Retrofit Guide: The Eagles’ "Hotel California"

In the worldview of the Eagles, the scope of femininity divides into roughly two categories: The women who give the Eagles cocaine and the women who will give anything – anything – to snort the Eagles’ cocaine. The former are demons (with the moon in their eyes; their lyin’ eyes, their terminal prettiness, their Tiffany twistedness, et. al) the latter just sort of sad and pathetic (they should be home but they’re not; they wonder how it ever got so crazy, they’re afraid it’s all just wasted time, their need to either own or stone the Eagles, with the single exception who is just a friend).

Which would feel a lot more like the warm smell of misogyny rising up through the air were it not for the contempt the Eagles have for other men, what with their brutal handsomeness, their thirst for the blood of certain heroic gunfighter/guitarists; their inaibility to buy the love of the lyin’ eyes woman, their mass production of ugly little homes in the once-sylvan hills surounding the Eagles’ luxe aeries, and on and on).

The Eagles, in short, are handsome, harmonizing, lushly melodic buzz-kills. Suntanned fingers wagging in your face; golden heads shaking; aryan chins turned up as they stalk off to the bathroom to blow their noses.Or nose their blow. Or something.

Odious. Except for the fact that a lot of those bitter, pissy songs also turn out to be so well-constructed, and so well-performed (in the recordings anyway) that it requires vast stores of intellectual discinpline to dislike them. And when it comes to  “Hotel California,” the 1976 apotheosis of their creative careers, I can only say one thing: It’s a great record. Each song a gem in its own particular way, the playing and singing all but flawless, one of those concept albums whose central idea (upscale SoCal showbiz society turns out to be one fucking decadent place) flows from its individual parts, and not the other way round (as per, say, “Desperado”)

Just a smidge of context: “HC” featured three out of four founding Eagles from their earliest country-rock days, (Henley, Frey and bassist Randy Meisner. Guitarist/pedal steelist, mandoliner, etc., Bernie Leadon had already departed), lead guitarist Don Felder (in place since “On the Border” in 1974) and the unlikely, yet catalytic debut of the already-famous midwest rocker Joe Walsh as uber-lead guitarist. As musical mergers go, adding the slide guitar-wielding goofball among the sleek SoCal hipster cowboys was not just successful but actually catalytic. More than just a truly distinctive guitar player, Walsh (with his hangdog face and joker’s timing) also added an element of soulfulness into the band. A parodist rather than a scold; a wiseass with a heart of gold. And on “Hotel California” all of that served as a kind of tonic, taking the edge off of the Henley/Frey nastiness, while also goading them to rock a little harder maybe even reveal a little of themselves in the process.

Whatever, it worked magnificently. “Hotel California” was a smash, and a pleasure to listen to, more or less nonstop, on the radio for months, years, decades.

“Hotel California”: Cinematic in scope; epic in length; the “Citizen Kane” of decadence songs, “HC” kicks off the album with a puzzling, even maddening puzzle. What the hell is colitas? The image jumps out from the lyric’s third line (“warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…”), clearly a central part of the narrator’s experience of the elegant, awful world he (and we) are about to experience. So you wonder: Are we really talking about the same wild species of buckwheat known variously as James’ buckwheat and Antelope Sage? Not quite. “During the writing of the song ‘Hotel California’ by Messrs, Henley, and Frey, the word `colitas’ was translated for them by their Mexican-American road manager as ‘little buds’,” Eagles manager Irving Azoff wrote to whomever composed the Wikipedia entry for ‘colitas.’ “You have obviously already done the necessary extrapolation. Thank you for your inquiry.”

So that’s interesting. But what really sticks on this song (which I’ve only just become able to listen to for fun, after the dire effects of 35 years of radio-enforced repetition began to ebb) is how the gentle Mexican-flavored opening chords slide so naturally into a kind of m.o.r. rock groove (“House of the Rising Sun” played sideways, by white people who had no interest in the old world sleaze of New Orleans) and then into that climactic hard rock guitar duel that ends the tune. In between the lyrics are simultaneously straightforward and metaphorical, traveling from the cool wind of the highway to the Dante-esque boogie on the patio and then to the sinister guy at the front desk who explains the crucial distinction between checking out and actually leaving. I could live without the part about dancing to remember or dancing to forget, and I still stumble over the “we are programmed to receive” set up to the ass-kicking kicker (which one of my fellow Boy Scouts, upon hearing the song for the first time on a car radio, decreed as being “really heavy.”) But who cares once you cross the threshold into some serious ax-wielding?

