Retrofit Redux: The Eagles’ “Hotel California”

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 surprising 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 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 are 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? Because it sounds a lot more like the dreaded wog hemp. Try the latter. “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 guitar jam 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?eagles hc artifax

“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 my 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) 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 smoothly piercing 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?????

(Note: Originally published in 2010, but back again because maybe you didn’t see it then.)

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: "Running On Empty"

The road and sky collide, with drums

A songwriter comes up with a brilliant idea, comes up with half a dozen striking new ways to capture the sounds. And yet the most haunting parts of “Running on Empty” turn out to be the ones that contain no music at all.

I keep thinking about the first 30 seconds before the start of the opening (title) track. Bear in mind that “Running” is a fantastic song, certainly the best rocker JB ever wrote, both thoughtful and fiery, captured in a performance that is both stripped down and simply blazing. Holy shit. But it’s that silence that sticks with me.

Actually, it’s not silent at all. The band is onstage, gearing up to play a new tune. You can sense that the lights are low, you can hear the crowd get restless. Voices bellow song titles. “The Road and the Sky!” a woman shouts. “Ready or Not!” a guy honks. Other voices form a kind of wordless chorus – the sound of expectancy, of demand. Finally another guy finds the bridge between impatience and resignation. “Play what you want!” It’s like a signal. A foot stomps, a hand chunks a rhythm on tamped guitar strings.  Then…….Boom.

A two-chord riff for piano and guitars, a simple bass line, David Lindley’s jet-engine slide guitar. The drums pounding a hard stutter rhythm. Blazing and roaring.

“Lookin” out at the road rushing under my wheels. . . .I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels…

Remember the place where the road and the sky collide? This is it. And the point of “Running on Empty,” the album, is to find a way to tell everyone else how it feels to be the man on the road. The poet as object of desire. The troubadour on the run. JB came up with a brillliant way to do just that: by recording an entire album of new songs on the road – onstage; offstage; in the hotel; on the bus. The whole experience, from the good (the glow of the stage) to the bad (cooped in the bus on an all-night ride) to the hideous (wired so tight on coke that even the stupidest ideas seem brilliant).

Brilliant in concept, less so in execution, “Running on Empty” is both a huge step forward and a lurch toward self-destruction. Funny how those two things can happen at the same time.

“Running on Empty: As discussed, this straight-ahead rocker was, and remains, an uncontested high point in JB’s career, both as a work of self-analysis and poetic insight, and also as a searing blast of rock ‘n’ roll music coming from a highly unexpected source. Essentially flawless to these ears, and according to most, simply essential.

“The Road”: A moment of silence, then we’re back in the hotel, a couple of guitars and Lindley’s fiddle covering Danny O’Keefe’s raw portrait of the struggling artist on the road. “Phone calls long distance/To tell you how you been/You forget about the losses, you exaggerate the wins...” puts a fine point on it, to the ghostly drone of the fiddle and JB’s own sad, vaguely desperate recitation. He’s in a higher-end game now, but you can hear how closely he still identifies with the soulless pursuit the narrator describes. Another music-less moment makes the connection vivid: When the music pauses between the second chorus and the third verse — “When you stop to let ’em know/You got it down. . .” the faint crickets give way to the cries of fans, the three-way jam becomes a fully-arranged band performance in a concert hall. “You’re right about the moon/But you’re wrong about the stars,” he sings. The fiddle sings now, but the singer still sounds glum. “It’s just another town along the road. . .”

Haunting, beautiful, and it won’t get any better than that, unfortunately. The lag begins next, with “Rosie,” a smirky, half-serious tale of a roadie seeing his dream groupie walking off with a bandmember. “I might have known she’d come for a star,” he sulks, before heading off to his room to contemplate the solitary sexual life of a guy who isn’t in a band.”Rosie,” as it turns out, isn’t a girl as much as an adolescent boy’s code name for masturbation. “You’re all right,” he sings, enroute to a litany of double entendres shared between singer and background vocalists: “You wear my ring/When you hold me tight/Rosie, that’s my thing…I got to hand it to me.” The tune itself isn’t bad – simple, but trending toward elegiac. The words are somewhere between silly and stupid and while I still love a smirky adolescent sex joke, this one doesn’t work in the least. In the context of the opening two songs, it’s a disaster.

“You Love the Thunder“: Is a rebound, but not nearly potent enough to recapture the momentum. Addressed to the women who actually do love the guys drawn to the road, it’s got a nice melody (particularly the swells toward the chorus in the end and the vocal arangement in the climax) but the central metaphor (thunder, rain, etc) are shaky at best, and tho Lindley’s guitar does its best to distract us from the lyrical and rhythmic weaknesses, it’s a relief when the audience applauds and we mosey backstage again, to explore the depths of the rock ‘n’ roll life.

“Cocaine”: Another peek behind the curtain, and the view is grim, grim, grim. A bunch of stoned musicians weaving blearily through the Rev Gary Davis’s classic, with words carved into new lines by JB and his sleazy pal Glenn Frey. “I went to see my doctor down at the hospital,” a dazed-sounding JB sings, “He said, ‘Son, it says here you’re 27 but that’s impossible/You look like you could be 45.” When I was 15 that sounded scary. Now that I’m 47 it just sort of pisses me off.  Nevertheless, there’s a kind of bracing vividness to this vision of rock ‘n’ roll hades, which becomes all the more haunting when the music ends and once again the real haunting part of the album comes most clearly out of the silences between the songs.

