This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #38: Hotel California by The Eagles.
One of the most tried and true plot devices in storytelling is something known as “the journey”. This is where a character or group of characters travel from one place to another place far away; each chapter being a stop along the way. In the process of completing this physical journey, the main characters discover aspects about their own lives that they needed to find. Think of “Forrest Gump” or the boat ride up the river in “Apocalypse Now” or each school year as it unfolded for Harry Potter and friends. In many of these type of stories, an author will create a whole world that exists only in one, self-contained scene. For those sorts of scenes, the setting of a mythical “hotel” has often been used. Again, my mind goes to “The Lotus Motel” in the Percy Jackson books or the cruise ship from the TV series, “The Love Boat” or the bar from “Cheers”; all stationary places that fill with all sorts of interesting and colourful characters, all transitory in nature but crucial to the character development of the main cast. And to this hallowed tradition, we can also add the world famous, totally fictitious, “Hotel California”, as written by Don Henley to The Eagles.
I have to admit that I always thought that The Eagles were a California band. In my mind, I had always lumped them in with other 70s bands and artists like JamesTaylor, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, etc., but, the truth of the matter is that none of the main members of The Eagles were from California. That is important because one of the most famous myths about America is the myth of “Golden California”, where the sun always shines, the people are all beautiful, the beaches are filled with surfers and bikini babes and life is simply, just better and cooler and more relaxed. In the minds of many who decide to come to California, the twin jewels of Los Angeles and Hollywood offer the most allure. So many lost souls make their own journey, hoping to find fame and fortune on the Pacific Coast. The members of The Eagles were, for the most part, all from the US Mid-West so, they came to California from a place of personal ignorance and inexperience. Part of their journey, as people and as a band, was the process of adapting to the lifestyle that existed in the entertainment world of California. As you can tell from a song like “Hotel California”, what they found altered their minds and their outlook on life from that point on.
Guitarist Glenn Frey stated that the conceptual idea for “Hotel California” was based upon their own experiences adapting to life in L.A., as presented through the lens of the TV show, “The Twilight Zone”. Frey said that it was always their intention to create a song that captured the essence of the weirdness they encountered as they met people in L.A., the oddness of some of the situations they found themselves in and the excess they saw at parties and how prevalent drug use was and so on. The process of writing the song began with guitarist Don Felder who created an instrumental version of the song at a rented beach house he was living in that opened upon a beach and then, the Pacific Ocean. He presented the instrumental track to Don Henley who, as was his custom, took the tape and drove around southern California, letting the imagery of his drive mix with the music from Felder’s tape until the song lyrics began to appear in his mind. The song, “Hotel California” that emerged out of that drive ended up being The Eagles biggest hit; selling several million copies as a single, alone. It reached #1 on the charts and has become one of the band’s most requested songs to play live.
But, there is much to de-construct when it comes to the lyrics and to the musical structure of the song which helps explain why “Hotel California” captured the attention of the world as it did and why it is still such a popular and cool-sounding song, all these years later. Let’s start with how The Eagles wrote songs.
Most of The Eagles songs arise from their own experiences. So, the experiences of the band as they adapted to their new life in Southern California was the foundation of this song. But, in a more general sense, the band always tried to make all of their songs as sensory-oriented as possible. In the very first verse, you can see how this strategy unfolds.
“On a dark, desert highway,
Cool wind in my hair.
Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
Head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
Better stop for the night.”
In that first verse, you are presented with what the main character can see, feel and smell. *FYI: colitas are a type of plant, related to marijuana, that apparently gives off a warm, pungent smell in the evenings as they cool. In any case, all throughout this song are images that speak to our five senses. Constructing songs this way was a deliberate method of allowing listeners to form a more personal interest and connection to the story being told.
There are several little bits of trivia woven into the verses of this song, too. For instance, the phrase, “Stabbed it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast” was a tip-of-the-hat to the band, Steely Dan, whose songwriting always impressed Don Henley. The Eagles and Steely Dan were friends and had a back-and-forth tradition of embedding references to each other in some of the songs they released.
There is another line that goes, “She was Tiffany-twisted, she had the Mercedes bends, she had a lot of pretty, pretty boys, she called friends“. This refers to a woman that Don Henley dated upon arrival in California and how she was more invested in the monetary possibilities of life with Henley than she was when him, as a person. Her infidelity toward Henley was duly noted and captured for posterity.
Finally, the famous closing line of, “You can check out any time you like but, you can never leave” has spawned a financial term known as “The Hotel California Effect”. In the world of finance, “The Hotel California Effect” refers to an investment situation where it is easy to make an investment but then, it is made purposely difficult for you to ever take your money back when the investment bears fruit. The example used was how a place like China made investing easy but then, there were scores of regulatory statutes that made it very expensive and, often cost prohibitive, to ever take your money out of China to invest elsewhere.
From a music point of view, “Hotel California” is famous for the way the song ends, with duelling guitar solos from Don Felder and Joe Walsh. Before it came time to record the song for their album, Walsh and Felder rehearsed for three straight days before being happy with their part in the song. What they did was to develop a system whereby they each take turns being the lead player, harmonizing during the transition portions of their solos and then, reversing lead parts again. Their guitar solos are generally regarded as being one of the finest of all-time and is routinely lauded in rankings as being the best or, at least, in the Top Five of all guitar solos ever recorded.
There was talk of turning the song into a movie but, the band put up stiff resistance to that notion because they felt that to define the experience on film would destroy the hallucinatory nature of the lyrics. They said that the whole point of the song was to convey the sense of bewilderment and uncertainty and craziness that was their real life experience coming to California from the Heartland of America. To define the craziness by creating specific characters who were portraying specific images would unnecessarily limit the scope of possibilities that people would experience in their minds each time they heard the song again. So, the idea of a “Hotel California” movie was nixed.
So, instead of a movie, we will all have to use our own imaginations as we listen to The Eagles play “Hotel California” live in the video below. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Hotel California” by The Eagles, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Eagles, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.