It is de rigueur in the hipper circles of Americana music to shit on The Eagles at every opportunity. After all, the icon of all that is hip and holy — Gram Parsons — once described The Eagles as “a plastic dry-fuck.” Well, I love Gram Parsons’ music and we are forever in his debt for his introducing Emmylou Harris to the world — but he was a nasty drunk and mean-spirited quotes from an artist who flushed his potential down the toilet shouldn’t be taken as holy writ.
Anyway, I ain’t here to defend The Eagles per se. I’ve known enough people who have worked with Don Henley to know that he’s a jackass with a titanic ego. The ambition and infighting revealed in the long and very good documentary History of the Eagles ain’t a pretty picture (particularly of Glenn Frey), either — though it’s entirely unexceptional in the 1970s rock world.
No, my ambitions are modest: Simply to pay tribute to Desperado. I love that album, and I don’t care if it costs me my Americana aficionado card.
“We were quite taken with the idea of being, or at least portraying, outlaws. It was a serviceable metaphor for our story.”
— D. Souther, songwriter
Desperado was recorded in 1972 and released in 1973. I discovered it in 1981, in my sophomore year of high school, not long after I discovered Waylon Jennings. Talk about being quite taken with being, or at least portraying, an outlaw. I drank down that ethos like it was a jug of Taos Lightning and it set me on fire. It melded with my long-standing Mountain Man and Long Hunter obsession and gave shape to the typical adolescent male need to rebel against… whatever.
I read voraciously in frontier history — with none of the discernment age and experience have brought me. I identified with the wild and the ardent-hearted. I was building my own personal mythology.
Turns out, I wasn’t so very different from a young crew of musicians in L.A. in the early ’70s.
Some 80 years after Bob Dalton met his bloody end during a shoot-out in smalltown Kansas, a book is being passed around a $60-a-month apartment in Echo Park, the low-rent Los Angeles locale where Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne and JD Souther live, write, drink, smoke and plot their futures.
The Album Of Gunfighters by J Marvin Hunter and Hoan H Rose contains photographs and brief biographies of the outlaws, bandits and bounty hunters of the Old West. Among the usual suspects – Jesse James, Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin – are the Dalton Gang, a band of train robbers from the early 1890s. Rootless and reckless, the Daltons lived outside conventional rules and were rarely seen until they blew into town, grabbed the spoils and split again. To the young musicians in Echo Park, hugely ambitious yet by no means immune to romance, certain parallels start to become apparent.
Desperado is a concept album loosely built around the tale of the Doolin-Dalton Gang of Midwest robbers in the late 19th century. It wasn’t a commercial success. The record company dismissed it as “a fucking cowboy record.” But in the long run (sorry) it yielded two songs that have stood the test of time: “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise.”
I hadn’t listened to the album for maybe 20 years when I ran across it recently at the Sisters Library. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with it — and looking back with a dose of nostalgia on the mythology I was building as a teenager in Southern California — one that caused me some trouble and heartache but in balance has served me well to this day.
Tellingly, the tracks that stand out most to me today are the cautionary ones: “A Certain Kind of Fool,” “Saturday Night,” “Bitter Creek.” Because the outlaw bit is bound to get out of hand… and it doesn’t end well.
“A Certain Kind of Fool” really drives home the guitarslinger-gunslinger metaphor:
He was a poor boy, raised in a small family
He kinda had a craving for somethin’ no one else could see
They say that he was crazy,
The kind that no lady should meet
He ran out to the city and wandered around in the street
He wants to dance, oh yeah,
He wants to sing, oh yeah,
He wants to see the lights a flashin’ and listen to the thunder ring
He saw it in a window
The mark of a new kind of man
He kinda liked the feeling, so shiny and smooth in his hand
He took it to the country and practiced for days without rest
And then one day he felt if,
He knew he could stand with the best
They got respect, oh yeah,
He wants the same, oh yeah,
And it’s a certain kind of fool who
Likes to hear the sound of his own name
A poster on a storefront, the picture of a wanted man
He had a reputation spreading like fire through the land
It wasn’t for the money, at least it didn’t start that way
It wasn’t for the runnin’, but now he’s runnin’ everyday
He saw it in a window… a pistol or a guitar? Hell, I’ll take both.
“It wasn’t for the money, at least it didn’t start that way…”