by Dave Marsh
In the opening lines of the title song from Warren Zevon's new album, Excitable Boy, the title character smears Sunday pot roast all over his chest. It seemed to me only reasonable to ask why.
"Because he likes it so much. Because my wife's such a great cook, of which I'm physical evidence," says the author, poking his thickening middle. "And it happened, it really happened. She made an amazing pot roast and I just opened my shirt and smeared it on my chest."
Zevon takes another sip of his "phlegm cutter", a couple of fingers of Stolichnaya vodka with which he's been dosing himself all afternoon. He doesn't look excitable sitting in his East LA living room, yet this has not been an inauspicious day. While we were on the phone this morning, arranging to get together, Linda Ronstadt's new single, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", came on the radio, the first broadcast either of us had heard. Zevon wrote that song, and it's one of three that Ronstadt has recorded from his debut LP.
At the moment, Ronstadt's versions of his songs are Zevon's chief claim to fame, which is unfortunate since he's such an assaultive performer. But it's an improvement over his status in mid-1976 when people paid attention to his first Asylum album because it was produced by Jackson Browne, an old friend. Excitable Boy, however, has been widely anticipated for Zevon alone. Browne produced again, along with "Dirty Waddy" Wachtel, the guitarist with whom Zevon's been hooked up since a 1970 Everly Brothers tour. Browne's and Ronstadt's patronage is misleading. Zevon's piano based rock is harder than anything else in Southern California, and while his songs use the same backdrop as the Eagles and Browne, his lyrics, with their population of street characters and half-mythic imagery, are more like Randy Newman meets Bruce Springsteen than any of the other Hollywood cowboys.
To me, Excitable Boy sounds ferocious, all growling guitars and driving drums. To Zevon, "it's more wholesome than my last album. Because of the spirit of fun. Fun is my idea of art-fundamentally, I mean". Of his penchant for punning, Zevon says: "My wife gets more exercise from shuddering than from picking up the baby."
Zevon's living room is dominated by the tools of the trade: a piano and boom mike hooked up to a Nakamichi cassette deck. It's a working room, not that he's what you'd call a prolific writer. "My job is more being miserable between songs than developing one idea for a long time to the point of exhaustion. It's difficult to wait, but there doesn't seem to be much to do except travel around, looking for something like that. Which is kind of like leading from your chin, but I don't know anything else to do."
Zevon's chin led him to the Hollywood rock scene in the mid-Sixties. He wrote B-sides under the wing of Bones Howe for such acts as the Turtles, cut a few singles himself and did an occasional session as a twelve string guitarist. After an early, hotshot guitar solo LP (the long-deleted Wanted Dead or Alive on United Artists) and a stint as the Everly Brothers' band leader, he and Crystal, his wife, bought one-way tickets to Europe in 1974 and drifted across the continent to Spain, where they came upon an Irish bar in a small town just outside of Barcelona. Zevon got a job as a pass-the-hat singer of Irish songs, and was planning to remain until he got a letter from Browne asking if he'd like to come home and record.
The bar owner was David Lindell, who wrote the lyrics to "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner", a modern Ichabod-Crane-as mercenary-guerilla story that is one of Excitable Boy's best songs. "Lindy" Lindell is an adventurer by trade - his business card lists him as a guerilla and mercenary soldier, among other occupations - which is somewhat typical of the rather improbable cast that populates Zevon's existence.
"We (Zevon and his wife) just tend to shake our heads in amazement that we know such a cavalcade of strange people," he says.
Not that Zevon might not be the prime exhibit in someone else's cavalcade. Unlikely as it seems, coming from someone who didn't go to college "because I didn't have the grades", his conversation rambles from Stravinsky to Van Morrison to Jimmy Webb, Spillane to Sontag to Raymond Chandler and Norman Mailer. I'd call him a visceral intellectual, except that he reminded me earlier of Chandler's advice: "Eddie, don't get complicated. When a guy gets complicated, he gets unhappy. When he gets unhappy, his luck runs out."
Zevon says life is much less complicated dealing with notes, which may be why he's running in luck lately. He'll begin touring late in February, taking Crystal and their 18 month old daughter Ariel along. Meantime, he's thinking of moving to New York for a change of scene, both personal and musical. And, to celebrate his 31st birthday, he bought a .44 Magnum. When he got it home, he threw up.
That excitable enough for you?
NOTE: The copyright for this article is held by the original author. Article was first published in Rolling Stone RS260, dated March 9, 1978.