“Desperados Under the Eaves,” the tale of personal and ecological apocalypse that remains Warren Zevon’s single greatest song, takes place at the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. It was a real establishment where Zevon stayed sometimes—the sort of seedy old Los Angeles joint where the songwriter felt most at home. After an orchestral introduction and a few lines about margaritas and an empty coffee cup, there’s a premonitory flash of Beach Boy harmonies, and the stakes rise dramatically along with Zevon’s singing voice:
And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this hotel will be standing
Until I pay my bill
The lyric, like many of Zevon’s, invests a scene of real-life debauchery and turmoil with mythological significance. During the six-year stretch between his failed first album and his miraculous second, he availed himself mightily of the various temptations early-1970s L.A. offered. He had an appetite for booze, pot, acid, sex, and fighting that led to frequent separations from the mother of his first child, born when Zevon was 22. During one such bender, he was holed up at the Hollywood Hawaiian when he realized he didn’t have enough cash to cover the bill. A friend came and helped him escape through the window.
According to legend, he came back years later and attempted to make good. That second album, self-titled, had been only a modest commercial success upon its release in 1976, but Zevon’s name was still in the papers. Critics hailed him as a major new talent. His compositional ambition, writerly wit, and general air of rakish malignancy all helped set him apart from his peers in the soft-rocking L.A. songwriter scene he’d been kicking around for years. The hotel didn’t want to take this newly minted rock star’s money. They accepted instead a few copies of Warren Zevon, which closes with “Desperados Under the Eaves.”
Zevon had already accrued substantial debts, financial and emotional, at this relatively early juncture in his life, and he would continue racking them up for a long time after. Only those who knew him well—the friends he alienated, the wife he subjected to drunken beatings and threats of suicide, the children he all but abandoned, and whoever happened to be around when he indulged in his habit of firing guns indoors as a joke—can say with any authority whether the music he left behind is enough to repay them. His self-titled album, at least, settled his bill with the Hollywood Hawaiian.
Zevon sometimes seemed to view his own story as a sort of fable scripted either by fate or the doomed protagonist himself, if those two entities could even be separated. “I’ve been writing this part for myself for 30 years, and I guess I need to play it out,” he quipped upon learning, in his mid-50s, of the mesothelioma that would soon kill him. Take the Zevonian view, and you might wonder whether some larger cosmic debt at the Hollywood Hawaiian remains unpaid. The author and tragic hero of this fable is no longer with us. The hotel has changed names in the decades since he stayed there. But the building still stands.
Christmas, 1956: A mobbed-up professional gambler arrives unannounced at the home of his wife and 9-year-old son. He’s bearing a gift of a Chickering upright piano, taken as winnings from an all-night poker game and presented to the boy as his very first musical instrument. Mom isn’t having it, perhaps because dad refuses to maintain more than a sporadic presence in their lives. She calls the piano a “headache machine,” and orders her husband to remove it from the house. Her husband’s name is William, but his intimates call him Stumpy. Stumpy Zevon—a name straight from the paperback crime novels his son would grow to love—takes the carving knife that Beverly has set out for the Christmas turkey and hurls it toward her head. He misses by mere inches. She flees the house, and Stumpy soon leaves again, too, telling his son he won’t be back this time. Surely, young Warren is traumatized. But at least he has a piano.
Music and violence, creation and destruction, remained entwined for much of Zevon’s life. He took to the piano quickly after that Christmas, and later the guitar, building a reputation as a prodigy that eventually, improbably, reached the awareness of Igor Stravinsky, perhaps the greatest classical composer of the 20th century, a Russian-French expat then living in L.A. Thirteen-year-old Warren took a few lessons in music composition and appreciation at Stravinsky’s home. In yet another heavy-handed symbolic twist in the myth of Zevon’s self-immolating genius, it was at one of these initial encounters with the highest echelon of musical achievement that he first drank alcohol, the substance he would come to believe fueled his creativity, even as it ravaged him.
Zevon’s mother eventually found a new partner, who openly resented and sometimes beat her son. He also kept the house stocked with booze, which became teenage Warren’s clandestine supply. A decade or so later, while preparing to record Warren Zevon, he was drinking a quart of vodka a day.
