Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Awesome Songs: Warren Zevon - "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner"

Excitable Boy was Warren Zevon's claim to fame. It was his most critically acclaimed work and one of his more accessible albums for the general masses - a little lighter on the pun/tongue-in-cheek sound his other albums are filled with. Pretty much all of the songs he is well known for (from a popularity standpoint) come from this album; his immensely popular - even today - "Werewolves of London," as well as his other popular songs "Excitable Boy," "Lawyers, Guns & Money," "Johnny Strikes Up the Band," and of course "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" (some of those are more well known to me, but these are my thoughts and my favorites right?). While the entire album is very good - well worth the purchase and listen for those teetering on the fence - the song that is my favorite, and the one I want to focus on for this installment of 'Awesome Songs,' is the exceptional: "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner."

In Zevon's usual macabre style,  "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" tells the tale of Roland, a Norwegian mercenary, who is hired by the CIA to fight in the Nigerian Civil war and the Congo Crisis of the late 1960s. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Roland is the best Thompson Gunner of the war, and because of this he raises the ire of the CIA, who then orders Roland's college, Van Owen, to kill him. Van Owen blows off Roland's head, thus making him the 'Headless Thompson Gunner,' who then wanders through the land, originally looking for revenge (which he gets), then he floats from conflict to conflict across the world for eternity.

Besides the savage imagery of the story directly, the song is filled with excellent musicianship, well-crafted dialogue and Zevon's poetic voice, which makes the song for me. His tone is thick, but the rhythm of his words is often quick and upbeat; something that is a counterbalance to the otherwise dark song.

One point I really like is the lack of a true chorus. Sure, there is a point that could be called a chorus, a section where the lyrics are similar and music is that same, but there is enough of a change between them to qualify as something new. The first chorus is all about 'Roland The Thompson Gunner' but by the second time around, after he has been killed, the chorus reads 'Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.' A subtle difference, but I really like it. Also by the third time the chorus comes through, one again as 'Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,' the vocals change again, but in a different way. In the second iteration, there are three voices (assumedly all Warren Zevon's), each singing a different set of lines. It's hard to determine what is being said by each, otherwise I'd go into it, but regardless it makes for an interesting little bit. But by the third time through, the backing two vocals are gone, leaving only the main melody of "They can still see his headless body, stalking through the night. In the muzzle flash of Roland's Thompson gun."

You see, this song has layers, something you rarely see aside from progressive or power music (well... and Queen). The vocals shift, the song is dark, but somehow uplifting, and there is a ghost involved!! (at least a 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' style ghost). I hold attest that Warren Zevon was the man, and the world is worse off with him gone. I really need to listen to more of his discography, but for now I have to urge you to pick up Excitable Boy, if not just for the experience, then for the song "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" at the very least.

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