New Recurring Feature! The Miss-Out: Eagles - "Hotel California"



I’ve listened to a lot of albums. There have, however, been a few albums enshrined in popular culture that, for whatever reason, I've never sat down and listened to all the way through. In this series of missives called “The Miss-Out,” I’ll be listening for the first time to a classic or commercially successful album that’s made its mark in music history, and making my usual salient, twitchy commentary on a track-by-track basis.

Hotel California
Eagles
Asylum, 1976

I have an aversion towards the Eagles. (I understand I'm not supposed to say "the Eagles," but screw it, it sounds weird if I don't.) When their sunny, idyllic Glenn Frey side didn’t put me off, then their sneering, disparaging Don Henley side did. I was a fan of Joe Walsh, but he was only on three of their studio albums. There was a creepy misogyny to them that I didn’t care for either. How many witchy women and temptresses with lying eyes did they have to go through before they finally found someone who was quiet and deferential and reminded them of momma? And how much cocaine did it require?

Admittedly, the only Eagles studio albums that I’ve ever sat all the way through were their last two: The Long Run and Long Road Out Of Eden. “The Length Variations.” I didn’t care for the first one and I absolutely hated the second one. But I’ve never actually sat down and played their landmark 1976 LP Hotel California until now.

I’ve heard half of the songs on this record millions of times, since three of them were top 40 singles and I know I’ve heard “Victim Of Love” on the radio. But I haven’t had the pleasure of sorting out stems and seeds on its open gatefold cover and listened to it all in sequence. Let’s see if I’ve softened up somewhat.

“Hotel California”: What are “colitas”? My spell check keeps insisting I change that word to “colitis.”

It’s a metaphor for the moral decay and indisputable allure of California circa 1976, which is exactly why it’s the Eagles’ signature song. Everything that need be said about the Eagles’ game plan is in this song. No idea why they’d soured so much on the place. But I disagree that they could never leave. What was the problem? Did David Geffen kidnap them? Were they checking for fruit flies at the Nevada border?

Structurally it’s not as terrible a song as I remembered it, I guess. It makes some literal sense; it’s not a complete intellectual wasteland. The metaphors aren’t sickening. It doesn’t have that one line that seems to appear in every Eagles song that’s so self-cancelling and dopey that it sticks out like flared trousers. Nothing like “You can see the stars and still not see the light,” in other words. So I suppose you can say listening to it intently has sort of revised my opinion upwards. Sort of. I still don’t see a driving need to ever hear this song again. We’re good on metaphorical California hotels.

The guitar meltdown at the end is interminable, though. And repetitive.

“New Kid In Town”: This is my favorite Eagles song to begin with, so I’m favorable towards it. I like the storyline. It’s an interesting slice of bar life, of neighborhood intrigue. Somebody unfamiliar showing up to shake up the guys and steal the women. Glenn Frey isn’t necessarily judging this kid. It’s not a deep characterization, but the Eagles didn’t really sing about deep people to begin with. I like the dangling mystery of “There’s so many things you should have told her.”

This kind of double-layered character study is surprising. (The Eagles never did anything with more than two layers.) The harmonies are great, especially at the end. That’s a nice Fender Rhodes electric piano there. The Fender Rhodes was easy to abuse. Not so on this. Seriously, folks, “New Kid In Town” was the best the Eagles ever got.

“Life In the Fast Lane”: So much about this song makes me groan in unction. “She was terminally pretty.” Yeah, I see what you did there, Don, you linked beauty with death. When you sing “he had a nasty reputation as a cru-el dude,” you lose. The only permission you have to use the two-syllable word “cru-el” is if you follow it up with “la Deville.”

This couple is boring. There is no reason to have a song about them. Not one that's as lyrically convoluted, anyway. It can’t be considered a cautionary tale, because you have to believe that some Eagles lived in the fast lane themselves. The moral superiority thing really bothers me. Who were they trying to influence here?

