Tomorrow is the 67th birthday of Don Henley, who, despite the fact that all members of the Eagles, in all its incarnations, were singers, is the voice of the Eagles. And since the Eagles were more or less the radio band of the Seventies, Henley became the mellow voice of the era. There was no escaping him or them.
Today’s song is the title track from Desperado, the band’s second album. The song, which has been covered a lot, is way more famous than the album, which was a concept album about outlaws, inspired by the Dalton Gang. It was a decent conceit that the Eagles did a good job with—it’s no big stretch to see rock musicians as outlaws, with guitars rather than six-guns. What’s more, the mavericks of Country, who were making crossroads into rock, were called “outlaws”—eventually that outlaw element would become mainstream to the extent that almost all Country radio sounds like it grew up listening to the Eagles. This is America; new ideas are hard to come by. And today’s song/album capitalizes on the ersatz Americana that the Eagles knew all about. There’s nothing funky about the Eagles, nothing raucous or creepy or tripped out. You could party with them and always get to work or class on time.
My older brother loved Desperado and played it a lot. I know the album note for note, it seems (and even did a painting for him of the front cover—back when he was single). And today’s song is one of the stand-out songs on the record, though there’s not a dud on the album. This, in my view, can’t be said for most Eagles albums. They might pack in the hits but most of the time there are a few tracks I won’t willingly listen to. It’s like there’s a certain assholery aspect to the Eagles—or, as I rechristened them long ago, the Egos—and sooner or later it manifests itself.
With Henley singing, though, they don’t often go wrong. Henley’s voice just gets into the blood somehow. Maybe not if you run in fear of the Seventies as a cultural construct, but otherwise; his voice has an earnest, easily articulated quality to it that became synonymous with “sensitive, cool guy with lots of lady friends.” And we all wanted to be sensitive, cool guys with lady friends back then. This was way before everyone wanted to be ganstas with bitches. And before Kurt Cobain told us “everyone is gay.”
Anyway, “Desperado” is one of those songs that will always haunt me. In a sense, I came of age, romantically, under its shadow. The song was released in 1973, which is when I turned 14 and began to “take an interest” (to use the then-current euphemism) in girls, though nothing came of that interest (it wasn’t that pressing, I guess) until 1978. By then I knew this song and album well, and what guy who has always remained aloof from “the tender trap” can hear lines like “Your prison is walking through this world all alone” and “You better let somebody love you before it’s too late” and not get all misty with thought of that “one and only” out there somewhere.
Which I say by way of suggesting how easy it is to identify with the “desperado” of this song—because, when it comes to romance, most of us are “desperate,” at one time or another. What’s more, the idea of the desperado as one who escapes the law and the noose (good figures for legally binding marriage, no?) is germane to how guys in the Seventies (and maybe always) thought about avoiding anything too “committed” (to use the preferred term). Henley’s song very knowingly grabs us all by our lapels and says, “lookee here, pardner, sooner or later you’re gonna have to give up that Lone Wolf McQuade act and settle down.” So, why not now? He even says “You ain’t getting’ no younger.” Ouch, Don.
Henley and Glenn Frey (the co-authors of the song) know their addressee well. The lines that resonated particularly is that bit about “these things that are pleasin’ you can hurt you somehow.” Now, that’s not saying you got to give up the weed or the speed or the booze or the ludes or the tabs or the hash or whatever it is that you’re finding so pleasin’—stuff probably won’t kill you—but it’s keeping you from finding something more tangible, or, shall we say, corporal. For every guy partying with his Old Lady, there were several just partyin’. Period. Later, they invented names for ‘em like wastoids and slackers and such. But back then they were just . . . guys.
|Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Don Henley, Glenn Frey|
But Henley-Frey have a card up their sleeve even for the guys with a bit more on the ball, the ones that are avoiding Couplesville not because they’re too wasted to worry about it but because they think the “real one” is still to come. “Now it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table / But you only want the ones that you can’t get.” Now that’s really leveling with us. Many is the dreamer who thinks he can just walk away from this round and wait for a better hand to be dealt. In fact, I’m willing to admit that those lines still resonate with me. The “ones that you can’t get” are always in the periphery. It only hurts when you make one of ‘em central to your self-esteem. “Your pain and your hunger, they’re drivin’ you home.” And that part about freedom is a pretty good aphorism: “freedom, that’s just some people talkin’.” In fact, I think that sums up my attitude to almost every statement made about freedom—especially in the context of “what makes America great”—“some people talkin’” lets us know it’s pretty much horseshit. Everyone will tell you about freedom. Nobody will really let you have it. And if that’s not clear enough, then comes that little comment about the existential prison of being alone.
So, there you have it. Why’dja even bring up freedom? Well, just because those who don’t commit say they want to be “free.” Henley-Frey aren’t buying it. Sure, Desperado, you been free for a while now and what’s it done for you? “You’re losing all your highs and lows / Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes / Away?” Now they’re starting to needle us. High times don’t stay high for long. And maybe there’s a rainbow and all that (actually I think they kind of drop the ball on that last verse—unlike Dylan who always saves the best for last and who, for all his songs of romantic involvement, never wrote a “why don’t you go and get hitched to a post instead of riding a buck into the distance” kind of song).
Anyway, it’s a good song for bachelor guys to light up to. The album actually ends with a reprise of the song after the Dalton gang gets blowed away:
Well, the queen of diamonds let you down / She was just an empty fable / And the queen of hearts you say you never met / Your twisted fate has found you out / And it’s fin’lly turned the tables / Stole your dreams and paid you with regret.
Yeah, dude, put that in your pipe and smoke it.