If I was young, I'd flee this town
Condon may be mocking his detractors in the first line of the song.
Anyone who didn't like Beirut in the early days was tempted by the delicious meanness of poking at Condon's age. He was 19 when he recorded Gulag Orkestar in his bedroom at his parents' house, and 20 when he recorded Lon Gisland.
He was also met with some suspicion over his apparent tendency toward wholesale cultural appropriation. He named the band Beirut after a place he'd never been, and created an album heavy with Balkan influence based on his brief teenage travels not in the Balkans, but in France and the Netherlands.
It's more likely, however, that Condon's doing character development with this line, not speaking to his critics. "Elephant Gun" immediately situates the listener in a story told by an older man—a man with longings and memories, a character who would "flee this town" if only he had the youthful energy it takes to flee.
It's a powerful first line that suggests not just age, but fear and loss.
For the record, by the time Condon wrote "Elephant Gun," he had himself performed the feat of fleeing the town he grew up in. At 16, he dropped out of high school to pursue a life as a musician. He followed his brother to France for a while at age 17, and ended up starting and dropping out of college no less than four times before his breakthrough at 19.
At 20, he'd resettled in New York and adopted a completely mobile lifestyle as Beirut began to take shape. He wasn't fleeing the war-torn disaster area suggested in "Elephant Gun," but he did leave behind a lifestyle he'd always known wasn't for him. "We are just not the kind of family that has dropouts in it. The rest of my family is full of track-and-field stars," Condon said in 2006. (Source)
Hey, takes fast feet to flee, right?
As did I, we drink to die, we drink tonight
Condon's backstory doesn't involve a family history of alcoholism, but it does involve a dude in a Balkan brass band pouring wine into his own euphonium.
While traveling in France in his late teens, "I found this band—these kids who'd walk around with thrift-store brass instruments," Condon explained to New York Magazine in 2006.
"They weren't Gypsies—they were so in love with that music. Eventually, I got the guts up to ask if I could play trumpet with them. They started teaching me the songs to the point where I could riff, like a jazz song. This one guy could play trumpet with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and at night you could see little puffs coming out of the bell. There was another who played the euphonium and poured wine into it. He gurgled." (Source)
Far from home, elephant guns
"Elephant gun," it turns out, isn't an abstract phrase in the spirit of a Hemingway short story.
It's an actual gun, a type of gun that, strangely, is also in the spirit of Hemingway.
Elephant guns are large caliber guns, often rifles, initially developed for European elephant hunters in Africa during the 19th century.
So, Hemingway had one.
Elephant guns were procured from African colonies by both the Germans and the British during World War I. Poaching African elephants for their ivory devastated the African elephant population, and the practice was outlawed internationally in 1990.