Graded on a Curve:
The Eagles,
Hotel California

Everybody hates the Eagles. I hate the Eagles. You hate the Eagles. God hates the Eagles. Even the Eagles can’t stand the sight of each other, and as for real eagles, of the sort that soar majestically above the desert arroyos in the hopes of espying Don Henley and carrying him off to devour him and then pick the tequila-flavored gristle from their beaks at their leisure, they hate the Eagles too.

So why am I writing about the Eagles? Because much to my shame I’ve been lying through my teeth and sorta actually like the band, despite the fact that they’re poseurs (as Tom Waits once famously said, “Those guys grew up in L.A. and they don’t have cow-shit on their boots—just dog shit from Laurel Canyon”) and their music is pure product, like hair spray or shaving cream.

But haven’t you ever loved a product so much you’d travel to the furthest WalMart in the tri-state area to find it? True, I have a hard time thinking of a less authentic band—from their early country-schlock hits such as “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and “Easy Livin’” (which is actually by Uriah Heep, but who’s keeping score?) to their peripherally harder but equally soulless fare such as “Already Gone” and “Victim of Love”—but I too am a victim of love, the kind of love you might have for a vacuum cleaner or an air conditioner or even a sex toy, except there is absolutely nothing sexy about the Eagles, that is unless you fell into a coma in 1972 and suddenly awoke hot for a mustache ride from a guy dressed from neck to ankles in denim.

The Eagles formed in 1971 in Los Angeles as a country rock quartet consisting of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner. The “four lads of I’m okay, I’m okay” (as Robert Christgau once dubbed them) released their eponymous debut in 1972, added guitarist Don Felder to beef up their sound when Henley and Frey decided to move away from country rock to go “hard rock” following the disappointing sales of 1973’s spaghetti Western concept album Desperado, lost Leadon who wanted nothing to do with this change in musical direction and replaced him with Joe “I want to do drugs even when I’m sleeping” Walsh, then replaced Meisner with Poco’s Timothy B. Schmit, and—all this is insufferably boring, isn’t it? Like listing the changing names on a corporate board, which is what the Eagles really are. I’m bored just writing it.

Suffice it to say that the Eagles broke through to superstardom with 1975’s One of These Nights, consolidated that status with 1976’s Hotel California and 1979’s The Long Run, and finally broke up because Felder wanted to murder Frey and vice versa, and Frey and Henley hated each other so much they refused to be on the same side of the continent together, much less in the same studio.

And it’s probably a good thing they did, because while they were sitting like sultans in David Geffen’s hot tub drinking tequila sunrises, LA’s punks, who despised everything the Eagles represented and vice versa, stormed the gates of Hollywood and changed the musical landscape forever, by razing it and salting the earth. It would be 28 years before the Eagles would reunite, which they did solely for the filthy lucre, and they’ll probably do it again, because when push comes to shove Henley and Frey love their money. And because lots and lots of people, who never let me forget that humanity is a failed species, actually want to see them.

But I’ve come not to disparage the Eagles but to write about Hotel California, their magnum opus that has sold 32 million copies worldwide and garnered them like 63 Grammies and contains at least two songs that are not only great songs but also inadvertently double as camp classics, which is to say that you can love them as song qua songs while also laughing your guts up while listening to them, the second of which was certainly not the band’s intention. Anyway, writing such songs may be the toughest feat in all of rock’n’roll, and the Eagles’ ability to put not one but two of them on the same LP has increased my respect for them four-fold and is the real reason I’m writing about Hotel California in the first place.

Let’s start with “Victim of Love,” a mid-tempo hard rocker with a great history behind it. Felder wrote most of the music for it and was promised the vocals, but after several unsuccessful takes the band sent him off with infamous mad dog/manager Irving “Randy Newman supposedly wrote “Short People about me” Azoff for a hot dog, during which time Henley laid down the vocals. Lou Reed would be proud. Anyway, the tune has punch and the Felder and Walsh lay down some pretty tough riffs, there’s no denying it. Unfortunately the lyrics are nothing to write home about. Well, Henley’s “A room full of noise and dangerous boys/Still makes you thirsty and hot” are sorta funny, as are the lines, “I heard about you and that man/There’s just one thing I don’t understand/You say he’s a liar and he put out your fire/How come you still got his gun in your hand?” And overall “Victim of Love,” which was recorded live in one take, isn’t a half-bad tune if you value really big guitars, which I do but not so much in this case, because I hate the title “Victim of Love” and both the song’s melody and Henley’s lyrics just don’t do it for me.