“We’ve been up and down this highway, haven’t seen a goddamn thing.” What the hell are they looking for? They never say. And the narrative ends with them just taking an exit. No car crash, no overdose, no joining the Redondo Beach branch of the Hare Krishnas, not even showing up late for the KISS show at the amphitheater.

Is the point that their lives are pointless? Or if we reject that negative connotation, are we supposed to live vicariously through their sex, drugs and terrible driving?

An ugly, irritating song. The guitar break in the bridge is good.

“Wasted Time”: Here comes a ballad. Gentle piano intro. Henley’s coming on to a girl. “Your little head down in your hands” – is there no woman Henley won’t patronize? What I wouldn’t give for a plucky, no-bullshit woman to appear in one of these songs and just smack him upside. Instead you get this parade of overdrawn, chemically vexed California girls that he’ll either castigate and slut-shame or condescend to. Where were the Katharine Hepburns in this guy’s life to put this smarmy sage-bag in his place?

I guess it’s hard to write about someone else’s heartbreak. I mean, everything in the song makes sense, at some level. At least when Henley gets it back to himself. The pathos is just too much. It feels like every emotional proclamation or expression of support is just a roundabout tactic to get the girl to feel something about Henley, if not just to sleep with him. I wonder if he’ll wear silk pajamas. It’s open mic night at Trader Vic’s.

“You’re afraid it’s all been wasted time.” Okay, points for settling on something everybody over a certain age and dealing with romantic inclemency can probably identify with. That’s the most logical artistic decision Henley’s made on this album. But the trunks full of sap we have to go through to get there.

“Wasted Time (Reprise): A reprise of a certain song on an album implies that it’s one of the more important songs on the album, which “Wasted Time” isn’t. It sounds like it’s supposed to be, maybe, but it’s not. Maybe they wrapped up the original song earlier than expected and needed to make something extra out of it to justify the budget. Plus, this doesn't make sense in the digital, no-side-flip music age. But I doubt it made much sense when we had to turn the record over, either.

“Victim Of Love”: Sounds like a similar theme to “Wasted Love,” except instead of trying to console the girl, he’s mocking her. And it’s a truly lackluster hard rock guitar line. “Some people never come clean/I think you know what I mean.” No, Donald, I actually don’t know what you mean. Stop talking in riddles, Tex.

Well, this is exactly the other side of the coin of “Wasted Time.” At least in this song he openly comes out and says he wants to, um, “talk” with her. It’s the most perverse song on the record so far. I can’t tell if he’s sincere or snide. Like in “Wasted Time,” he attempts to self-identify with the girl’s broken heart. “I’m afraid it’s all been wasted time too, baby! What a coincidence!” “Wait, you’re a victim of love too? Fancy that! We’re both questioning our worth and vulnerability now that we’re out of the context of a relationship! What are you drinking? Do you like silk pajamas? I got the latest George Benson album at my pad up on Highland! How much do you think I can bench-press?”

Ugh.

“Pretty Maids All In a Row”: Another slow piano 6/8 intro. Synth strings. And hey, it’s Joe Walsh! This sounds a lot like Todd Rundgren or Laura Nyro – really melodic.

Joe’s the best songwriter in the Eagles, because he just doesn't give a fuck about Henley's lemon-lipped misanthropy. When Walsh goofs off he’s pretty funny (and in “Life’s Too Good,” flippin' brilliant), but sometimes when he stretches for something higher it doesn’t always come out right. It doesn't really come out wrong, that is, it's just sort of hanging there. But that’s part of his charisma. That’s kind of the case here. No one to manipulate or heap scorn upon. It’s just a sad reflection on growing older, losing innocence, that general thang.

And at least Joe is willing to offer a friendly welcome. “Hi there, how are ya? It’s been a long time.” Walsh is totally the type of guy I want to hang out and do shots of tequila with. Then, at the end of the night, we’ll both be relaxing on his back patio overlooking the beach, winding up the evening, cracking the night’s last jokes, laughing it up. Then there’ll be a stony, protracted silence, and Joe will start dreamily looking off in the distance, the orange blades of the eastern dawn reflecting on the horizon, and out of nowhere and apropos of nothing he’ll start ruminating about heroes who come and go, and “Why do we give up our hearts to the past?” And I’ll just sort of look at him, trying to grasp where he’s headed. Then he’ll say a few more things and end his brief soliloquy with a non-sequitur, like “Pretty maids all in a row… oh… oh….” And then drop off to sleep in his chair, snoring within two minutes.

