Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix 10 Spots

Warren Zevon's highway songs

By Josh Kun

MAY 8, 2000:  Take Interstate 10 west from anywhere east and you will eventually run out of road. After miles of freedom, miles of driving in 65 and 75 mph zones, miles of baked desert horizons and single-tier strip malls, miles of Burger Kings and motels and "Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers. State Prison Nearby." signs and windmills, miles and miles of towering white windmills bringing energy to regions of nothingness, you will realize that you are trapped, that once the 10 hits Los Angeles, the world might just be over and you will have no choice but to go down with it.

I drive the 10 almost every day, from mid LA east to the post-industrial desert suburbia of Riverside. Last month, I drove it farther east, past 29 Palms, past the Blythe border stop, past the rush-hour crunch of Phoenix, then right back west again. The other night I drove it west to the ocean, to the pier that hangs over the water's edge in Santa Monica, up the coast from the one in Venice where the Depression dispossessed danced themselves to miserable death for a crumb of salvation in Sidney Pollack's 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The more I drive it, the more I feel like Maria Wyeth, who in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays drives the freeways as impossible therapy. The control she finds in the space of a moving car lets her fall asleep on a rattan chaise next to empty bottles of vermouth. But her compulsive lane changing is also her sentence, another form of imprisonment, like the characters in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia who cry alone in their cars as the rain falls on the valley -- dying while pretending to live, driving all day and landing nowhere, ever. All that hope, all that failure, the freeway that takes you to Land's End.

The 10 is the main artery of what urban critic Mike Davis once called "sunshine or noir" in his book City of Quartz -- that legendary LA dialectic of new beginnings and quick ends, bright dreams and dark, terrifying disasters, brilliant curative sunshine and gothic terrorscapes of the fear, betrayal, and spoiled hope that slowly rot in its shadows.

"Don't the sun look angry through the trees?/Don't the trees look like crucified thieves?" That's what Warren Zevon asked back in 1976 on his homonymous debut (reissued by Elektra in 1992), which also takes the 10 into LA. It starts in the Wild West with Frank and Jesse James "riding riding riding" and ends with Zevon sitting alone in front of an empty coffee cup in the old Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel, wondering what will happen to him when California slides into the ocean.

Once Zevon is in LA, he peels it back to us in gradations of devastation, increments of grime and doubt that ooze and pucker and scar beneath the Hollywood sign. "How you gonna get around in this sleazy bedroom town?", he asks the wanna-be actress of "The French Inhaler," "if you don't put yourself up for sale?" Sadness blows everywhere -- in every note, in every scene -- with the breezy violence and portentous dread of the Santa Anas. "All these people, with no home to go home to."

When Zevon sings, "You said you were an actress," and his voice cracks, it registers as a desperate accusation, a plea, as if he needed her lie to be true so that his could be too, her dreams real so that maybe he wouldn't be so wasted. After all, the phonies in the Hollywood bar all turn out to be Zevon's friends -- a fact that he is neither proud nor ashamed of.

Then there's Zevon's "Carmelita," a cover of which is included on the new I-10 Chronicles (Virgin) freeway homage in an unsatisfying Adam Duritz incarnation. The original unfolds east of Hollywood in Echo Park, two freeway changes north of the 10's slice through downtown. Zevon is "all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town," out of methadone and welfare checks, hawking his typewriter to score in front of a Pioneer Chicken on Alvarado, and begging Carmelita -- "hold me tighter" -- for the embrace that he thinks will save him from "sinking down." More than anything, she is the comfort of the past for Zevon, the Mexican LA before this LA, the hope that maybe things haven't always been as they are now.

Zevon keeps sinking down until, in "Desperados Under the Eaves," we find him at the Hollywood Hawaiian. The sunshine state that the 10 seduced him into has turned on him for good: the lie is exposed, the California Dream is now Nathaniel West's "dream dump" in the middle of a city most at home when it is on fire, covered in flames from the winds, the canyon brush, or the burning and looting of all those the dream forgot.

The sun itself is angry at Zevon, and all he can do is take it. The air conditioner hums, and all he can do is sing along with it, "hmm, hmm, hmm." The Gypsies, mystics, and statistics were right all along. The ocean will take him, and the long stretch of myth-lined interstate pavement he rode in on, down -- along with everybody else who came west to die.

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