Joe Walsh’s “Pretty Maids in a Row” is the LP’s anomaly, probably because Walsh wrote it and sings it and it sounds less like the Eagles than, I don’t know, a so-so Neil Young song. It’s a ballad, and the melody is pretty, but not quite pretty enough. That said the opening piano is nice, as is the swelling orchestral sturm and drang that follows, and Walsh actually does quite a nice job of singing it and plays some nice slide guitar to boot, but its hackneyed lyrics (“It’s nice to hear from you again/And the storybook comes to a close/Gone are the ribbons and bows/Things to remember places to go/Pretty maids all in a row”) don’t do it any favors.

I’ve never liked the Eagles’ return to country rock, “New Kid in Town,” which was co-written by Henley, Frey, and the execrable J.D. Souther, because it’s as slick as sex lube and the opening guitar lines and electric piano remind me of Jimmy Buffett and that’s not a good thing, and I’ve never cared for the melody, which doesn’t hold a candle to such earlier Eagles’ country rock fare as “Take It Easy” or “Desperado.” That said, Walsh plays some nifty electric piano and organ, and the three-part harmonies are nothing to sneeze at, even if they’re not particularly my cup of tea. Meanwhile Frey’s country lilt is almost convincing, Felder plays a nice little guitar solo, and Meisner contributes some nice licks on guitarrone, which so far as I know is a type of Mexican guitar made of lunchmeat, and I really don’t have much use for “New Kid in Town” until its close, when everybody is “oooohing” while Frey sings “There’s a new kid in town” and “Everybody’s walking like the new kid in town” and “I don’t want to hear it” and so on, and it’s no wonder “New Kid” won a Grammy for Best Arrangement for Voices, even if I think the award should have gone to the Urinals.

Randy Meisner’s “Try and Love Again” is another country rocker and actually quite pretty. A mid-tempo number, Meisner’s vocals are lovely, as are the chiming guitar riffs that open the song. And the song moves the way a song should, and kinda reminds me of Poco, which should be a bad thing but inexplicably isn’t in this case. Meanwhile Felder tosses in some beefy guitar riffs as well as a really cool guitar solo, and it says something about the song that while it clocks in at 5 minutes plus it seems a much shorter tune, thanks to its sheer propulsion. And while its chorus is as simple as 5 + 3 it’s also as pretty as Mereille Enos (Ohh, gonna try and love again/Ohh, I’m gonna try and love again/Ohh, gonna try and love”). The lyrics may be negligible, but it doesn’t bother me in the least in this case, which speaks once again to the sheer beauty of the melody, and the rich vocal harmonies, and the guitars that are all over the place, thickening up the song like a tasty bouillabaisse. A winner, in other words, and why Meisner didn’t write more songs is a mystery—either he didn’t have much to say or Henley and Frey didn’t care to part with the lion’s share of the songwriting royalties, and I’ll put my money on the latter.

Henley and Frey’s “Wasted Time” is just that, a waste of time. A bluesy slow burner that has its moments but never really goes anywhere, it opens with Frey’s portentous piano, then Henley comes in and sings for a while about a woman who’s lost yet another man before getting to the lines, “I know what’s been on your mind/You’re afraid it’s all been wasted time,” at which point the tune goes all orchestral and is actually quite pretty, with Henley singing, “The autumn leaves have got you thinking/About the first time that you fell/You didn’t love the boy too much, no, no, you just loved the boy too well.” And so it goes, back and forth, with some nice backing vocals thrown in, and the orchestra swelling up and then disappearing, but overall I’d have to say it’s the LP’s weakest track with the exception of the brief “Wasted Time: Reprise” that follows, which consists of the orchestra playing the melody of “Wasted Time” and is the answer to that eternal question, why isn’t there a The Van Camp Beans Orchestra Plays the Eagles LP?

Album closer “The Last Resort” is an ambitious farewell to the old California, a place where, in Henley’s hackneyed words, “people were smilin’” and “spoke about the red man’s ways.” Henley, who himself considered the song a failure, wrote it as a protest against the real estate developers who were rapidly turning the state’s wild places into a vast suburb. Myself, I think it’s a pretty song, even if it falls flat as a protest tune or vast commentary on the death of the American Dream. It opens with Frey’s piano, then Henley begins to sing, sounding elegiac, about a woman on her way to California to find the promised land. Then the pace quickens, and Henley sings, “They called it paradise/ I don’t know why/Somebody laid the mountains low/While the town got high,” after which the guitars kick in. Meanwhile Walsh’s pedal steel guitar enters, while Henley sings the tune’s best lines, “Some rich men came and raped the land/Nobody caught ’em/Put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and Jesus/People bought ’em.” There then follows a brief orchestral interlude, which isn’t half bad and fits the song’s mood perfectly, after which Frey plays some slow and tinkling piano and Henley returns sounding sad, sad, sad. Then his drums kick in, the orchestra soars behind his vocals, and the song totally takes off, with a choir soaring and the orchestra going full tilt boogie as Henley sings his parting words, “And you can see them there/On Sunday morning/They stand up and sing about/What it’s like up there/They call it paradise/I don’t know why/You call someplacc paradise/Kiss it goodbye.” Those final lines being the best things Henley would ever write, with the exception of “Out on the road today, I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said, “Don’t look back. You can never look back,” even if the Cadillac was Henley’s.