That album’s second song is an explicit account of Zevon’s parents’ chaotic marriage. “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” isn’t morose, or even particularly serious; it’s positively jaunty. The chorus—“Mama couldn’t be persuaded when they pleaded with her, ‘Daughter, don’t marry that gambling man’”—delights in its own assonance and alliteration. One backing singer practically yodels the word “mama.” A fiddle reels across the instrumental breaks. If you weren’t familiar with Zevon’s biography, you might take it for another song set in the old West, like the album-opening “Frank and Jesse James.” His childhood tormentors are abstracted through the distances of time and irony into harmless and even laughable archetypes.
One particular line hints at the bitterness Zevon must have still carried toward his family, and the separation he’d carved out for himself in the intervening years. “Her parents warned her, tried to reason with her/She was determined that she wanted Bill,” he sings in the first verse. “They’d all be offended at the mention still/If they heard this song, which I doubt they will.”
Depending on your perspective on Warren Zevon, he might have looked either like a has-been or a promising new contender in those early-‘70s years spent flopping between Hollywood apartments and hotels. He had dropped out of high school, scored a modest hit at 19 as one half of the paisley-patterned folk duo lyme and cybelle (Zevon, an e.e. cummings fanatic, had insisted on no capitalization), and another as a songwriter for the Turtles; a third song earned him his first Gold record when it landed on the soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy.
But early success turned to early failure. His first solo album, 1970’s Wanted Dead or Alive, was a collection of bluesy and psychedelic hard rock that bears strikingly little resemblance to the masterworks that would follow, and that almost no one bought or heard. Without a recording contract, he found reliable but unglamorous work as the live bandleader for the Everly Brothers, hitmakers of the ’50s and early ’60s who now drank heavily and fought relentlessly: heroes of an earlier era gone to seed, like characters in a Warren Zevon song.
Attempting to escape the bad behavior that L.A. brought out in both of them, Zevon and his wife Crystal bought a pair of one-way tickets to Spain, where they hoped to start a quieter new life. It was beginning to look as though his career as a recording artist was over when he received a transatlantic postcard from Jackson Browne, beckoning him back to California with the promise of a record deal. Zevon had never stopped writing songs, and he played them for anyone who would listen. In his years as a part-time musician and career partier, he’d built up an impressive roster of friends and admirers, Browne chief among them. The star singer-songwriter convinced David Geffen, self-styled benevolent patron of the L.A. scene, to give Zevon a shot at his label, Asylum, with Browne producing.
How impressive was that roster of admirers? Look at Warren Zevon’s credits. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, with whom Zevon shared an apartment for a while. Don Henley, Glenn Frey. Phil Everly. Bonnie Raitt. Carl Wilson himself singing and arranging those Beach Boy harmonies on “Desperados Under the Eaves.” Zevon was not remotely famous at the time; short of Browne’s involvement behind the boards, there was no guarantee that the album would be a success. These people were there because they believed in Zevon’s work, a singular blend of hardboiled storytelling, old-school melodic know-how, and raucous rock’n’roll. That, and the fact that the recording sessions were all-night ragers, fueled by cocaine and liquor, which probably didn’t hurt, as far as convincing them to drop by the studio.
The decision to return to L.A. had not been an easy one. After the tumult of the previous years, Spain represented an idyll for Warren and Crystal, one they were reluctant to abandon. According to Crystal, it was Warren who pushed hardest against the idea of coming back. As they were preparing to leave for Europe, he’d written “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path,” an underappreciated gem that he would later insist was his catalog’s crown jewel. It is the lone oasis of pure sweetness on an album otherwise characterized by dark clouds, desperation, and gunfire.
“Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” centers on a couple, like the Zevons leaving L.A., who have decided to put their checkered pasts behind them, striking out anew with only love as their guide. Atop gentle acoustic guitars from Buckingham and Browne, Warren delivers a rare line not shaded by irony or varnished by any other overtly literary impulse. He speaks plainly: “Nothing matters when I’m with my baby,” stretching the last word to three syllables and wielding it like an amulet against the outside world’s incursions.
