Monday, April 23, 2012

Desperados Under the Eaves

A couple of days ago I wrote about Warren Zevon, trying to express my appreciation of him as an artist and of his forgotten masterpiece of a first album.

In my opinion, the finest track on that album is the finest song he would ever write. Which is saying something, as he wrote enough great songs to fill many careers—“Carmelita,” “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Play It All Night Long,” “Reconsider Me,” “Splendid Isolation,” “For My Next Trick” and on and on, right up through his literal farewell, “Keep Me in Your Heart.”

But for me, “Desperados Under the Eaves,” which closes the debut record, really is that good. And it really is his best.

The song is a meditation on the inevitable destruction of California from a man whose own personal destruction also seems imminent, even though his only earthly worry is paying his bar tab. The world may be ending, but buy this guy a drink and he’ll talk with you for hours.

The music is pretty and soft, a gentle violin that evokes the piano chords that opened “Frank and Jesse James” at the album’s start, leading into a whining little guitar. As the piano chords now quietly take over the melody, Warren sings slowly, clearly as he begins to tell his sad story.

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lying.
All those salty Margaritas in Los Angeles?
I’m gonna drink ‘em up

Next his thoughts morbidly turn to the fear of Armageddon. Only...that’s not really what he’s worried about.

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing
Until I pay my bill

Everything changes after Zevon sings that astonishing piece of doomed poetry. Just after it, the band kicks and winds up for the punch, Zevon shouts “Hey!” and something amazing happens. For the only time on the entire record, a full orchestral swell takes over and booms through the speakers, practically blowing them out as a once-mournful ballad now sounds like it’s being commanded from Mt. Olympus. The words are delivered like sledgehammer blows with glorious choral backing, shocking the listeners and forcing them to hang on every syllable.

Don’t the sun look angry through the trees?
Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?
Don’t you feel like desperados under the eaves?
Heaven help the one who leaves

And then, once more, it’s quiet. And the focus again shifts away from the world’s end to the poor soul singing the song.

Still waking up in the morning with shaking hands
And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you’re never really free
Don’t the sun look angry at me

It’s poor, poor pitiful me all over again, to quote a great song from earlier in the album. The humor in the irony abounds here—it’s being made very clear to us that the world may be in danger, at least in the drunken mind of the narrator. And it’s evoking images in his swamped mind of trees that resemble condemned killers and a blazing sun that is only angry at him. But still? A girl who understands him would make it all better. Only where does one find the right girl during the apocalypse?

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went “Mmmm...mmm…mmmm….”

And it comes down to this. One more quiet line from a man who is still alive and still in the same dumpy little hotel, only now listening to the air conditioner hum. And as he does the orchestra kicks in again and swells up, up, up, and as Zevon hums along to simulate the sound of the air conditioner humming with him, the full orchestra follows, louder and louder, crashing like Pacific waves on a doomed coastline.

“Look away down Gower Avenue” a chorus sings behind it all, over and over again, as the song fades out, paying tribute to a legendary street in Los Angeles that once stood as a symbol of glitzy prosperity, but now is just one more ghostly relic of yesterday, waiting to sink into the sea. “Look away.”

To paraphrase and bend the immortals words of T.S. Eliot, this is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a humming air conditioner that turns into a symphony.

At least that’s the way it works within the mind of Warren Zevon. Who pummeled us for decades with tales of seedy creatures, slurping along the ground for something to keep them going, while at the same time singing with the innocence of a child. This is how Warren Zevon existed on rock’s outer reaches for 30 years, never able to outrun the demons that he saw chasing him, but occasionally able to stop—for awhile—and have a drink with them.

And never once paying the bill.


  1. Not sure if you saw this interview with his daughter, but she actually spells out which hotel was the "Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel"

  2. I know WZ always denied it, sometimes apparently fairly vehemently...but I still like to think he's ragging on The Eagles here.

  3. Some songs are built for that dramatic long-trail exit fade (Hey Jude, Layla, Tunnel of Love - the one from Dire Straits)...and this one fits the mold, too. I have bought a few air conditioners in my time in GA - but none of them hummed like this. My favorite Warren Zevon song. No wait a minute, there are 27 others I forgot...