“Life in the Fast Lane”(Camp Factor 5) is a great hard rocker about a couple burning themselves down with sex and cocaine, and roars along like a Ferrari from its brutal guitar intro to its fadeout, thanks largely to the central riff played by Joe Walsh and the Walsh-Felder twin-guitar attack that gives the song its feral punch. But what really makes the song are the lyrics, which never fail to crack me up. From the way Henley pronounces “cruel” as “cru-el” in the lines, “He had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude/They said he was ruthless, they said he was crude/They had one thing in common, they were good in bed/She’d say, ‘Faster, faster. The lights are turnin’ red,” this baby keeps me laughing, even as I admire its pounding velocity and think it’s probably the only bona fide hard rock tune the band ever wrote. But the extended metaphor of the couple living literally in the fast lane just gets funnier and funnier, as Henley stretches it thin as a lamb skin condom to cover the entire song so that in the end the “hard-headed man” who “was brutally handsome” and his girlfriend who “held him up, and he held her for ransom/In the heart of the cold, cold city” are nothing but hilarious cyphers, lost forever on the freeways of LA like a pair of befuddled tourists.

And then there’s “Hotel California” (Camp Factor 10), a song so simultaneously brilliant and inadvertently funny that I can do nothing but bow my head and say amen. As much an episode of The Twilight Zone as a song, the Hotel California is a roach motel for humans—you can check in, but you can never leave. Felder’s flamenco-flavored intro is both beautiful and campy, as are Henley’s vaguely Spanish-accented vocals, and the melody is undeniably lovely, but the real reason I loved it so much when I was younger was the guitar duel between Felder and Walsh that takes up the final 2 plus minutes of the song.

Ah, but the true genius of “Hotel California” lies in its lyrics, from the great and funny “So I called up the Captain, “Please bring me my wine”/He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine” to the penultimate stanza, which is so great I feel compelled to quote it in full: “Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice/And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”/And in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast/They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast.” You would think a top quality phantom hotel would serve a less tough roast beef, but it’s just like the old Borscht Belt joke where the old woman complains to the waiter, “The food here is lousy—and the portions, so small!” And forget what I said earlier about Henley’s greatest line being the one about the Deadhead sticker on the Cadillac, because “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast” is easily one of the funniest and greatest lines in rock’n’roll history, right up there with such howlers as Robert Plant’s “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow/Don’t be alarmed now,” “MacArthur Park”’s “Between the parted pages and the prayers/Still love’s hot, fevered iron/Like a striped pair of pants,” and John Lennon’s great joke (on you), “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can.”

In the end, Hotel California has its moments of greatness, but overall I think it’s one of the more overrated slabs of AOR music, if only because the filler to quality ratio is so high. And given my druthers I’d sooner own a copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-75, despite the presence of such horrorshows as “Witchy Woman,” “One of These Nights,” and “The Best of My Love.” Or maybe not. Because as Henley’s “artistic vision” blossomed into grandiosity the band began to demonstrate a sense of humor, even if that wasn’t their intention.

Robert Christgau once wrote, “Don Henley is incapable of conveying a mental state as complex as self-criticism–he’ll probably sound smug croaking out his famous last words (“Where’s the Coke?”), and in the end his incapacity is our gain. Grand ambition is a double-edged sword, as such bands as Rush, Bad Religion, and ELP have always demonstrated, and it is my pleasure to introduce to their ranks the name of the Eagles, who went from taking it easy to taking it up the butt—of the joke anyway.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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  • Martijn

    I’m surprised only 32 million have been sold world wide, considering in The Netherlands alone, 45 million have been sold. That’s right: every person in The Netherlands has three copies. That’s on average because I have none, and my friends have none. So most Dutch persons have more than three. I have seen them. 
    Just horsing around as a consequence of having nothing to say but thanks for the great read.

  • Michael Little

    The Netherlands has always been an Eagles-crazed land. They take it to the limit, and then some. I’m glad, Martijn, that you have somehow resisted your nation’s strange obsession with the band. I once met one of your countryman who had sixty-seven copies of “Hotel California.” He would listen to them one after the other, and swore they all sounded slightly different. He was mad. All Eagles fans are mad. And dangerous. Tell them “Hotel California” blows, and they will invariably try to cut your head off with the actual album.

  • Martijn

    The United Nations should issue strong resolutions to stop the spreading of this terrible thread.
    Hey Mike!

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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