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Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

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"Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" is a song composed by Warren Zevon and David Lindell and performed by Zevon. It was first released on Zevon's 1978 album Excitable Boy. It is the last song he ever performed in front of an audience, on The Late Show with David Letterman, before his death in 2003.

About the SongEdit

Zevon met co-writer Lindell in Spain, where the latter was running a bar after a stint working as a mercenary in Africa. Typically interested in the darker side of life, Zevon decided to collaborate with Lindell on a song about a mercenary.

Roland is a Norwegian who becomes embroiled in the Congo Crisis of the late 1960s. He earns a reputation as the greatest Thompson gunner, a reputation that attracts the attention of the CIA in foreign conflicts. Roland is betrayed and murdered by a fellow mercenary, Van Owen, who blows off his head. Roland becomes the phantom "headless Thompson gunner" (reminiscent of the Headless Horseman) and eventually has his revenge on Van Owen, when he catches him "in a bar room drinking gin." After this Roland continues "wandering through the night" as a sort of revolutionary spirit.

Besides the historical references to third-world conflicts around the globe, the 'Troubles' in the Six Counties in Ireland, and the often shadowy involvement of the CIA, the song is a sort of bittersweet rallying cry to the "revolution" in America. The final line of the song, "Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland's Thompson gun, and bought it..", referring to heiress Patty Hearst's kidnapping and subsequent involvement in the Symbionese Liberation Army, throws a cynical twist into the song's portrayal of a mercenary come back from the dead for justice and revenge.

Film Reference Edit

The film The Lost World: Jurassic Park has characters named Nick Van Owen and Roland Tembo, as a tribute to the song.

Music Edit

"Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" is in the key of B minor and is played at 82 beats per-minute. The piano is the most prominent instrument. The Learning to Flinch live version of this song features a 3 minute piano solo to open the song and another, though greatly similar solo, before the last verse. This solo is played in the key of F-sharp minor, a perfect fourth below the key of B minor. The studio version of the song is 3 minutes and 47 seconds long. The Learning to Flinch version with live piano solo spots clocks the song in at over eleven minutes, not including the prelude, "Roland Chorale".

Lyrics Edit

Note: the text of this song's lyrics is not under the same copyright license as the wiki's encyclopedic text, it is used under fair use/dealing.

Headless-Roland

Fan art with lyrics

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

Alternate Lyrics Edit

It was not uncommon for Zevon to change some of the lyrics of this song during concert performances. These range from changing the location where Roland got his revenge on Van Owen to the area where he was preforming, changing the conflicts and events Roland was involved in to be more modern, and changing the line "Now it's ten years later but he still keeps up the fight" to show a more realistic number of years that would have passed since the events portrayed in the song would have been at the time of the concert.

See Also Edit

External Links Edit

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