“New Kid in Town”: Success-driven self-pity comes frightfully easy to the Eagles, (by which we really mean Henley and Frey), but this laid-back peek into the life of yesterday’s overnight sensation – addressed to tomorrow’s – is both clear-eyed and uncharacteristically sympathetic. “Great expections, everybody’s watchin’ you…even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.” Think it’s possible that the extent of their empathy relates directly to how autobiographical the song is? Hmmm. But on the other hand, “NKiT” is a shining example of how the Eagles’ increasingly meticulous recording technique (every single note in place, no sonic seams, no rough edges, nothing left to chance) could actually service a song as well-written as this. Consider the interplay between Frey’s electric piano and Felder’s guitar; the way they work together to comment upon and shore up the central melody, the way the background chorus folds together with the organ (deeper in the mix) to breathe another layer of humanity into the song. The real pivot in the song comes in a bridge that captures the conflict between idol worship and romantic love, and how easily they can be confused. “There are so many things you should have told her/But night after night you’re willing to hold her, just hold her/Tears on your shoulder.” At which point the emotional distance implied by the tune’s glossy brilliance cracks open, briefly, to reveal the passionate heart at its core.

“Life in the Fast Lane”: Only just returned to the iTunes folder (another victim of radio overdose) this Walsh-Henley-Frey rocker rides Walsh’s opening riff and subsequent slide guitar commentary into a high speed story of a coked-up glamour couple bound for disaster. Frey came up with the title (which became a near-instant catchphrase to describe high-market, high-performance, high-livers everywhere. Clever turns of phrase sweeten Henley’s typical bile, but the real hook here is all about Walsh’s ass-kicking work on the guitar. That phase effect that comes in near the end hasn’t aged well, and the Need For Perfection saps the song’s chaotic heart (it really wants to be a California ’70s update to “Helter Skelter”). But still. That riff.

“Wasted Time”: Henley goes all out on a ballad, addressed, it seems, to yet another sad-to-pathetic woman who finds herself sans boyfriend, money, passion, a reason for being. Set to a stately, if remarkably simple set of chord changes, the song evokes the collapse of a night, and the raw void of the dawn. “So you’re back out on the street,” Henley croons.  “You don’t care much for a stranger’s touch, but you can’t hold your man…” All of which dredges up at least an inference of prostutition, which edges toward a kind of casual hostility that usually simmers not too far beneath Henley’s songs. But factor in the warmth in his voice (which is, I should point out, one of the richest and most distinctive in popular music) and I begin to wonder if he is, to some extent, singing to himself. He all but answers that question when he goes on to admit that he himself has fallen short of expectations, due to the hours spent “wonderin’ what I left behind.” So if she’s a whore, he is, too. If she isn’t him, they are still the same sort of relentless strivers, pushing relentlessly for something that never seems as satisfying as they imagined it would.

“Victim of Love”: Check out your old vinyl copy and you’ll find, scratched into the play-out groove of Side 2, the cryptic note that “VOL is 5 piece live,” a boast from producer Bill Szymczyk that this tune is in fact a live-in-the-studio recording, with all five Eagles playing and singing with no trickery, overdubs, etc. Which may be true, particularly when you note how wack the drumming is. Henley, for all his strengths, is (by his own admission, I believe) is sketchy-at-best in the percussion department. No wonder he’s so eager to point his bony fingers at everyone else’s shortcomings, e.g. this tune’s title character, scolded as per the standards of pre-suffrage society, for partying when she should be home knitting or waiting for gentlemen callers, or some such. “This ain’t no time to be cool,” Henley snaps. “Talk is for losers and fools.” Backatcha, mister, but thankfully the snarling minor-chord stomp the rest of the band creates overwhelms the lyrics. Felder and (especially) Walsh make like gun-slingers, the tracers snap and coil overhead. They could be this unhinged all the time, if they felt like it. But they usually didn’t.

