Warren Zevon, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”

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On 1978’s Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon crafted an album populated by werewolves, psychopaths, and mercenaries. It became his biggest hit, which is somehow fitting considering Zevon’s legacy as a no-BS chronicler of the darker corners of existence. He had a way of romanticizing these characters with his gorgeous piano-driven melodies even as his lyrics refused to sugar-coat their exploits.

Zevon described the creation of “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” in the liner notes to his Anthology collection: “In 1974 I ran off to Spain and got a job in an Irish bar called the Dubliner, in Sitges, on the Costa Brava. The proprietor was a piratical ex-merc named David Lindell. He and I wrote this song at the bar one afternoon, over many jars.”

While Lindell likely deserves credit for providing crucial details about the mercenary life and the many conflicts in which they were embroiled, Zevon’s songwriting finesse turns the tale into something larger-than-life. Roland is a Norwegian mercenary whose motives are both altruistic and self-serving (“They killed to earn their living and to help out the Congolese.”) The awful truths of his occupation are clear (the men do their job “knee-deep in gore,”) but his unmatchable skill with his Thompson gun puts him in the sights of the CIA.

Although he is betrayed and murdered by his mercenary pal Van Owen, Roland’s war is not over. Note the subtle dig at the political whitewashing of these unofficial conflicts in the words of the backing vocalists, which include Zevon’s buddy Jackson Browne: “Time, time, time for another peaceful war/But time stands still for Roland ‘til he evens up the score.”

Roland gets his revenge, of course, blowing his nemesis “from here to Johannesburg.” He ends the song as a headless apparition wandering from conflict to conflict, settling scores for those who don’t have the ability to do it themselves. Zevon ends the song with a laundry list of these bloody frays, and that list has only gotten innumerably longer since the song was recorded.

The song was a favorite of David Letterman, and, when an ailing Zevon made his last appearance on the show shortly before his death in 2003, Letterman insisted he perform it to close the show. Warren defiantly snarled his way through the performance, which would be his last, showing that the grit and honesty that made him such a unique songwriter were still intact. It’s a great song, and it was the perfect way for Warren Zevon to hasten down the wind.

“Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”

Roland was a warrior from the Land of the Midnight Sun
With a Thompson gun for hire, fighting to be done
The deal was made in Denmark on a dark and stormy day
So he set out for Biafra to join the bloody fray.

Through sixty-six and seven they fought the Congo war
With their fingers on their triggers, knee-deep in gore
For days and nights they battled the Bantu to their knees
They killed to earn their living and to help out the Congolese

Roland the Thompson gunner…

His comrades fought beside him – Van Owen and the rest
But of all the Thompson gunners, Roland was the best
So the CIA decided they wanted Roland dead
That son-of-a-bitch Van Owen blew off Roland’s head

Roland the headless Thompson gunner
Norway’s bravest son
Time, time, time
For another peaceful war
But time stands still for Roland
‘Til he evens up the score

They can still see his headless body stalking through the night
In the muzzle flash of Roland’s Thompson gun
In the muzzle flash of Roland’s Thompson gun

Roland searched the continent for the man who’d done him in
He found him in Mombassa in a barroom drinking gin
Roland aimed his Thompson gun – he didn’t say a word
But he blew Van Owen’s body from there to Johannesburg

Roland the headless Thompson gunner…

The eternal Thompson gunner
still wandering through the night
Now it’s ten years later but he still keeps up the fight
In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun and bought it

Written by Warren Zevon and David Lindell


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