The tunes sound so tropical, you’d be surprised to find the darkest hours in which they were born. Like a stretch of orange desert road which tastes sweeter than the bloody roadside murder, Zevon’s music is idealistic and ethereal. A jukebox song in a grimy, dark bar out of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk painting, or a song playing on one of those champagne-filled nights where everything feels hazier than an August afternoon. It sounds romantic, but under the surface of Zevon’s music, there lies something darker, darker still.
Crippled by alcoholism and dying of cancer, new beginnings don’t exist in his music. Instead, the lyrics ache of stories of a sad childhood and messy life, even in the romantic feel they feed off of. A long and winding history of alcoholism, he was insatiably erratic, ‘people always ask me / what’s the matter with me / nothing matter to me / when I’m with my baby’ are as equally romanticised as the brutal song to his ex-girlfriend. That’s the beauty of a sunset though, isn’t it? The salty margaritas in a dusty bar with a flickering light – this is satirical, a half-joke, a punch line that nobody understands but everyone laughs at. If you were to listen to them on a cold night, when the sunset is half-drunk on your thoughts, and still it will rise again, like an alcoholic addiction, like the sun is made entirely of Vodka and Whiskey sours.
Desperados Under the Eaves is the type of song you’d play at a bar full of sad people. Drunken people listening to a romantic tune and feeling nothing but apathy. The true story behind the song just as much reads like a novel:
“Desperados Under The Eaves is a very autobiographical song. During a low period in the late 60s, Warren was living from motel to motel. At one point when he couldn’t afford The Tropicana anymore, he checked into the Hollywood Hawaiian. He spent several weeks stepping over the junkies who blocked his doorway and sharing stories with the winos camped out on the corner of Yucca and Gower. Of course, he had no way of paying the bill, so one night his buddy who had been one of the original Beach Boys, David Marks, pulled mother’s station wagon into the alley behind the motel and Warren climbed out the bathroom window and left with the bill still unpaid.”
The song started while he was still at the motel, listening to the air conditioner hum. He finished it shortly after we started living together. Years later, he returned and tried to pay his bill. They settled for an autographed copy of his Asylum album.“ – Crystal Zevon
This storytelling though, which has been hailed by Stevie Nicks, is one of his many talents. In fact, all his life he was infatuated with novelists and wanted to become one himself. Cult musician, popular amongst Stevie Nicks and Bob Dylan. Known to be always referencing “Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Graham Greene, Oscar Wilde, Thomas McGuane, Czeslaw Milosz, Martin Scorsese and Krzysztof Kieslowski, along with musical idols from Igor Stravinsky to Paul Simon to Jimmy Webb to Ian and Sylvia” – Zevon died of cancer, adverse to dying of alcoholism. There’s a trust in his music, between the listener and him, that his storytelling is honest.
The story of his marriage is heartbreaking when “Much of 1977 was a nightmare. Crystal and I lived apart for several months, and I was seriously into the noir life – vodka, drugs, sex. Somehow, I got the songs written for Excitable Boy. I thought my days were numbered in fractions. But Crystal and I got back together. We finished the record and enjoyed the holidays peacefully.” However, “Things went downhill from there. Lindell and I spent Christmas getting twisted all over Marbella. Crystal got pneumonia, so she and Ariel flew back to California. I decided to go to Morocco with a bag filled with Valium, vodka and Fitzgerald. Too much booze and not enough food. I’ve always figured that in dragging myself to Tangier and back, I squeezed the last drop of ‘glamour’ out of my rapidly worsening toxic condition.”
There’s a nostalgia to the songs that sound like California’s high life. Remnants of being broke and lonely, the tunes are never short of storytelling at its finest. It is this where his true talent lies, storytelling just a few succinct minutes. It is no wonder, that he yearned to be a novelist. If his songs sound like novels, its because of how inspired he felt by the momentous writers like Norman Mailler and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I used to feel a certain peculiar melancholy, knowing there will never be a novel to be devoured by Zevon, but in any case, his songs are stories to be read over and over again, like a Jay Gatsby character to be analysed for all his extravagance in just getting you to watch the party unfold and then die.