“Pretty Maids All in a Row“: No one ever talks about this song, and you’ll never, ever hear it on classic hits radio. But Walsh’s wistful tribute to youth, naivete and cultural myth is actually the key to “HC”‘s soul. Which is as unexpected as the fact that Walsh’s best song ever (in my book) is a piano ballad, with only the briefest (yet entirely delicious) guitar break. It fades in slowly, a pensive pattern of suspended chords played alongside a kind of dreamy synth-string line. The tune establishes itself after a few bars, at which point Walsh’s vocal seems to call from across the street: “Hi there, how are ya? It’s been a long time/Seems like we’ve come a long way…” But Walsh, unlike his new bandmates, is less concerned with the trappings of fame and wealth that make him different from everyone else, than with the internal riddles that everyone shares: “Why do we give up our hearts to the past?/And why must we grow up so fast?” When he does finally address the “wishing-well fools with your fortunes,” it’s not with scorn or contempt, but with “love from a friend/It’s nice to hear from you again.” Together they peer back toward the simple pleasures of childhood whimsy – storybooks, ribbons, bows and pretty maids all in a row. The essence of sweet, untainted youth. A chorus of lovely harmonies carry the song into the sunset, but the poignance hangs in the air.

“Try And Love Again”: Co-founder Randy Meisner was already on the way out, but this solo composition takes the group back to its country-rock basics with this harmony-rich, guitar-led tune. It’s a catchy song, and a spirited performance, and also an object lesson on what the group would lose when Meisner packed up his bass and stomped out a few months later: A high-harmony singer whose voice had a sharp edge and, more importantly, a distinct character all its own. Recall Meisner’s spine-tingling lead on the earlier smash “Take It to the Limit,” double down with a listen to this song, and you tell me if the honey-sweet, yet un-exciting singing of replacement Timothy B Schmit (who I’m sure is a terribly, terribly nice guy) even comes close.

“The Last Resort”: And it all leads to this: a seven minute-plus tale of immigration, manifest destiny, the American dream and real estate, straight from the moralistic heart of Don Henley. The environmental message at the song’s heart foreshadowed the array of causes and message songs to come. And “The Last Resort” is a kind of one-stop-shop of a rock ‘n’ roll manifesto, taking on environmental destruction, the mistreatment of the red man, consumerism, religious hypocrisy and ill-designed subdivisions with nothing but three chords, an attitude and a thorough recollection of western civ 101. All that, plus a real sense of moral purpose, a nice ear for lean, yet evocative verse, and no perceivable comphrension that the singer’s own high-flying lifestyle (start with the mansion on the hill, tote up the private jets, the unrelenting profiteering the Eagles helped introduce into rock ‘n’ roll, and on and on) maybe fluttered in the face of the narrator’s own dudgeon. What remains (then and now) are mostly questions, paradoxes and stone cold contradictions. “You call someplace paradise/Kiss it goodbye…”

Also on the endangered list: The creative purpose of the Eagles themselves, who would spend years working on their follow-up, “The Long Run,” even cleaner, tighter and almost entirely void of life and spirit. A bile-filled break-up came next, then 14 years of solo work during which Henley shone with more than a small handful of dynamite singles, most of which were, surprise, full of bile and finger-pointing, but still. “The Boys of Summer” was and remains unto itself in terms of sound and feel, and “The End of the Innocence” was just as good. Neverthless, the Eagles regrouped in ’94 for some MTV reunion, then came years of high-dollar touring, another vaccuum-packed album (available at first only to customers of Wal-Mart, for fuck’s sake, and I wonder what the narrator of “The Last Resort” would have to say about that?????

Retrofit Guide Special: Jackson Browne De-and-Reconstructed: "The Pretender"

Editor’s note: Despite promises to the contrary, this week-long special will take the rest of the week off, then resume on Monday. Also, the spelt bag described in the review of “Jackson Browne” is almost certainly some kind of water bag, as per the sharp eyes of California outdoorsman Michael “Dusty” Mooers, who provided something like half a dozen pieces of photographic evidence to prove his point. Way to fact-check, Dusty!

