Album Assignments: Hotel California

Hotel California was a turning point for the Eagles. Gone was the countrifying influence of Bernie Leadon, replaced instead with the funky guitar virtuosity of Joe Walsh. Walsh proved to be a fantastic musical contributor, as was everyone else in the band, but the bottom line on this album is that it is the lyrical, vocal, and songwriting peak for Don Henley. I’ve busted on Henley in the past about his recent dismaying tendency towards super-smugness, but in the Hotel California era the guy could do no wrong. Not that he wasn’t a little on the sanctimonious side even then, but his venom a) felt completely justified, and b) included his own complicity, which makes a huge difference.

Every single song on this album with lead vocals by Henley is a stone classic. And then there are the other three. “New Kid In Town” was a huge hit for the band, and it’s certainly an infectious tune — I always find myself singing along to it — but at the same time it has a whiny feel that always gets under my skin, especially Glenn Frey’s “I don’t wanna hear it”s at the end. Walsh’s “Pretty Maids All In A Row” and Randy Meisner’s “Try And Love Again” are both adequate, middle-of-the-road tracks, pleasant enough but pretty forgettable overall.

So let’s talk about that Henley stuff. In the days of my youth, Denver’s KAZY-FM had a Memorial Day weekend tradition of compiling and playing through its “Top 500 Rock Songs Of All Time,” and the top of the list was always inhabited by the same handful of songs. “Stairway to Heaven.” “Freebird.” “A Day In The Life.” “Layla.” “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” And… “Hotel California.” What all these songs have in common is an epic scope, both musically and lyrically. “Layla” and “Freebird” are love songs, albeit Cinemascope love songs. The rest go well beyond. They’re rock and roll’s version of War and Peace or The Grapes Of Wrath or, pretty explicitly in Zeppelin’s case, The Lord Of The Rings. “Hotel California” is kind of the American “Stairway to Heaven”, less steeped in hedgerows and forests, more concerned with dark deserts, mission bells, and mirrors on the ceiling. But certainly equally alive with mystic allegory.

Album cover for Hotel California

Henley doesn’t get all the credit for this grandeur. Apparently Don Felder wrote most of the music, and Frey came up with the central concept of a guy on a lonely road pulling into a mysterious haven. Walsh and Felder duel their way through a magnificent guitar solo at the bridge. It was Henley, though, who wrote the lyrics and sang the tune, and I would argue that it’s Henley’s persona which holds the whole thing together. The above-it-all quality he often manifests vocally works to great advantage, creating a dramatic dynamic against the narrative that keeps placing his character in further peril. And what lyrics! “Some dance to remember / Some dance to forget.” “She got the Mercedes bends.” And of course, “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave.”

Those lyrics are oblique enough that plenty of interpretations are available, but what’s clear is that the character has been sucked into a fantasy world that looks pretty enough on the outside, but inside is bristling with steely knives and immortal beasts. The nature of those beasts is what concerns the rest of the Henley tunes on this album. “Life In The Fast Lane” is a counterweight to “Hotel California”‘s loftiness, portraying both the glamour and the danger of life as the Eagles knew it, a literal and metaphorical freeway fueled by money, success, and cocaine. Henley contributes more brilliant images, like “terminally pretty” and “blinded by thirst”, culminating in “There were lines on the mirror / lines on her face.” Walsh provides not only a great solo but the arresting central riff of the song.

“Victim Of Love” has just as powerful a punch, and this time the beasts are illusion and delusion. Henley gets to be the whip-smart interrogator of a woman who’s trying to fool others by trying to fool herself. Thirst makes another appearance, this time as the symptom of her unhealthy craving for “dangerous boys.” Felder provides the music once again, a swinging stomp far removed from the ethereal fingerpicking of “Hotel California.”

For all the disdain he shows in “Victim Of Love”, Henley displays an equal amount of compassion in “Wasted Time.” The two songs are yin and yang to each other — both address a woman who’s been disappointed in love, but in “Victim” she’s just playing the part (according to Henley), while in “Wasted” she’s genuinely crushed. And while “Victim” ends in scornful repetition (with the occasional “I could be wrong, but I’m not”), “Wasted Time” closes on a genuinely hopeful note.

That hope is nowhere to be found in the album’s final towering masterpiece, “The Last Resort.” The title track is still the standout on Hotel California, but on most any other album (including any other Eagles album), “The Last Resort” would be the best song by far. It’s a summation of the entire album leading up to it, encompassing hubris, delusion, naivete, and humanity’s heedless consumption and self-destruction.

The lyrics paint a definitive portrait of the Eagles’ California. It’s a lure of pure beauty that brings people flocking from everywhere, heedless that the flocking itself will inevitably destroy that beauty. It’s an object of lust and greed, filled with objects of lust and greed. It’s the logical conclusion of America’s westward reach, a land cleared out by genocide, whose conquerors can safely romanticize the people they exterminated. It’s a resort town filled with pretty people who extol its marvelousness even as they systematically dismantle it. As Liz Phair would say much later: “Check out America — you’re looking at it, babe.”

After this thorough damnation and condemnation, the song pulls back into an elegiac mood. Henley’s final note on “goodbye” spirals up into the California sun, gliding higher and higher until it’s caught by the strings and carried ever onward. As the stately melody fades out, we’re left haunted by this vision, looking at paradise even as we kiss it goodbye, and realizing… It’s not just California. It’s not just America. It’s the world, and you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

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