Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

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I’ve loved music since I was a kid. Of course, in my youngest days, I was perhaps a bit more into the breathing fire and spitting blood aspects of it than to the music itself. Outside of the world of music, the influence of my dad looms largest in my life, but he didn’t really care much for music, especially my music, but I did get a few bits of music from him. He liked Elton John and that first greatest hits 8 track formed a significant part of my elementary age musical rotation, especially if you eliminated bands whose guitars didn’t spark and smoke in concert. Mostly though, his taste was pretty poor. He liked the Montovani Orchestra and Pete Fountain. He had records by Jim Nabors and Ed Ames. In the 80’s, he really enjoyed Linda Ronstadt’s records with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and 20 years later still, Celtic Woman pretty much stayed in his car’s CD player. It’s funny, because my dad almost never liked things to be easy (a theme in the eulogy I wrote for him when he passed away a few years ago), but he had no interest in being challenged by music. I think he just didn’t hold the arts in general in high enough esteem.

All that being said, there were occasional surprises and perhaps my favorite was Warren Zevon. Zevon is in a way the poster child for outsider music. He was, as both a man and a musician, somewhat skewed and as such, difficult to appreciate for those who did not want to step a little outside of the passive listening of hooks over substance radio music. Yes, “Werewolves of London” became a staple of classic rock radio, but the degree to which its popularity outshone all other work by Zevon proves the point that he was off the beaten path, so to speak. Somehow or another, my father stumbled upon Warren Zevon. I think “Excitable Boy” may have been on a mixtape given him to him by a friend. But the song that really grabbed my dad was “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

Knowing my dad, I suspect he was most attracted to the rich storytelling rather than the allegorical undercurrent about our world of seemingly endless conflicts. From a deal “made in Denmark on a dark and stormy day,” to “that son-of-a-bitch Van Owen [blowing] off Roland’s head,” to from Roland finding Van Owen “in Mombassa in a barroom drinking gin” and blowing his body “from there to Johannesburg,” the lyrics have just the amount of detail to bring us into its world. Like all great writing, whether lyrics or literature, it also leaves enough detail to our imagination that we in the first world can relate to the wars in the third. While that was enough for my dad, and really should be enough for anyone, Zevon takes it a step further and ties it to first world news. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” tells a story about a mercenary and counsels us about how we fit into it, yet without an ounce of preachiness.

About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

2 thoughts on “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

  1. Chuck

    Warren Zevon is a hole in my musical knowledge, and one I’ve never felt compelled to address. I don’t anticipate that I’ll go on a Zevon binge but I’m glad to have listened to this. Generally, I don’t love humor in music but this kind of humor (which, at least based on this one song, reminds me of Zappa: very dark, very sharp, and with an eye toward both calling out and mocking our social and political structures) doesn’t bother me. With that said, the last line falls like a bad punchline for me, which is a shame because it’s a thoughtful comparison between Patty Hearst and Roland that makes the listener think about the things that motivate us to violence and killing.

    I’m not surprised your dad liked this. I didn’t know him well, but his love for history and politics and humanity is all right here.

    Finally, I have to point out that with a couple minor tweaks, this would be an amazing Iron Maiden song. If you close your eyes and listen beneath the surface, you can hear Steve Harris’ bassline galloping towards you behind Bruce Dickinson’s screaming of the lyrics.

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  2. bobvinyl Post author

    I think what makes Zevon better than Zappa is that both Zevon’s music and wit are digestible. Zappa was so esoteric on both fronts that I think he generally misses his target. This is probably too much of a generalization, but I’m thinking that Zappa makes music for people who want to be outsiders and Zevon makes music for people who are outsiders.

    I never thought about it working as a Maiden song, but as soon as I read that comment, it was clear at least lyrically. Musically, I had a harder time hearing it, but tried playing it a 1.5x speed and it became more clear.

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