It’s so lyrically slight it almost floats away, but it’s a really nice song. Okay, there you go. I like two songs on Hotel California.

“Try and Love Again”: I’ve never heard this song. Nice shimmering stuff. Hey, who’s singing? That’s not anyone I’ve heard yet. I say, it’s Randy Meisner! He’s still here?*

This is the most innocent song on the album. It’s directly in opposition to everything else here. And it’s about something that’s already come up via Henley: Trying to love again. The thing is, this guy doesn’t have all the answers. He’s not putting himself in the Henley position of approaching a problem from above. He hasn't proclaimed his judgment in advance, and he's not trying to insert that judgment into a person he's just met but already made up his mind about. He’s in the moment. He's really trying to find a solution that will work for himself and for everyone else. No wonder Henley and Frey couldn't stand him.

Meisner’s a nice singer. Not too much affectation. And there’s a decent feel to this track. Exactly the kind of shimmering pop-folk he did in Poco. Byrds-aspiring.

Well, there it is: I like three songs on Hotel California. So mathematically it can't be an outright horrible album. It may only aspire to mediocrity, but it's out of Disasterville.

(*Meisner quit after the Hotel California tour.)

“The Last Resort”: Pompous piano chords again. Henley again.

Woman on a journey. “She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island.” Yeah, Donald, nobody thought you meant Providence, Indiana. This is the album’s closing statement. It’s kind of a more sentimental version of the title track. Everyone’s coming to California and trying to weave themselves into its fabric.

But then he gets preachy. “Some rich men came and raped the land… put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and Jesus people bought ‘em.” And now he’s about to juxtapose corporate greed with the church.

This is getting a little confusing here. “We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds/In the name of destiny and in the name of God.” That’s sloppy songwriting. There’s no connectivity between the girl from Providece-The-One-In-Rhode-Island and the ending where Don’s decrying the hypocritical link between commerce and religion. The girl’s completely out of the picture by this point. Henley just drops her story and goes on with the anti-suburban speechifying. It’s like two separate songs thrown together, and not in a cool way like “A Day In The Life.” I agree with his points, intellectually. I just think he’s overweening with the sermonizing. Which is ironic, because at the end of the song he’s basically criticizing the church’s sermonizing.

And the orchestra. Again with the orchestra. Forget going out with a whimper. That said, it’s the best melody Henley’s put together on the album.

Conclusion: So it’s basically the sanctimony of Don Henley that ever put me off this album. I hate to make it about one person, and I truly don’t have any ill will towards him – not like Mojo Nixon once did (Nixon and Henley made up, at least for a moment) – but the fact of the matter is that I liked any song on this album that wasn’t a Don Henley song, and the only Henley song that’s any good is the one that still gets massively overplayed on classic rock radio.

I can say it got worse on The Long Run. There Henley got petty and petulant. Here at least he’s shooting for the fences. I mean, they moved the fences in, but he still shot for them. But Hotel California is a definitive victory for Frey, Walsh and Meisner – or would be if they got more than one song each.

Final decision: The good songs are really good. The rest are Henley. On the Pitchfork scale of sexy decimals between 1 and 10, I’ll slap a 4.2 on Hotel California. Please bring me my wine. And don't give me that bullshit about not having any.

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VOTE! For the next edition of "The Miss-Out," which '80s album should I cover? Just tell me in the comments, or message me on Facebook, or call me up or something.
  • Beauty and the Beat, The Go-Go’s
  • Control, Janet Jackson
  • Disintegration, The Cure
  • Nothing’s Shocking, Jane’s Addiction
  • Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp
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