2. Eagles - Hotel California

A quick note about the elephant in the room before I talk about #2:

Once again, the "Stairway" scenario pops up.  In many post-Beatles Top 10 song lists, two songs that vie for the top spot are often my #2, "Hotel California" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."  Since I've already talked about how "Stairway" didn't even make my list, I won't go into that.

So why does "Hotel California," the other contender for most overplayed song in the history of rock radio, get to #2 on my list when "Stairway to Heaven" doesn't even make the list and gets beat out by "Rock and Roll"?  While not as technically flawless as "Hotel California," "Stairway to Heaven" is also a technically brilliant song, with arguably the better vocal performance.  But much like the way I never really got into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a Hall-of-Fame movie, "Stairway" just didn't move me, emotionally.  Objectively, it's an amazing song that deserves its spot on many Top 10 lists - just not mine.  It's not like I feel I need to justify why "Stairway" isn't on my list, I just wanted to explain why it wasn't. 

So why is "Hotel California" #2 on my list?  I'm glad you asked.  That's kinda why I do these posts.

So back to our program...

Picking "Hotel California" as the second best song of my lifetime would be considered by some to be a pretty safe choice, kind of like putting The Godfather at the top of a movie list.  A little boring, I know, but there's a reason "Hotel California" is at or near the top of lots of these lists - it's a great song!  It's perhaps the most perfectly crafted song in the history or rock & roll.   Every second of its six and a half minutes is constructed to bring the best out of every instrument and voice, and it shows.  I'm a sucker for craftsmanship, so the fact that the Eagles put so much work into perfecting this song goes a long way with me.  The band took eight months to record "Hotel California," the song (not all in a row, that would've been nuts).  They were constantly working on it and tweaking it, adding at times, while at other times removing the extraneous parts.  What was left at the end was one of the best songs ever.

While Don Henley and Glenn Frey were the main songwriters in the Eagles, it was actually guitarist Don Felder who came up with almost all of the music for "Hotel California," including that iconic guitar opening. He was sitting in a rented house in Malibu on a summer day, with all the windows and doors open.  Messing around with different chord progressions, he came up with many different song fragments, laid some down on tape, and sent them to Henley.  After hearing them, Henley said he liked some of them, but the one he liked most was the Mexican bolero - the Mexican reggae song.  That Mexican reggae song ended up being the framework for "Hotel California."

The guitars are the main focus of the song musically, but Don Henley, who also happens to be the Eagles drummer, and bassist Randy Meisner don't want to stay in the shadows.  Henley plays an almost waltzy drum line, which is much harder than it seems, spending much of the song on his high hat.  Meisner plays a loopy, reggae influenced bass line that catches your attention, but not so much that it's a distraction. 

So now that there was a musical foundation, the song needed some words to go with it.  Song lyrics are often compared to poetry, and it's a natural comparison given the fragmented composition of each.  They both try to get across in ten words what it takes prose writers paragraphs to say.  Don Henley was the main lyricist of the Eagles, and every word of "Hotel California" was his.  The way he opens the story quickly sets the stage for the rest of the song:

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night

The lyrics are so poetically vivid that there have been dozens of interpretations as to their meaning.  Many suppose that the song's Hotel California is an actual place.  It's an old church, taken over by Satanists.  It's the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.  It's a real hotel in Baja California where the Eagles spent many a drug and alcohol fueled weekend.  Much like people who try to interpret the book of Revelation into literal, modern-day terms, there will always be those looking for the deeper, real story behind "Hotel California."  Don Henley tires at the questions today because he's received the question so many times.  In an interview with 60 Minutes in 2007, he tried to finally lay the question to rest:
It's a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream, and about excess in America - which we knew a lot about.
To which Glenn Frey added later, "We weren't the Stones, but we weren't the Osmonds either."  After some prompting from interviewer Steve Kroft, Glenn smiled and added, "Yeah, closer to the Stones."  Both Frey & Henley had grown up in the Midwest and had come to California because of the music they wanted to create.  Quickly, these Midwestern boys injected the California lifestyle, in more ways than one.  The autobiographical nature of the song's lyrics melded with the California culture that had become a part of their DNA.  Henley said:

California is just a melting pot for America anyway.  It's just a synthesis and it's avant-garde - it's a leader.  Whatever happens here usually filters out to the rest of the nation.  People make a mistake if they think that "Hotel California" was just about California.  It was a metaphor for the rest of the world.  That sounds pretty grandiose, but that's what we had in mind when we wrote it.
As entrenched in the California lifestyle as they had become, they knew it was a slippery slope that they were most likely sliding too far down.  It's the situation that most addicts find themselves in:  they realize that what they're doing has ceased being fun, and has become almost exclusively harmful (to themselves and others), but they're powerless to stop it.  Many addicts have likened it to an out-of-body type experience, where they're no longer in control.  Again, Henley's poetry captures it perfectly:

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
'Relax,' said the night man,
'We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave

It's a great ending to a captivating story.  But just when you think you've enjoyed a great song with amazing lyrics that's just about to end, the guitars take center stage once again.  Throughout the song, the teamwork between Felder and newcomer Joe Walsh reminds me of how Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played together with the Chicago Bulls in their prime.  They were two guys who both could've taken over at any given time, but they both knew they would be more successful if they worked together.  If you listen to the song closely, you'll hear a rich layering of many different guitar parts, both electric and acoustic, that almost come across as an orchestra of guitars.  You might think I'm overstating it, but put on some headphones and give it a listen.  I think you'll agree.

Some people think that two guitarists are one too many, but I think if it's done right, it's almost the perfect scenario in a rock band.  When you have two guitarists in a band, it gives you so many opportunities to give songs extra flavor.  Salt on a steak is nice, but when you add pepper, that's when the taste is taken to another level.  The Eagles had two amazing guitarists when they recorded Hotel California, Felder and newcomer Joe Walsh. And when you add Glenn Frey, who took care of most of the rhythm acoustic guitar work, Felder and Walsh really had a chance to stretch their wings.  Felder summed up the relationship perfectly:

Typically, when you have two guitarists, one guy will play a support role until it's time for him to step up.  Then the other guy will step back and let the other guy shine.  Joe and I had great respect for each other to step back and have the courtesy to allow the other player to play and that's really something you learn over the years.  Both guitarists have to dance together and have the grace to allow each other space.
There's no more perfect example of the virtues of this kind of relationship than the guitar solo at the end of "Hotel California."  It's the rock & roll version of "Dueling Banjos."  Joe wrote his parts - Felder his, but they worked together on the harmonic bit at the end that every guitar player learns just as soon as they can.  When the guitars slowly fade out, you realize that you've listened to something special.  The amazing thing is that I just listened to "Hotel California" for about the 9,000th time, but I'm going to cue it up again. 

That's why it's #2, just in case you were wondering...

Two videos here.  The first is the iconic album version, while the second one is the version they played on their Hell Freezes Over tour, which has a stripped down, Spanish feel to it.

(Fun Fact #643:  While there is a desert flower known as colitas, it's not the flower that Don Henley sings about.  Their Mexican-American tour manager used the term (which translates in Spanish as "little tails" or "little buds") to refer to the little buds that were the most potent part of the marijuana plant to smoke.  It's 4:20 somewhere, right?) 

(Fun Fact #43:  Don Henley has always been a social activist.  He created the Walden Woods project to save the woods where naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote his seminal work, Walden.  He's also donated time to C.A.R.E., which fights poverty by empowering women in impoverished areas with education, as well as food and supplies.  While traveling to a remote mountaintop in Honduras on behalf of C.A.R.E., he visited a village with no electricity or modern plumbing.  After being there for about fifteen minutes, a man ran away from their group into a nearby hut.  Confused, they all just stood there for a moment.  The man quickly reappeared, holding a beat-up, old cassette player that had a tape of Hotel California in it.  He pointed at the player, then pointed directly at Don and said, "You!"  

Never underestimate the power of music.)
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