A Commentary on Carmelita by Warren Zevon

Carmelita by Warren Zevon is a masterpiece of melancholy deeply rooted in the underclass of Los Angeles of the late 60s.1

From the song’s very start with the subdued Latin-influenced guitar and its evocative reference to “Mariachi static on the radio,” to the final echoes of the chorus, where the singer is, “all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town,” the song emphatically embodies a particular place and time.

Now, more than 50 years after its composition, some of its imagery is rooted deeply in a milieu that, in our age of smart phones, is unfamiliar to many.

I hear Mariachi static on my radio 
And the tubes they glow in the dark 

Radios and televisions in the 60s were very different from the tiny but powerful devices we have today. A radio in the 60s was a fairly large, box-like affair that was powered by vacuum tubes. These tubes would take maybe 15 seconds to slowly fluoresce and warm up before the radio began to function. They would glow with a faint colorful light we associate with neon. Because the tubes gave off significant heat for an enclosed space, the back of the radio had holes or open strips for ventilation, so the glow from the tubes would seep out of the back of the radio into a darkened room.

The radios also used analog not digital tuning. There was a dial or wheel that you twisted slowly, listening carefully, until the station you wanted was coming in clearly. Usually you went past the optimum tuning a little bit until you were satisfied that the signal was getting worse and then turned the dial back a touch to the right spot. That meant that you would frequently come across the background static of a station with a weaker signal. Los Angeles was at the limit of the northward range of most radio broadcasts from Tijuana, but AM radio signals travel further at night, so you could indeed hear faint strains of Mariachi music obscured among the static as you tuned the radio dial. The singer paints a scene of a lonely, darkened room with a blue glow from the back of the radio as the only light.

And I’m there with her in Ensenada 
And I’m here in Echo Park

The singer imagines his spirit with his one-time girlfriend in Ensenada accompanied by the vague, obscured strains of Mariachi music, while he’s literally all alone in Echo Park, a rather shabby part of Los Angeles, not the glamor of Hollywood or the glitz of Beverly Hills or Wilshire Blvd and Santa Monica further to the west, but a part of LA long past its glory days from the early 20th century.

The chorus that follows emphasizes the singer’s vanishing grip on life with its imagery of sinking, drug use, and its reference to the singer’s shoddy circumstances.

Carmelita, hold me tighter 
I think I’m sinking down 
And I’m all strung out on heroin 
On the outskirts of town

The following verse makes the singer’s despair more concrete even if somewhat obscurely.

Well, I’m sittin’ here playing solitaire
With my pearl-handled deck 
The county won’t give me no more methadone 
And they cut off your welfare check

There is no such thing as a pearl-handled deck of playing cards, but there is, of course, such a thing as a pearl-handled handgun. What the singer is doing here in his lonely, darkened room is not playing solitaire, but Russian Roulette, courting suicide in his despair. The singer laments that he can now neither get money from welfare nor get his fix of methadone from the county health department, apparently because they have rightly judged that it will not accomplish their purpose of getting him off heroin. After another repetition of the chorus, the song continues:

Well, I pawned my Smith Corona
And I went to meet my man
He hangs out down on Alvarado Street 
By the Pioneer Chicken stand

A Smith-Corona is a typewriter, but there was a demo version of this song recorded in 1974 which had the line, “Well, I pawned my Smith & Wesson,” instead. Whatever led to the change of the lyric from pawning a handgun to the much less plausible pawning of a typewriter, it’s clear now that the singer has changed his mind from taking his life via a single stroke and succumbed to a slower death by artificial and evanescent pleasure that he can get from his dealer on Alvarado Street.

All that’s left is for the singer to repeat his hopeless despair of rescue by a final repetition of the chorus:

Carmelita, hold me tighter 
I think I’m sinking down 
And I’m all strung out on heroin
On the outskirts of town

What’s left for the listener to decide is whether the imagined Carmelita could actually rescue him from “sinking down” by holding him tighter or merely end up going down with him to his sad slide into self-destruction. Although I love this song for its transcendent sadness, I don’t recommend listening to it in a darkened room with either a gun or hypodermic handy.

1 A short aside here is called for. Decades, as we experience them are not really defined by zeros. The sixties, as we know them in our memories and as I refer to them, really date from the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 to the end of the US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973 or perhaps Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Likewise, the 50’s really date from the appearance of Elvis in 1954, and the simultaneous emergence of the first baby-boomers from toddlerhood to prepubescence, until the arrival of The Beatles in the US.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: