Yet another old-school favorite, “Desperado” by Eagles is a quintessential country song. The popularity of the song is in part because of its Western concept. The Eagles’ song voices the lonesomeness of a rugged outlaw – and that is what we fell in love with! For those of us that are fascinated by the tales of outlaws of the Wild West, “Desperado” is a treat.
“Desperado” was a collaboration between the band’s two frontmen Glenn Frey and Don Henley. The song was something that Henley first wrote about one of his friends named Leo and had nothing to do with the song we now know and love. Henley remembers how “Desperado” first came to be:
“’Desperado’ was a song fragment that I’d had since the late ’60s. Maybe ’68, I started that song. It wasn’t even called ‘Desperado.’ It was called something else, but it was the same melody, same chords. I think it had something to do with astrology. Whatever the title was back then, it was horrible. Jackson Browne suggested a Western theme – something to do with playing cards, I think – which is sort of where we were headed anyway.”
The song took a different direction as the band later wanted to create an album about antiheroes. So the idea of a desperado was born – giving the name to the title track of the Eagles’ second studio album. “Desperado” was recorded in early 1973, accompanied by some musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite its popularity later on, “Desperado” was never released as a single but was included in many of the later compilation albums of Eagles.
The album ‘Desperado’ was not an immediate hit when it first came out on April 17, 1973. Neither “Desperado” nor “Tequila Sunrise” – the album’s first single – gained much popularity at the time. But there was a silver lining to this dark cloud. While you could say that ‘Desperado’ was a commercial flop (on release, at least), it helped the band grow creatively. As Eagles’ long-time associate singer-songwriter Jackson Browne put it:
“Desperado was a brilliant move, because it gave The Eagles an identity. There was something limited about the concept, but it was also very potent. There was a nouveau-Indian hippy thing going on, everyone was coming to California, and in the end that was what they were writing about: that projected dream of what freedom could be.”
And this was the spirit of “Desperado” that withstood the test of time.
“Desperado” wasn’t charted in Billboard until the death of Frey in 2016, when it reached #20 on the Rock Digital Songs chart. But it remains one of the greatest hits by the Eagles. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000 and ranked #494 on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004. In March 2001, “Desperado” was certified 2x Multi-Platinum by RIAA.
Listen to “Desperado” by the Eagles
The Eagles “Desperado” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
The lyrics are a one-sided conversation. We hear the lines and think of a man trying to convince a friend to choose a better way of life. The song is not structured in a traditional way and there is no refrain. It just flows from one verse to another, with only the call of Desperado repeating to mark the change.
“Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses
You been out ridin’ fences for so long now”
Here, desperado is a reference to how Eagles’ viewed an outlaw to be. A character is born, one that was envisioned to be a rugged cowboy, living out his life in the wilderness. But this could also be a reference to the life of a musician. Both are romanticized, but in reality, neither is as glamorous as they first seem to be. So Eagles acknowledge that this desperado might be a tough person. He’s used to roughing it out and he may have his reasons for the path he’s on. Yet Eagles have a word of caution for him. The things that seem to be fine right now may later turn into things that hurt you. They speak of regrets that come after and ask that iconic question. Why don’t you face the reality? This is nothing but a lonely existence.
“Don’t you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy
She’ll beat you if she’s able
You know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet”
Here are some hard-hitting lines. The playing cards refer to the two driving forces of life; Diamonds for wealth and Hearts for love. And Eagles say to the desperado, wealth is a risky bet, because it may abandon you someday. So place your stakes in love – it may be your last hope. But the desperado doesn’t seem to be choosing the right path. He doesn’t seem to take note of all the good women around him, even though these ‘finer’ women are right in front of him. Instead, he only seems to be running behind women and things that he can’t get. So we think of a foolish man – blinded by lust and wealth.
So “Desperado” is a call for someone to wise up. That even though you have lived a life of adventure and fame and glory, you will soon grow old. Then all you will have left would be just the ache of old bones and the hunger in your stomach. There would be no joy or laughter in your twilight years. The Eagles goes on to say, find love now before it’s too late.
But the desperado may argue – but I’m free, I’m doing what I want, there is no one to tie me down. The Eagles has answered that as well, with these poetic lyrics.
“And freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’
Your prison is walking through this world all alone”
They sing that freedom is just another prison. Your loneliness itself is a form of imprisonment. There is no one by your side to warm you during a cold winter night. And you won’t feel the passing of time – with no difference between night and day. There will be nothing left but a grey existence where everything will be the same, day in and day out. The Eagles asks again from the desperado, “Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away?” Once more the lyrics come out in force, bringing out the bleakness of such a life. These lines become a request for the desperado to rethink his meaningless existence.
The final verse is an appeal to let your guard down and to let someone in. The Eagles sings:
“It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late”
The metaphor of rain and rainbow implies that even though rare, true love does exist. That you need to take a chance. This beautiful end to the song is made memorable through Frey’s soulful piano accompaniment and Henley’s poignant voice. These final lines make it a song of hope instead. And so the masterpiece concludes.
At first, the song may seem to be a heavy one. Some would even call it depressing. The listener, just like the desperado, is forced to confront the hardships of a life lived off the grid and the loneliness that comes with it. Or maybe it is an inference to the life of a celebrity, always under the spotlight but never truly understood. But the fascination with such a lifestyle is what makes “Desperado” a song for all times.
This brilliant composition by Henley and Frey brings out not just a tale of adventure and fortune, but the loneliness that comes with it. The softer tone at the end is a reminder for us all – there is always hope for love. But it is up to us to find it and welcome it to our lives.