Given the betrayal, abuse, and eventual divorce that accompanied Zevon’s rise to fame back home, “Backs Turned” becomes especially poignant: the last glimpse of a path not taken.
The junkie’s lament “Carmelita” is about as perfectly written as a song can be. Its protagonist sits by the radio in Echo Park, listening to a staticky broadcast of mariachi music and dreaming of a lover in Mexico. He has pawned his typewriter for heroin, an acknowledgement of the deleterious effects of substance abuse on creativity that the songwriter himself would avoid facing for another decade. He is one of several narrators on the album who are on the brink of suicide, a grim reality that Zevon makes palatable through elegant and grimly funny obfuscation: “I’m sitting here playing solitaire with my pearl-handled deck.” Decks of cards don’t often come with handles, pearl or otherwise.
But these finely wrought details are not the first things about “Carmelita” you notice. You might listen for years before the true meaning of the solitaire lyric strikes you. What you notice first about “Carmelita” is the chorus, which hits like a bear hug from an old friend. It’s the sort of song that feels like it’s always been there, waiting for you to sing along at midnight, like it might have somehow written itself if Zevon never came along to do it. You needn’t have special education from Stravinsky; nor, for that matter, any experience with heroin addiction. (Zevon himself, with typical bravado, once said that his own encounters with the drug amounted to a “brief flirtation and not a tragic love affair.”) All you need to know is the feeling of wanting to be someplace other than where you are, with someone who might hold you close.
Zevon spent much of his free time in the years around his self-titled record and its follow-ups working on a symphony, which never saw the light of day outside of a few interludes on Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, his fourth album. Between Wanted Dead or Alive and Warren Zevon, he began work on a record whose entire second side would consist of outré sound experiments. It never came out. Years later, he conceptualized a release that would incorporate formal influence from the groundbreaking novels of Thomas Pynchon into music that operated on several divergent narrative and melodic threads at once. He admitted bashfully in one interview that what he’d made instead was a rock album.
For all Zevon’s literary ability and aspirations toward some putatively higher form of art, rock’n’roll—music that works instinctually, moving you in ways that all the world’s theorizing can’t quite articulate—was his calling and his fate. With the help of Browne and his other collaborators, Zevon crafted an album that is sumptuous and inviting despite its intricate writing and often painful subject matter. The music is never a mere vehicle for the words. The ascending guitar riff of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and the sweeping melody of “Hasten Down the Wind” could rouse even a listener who isn’t paying attention to what Zevon is saying. As a vocalist, he has an appealing mixture of everyman humility and committed showmanship: the bespectacled loner who hops onstage and discovers a powerhouse frontman lurking somewhere in his id.
Of course, rock was a hot commercial prospect in the mid-’70s, and Zevon made no bones about his desire for stardom. But there’s also something generous about the way his songs reach toward the audience and embrace them, rather than retreating inward. Zevon was often selfish and indulgent in his personal life, but in his music he was intent on giving something to listeners, something they could feel.
Even a song like “The French Inhaler,” whose narrator condescends toward a woman who uses sex to survive in a town that values her for little else, is kind in its way. Its chorus of backing singers and close attention to the details of her nighttime existence affords her a dignity that the song’s narrow-minded observer refuses to see. Zevon wrote it for Tule Livingston, the mother of his first child. “Despite the subject matter,” their son Jordan told the Guardian, “my mom would play that song to me after a couple of glasses of wine and laugh and say: ‘Isn’t that brilliant?’”
Warren Zevon’s first and last songs begin with the same overture, played on solo piano on “Frank and Jesse James” and later arranged for strings on “Desperados Under the Eaves.” That conspicuous reprise, along with a few recurring images in the lyrics, suggest that this is a concept album of sorts. Zevon himself envisioned it as such, according to C.M. Kushins’ biography Nothing’s Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon, and at least one critic picked up on the thread at the time. “Who could have imagined a concept album about Los Angeles that is funny, enlightening, musical, at moments terrifying, and above all funny?” wrote Stephen Holden in his 1976 Rolling Stone review. Kushins expands further on that claim: “Experienced in chronological order, the songs told an entire epic of the American West.”
