Robin Renee is a terrifically talented singer/songwriter who has guest-blogged with us here at Biff Bam Pop! before, about Stompin’ Tom Connors, as well as granting the site an exclusive interview earlier this year. Today she takes a very special holiday look at the work of her friend and idol, the late Warren Zevon.
On Beyond Werewolves – Your Soundtrack for a Very Zevon Halloween, by Robin Renée
The blessing of having one big hit is that virtually everyone – at least everyone who came of age in a certain era with a certain taste in music – will know the song. The flip-side of one-hit-wonder status is the low profile of whatever else the artist may have to contribute to the world of music, however powerful, however similar or different from the song that brought fame.
Sometimes the big hit that made the artist a darling of the Top 40 for that shining moment is more mainstream and less representative of the rest of the catalogue. That isn’t quite true of Warren Zevon’s highest charting single, “Werewolves of London,” which has a lot of what many of the best Zevon songs have to offer – twisted humor, smart turns of phrase, a stark look at violence, an off-beat, location-specific tale, and spot-on vocal delivery. An entertaining song any time of year, you might hear it a bit more in October on the radio or on a costume store’s seasonal music mix. “Werewolves of London” has become a Halloween classic.
The brilliant and underrated songwriter and performer left us with a catalog of great depth that is worthy of deep listening and analysis from many angles. For our purposes this spooky season, here is a look at a few songs where Zevon’s tales take us to places disconcerting and scary, be they humorous, unnerving, or his characteristic, seamless intermingling of the two.
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner (Excitable Boy, 1978)
Never mind your run-of-the-mill headless horseman, you might really do well to watch out for Roland instead. While our UK werewolf was ordering beef chow mein at Lee Ho Fook, Roland was a warrior from Norway engaged in the Congo War of the 1960’s. When his supposed mercenary comrade Van Owen blows him away in a CIA hit, he vows to track down his killer and return the favor:
They can still see his headless body stalking through the night
In the muzzle flash of Roland’s Thompson gun
Things end badly for Van Owen in a bar in Mombasa. But if you think seeing the hitman take his last drink before blowing him away set Roland’s soul to rest, think again. Zevon brings the story home to a terroristic, misguided mission of the then current times. With the song’s final words, he reminds us that by some twist of fate there might be some aspect of the headless warrior ready to reveal itself in any of us:
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun and bought it.
Excitable Boy (Excitable Boy 1978)
At the beginning of this piano-driven pop rock tune, you could easily think you’re in for a fun and simple sing-along. Then the lyrics kick in. “Excitable Boy” begins with truly strange and silly imagery:
Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
“Excitable Boy,” they all said
And he rubbed a pot roast all over his chest
“Excitable Boy,” they all said
“Well he’s just an Excitable Boy”
This guy might still sound like a wacky, impulsive friend who would be good for laughs. However, we then hear he goes on to bite an usherette on the leg, escalates to date rape and murder, and commits further violations after his release from “the home.” Perhaps “excitable” was a bit of an understatement for this freak, whose terrible, though in this upbeat musical context, cartoonish acts makes “Excitable Boy” another Zevon contender for the Halloween canon.
Play it All Night Long (Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, 1980)
This menacing, NSFW southern rock infused stomp lets listeners in on a central fact of many a great Zevon tune: there is plenty more to fear than the typical ghouls of October. In “Play It All Night Long,” the rougher edges of human existence prove to be far more bone-chilling. The song catalogues ungraceful aging, PTSD, incest, diseases (of both humans and livestock), and in the last verse breaks rural life down to its four basic body fluids. “Play It All Night Long” gets extra rock history points for its being a response to Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” which in turn was a response to Neil Young’s “Alabama” and “Southern Man.”
Charlie’s Medicine (The Envoy, 1982)
“Charlie’s Medicine” is intense and menacing guitar rock in which its brief character sketches capture drug abuse, isolation, and tragedy. These lines offer up the psychological terror of witnessing those no longer truly alive, even before the homicide:
Some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills shot him through the heart
Charlie never felt a thing
Neither of them did –
Jesus Mentioned (The Envoy, 1982)
Drugs play a role in this one, too, but in this case, there’s no mere murder. Instead we return to the exhumation theme first mentioned in “Excitable Boy.” This time, though, the deceased is none other than the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The song’s protagonist (so to speak) imagines digging up Elvis and convincing him to sing a spiritual one more time. Now that’s just creepy.
Mr. Bad Example (Mr. Bad Example, 1991)
The character in “Mr. Bad Example” isn’t among the undead, nor is he a cold-blooded killer. Instead, he is a swindler of the first degree. Halloween celebrations can always use a little camp and levity mixed in with the fear factor, so allow this shifty guy to bring the comic relief. He starts out pilfering from the Children’s Fund in church, then quickly graduates to stealing from everyone he meets including a French prostitute and an entire population of indigenous people in Australia. He’s unsavory enough to run amok with a Werewolf, but there’s no need to take him too seriously (unless you meet up with him in a casino or a business deal). If you want to add a boisterous drinking song to your Halloween playlist, this is a good one.
Something Bad Happened to a Clown (Mutineer, 1995)
Well, it involves a clown, which already weirds out a whole lot of people. Add the mechanized drum programming, simple hook, and eerie, interwoven keyboards and the song sounds like a tune from an old amusement park’s slightly off-kilter merry-go-round. All the songs from the Mutineer album are relatively underproduced, and on this one the approach is unsettling and spot on. It may be a simple case of lost love, but because we never are explicitly told of the “something bad” that’s happened to this clown, the imagination is left to conjure something worse.
Hostage-O (Life’ll Kill Ya, 2000)
I can see me bound and gagged
Dragged behind a clownmobile
You can treat me like a dog
If you make me feel what others feel
Is this a deeply submissive love ballad? A dark look at a BDSM romp with no apparent safe word? The cry of someone seeking any connection or sensation strong enough to shake loneliness and alienation? In places, it is reminiscent of the much earlier “Ain’t That Pretty At All” where the singer “would rather feel bad than feel nothing at all.” The difference is that “Hostage-O” is not the sound of an angry young man thrashing about by his own force, but more the sound of frightful, perhaps final resignation to an imprisoned, forlorn life. If there is a sense of sexy role-play in this song at all, it is well hidden within the desolate acoustic guitar and vocal delivery mournful enough to make one’s arm hair stand on end.
Bonus Track: The French Inhaler (from Warren Zevon, 1976)
… for its stunning kiss-off that evokes death personified and contends for the rock era’s most wonderfully acerbic lines:
When the lights came up at two, I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something Death brought with him in his suitcase
Finally, it wouldn’t be right to end the party without the big Halloween hit. Enjoy the holiday traditions, the costumes, the music, and the weird, nervous laughter.
Werewolves of London (from Excitable Boy, 1978)
A freelance writer and performing songwriter, Robin Renee‘s work has appeared in many publications including PanGaia, Blessed Bi Spirit, Big Hammer #12, The New York Quarterly, Songwriter’s Market, and That Takes Ovaries – Bold Females and their Brazen Acts (Random House). Her recordings include In Progress, All Six Senses, Live Devotion, spirit.rocks.sexy, and This. By some dumb luck, karma, or amazing grace she met her rock idol Warren Zevon in 1994 and remained a friend until his passing in 2003.