Warren Zevon: Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

Zevon was a singer-songwriter in a class of his own, an artist’s artist, a musician’s musician. His songs were highly literate and his friends included Stephen King who dedicated “Dr Sleep” to him, and Hunter S. Thompson who shared his fascination and struggles with drink and drugs. He was also admired by many of the USA’s top musicians, from Dylan and Springsteen to Emmylou Harris. David Crosby, another troubled musician/songwriter claimed Zevon “saw things with a jaundiced eye that still got the honesty of things.” He was a master of story telling, and often wrote of his personal struggles. But the song that struck me for its politics and outright weirdness is that of Roland. David Letterman claimed he asked Zevon to write it.

At the time I heard it, I knew two Rolands, both of whom were strange, obsessive people, so the song seemed to fit the name. It was also in stark contrast with the dancing round the living room pop tunes that I’d grown up with. This was grown up storytelling, and deeply political.

The song tells of a Norwegian man who  became a mercenary in the Biafran War, to make a living, and to help the locals. But he was too successful, so the CIA got one of his comrades to blow off his head. But the headless Roland took his revenge, not only on his killer, but continues to stalk the world with his gun, fighting for justice. Zevon cites Ireland, Palestine and Berkeley. The Hearst press objected to the claim that Patty Hearst had heard the sound of the gun and “bought it”.

The song works on so many levels. It is highly political, and clearly anti-CIA, but also pro a whole range of uprisings and liberation and anti-USA movements at the time. The headless gunner stalking the earth raises all sorts of folkloric elements, from headless horsemen to heroes eternally seeking justice or revenge, or what we now recognise as closure. It’s an extraordinary song by an extraordinary, and little known master of his craft.

He died in 2013 at the age of 56.

Here’s Warren in his last appearance on David Letterman:

This is Jackson Browne’s version:

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