“THE PRETENDER” (1976): Produced by Jon Landau, fresh from co-producing “Born to Run” and already girding the for legal battle that would make him manager/producer/comptroller of the Bruce Springsteen empire, this album was designed and executed to catapult JB’s gold-tinted success to something closer to solid platinum. Now the spelt-flecked raw edges were smoothed down, stacked neatly into shimmery, airy mixes with far more sonic depth and clarity. This could have been disastrous (and indeed, the impulse toward shiny surfaces would eventually render JB’s albums all but hollow). But given the terrible straits the man fallen into (his wife Phyllis, also the mother of his young son, committed suicide during the early weeks of 1976) the neat production only clarifies the confusion and angst roiling inside.

Whether Phyllis’s suicide was a function of their relationship or in spite of it is not the stuff of public discussion. It took him nearly a decade to approach the subject in anything close to literal terms (1986’s “In the Shape of a Heart”). But the shock of the tragedy — the grief, the guilt, the emotional numbness finding form in reportorial observations and/or assertions of whattk and/or existential gloom — shadows the entire album. What results still seems striking, if not exactly the instant classic it seemed when it was new.

“The Fuse” leads off, taking us back to the empty highways that so often set the stage for JB’s albums. A technicolor re-envisioning of “Colors of the Sun” (check the similar chord progression in the verses), this time the sun-baked invocations of eternity take flight into affirmations: Whatever it is you might think you have/You have nothing to lose;  then layered voices describing a post-mortal world where “…there’s a part of me (that speaks to the heart of me)/that’s never far from me (though sometimes it’s hard to see)/ Alive in eternity/That nothing will kill.” The words of bereaved widower, you might say, and being Jackson Browne he projects his own resilience (real or imagined) to the world around him: Look out beyond the walls of Babylon, he shouts. I’m gonna be around/When the walls come tumbling down!

You can look at this in a variety of ways: JB is either veering toward easy affirmations, or else the narrator he’s created is still stumbling through the Kubler-Ross steps of grief.  Is the heart of the world empty (“long distance loneliness”) or buzzing with promise (“you are what you choose to be”)? Ultimately he leans toward the tumbling walls and immortal souls, swept into being with a neatly reversed chord pattern that trades a minor progression for a stirring major ascent and a chorus of background vocals.

“Your Bright Baby Blues” stays on the road, this time in the company of Lowell George, whose own distinctive slide guitar (like a truck shrieking down a steep, curvy road, according to one indelible description) and background harmony give the trip a cosmic cowboy shimmer. Fellow Little Feater Bill Payne provides the churchly organ, and the song floats above the road enroute to a realization that all these highway stories maybe promise more than they can ever deliver. “No matter where I am, I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away/From where I want to be,” JB admits, which anyone’s therapist would confirm in a heartbeat. The anti-drug appeals (“…when I looked down I was standing on my knees”) probably come a decade or so too early (just wait for “Running On Empty”), but realization is out there somewhere, and with Lowell pitching in with a high harmony the white boy highway blues feels as grounded in down-home smarts as it is in hopes and dreams.

The mariachi ballad “Linda Paloma” strikes me as musico-tourism, a tequila-laced trifle whose elegant arrangement (exotic instruments set into place by impish musical genius Van Dyke Parks) can’t quite hide the emptiness at its core. It mostly serves as a diversion enroute to the side-closing “Here Come Those Tears Again,” a kind of will-to-power breakup tune  whose bereft title and opening verse (“…just when I was gonna make it through another night/Without missing you…”) explode into powder via a sleek, white-boy gospel arrangement that (again) takes flight thanks to Craig Doerge’s surprisingly funky piano. You might expect a bleaker take from the recently widowed, but this is straight-up romantic busines: the singer is making a stand, casting his faithless, yet ambivalent ex from his life. “Some other time, baby,” he snaps, “When I’m strong and I’m feelin’ fine, maybe. . .” Be gone, woman. And don’t let the backbeat hit you on the ass.

