But except in dreams you’re never really free

1: Desperados Under The Eaves – Warren Zevon.                        When: right now.

This wasn’t on the list. Just over a fortnight ago I’d never even heard it before. At last count I’ve now heard it 60 times. Listening to it over and over and over. Learning to play it, badly, on the guitar. Reading about it. Writing about it. That is why it now starts the list.

For me music never loses its capacity to surprise; there’s always something undiscovered, something unheard. The balance of this list, the other 41, are all rooted in a time, a place, framed by a particular point in my life. In many cases that’s why they’re on the list at all. Later in the 42 @ 42, when we get to The Posies’ “Dream All Day”, I won’t claim it’s the greatest song ever written but it, without fail, will put me down drunk in a field in Reading in 1996 throwing straw at my friends.

This is different because it’s new. Not actually new, it was recorded in 1976, but new to me. It arrived by chance. The result of a casual reading of a piece in The Guardian on Zevon which contained enough to make me think: why haven’t I heard this guy ? Time was someone might have passed you a tape, carefully curated selections of songs that they’d think you like (I miss that), but now everything you could ever want to hear is available within two clicks. So I started at the beginning – his debut, eponymous album – and there, right at the end, was this. The right song at the right time. A five minute rumination on being at your lowest ebb, poised between the abyss and salvation.

It starts with strings picking out the chords from the album opener “Frank And Jesse James”. Exact same sequence. A signal that we’ve come full circle; our titular outlaws no longer “riding, riding, riding” but now hunkered down and desperate. This gives way, via a brief guitar figure, to what, at first, sounds like typical 70s singer songwriter fare – vocals over piano.

First verse:

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 the salty margaritas in Los Angeles, I’m gonna drink them up

At salty margaritas I’m interested. It’s so specific. So vivid. And surely not an accident that of all the tastes to pull out of a margarita it’s the bitter one that we’re concerned with.

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… 

Now I know something special’s going on. The mystics and statistics line – opposing sources of truth, deliciously united in their rhymic opinion – is lyrically arresting enough but then we get the pay off. Just as things threaten to get too serious, there’s the sardonic prediction. Our narrator’s entire world view encapsulated in four lines. The world’s going to shit and I’ll still have to pick up the tab.

Chorus

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

The chorus crashes in to the song – literally announced with a guttural “huh”, chords descending through Bb, Am, Gm, C. Glorious Carl Wilson harmony vocals echoing in the background, juxtaposing the message: it’s hell out there, I’m staying in here. My refuge in the hotel: under the eaves. The lyrics now are biblical in their ire, our narrator tormented by the sun, by images of nature turned to visions of crucifixion. And surely, in the context of LA in the mid 70s, amongst the musical circles Zevon moved in, “desperados” is a none too sly reference to the Eagles ? We digress.

I’m still waking up in the mornings 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

This verse (it’s almost a mirror of the chorus) lets us join the dots – from salty margaritas to shaking hands, with the sunlight too painful to bear. There’s a literal read with our protagonist as a washed up alcoholic, hiding out in a hotel in LA, lonely and unsure. By all accounts the literal read is also, most likely, the largely autobiographical read too. Zevon, pre fame, allegedly once jumped a window at a local motel to avoid paying a bill – returning once this record was out, only for the motel to refuse him trying to settle the account. They accepted a signed record apparently. He was also no stranger to booze and wound up in rehab.

However, I think there’s a route in to the song – and certainly my route in to the song – which plays to the underlying themes of uncertainty, of peering to the future, of trying to make sense of how you’ve arrived at this point, which makes the alcoholism somewhat irrelevant. It can be read as a symptom, not necessarily the diagnosis. As stated earlier this is a rumination on being down, maybe out, but with an ending that suggests there’s a way to pick up the pieces.

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel

I was listening to the air conditioner hum

And it went mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm…

… look away, down Gower Avenue…

So. The end of the song – and the echoing refrain to “look away, down Gower Avenue” – is what finally elevates this from great to spectacular. First of all there’s just the sheer audacity, the gall, almost conceit, in referencing the hum of the air conditioner and then picking out the song’s melody in that hum. The first time I heard it I wanted to laugh; partly in delight but partly because it’s so unexpected. In the wrong hands it would be utterly ridiculous: I realise I’m perilously close to Spinal Tap “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” territory here.

It’s an astonishing moment and suddenly the whole song coheres – Zevon sitting in the hotel room, a moment of clarity arising from the thrum of the air conditioning, an optimistic melody forming from within the white noise, gazing down the street at the hills, at the Hollywood sign, at the hope it represents. It’s like the last two minutes of the greatest film about LA you’ve never seen.

This happens to me, for me, every couple of years – more if I’m lucky. Something completely unknown appears and I can’t imagine having never heard it before, can’t imagine now not hearing it again. Abba’s “Winner Takes It All” was maybe the first song that hit me like that (aged 10, more of that later) and this is the latest. It sounds melodramatic but it becomes an important part of my life. I’ve always used music as a means to express my inner life (“hey, why so many sad songs, Phil ?”) and still marvel at the capacity to convey the human experience a three or four minute pop song has.

If nothing else this was an attempt to share some of that feeling.

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One thought on “But except in dreams you’re never really free

  1. Pingback: Keep the rest of my life away | 42 @ 42

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