Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner

Album: Excitable Boy (1978)
Play Video

Songfacts®:

  • A macabre and rather amusing work of historical fiction, "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" tells the story of a Norwegian fighter pilot in the Congo War. He is assassinated, but that doesn't stop him: His headless body continues to fight and gets revenge on the man who blew his head off.
  • Zevon wrote this in Spain when he was playing at The Dubliner in Sitges, a bar owned by former mercenary David Lindell. Zevon and Lindell wrote the song together. In the booklet to Zevon's Anthology album, he had this to say about the song: "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."
  • This was the last song Zevon played live in front of an audience before he died. He performed it on The David Letterman Show; he intended on closing with "Mutineer," but Letterman wanted "Roland" to close the show, so Zevon sang "Mutineer" first, "Genius" and then closed with "Roland." Later, after Zevon died, Letterman did a tribute and re-ran the "Mutineer" segment, so Zevon did, indeed, play Mutineer last.
  • This song not historically accurate; there was a war in Biafra in 1966 and 1967, but Biafra is in Nigeria, not the Congo, and the Ibo were fighting, not the Bantu. It is, however, an excellent conception - maybe the only conception - of European mercenaries in Africa (including their assassinations by the CIA and hanging out drinking in bars). >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Karen - Brooklyn, NY
  • The Excitable Boy album was produced by Jackson Browne along with Zevon's guitarist, Waddy Wachtel. Browne also produced Zevon's previous album (Warren Zevon in 1976) and helped him get a record deal.

Comments: 17

  • Tom from Long IslandThanks for pointing out the historical inaccuracies of this otherwise terrific song. (Makes me wonder where David Lindell did his soldiering.) One more thing: the title says it all— Roland was a Thompson gunner, not a fighter pilot. Holy moley.
  • Jim from BostonJennifer
    That’s a great line,I love the wording and the way he sings it is amazing.
    From the same album”mr bad example”the song “heartache spoken here” is also an amazing song.
    Backing vocals by Dwight Yokum.
  • Paddy from Cape TownLocal Brian Finch (RIP) performed this song on one of his albums . Loved it and as an ageing boomer still do
  • Rick Krieg from Jurian Bay Western Australia I used to play this song when I was a DJ at a community radio station as it is an excellent song for a blues programme.
  • Jennifer from IndianaDo you suppose Roland kept tough by eating lots of lutefisk?
  • Jennifer from IndianaSometimes our best entertainers achieve success after death. But the world *still* has not caught up with Warren Zevon, 13 years after his passing. High praise to his ex-wife Crystal, for keeping it together and putting out his biography. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is not your average bio. Even if you know him only for the worn-out "Werewolves of London", give this book a read. You'll want to hear the songs once you've learned about them.
    From "Renegade":
    I'll be some old man in the road somewhere
    Kneeling down in the dust by the side of the interstate

    His life & times added up to so much more than this dreary image.
  • Arne from NorwayThere is an ancient poem about Roland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Song_of_Roland , this could be an inspiration. As a Norwegian, I'm proud of him!
  • Eric from San Francisco, CaI agree with you, Alek, I love those songs, but many lesser known songs are as good. "Tenderness on the Block" and the whole Excitable Boy album, plus his "come-back" album, Sentimental Hygiene. Great album.
  • Rick from Hattiesburg, MsSince when was Che' considered a "freedom fighter?" Mercs are paid to do a job, regardless of the "rightness" of the side paying them.
  • Smartalek from Boston, MaAk!
    That's "swan-SONG," of course.
    I don't think there is any such thing as a "swan-sing," unless maybe it's a rite of passage or a contest for waterfowl.
  • Smartalek from Boston, MaWhat Cody from PA said.
    It's really ironic that such a phenomenal singer / songwriter is best known for a novelty song or three.
    It's great that "Werewolves of London" was what first got the world's attention, and earned Mr Zevon a place in the musical firmament. It's great that he came up with brilliant tracks like "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me," and this one.
    At the same time, it's a travesty that these remain his best-known works, and that most of the people who know him by these songs are largely (or completely) unaware of his more serious, and even more brilliant works, such as "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," "Tenderness on the Block," "Mohammed's Radio," "Accidentally, Like a Martyr," "Carmelita," "Hasten Down the Wind," "Backs Turned Looking Down the Path," "Mutineer," "Join Me in L.A.," and the most beautiful, heartbreaking, perfect swan-sing ever penned, "Keep Me in Your Heart."
  • Devin from Anywhere, PaWhen I hear this song. I think of any freedom fighter. Che Guevara stands out as one. A great song :)
  • Maggy from Cincinnati, Oh"I'm talking about the man." Roland is awesome
  • Pat from Albuquerque, NmI wonder how many people remember who Patty Hearst was these days. Otherwise, Roland's a great song, knee deep in gore.
  • Lalah from Wasilla, AkZevon was clever with the twists and play of words but I was always confused on how a headless gunner could say a word before blowing away his enemy. Of course he didn't say a word! No head.
  • Cody from Lititz, Paall of zevons songs are awesomazing he is way too underrated
  • Trey from Kalamazoo, MtThis song is amazingly awesome. It's awesomazing!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Cy Curnin of The Fixx

Cy Curnin of The FixxSongwriter Interviews

The man who brought us "Red Skies" and "Saved By Zero" is now an organic farmer in France.

Benny Mardones

Benny MardonesSongwriter Interviews

His song "Into The Night" is one of the most-played of all time. For Benny, it took him to hell and back.

Music Video Director David Hogan

Music Video Director David HoganSong Writing

David talks about videos he made for Prince, Alabama, Big & Rich, Sheryl Crow, DMB, Melissa Etheridge and Sisters of Mercy.

Mark Arm of Mudhoney

Mark Arm of MudhoneySongwriter Interviews

When he was asked to write a song for the Singles soundtrack, Mark thought the Seattle grunge scene was already overblown, so that's what he wrote about.

Sam Hollander

Sam HollanderSongwriter Interviews

The hitmaking songwriter/producer Sam Hollander with stories about songs for Weezer, Panic! At The Disco, Train, Pentatonix, and Fitz And The Tantrums.

Michael W. Smith

Michael W. SmithSongwriter Interviews

Smith breaks down some of his worship tracks as well as his mainstream hits, including "I Will Be Here For You" and "A Place In This World."