By Tony Attwood, based on research by Aaron Galbraith.
The third in our series of reviews of the songs that Bob Dylan has declared as being his favourite pieces from specific composers is Warren Zevon’s song ‘Desperado Under the Eaves’,
You will probably know songs like “Werewolves of London” and “Accidentally Like a Martyr” – and if so you might know, or at least be ready for this recording. But if not, it could come as a bit of shock, especially if you are sitting still and listening to the music with no interruptions and you are not engaged in any other form of activity. This is not a song for the background.
Indeed this is a song that breaks all the rules of what you can and can’t do in a song – or at least in a song in the contemporary popular style. For just as Bob Dylan broke all the rules of writing contemporary songs for a wide audience which were not just about the three classic themes of popular music (love, lost love and dance), so did Warren Zevon, although he has broken different rules and broken them in different ways.
The song starts with a gentle string quartet outlining the theme of the music – and the melody and both chord sequence are interesting and arresting. There is nothing that I am reminded of; this is music of a different kind. But then so are the lyrics “of a different kind.” Just read the opening verse as it plays…
I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel I was staring in my empty coffee cup I was thinking that the gypsy wasn't lyin' All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles I'm gonna drink 'em up
It is not just that “salty margaritas” are rarely mentioned in popular music, it is more that we are given so much information in five lines. The first two set the scene, but then there is background in the third line, and then the suggestion of desperation in lines four and five. So much in just five lines, but of course we don’t know why he is drinking…
Songs like “Isis” give us a lot of information, but songs like that can be clearer – he’s married her, she’s gone, which at least gives us context… but this is just hints combined with atmosphere which makes it much more troubling. “Visions of Johanna” at the other extreme is virtually all atmosphere, since we never know if Johanna really is real… But this is different. It is real, he is desperate, but what has caused it?
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
That is a wonderful side step, it is funny, but the image is frightening, and more it all comes after that gentle string quartet opening. Do you hear anything predicting this in the opening? If not, then what?
And what helps all this uncertainty get inside me is the way the music changes, not once but over and over and over. It is as if every possible musical mechanism for jolting the listener out of her/his apathy is used at once, and beyond all the realms of possibility it works.
Until then after all that, we have had the music resembling something…. but still… what?
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
What? indeed! Musically and lyrically this is beyond everything we know in terms of pop and rock music.
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
Then unexpectedly we are back to the start – oh he’s going to sing the opening again… but no, he does the mmmmmm – and I suddenly thought could anyone else ever have got away with this? Certainly not unless they had both that gorgeous melody and an excellent arranger who knows exactly how to pull a string quartet and rock drummer together so that everyone can co-exist.
I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel I was listening to the air conditioner hum It went mmm... Look away (Look away down Gower Avenue, look away)
Nothing I know about popular music, or its history, prepared me for this track, which I’ve never heard before now (and I am probably revealing my absolute ignorance – sorry, somehow the piece just past me by).
So I went looking for the explanation….
All the above was written without looking up anything on the internet or elsewhere to give me background about this song. I found it very disturbing as I listened (I played it five or six times while preparing and then writing this little piece) and it is only now after I have heard it enough to have it in my head as I write, have I looked for the context.
And I discover that apparently at the heart of the song is an alcoholic trying to come off the drink. Zevon has also reported this to be one of his most personal songs. It also seems that he directed the string section himself – and if that’s true (and I have no reason to think it’s not – it is just that not everything said in the world of rock music is actually true) that is no mean feat for a rock musician. (The reverse is also true of course. Try putting a classically trained violinist in charge of a rock band in a recording session).
All I can say is, “thanks Bob, thanks Aaron.” I didn’t know the piece before. It is troubling and worrying, but what a sensational piece of music it is.
The series continues (when I have had a chance to recover).