And if California slides into the ocean…

My working and thinking year has begun in the state of California, which has been racked by stormy rains since before I arrived. Here is a place that has been suffering a five-year drought made worse by its status as a farmers’ bastion, where agriculture pumps more water than falls from the sky, creating subsidence and sinkholes and shortages.

When you’re in California, you have to listen to the right music. This is surely a uniquely creative stretch of land even by the standards of 20th century pop culture. And there was a particular stretch of time – say, 1968-1977 – when it may have been the most important contributor of lasting, living cultural artefacts, at least in the so-called “West”.

Warren Zevon began his career in that period. Son of a Jewish Russian immigrant, he was born in Chicago but the family soon moved to the West Coast (Fresno, to be exact). While there, he had the chance to chill with Igor Stravinsky, before quitting high school and high-tailing it to New York City to begin a career as a folk singer.

He wrote what on any given day might be my favourite song, the one I come back to every time I’m here. Desperados Under the Eaves manages in just four minutes, forty-seven seconds to capture the heart of lost humanity. It is one of Zevon’s most personal songs, written from a real situation in the so-called “Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”. Its short lyric, with five distinct sections – they aren’t really verses per se – is densely packed with allusion and literary technique and a hundred listens won’t plumb their depths.

On the surface it’s about alcoholism. There are references speckled throughout: empty coffee cups, shaking hands, and pledges to drink all the margaritas in Los Angeles. But that isn’t the heart of the song; it’s merely a feint, a way of entering a rabbit warren (no pun intended) of multiplying topics through an easy access entrance.

Instead this is about nothing less than the fear of death and the fear of life, the weirdness of being in a place where you feel misunderstood but cannot find another place that offers you a home. It’s a 20th century Californian’s riff on Shakespeare’s song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun“. That lovely song is an epitaph of sorts. This is altogether more in medias res as Zevon ponders on his state of mind: “So sick I am not, yet I am not well” as Imogen puts it prior to her seeming death.

Zevon literally fears the heat of the sun: the first climax of the lyric and music comes with a sudden burst of orchestral fear, and the line “Don’t the sun look angry at me?” He’s suddenly alluding to Christ on the cross: “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?”

The irony is that that burst of feeling comes after one of the driest stanzas on potential apocalypse ever written. He imagines the state of California sliding into the ocean “like the mystics and statistics say it will”, but reduces that monumental tragedy into amusement by suggesting that the hotel he’s in will remain standing, “until I pay my bill”.

He knows all this is going to hell, maybe sooner than we all think. But at the same time he can’t see a way out that isn’t worse. “Heaven help the one who leaves”, he says, and I fancifully read across – a desperado caught between staying and leaving – to the wider cultural atmosphere of the time, one in which the Eagles, that same year, would try to capture the mystical Hotel California.

Zevon is no mystic though and writes achingly about the real. The vignette that comes next sums up the pain, perhaps physical as well as emotional, of his situation:

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?

And then comes a most peculiar kind of redemption. Whenever I play the ending of this song to people, the invariable response is initially amusement. The idea of an air conditioner humming a hymn is inherently risible. But equally invariably, a deeper understanding eventuates as the coda rises and grows in strength. The warmth and depth of the strings building under Zevon’s layered choir, and eventually taking him over, is desperately moving, and movingly desperate.

“Look away down Gower Avenue.” I’ve never been to LA, but from all I can read of Gower Avenue – or, actually, Gower Street – it’s the most mundane of streets. But maybe it’s that quality of the mundane that qualifies it to be elevated into this most gorgeous of melodies. The normality of Gower is what is being venerated.

It’s a song that I’ll never fathom, and a song I’ll always feel could have come from my own heart.

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The late, great Warren Zevon. Copyright Neal Preston/CORBIS.

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