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Lawyers, Guns and Money: You Might Need All 3 In This Warren Zevon Hit

Today Trademastr Culture discusses a hit from the 1970s that is a thrill-ride and almost a counter-culture choose-your-own-adventure the likes of which you would never hope to personally see yourself.

Lawyers, Guns And Money (1978)
Composed by Warren Zevon
Released by Warren Zevon on the album Excitable Boy

Every so often a song lyric will enter the popular mind, becoming, usually with a heavy dose of irony included, a common phrase. (From different eras: “Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been”; “The fundamental things apply as time goes by”; “ I can’t get no satisfaction,” etc.)

The line, “Lawyers, guns and money,” is an entry in that ledger. It is, after all, the fulcrum of a very intriguing Rock song from one of the 20th century’s most intriguing songwriter/performers. Zevon had an infectious, if mordant, sense of humor. Songs about murderous mercenaries; ax-wielding prom dates; radical Islamists listening to “Mohammed’s Radio”; werewolves who ran amok in Kent, and so forth, figure prominently in his mostly solid work.

He could also write heartbreaking ballads that lent themselves to exquisite country interpretations, like the supernaturally beautiful “Hasten Down The Wind.” Both Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne created wonderful versions of that number. (Ronstadt also made a hit of Zevon’s oddball stomper, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.”)

The sketchy scenario for “Lawyers, Guns And Money” depicts the singer going home with a waitress who “was with the Russians, too.” The wacky paranoia has begun, because seriously now – how many of us have ever gotten involved in a real life spy story unless we’re living out some kind of Gonzo-journalist Hunter Thompson fantasy? (Zevon and Thompson were good friends, by the way.)

“Lawyers, Guns And Money” then marches about in a martial rhythm to Cuba and other parts of Central America, leaving us to re-imagine the landscape of dubious American involvement in the affairs of small countries over the span of the last 120 years give or take. Zevon throws in enough fragments to drag us through his missteps, debauches and brushes with Commies, dictators, freelance gun runners, drug dealers and frantic calls back to the States for capital-h “Help!”

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Thus are the pitfalls of America’s ambient imperialism, clearly a country that gives into its conquering impulses yet remains curiously reluctant to decisively assume the throne.

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this, huh-yeah!

What? Wait! Are we in pre-Castro Cuba? After all, El Comandante closed the casinos in 1960 and tossed out the American mob. (See The Godfather, Part II.)

The song grows more and more emphatic, sounds clashing with other sounds, nothing quite in synch but working hard to hang together as a whole.

The musical highlight is Waddy Wachtel’s terse, indignant guitar soloing, some of his best playing in a long, accomplishment-filled career. (Wachtel has played with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Weir, The Everly Brothers, James Taylor and Carole King – and that’s the short list.)

If Nashville’s canned country guitarists want to know how to really play honky-tonk and produce a twang that’ll make the South rise again, they ought to listen to Wachtel on “Lawyers, Guns And Money” and the many other rhythm-ish leads he’s flung about during his working life. Laughingly, Wachtel is from Queens, New York. Once ensconced in L.A., he grasped country music, especially as it was translated in Southern California.

Zevon’s vocals are unerring on “Lawyers, Guns And Money,” a robust blend of hard-rocker shouting laced with glittering streaks of ironic humor.

Top-shelf, world-renowned session drummer Russ Kunkel provides a polished garage-band performance that helps convey the out-of-control mood that staggers through the number.

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The 1970s were a time of much U.S. meddling in Latin America. It invariably attempted to be helpful to center-right and right-wing dictators. The policies were a conflicted mix of the antics of The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup; Thomas Hardy’s The Heart Of Darkness; Graham Greene’s many novels of failed British Imperialism, and the unresolved sympathies of many Americans toward revolutionary movements “south of the border.”

Zevon, although he also was referring to his own wild ways as a party animal, wrapped all that stinking fish in one sheet of newspaper and named it “Lawyers, Guns And Money.”

I’m hiding in Honduras
I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan

In between, the narrator portrays himself as an “innocent bystander,” knowing full well that by running around partying in junta-infested, cheap-living, cigar-smoking, desperate-woman-filled Central America, his hands could scarcely be clean.

In the middle part of the song Zevon laments his personal predicaments, whatever they might be.

I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock
And a hard place
And I’m down on my luck

Regardless, the song keeps attacking the reckless involvement of the superpower, El Norte, in what amount to petty affairs that have nothing to do with national interests, but everything to do with American corporate interests. (For another take on the U.S.-Latin American connection listen to Steve Goodman’s brilliant “Banana Republic,” from about the same time, 1976.)

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