This notion, along with many in Zevon lore, is both a little true and a little preposterous. Warren Zevon renders L.A. with remarkable vividness, creating an entire noirish world from Topanga Canyon dancefloors and Echo Park fried chicken stands. Allow your imagination to roam, and perhaps you’ll see the separated lovers from “Hasten Down the Wind” peering at each other across the bar in “Join Me in L.A.” But the thematic unity arises from the strength of Zevon’s writing, not because of any grand narrative about the making of the American frontier. In “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” an antic rocker about one man’s prodigious sexual exploits and self-loathing, he compares one especially crafty paramour to Jesse James. The callback feels more like a delightful cameo than an operatic leitmotif.
Rather than a thesis statement, “Frank and Jesse James” is an album-opening outlier, the story on Warren Zevon most distant from the songwriter’s own personal experience. (He apparently took inspiration from his time roaming the country with the Everlys.) A heroic piano-led number, it follows the arc of popular legend about the Jameses, positioning them as Robin Hoods of the Old West rather than the anti-abolitionist terrorists the historical record shows them to be. If there is a thematic thread in “Frank and Jesse James” that the rest of the record unspools, perhaps it lies in that very evasion: the hope that a good story might be enough to make the ugly truth invisible.
“Don’t the sun look angry through the trees?” Zevon asks 10 songs later in “Desperados Under the Eaves,” a final flash of daylight on an otherwise nocturnal album, the warm rays conveying retribution rather than relief. “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?” he continues. “Don’t you feel like desperados under the eaves?” Maybe “Frank and Jesse James” is a dream of the sort of noble, swashbuckling existence the album’s wayward men convince themselves they are leading. In a moment of astonishing audacity, “Desperados” closes with Zevon mimicking the hum of an air conditioner. Its gentle drone, massaging the raw edges of a hangover, becomes a triumphant melodic theme, with piano and strings soon arriving to accompany the humming, like the music that might play at the end of a cowboy movie as the heroes ride off across the plain.
Just before the air-conditioner orchestra, Zevon revises an earlier lyric: “Don’t the sun look angry at me?” There is a certain addict’s grandiosity and egocentrism that runs through Warren Zevon, especially in the idea that a collection of songs about one man’s hopes and foibles could tell the story of an entire city or state. The album’s failure to live up to its ostensible concept is only appropriate for a collection of songs that grapple with hopes dashed, ideals unmet, and dreams of a life more romantic than the sum of its sad particulars. It’s a good thing he called it Warren Zevon, because that’s what it’s really about.
Most of Warren Zevon’s songs are narrative, more like short stories than poems. “Mohammed’s Radio” is a notable exception. It foregrounds the single mysterious image of the prophet and his transistor, leaving any questions about literal or symbolic meaning unanswered. A few colorful archetypes drop by for a line or two—the sheriff, the village idiot, the general and his aide-de-camp—but the song also makes attempts to address a universal condition: Everybody’s restless, everybody’s desperate. Its central mode of address is direct second-person. Don’t it make you want to rock and roll all night long?
My best guess—and one others have ventured before me—is that “Mohammed’s Radio” is about the redemptive power of music. Everyone huddles around the speaker: “You’ve been up all night listening for his drum/Hoping that the righteous might just, might just, might just come.” Appropriately, Zevon and his collaborators convey this message most persuasively in the sound itself, using their singing and playing to fill the gaps in the lyric sheet. This is gospel music for churches with booths and stools instead of pews. Zevon and Browne, on piano and guitar, delicately interweave. Nicks and Buckingham, at their most soulful, provide cascading backing vocals. Bobby Keys, saxophonist and honorary Rolling Stone, works his Exile on Main Street magic. You can practically see the bartender filling his mop bucket in the back room, preparing for the hour when the few remaining patrons have left and it’s his job to make the place clean again.
This minor exaltation lasts for just shy of four minutes, and then it’s on to “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” whose pounding groove signals the triumph of our most destructive impulses. “I’ve got a .38 special up on the shelf,” Zevon snarls. “If I start acting stupid, I’ll shoot myself.” Whatever flickering grace a song like “Mohammed’s Radio” may offer its performers and listeners, it can’t save us on its own. You can rock and roll all night long, but you still have to face the morning after.