Cocaine and Colitas: Hotel California Reconsidered

Hotel California poster insert: Walsh, Felder, Frey, Meisner, Henley. Photograph by Norman Seef.

Hotel California, by the Eagles. 1976

The Eagles’ classic is ubiquitous, but it is it essential?

The Eagles (or, more specifically, Don Henley and Glenn Frey) were often viewed as cocaine-fueled El Lay misogynists. I think the cocaine-fueled and El Lay are indisputable, but is the misogynist tag a little unfair? Could be.

I’ve always been fascinated by Hotel California, the Eagles’ bazillion selling magnum opus, and how it plays with that perception in mind.

Hotel California is the Eagles stretching their powers as far as the rubber band will allow before it snaps or loses its shape forever, leaving them nowhere else to head but down. No surprise that their only subsequent release as an active band was the lackluster The Long Run, a collection of half-assed disco shuffles and by-the-numbers rockers. (Aside from barely an Eagle Timothy B. Schmidt’s heartfelt soft rock gem “I Can’t Tell You Why,” and barely upright Eagle Joe Walsh’s catchy as hell guitar rocker “In the City,” which also closed Walter Hill’s late 70s schlock classic The Warriors.)

For what it’s worth, the stretched rubber band theory is one I apply to most great rock acts who spend any time working under the Album as Art theory of record making (acknowledging that there have been many, many Not Great bands operating under this theory). The Beatles wisely realized they’d reached that point with Abbey Road, and packed it in before the slope slipped. The Stones began that climb with Beggar’s Banquet, and went from strength to strength until they reached their apex by plunging back down through the depths with Exile on Main St. The Kinks bucked the trend to some degree by releasing one pretty brilliant and one almost pretty brilliant album after their ultimate statement of intent, The Village Green Preservation Society. The Who … well, the Who never really got there. They fooled the world into believing Tommy was their Everest flag-planting, but the truth is Quadrophenia was a better album. All of which obscures the fact that the Who’s greatest album is Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, a perfect collection of classic singles, few of which managed to tickle the U.S. charts.

And then there are the Loves (Forever Changes) and Zombies (Odessey & Oracle), who strayed outside their comfort zones long enough to produce single discs that stand up to the greatest of the Greatest, despite neither band ever really being truly among the Greatest. (And, yes, both bands were otherwise very, very good at times.)

Whew. I digress.

Let’s start with this: Is Hotel California a great album?

I’d like to say it is, but it might not even be the Eagles’ best album. I think, assuming assessing a “best” of anything Eagles-related doesn’t make your stomach clench, an argument could be made for One of These Nights (the album that immediately preceded this one — which easily wins the battle of cover art, anyway). But Hotel California is the most Eagles of Eagles albums, and stands as the best summation of their moment in the sun. And, it marks that moment when tuneful music produced by strong personalities could dominate the American pop culture landscape like no other medium.

In hindsight, Hotel California, riding shotgun with Fleetwood Mac’s equally mammoth Rumours, stands as a signpost in a pivotal moment in pop culture’s de-evolution from artist-controlled playground to complete corporate takeover. The suits always knew there was money in the music, but, holy shit, this much money?

Hotel California is an arrogant, confident, pretentious, calculated work of fiction, and you can hum along to it. It’s dominated by Don Henley, but it’s the input of the other band members that prevents it from completely collapsing under its own weight.

So, in review, let’s start with the title track, which can almost definitely be tuned in somewhere on your terrestrial radio dial at this very moment.

“Hotel California” started as a killer guitar riff by lead guitarist Don Felder. (Fittingly, Felder, who primarily kept his head down and played the shit out of his guitar throughout the Eagles’ history, eventually became estranged from the band.) Once Don Henley grafted his lyrics to the music, the song became the ultimate distillation of the Eagles’ Desert Cocaine Tableau. Most of the group’s biggest hits were pretty direct, lyrically. A woman either pissed them off, or a woman was invited to lay down in the desert with them. Or sometimes the women were left behind while the band wrote their own desperado inspired mythology. But the fragmented imagery in “Hotel California” could only really make sense if the listener has a straw permanently lodged up his nose. The Witchy Woman of the past becomes the hostess of a demonic hostel where pink champagne replaces wine and pretty boys dance endlessly in sweat drenched courtyards. It seems as if the Hotel California is a place to run to and to run from, and we’re pretty sure Henley is only lamenting the “mirrors on ceiling” because all of his coke is now going to wind up on the floor.

With all of that said, the interplay between the guitars is deathless, and even vague descriptions of driving through the desert at night are enough to conjure up personal imagery for anyone confused as to what “colitas” is (are?). (The fact that the Eagles played an acoustic version of this live is either proof that they’re assholes, or that, like Eric Clapton’s tedious acoustic return to “Layla,” they just don’t quite understand the reasons for their own success — Felder trumps Henley here, and that’s that.)

With that out of the way, we catch our breath and listen to the gang take it down a notch (with the help of JD Souther — the Eagles were never lacking for talented SoCal co-conspirators, starting at the beginning with Jackson Browne) with “New Kid in Town,” which, damn it, is pretty unassailable, musically. It’s got hooks for days, lush production that never swamps the tune, and a sincere, understated vocal performance from Glenn Frey, backed by great group harmonies. What? The lyrics? Well, okay. The woman is doing him wrong (in the third person, for some reason — maybe it’s not manly to admit you’re the one being cuckolded?), and she’s not living up to her end of the bargain, and…

Okay, you get the point. It’s a Henley/Frey lyric.

“Life in the Fast Lane” (it’s interesting to note the band led the album off with Hotel California’s only three single releases — all smash hits, of course) kicks in next, and we’re reminded overtly of the cocaine. It’s a great radio rocker — guitar licks weaving in and out, featuring maybe the slickest production on the album, and Henley doesn’t spare the dude in the equation this time, letting us know that both parties are feeding each other’s sinful excesses (sex and drugs). It’s a tale as old as Los Angeles, and the spoken “are you with me so far” dropped in by Henley manages to insult the listener almost by accident. (Yeah, we’re with you, Don! Sex and drugs go hand-in-hand with rock and roll, brother! Revelation!)

And then we roll into “Wasted Time,” in which Henley (boy, so far, this is really a Don disc more than a Glenn disc) strains to let the poor dumb broad who left him know that she’s done nothing but fuck up her love life by fucking the wrong dudes, and, most importantly, by leaving Henley. It’s definitely this type of sentiment that allows critics to glue the MYSOGYNY label on our heroes. It never occurs to Don that this girl might have made the right choice in leaving a dude who not only plods through an orchestrated piano ballad about the terrible decisions she’s made, but backs it up with an orchestral reprise to hammer the point home. (The reprise actually originally opened side two, just to make sure you couldn’t escape the sentiment by flipping over the album — the fucking Eagles led off side two of their biggest album with an orchestral reprise. Admire their balls.)

The sequencing of Hotel California comes across as pretty messy in the era of the compact disc/digital album, with the “Wasted Time(s)” dropped right smack into the middle of things, and “Life in the Fast Lane” book-ending the song(s) with the next track up …

And it’s another Henley rocker (what demons was Frey battling in 1976 that allowed him to take such a backseat to his his white ‘fro-sporting partner?), “Victim of Love.” It’s a catchy kicker about … some poor dumb broad. I hate to harp on the cocaine (obviously not true), but how much of it was Stevie Nicks doing to think Henley was a fun dude to party with? Anyway, this one is another radio staple, despite never being released as a single. Truthfully, all the album really needed was “Life in the Fast Lane” to remind us the boys could rock a little. But here they slowed it down a notch in case you had trouble keeping up with them the first time.

And then, out of nowhere, we’re dropped into Joe Walsh’s melancholy reflection on life, “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” I can’t say exactly what the Eagles were thinking when they pulled Walsh into the band (”Hey — this dude makes us look sober!”), but I’d be hard-pressed to believe they anticipated his first recorded contribution would be such a beautiful, naked sentiment, punctuated not with his trademark guitar rips, but by piano and synthesizer. It’s a jarring shift in tone, helping the album achieve an eclectic vibe it was struggling to achieve with Henley dominating the proceedings, and all the more powerful for it.

Anyway, great track. And it’s followed by another great track.

Backing up “Pretty Maids” is, for my money, the best track on the album, and one of the most overlooked songs in the band’s catalog. No coincidence it’s a Randy Meisner song. “Try and Love Again” is a soaring, hopeful rocker, punctuated by Meisner’s upper register, and some truly uplifting guitar soloing. It’s a mystery why this track wasn’t released as a single, unless Henley and Frey were still annoyed that Meisner’s “Take It to the Limit” was the band’s first number one single. But it’s the one track from the album I find myself revisiting most often, without apology. It’s also worth noting that while Meisner’s lyric is treading on self-pity, he’s not blaming a chick for his problems.

At this point we’ve wound our way through a collection of hit singles, timeless riffs, and a couple of contributions from lesser used band members that stand up to the hits. It’s hard to say there’s a definite theme at play here, although California and Los Angeles are definite players on the scene. So it’s up to Henley, again, to hammer things home with the most pretentious track in the Eagles’ entire catalog.

“The Last Resort” answers the question, “What if Randy Newman didn’t have a sense of humor?” A confused history of California (and over seven minutes long, to punctuate its importance as a statement), complete with references to the “Red Man” and Malibu and all of those bright lights that sullied the landscape, presented by a group that pretty actively moved closer and closer to the neon the further their hitmaking prowess ascended. The song starts as a literal travelogue about a girl from Providence (“The one in Rhode Island”), and then slips into a reminder that California has really succeeded at excess, which is evidently a bad thing.

In the end, it’s all the preacher’s fault, anyway. One suspects that Henley (and Frey?) realized he wasn’t really headed toward any logical conclusions with this one, and the lesson we’re left with is that the missionaries traded the Red Man’s peace of mind and started us on the path toward…well…all of that cocaine and colitas, I guess. (It is a pretty tune, though.)

And that’s it. Nine songs (split into ten tracks), three hit singles, and 38 million copies sold.

Is Hotel California essential? In terms of understanding the “evolution” of pop culture, it’s an essential landing point for those curious how Los Angeles went from acoustic canyon-dwelling hippie haven to the paranoid personal driveway for limos filled with coke-addled celebrities wearing sunglasses at midnight because the lights fuck with what’s left of their peripheral vision.

But in the battle of juggernaut Los Angeles pop albums, Rumours creams Hotel California because Fleetwood Mac can be heard shutting out the world and wrestling with their relationships while coincidentally at the peak of their songwriting and performing abilities, whereas the Eagles were trying to make statements without much to state. Rumours is essential. Hotel California sounds good when you’re not paying attention too closely.

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