Monday, November 12, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: Werewolves of London

Warren Zevon: Werewolves of London

[purchase Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy]

This week’s theme got me immediately thinking about unicorns, magic dragons, banshee, leprechauns and even the Japanese tengu (long-nosed goblins). Then I pondered the songs written about Greek Gods and Goddesses such as Venus, Athena, Aphrodite and Zeus. Finally, my mind flew back to a memory of how I celebrated Halloween this year – watching the classic 1941 horror flick “The Wolf Man” starring Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Béla Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as the big hairy and scary guy. It seems that Chaney’s portrayal of this mythological creature (or is it?) greatly influenced future Hollywood depictions of the legend.

Throughout the film, we hear villagers recite this poem whenever the subject of werewolves comes up:

Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the autumn moon is bright.

Not based in legend, these lines were the screenwriter’s invention. We hear them in several other classic werewolf films of yesteryear although later films change the last line to "And the moon is full and bright” to cultivate the idea that a werewolf is transformed under a full moon. That’s often how stories of folklore evolve and are embellished over the years. 1941’s “The Wolf Man” was the second Universal Pictures werewolf movie, preceded six years earlier by a less commercially successful “Werewolf of London.”

I can’t help but wonder if Warren Zevon might’ve watched one of these movies before writing one of his best known songs, “Werewolves of London.” As you’ll hear him sing in the last verse:

I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen,
Doing the Werewolves of London.
I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's,
And his hair was perfect.

Zevon began as a session musician backing artists like The Everly Brothers and Manfred Mann. His solo career took off with his second album, Warren Zevon, featuring collaborations with Jackson Browne. Zevon is best known for "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," and "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," all on his third album, Excitable Boy, released in 1978. The title tune was about a juvenile sociopath's murderous prom night. As Zevon played piano and sang, “Werewolves of London" also featured Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass). The successful song was paradoxical with Zevon’s signature lighthearted wry humor and macabre outlook.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, Warren Zevon died at age 56 at his Los Angeles home on September 7, 2003. With a great big “Aaooooooo!,” let’s remember and pay tribute to this rock and roller for his great material and contributions to music.

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