding, demanding of Excitable Boy's nine songs is Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a harsh, haunted, hard-as-bedrock chronicle of a Norwegian mercenary soldier whose head is blown off by a turncoat CIA operative named Van Owen. Roland's ghost hunts Van Owen to a Mombasa barroom, blasts his body "from there to Johannesburg," then goes "wandering through the night."

    Now it's ten years later
    but he still keeps up the fight
    In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
    Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland's Thompson gun
    And bought it

    Lyrics like that, tied to strong melodies that can either be stringently lush or stingingly harsh -- real whiplash rock 'n' roll -- make Zevon wonderfully weird and wholly unique.

    any musician is careful to keep his instrument in tune, Warren Zevon takes some pain to live sufficiently close to danger and desperation so as not to lose his cutting edge. At 31, he is a dedicaded juicer who can put away a bottle of Stolichnaya a night and a gun-wielding roisterer. He is also an attentive father and melancholiac composer who works in fits and starts in the short hours before dawn, turning out his strange songs and working occasionally on "my long-boasted-about but seldom heard symphony" -- all on the Steinway concert grand that stands in the living room of his modest Los Angeles house. Zevon seems to be living out a myth of ruinous romantic excess that is both self-perpetuating and self-destructive. "F. Scott Fitzevon," some friends call him. Jokes his mentor, Jackson Browne, best of all the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriters, who has taken a strong hand in the production of both Zevon albums, "There's part of Warren that nobody can take credit for except Warren -- and that's the part that scares the hell out of all of us."

    "Sometimes he's the most normal person I know," confides Zevon's wife Crystal, 28. "And sometimes he's totally crazy. He's always nice with me and the baby, but every now and then he'll just decide to do something -- like fall down a flight of stairs. I ususally laugh. He's pretty humorous." Even Crystal confesses to being a touch "terrified" now that Warren has invested in a .44 Magnum. Recently, Zevon was so enjoying brandishing the weapon as he ran around his house wearing a duck mask that friends had to corner and disarm him. "In the '60s," Zevon explains, "I couldn't have conceived of owning a gun. Now in the '70s, I feel that nobody's going to mess with me. You go from mindlessly believing in peace to arming yourself to learn how to have it."

    There is as much put-on as defiance in such a posture, much striving after the long shadow of one's own legend. Zevon is shrewd enough not only to realize this but also acknowledge it, both in his songs (one hell-raising rocker is called I'll Sleep When I'm Dead) and in casual conversation. "The fundemental idea that everything's going to be all right appeals to me less than the simple notion of bonehead justice," Zevon told Time's correspondent James Willwerth. "The concept of Clint Eastwood as the justice-bent dope is more important than Richard Dreyfuss as the awestruck moron being carted off to Mars where everything will be just fine."

    To Zevon, the patented Eastwood brand of low-boil violence and poker-faced absurdity may seem as natural as a song. His father, a Russian immigrant, was a onetime boxer who made his living as a professional card player. When William Zevon wanted to marry Warren's mother, the impending union caused a crisis that became, 18 years later, the subject of their only son's most autobiographical song, "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded".

    She was determined that she wanted Bill...
    Her parents warned her
    Tried to reason with her
    Never kept their disappointment hid
    They all went to pieces when the bad luck hit
    Stuck in the middle
    I was the kid

    The family eventually wound up in California, where they lived in towns all up and down the southern coast. Warren had a music teacher who contrived to introduce the young student to Stravinsky (an album autographed by the master is Warren's "most prized possession"). But the influence of the great composer during Warren's susequent visits to see him in his home above Sunset Boulevard was supplemented by a rough-and-tumble education at high school. Warren quit when he was 15, around the time his parents split up. He tried living with his father for a while, a difficult situation since Bill "kept moving to a new apartment every few weeks." Warren then headed for New York, taking an unsuccessful shot at "being Bob Dylan." After a time, Warren drifted back to Los Angeles scuffled around the fringes of the pop world. He wrote advertising jingles, played piano for the Everly Brothers (the "little Suzie" who gets mangled by the excitable boy is a wry nod at them), got a song onto the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy and made one album called Wanted Dead or Alive that attracted scant attention. Eventually he met up with Crystal, and took off to Spain, where he sang for his supper in a Costa Brava saloon run by a soldier of fortune named David Lindell (co-author of Roland). Lindell held Zevon's wages in escrow, in case of either dire need or sudden good fortune. Jackson Browne, who got friendly with Zevon back in Hollywood, wrote him in care of the Dubliner Bar inviting him to return stateside and cut a record. Warren blew the escrow account to get halfway home; a gig in London with the Everly Brothers provided the final funding.

    If the rest is history, much of it is yet to come. Zevon, who has just embarked on a modest concert tour, will be keeping an eye on the sales figures for Excitable Boy to see if the commercial returns are as strong as the critical ones have been so far. One thing that is certain right now is that Warren Zevon can run with fast company. Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon...he is as good as the best, can match their pace. Maybe, if he goes on growing, he can even set the pace. Just one question lingers: Can he sustain it? He is such an excitable boy.