Warren Zevon was an anonymous genius. His was a generational talent but he remains a mystery to most of his generation. As Journalist Hadley Freeman explains, “Zevon was an artist’s artist, relatively little known to the public but revered by the best of his contemporaries: Bob Dylan was a great admirer.
Other fans include Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob Thornton and T Bone Burnett.” A musical savant by any standard, Warren possessed an unbridled unique style. He grinded out a brilliant, yet tragic, career that spanned from the late 1960s until his death in 2003 at age 56.
Gore Vidal calls him “one of the most interesting writers of the era, and certainly ahead of his time”. Sadly, Zevon was never fully appreciated in his time. As the prototypical troubled troubadour, Warren was habitually self-destructive. But he always retained genius and his immense creativity always provided an original perspective.
He didn’t sugarcoat humanity. Each Zevon fan has a distinct favorite tune, but the majority can agree on what his greatest tune is. “Desperados Under the Eaves” appears on Warren’s 1976 self-titled album. It is Zevon’s most revered work. Jackson Browne refers to the song simply as a “literary masterpiece”.
Like so much of Zevon’s catalog, “Desperados Under the Eaves” was underappreciated and overlooked. The lyrics deal with several raw themes such as hopelessness and alcoholism. It is a heavy subject matter but is beautifully accentuated by Warren’s exquisite multiple string arrangement.
Forty-three years after Zevon’s magnum opus was released to little fanfare, it was perfectly utilized by the ultra-popular “True Detective”. Created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, the show has been hailed as a revolutionary new take on the crime drama.
In the third iteration of the HBO hit series, flashbacks once again are a major narrative device. “True Detective” season three takes place in Arkansas and covers three distinctive timeframes. Detectives Wayne “Purple” Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) cannot escape the mysterious death of an adolescent boy.
Or the unsolved disappearance of his kid sister. With new clues and hesitant memory, the former partners reunite in 2015 to finally answer the questions from the horrific case they opened in 1980. As the two men, now retired and in their 70s, sit and reminisce on Roland’s back porch, Purple’s true motives become painfully apparent.
Purple wants to solve the case that has defined the men’s lives for the past thirty-five years and he needs his old partner’s help. He is aggressively slipping into dementia. As the two men sit in the approaching twilight, Roland makes it clear that he can’t reenter the fray.
Purple makes his final plea; “with whatever brains I got left, I wanna finish this”. Purple appeals with whatever he has left, telling Roland, “70-year-old black man going bat-shit crazy running around, badge and gun…you shouldn’t miss that.” Roland looks at his old partner with a wry smile and says, “Well, I could use a laugh.”
Cut to a rear establishing shot that eloquently frames the pair sitting under the eaves of the porch. The scene slowly pans from left to right. The two figures disappear from the frame with a slow zoom concentrated on the tall trees to reveal their silhouettes against the setting sun. Simultaneously, the picture fades to black and the crescendo of “Desperados Under the Eaves” launches. Zevon’s strong vocals bellow:
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.
This powerful sequence is about realizing conclusion and no song could better conclude it. Zevon’s classic serves to flawlessly frame and perfectly punctuate this pivotal scene at the turning point in the season. Of this sequence, “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto states that beyond the actor’s amazing performances, “what I like are all the shifting tones. And that sort of zigzagging between these complicated emotions”. Shifting tones and complicated emotions are frequent participants in Zevon songs and are particularly potent in “Desperados Under the Eaves”.
“It is the slower, sweeter but still just as lyrically adept songs that show Zevon off at his best” Freeman states. “Such as ‘Desperados Under the Eaves’, which [Carl] Hiaasen describes as ‘one of the finest, coolest rock songs ever written’”. It was released in 1976 but it could have been written for Purple and Roland in 2019. The song not only steals the scene, it encapsulates it. Purple needs to be a desperado again, if only to crucify his own doubts. Roland knows he’ll never reach salvation himself if he doesn’t go along, or leaves. Heaven help the one who leaves.