What we hear is JB himself leaning down, and not away from the microphone, as he takes a huge, ugly-sounding snort. Snoooorrrrf, then koff-koff-koff, and

“Blood on the highway,” someone observes, with the sort of non-judgmental shrug that one tends to reflect on later at the funeral.

JB can barely form words, but keeps talking: “You gotta take more of it or less of it, I can’t decide which one,” he muses. Then Lindley speaks up, his voice needle-sharp, but twisted into a sardonic imitation of some movie cowboy (who he identified in one invu but whose name I now forget sorry about that.)

“I’ll tell you what it does take,” he drawls. “It takes a clear mind.

JB: “It takes a clear mind to take it, or a clear mind not to take it?”

DL: “It takes a clear mind to make it.”

JB: (stoned, dull-witted pause) Then he laughs, snuk-snuk-snuk, like Beavis and/or Butthead, 20 years before their time.

End of side one.

“Shaky Town”: Side two begins with a kick in the head – a largely acoustic, but rough-hewn road song, only this time from the perspective of the working men – the drivers at the wheel, the working musicians who grind away with a fraction of the glory accorded to the superstars. “I‘ve heard you tell those lies about the love you’ve known,” the narrator scoffs, more concerned with the practical need to get out to the coast and play the next show. “This young man feels/Those eighteen wheels/That keep turnin’ round to take me down to Shaky Town…” Another memorable tune, captured raw and vital in a makeshift set-up in a Holiday Inn somewhere. The only fly in the ointment is that JB didn’t write it – it comes from gui
tarist Danny Kortchmar, who harmonizes and keeps the stomp in the beat. A troubling question.

“Love Needs A Heart“: Another onstage peformance of another wonderful new song. This time a JB collaboration with Lowell George (talk about cocaine problems) and Valerie Carter, but you can hear JB’s pull on the lyric just as clearly as Lowell’s off-kilter, yet consistently lovely modulations. What begins as a lonesome break-up tune (Leavin’ behind the life that we’d begun/I broke myself in two…) the melody seems to catapult the lyric toward unexpected insights and breakthroughs. “I’m afraid to believe the things I feel,” the singer proclaims, aspiring toward transcendence with one eye on hope and the other on the clock. “I hope it finds me in time,” he frets, as Lowell’s music descends through two or three keys in search of the song’s root note. “Love needs a heart like mine,” he concludes, traveling onward into the darkness where George’s own cocaine-swollen heart would beat its last, somewhere between shows on his own endless road.

“Nothing But Time” : Onto the bus with the band, rumbling from Maine to New Jersey in search of the next blast of light and cheering crowd. The real bus engines rumble (an actual on-the-road recording, if you hadn’t figured it out already) and the stripped-down band (acoustic guitars, percussion on cardboard boxes and guitar cases; backing singers perched in their own row of seats) describes the meandering thoughts and notions of exhausted, sleepless minds. The guitar solo careens from style to style – the singer calls out for a Chuck Berry riff, and is instantly rewarded. Nothing matters, and what if it did? “I got a bottle of wine/I got a broken white line/ there ain’t nothin’ but time between this Silver Eagle and that New Jersey line. . .

“The Load-Out/Stay”: At which point the mirror cracks, and the magic runs out. No longer content with the stripped down verite portraits of road life, JB digs deep, brushes off the coke and road dust and emerges with a piano ballad that casts it all into a Disney-like shimmer. JB finds himself noodling around on an empty stage, hearing the echoed thumps and bangs of his devoted (and admittedly ill-paid) crew packing up his gear and lugging it off to the trucks, to rumble off to the next hall where the people will be so fine, and wait in line for the opportunity to stand up and cheer, once again, for the magical strains of JB and friends. Between then and now, tho, the road is full of friends and fun: CB radios on the bus, Richard Pryor videos, disco music. This gang, this merry band of brothers and chick singers, has as much fun as they can. Still, what it all comes down to, he proclaims, is the people waiting in the hall. “People, you’ve got the power over what we do…come along, sing the song/You know that you can’t go wrong…” Are you buying this? I’m not buying it. It’s all affirmations and phony cheer. What happened to the grim, coked-out hotel rooms? What happened to the easy/sleazy road sex and the not-so-secret beating off, and all the existential nothingness viewed from the Silver Eagle window? Now it’s all pixie dust and make-up, leading to the mellow gold reprise of Maurice Williams’s “Stay,” which just sort of sits there, fat and happy onstage, til Lindley takes the mic and wails out a grand crazy-man falsetto climax.

The promoter didn’t mind, the unions didn’t mind. But the listeners, so beguiled by the bracing darkness of the album’s best tunes, leave the road (and the album) puzzled by the quick pivot to nowheresville. What started on the edge of a compelling philosophical question ended up, somewhere near Las Vegas. Not an awful trip, exactly. But what did it bode for the future?