So ends the album’s first side, and also the mood of stubborn resilience (or escapism, as per “Linda Paloma”) together. From here “The Pretender” stops denying its own dark heart, finally confronting the grief and confusion at its core. No wonder, then, that the next four songs answer life’s thorniest riddles and sorrows with the same not always beleaguered response: surrender.

“The Only Child” addresses JB’s young son, pictured at play on the beach, a golden-tressed cherub scampering naked through the surf. With JB alone at the piano the song begins gloomily, then perks up as the band carries him aloft. Changes unfold; wisdom comes and goes; nothing seems to fit. So the Eagles swoop in to emphasize the simple solution to it all: Care for your family. Be kind to others. Remember that cruelty meted out is often the clearest symptom of cruelty absorbed. “There are those who feel themselves exiled, on whom the fortune never smiled.…” The lonely searching for the lonely. And again, that simple, yet jarring given the context request: Take good care of your mother.

“Daddy’s Tune” turns the lens in the opposite direction, reaching back across the generational divide to heal a rift with his own father. Once again the tune starts as a piano/vocal solo, then snaps quickly into a horn-fired blast of California soul that is positively Boz Scaggsian. “Somewhere something went wrong/Or maybe we forgot the song,” JB belts to his father, urging the old man to “make room for my 45‘s along beside your 78‘s.’ A phrasing that flirts with corniness until you consider the internal language all musicians wield when they approach their heart of hearts  (e.g., “take a sad song and make it better,” and/or “I wanna be where the bands are…”). The music picks up even more steam, the horns get even more excited and JB delivers one last observation on his way off the shiny stage: “Nothing survives/But the way we live our lives!” It’s the upper-class white boy existentialist boogie. And while I’m not sure if the song was necessarily composed for such a white-hot production, it certainly does create some jarring contrasts.

Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate.” Perhaps JB’s most haunting ballad, and certainly the closest he comes to describing the descended psychic gloom. Tumbling piano chords follow a stately pattern as he describes the passage between waking and sleep as a preparation for the final descent we’ll all make, eventually. Now the darkness is
less restful than remorseful: “I found my love too late,” he admits, flashing back to the relationship that was far more troubled than even he imagined: “Never should have tried so hard to make a love work out/I don’t know what love has got to do with happiness. . .” Neatly composed with nary a note nor syllable out of place, “Sleep” circles back to the only comfort he has left: “Oh, God this is some shape I’m in/When the only thing that makes me cry is the kindness in my baby’s eye.” Death edges closer to us, but life — and meaning — persists in the children who take our place.

“The Pretender”: Tellingly, this is the first JB album to not flirt with holy transcendence in its final grooves. Instead, JB leaves us with his feet marching across the ground and his hands numb at his sides. He’s back in the suburbs of his youth, living the day-to-day life of the American salaryman, turning the wheels and feeling lulled by their chunking rhythm. He’ll live near the freeway; he’ll get up early and go to work; he’ll sleep at night and get up the next morning to do it all over again. And again. And again. And. . .well, you get the picture. The band plays brightly, but in a lockstep of its own. The guitar jangles gently, the piano plays a simple figure, the bass zooms upward to fill the silence. “I’m gonna be a happy idiot/And struggle for the legal tender,” JB pledges, his voice too dull-edged to be truly ironic. And what the hell – everyone does it. The policemen with their sirens; the junkmen with their fenders; the lovers feigning passion as yet another way to fill the time. It’s a tart portrait of society, but unlike, say, Billy Joel (whose simple folk are so often reduced to Davy-in-the-navy caricatures) JB sees himself right in the middle of the crowd. “We’ll fill in the missing colors in each others’ paint-by-numbers dreams,” he pledges, going on to describe nights of endless, if dismayingly chilly passion. Remember the sweet, sticky erotica he found with Bonnie Raitt on “The Times You’ve Come”? This ain’t it. Not even close. “We’re gonna put our dark glasses on/And we’ll make love until our strength is gone,” he croons. “And when the morning light comes streaming in/We’ll get up and do it again. Amen.

The life of an idiot, perhaps. But certainly not a happy one. And as the pop-friendly gloomfest “The Pretender” soared up the charts, JB prepared to hit the road again. And he had a grand scheme for another record he could make along the way.