Some younger (mostly in their 30s and 40s) friends are having a lively shelter-in-place internet debate over who “the most important American rock band” might be.
This quest has opened up numerous rabbit holes for self-admitted music nerds. “What is a band?” (do Chuck Berry or Prince count as solo performers even though they performed with a band?); “What is an American band?” (the Velvet Underground had a Welsh member and a German half-member; yet what is more American than immigrants?); and of course, “What is important?” (ignoring epistemological implications, do we consider sales, longevity, cultural influence, or intangibles like being the band you were listening to when lost your virginity or discovered that life is not always what it seems?).
Foremost among the suggestions put forth were the Beach Boys and the Ramones (I maintain they’re West Coast/East Coast/60s/70s versions of the same band) and the Grateful Dead (quintessentially American in that they’re adored by one half of the population and ignored or loathed by the other). What surprised me as the discussion raged onward was how long it took before anyone, myself included, thought to mention the best-selling and longest-lasting American band of all: the Eagles.
Regardless of how I might have felt about it, the Eagles have maintained a presence in my life for almost 50 years. I’ve voluntarily owned two or three of their records, but I’ve never been a big fan or a huge hater. They were always just kind of there. I liked and still like their early folk-rock tunes, stopped paying attention to them once punk came along, and until I watched a 2019 CNN documentary, hadn’t thought much about them in decades.
I was first made consciously aware of the Eagles in 1972, when someone claiming to be in love with me (the feeling was not mutual) informed me that “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was now “our” song. Although that ruined the tune for me for a number of years, I eventually came to like it quite a lot. Over the next few years, everything the Eagles put out struck me as somewhere between pleasant and inoffensive. Early in 1977, I bought my final Eagles album, Hotel California.
As a whole, the album was so-so, with some filler and a couple real clunkers, but the title song is not just the best-known Eagles song ever, it practically defines their legacy. All these years later almost everyone knows it. I don’t remember ever hearing someone call it their favorite song, but you could assemble a fair-sized organization of people who consider it their most-hated.
I’ve never understood why that is. Popular music is good for a lot of things, but one of my favorite aspects is its ability to capture the zeitgeist, to crystallize it into a form that, more than any history book, can help people from other times and places understand what it was like to inhabit a certain era. Few songs, in my opinion, do that better than “Hotel California.”
In 1977 I was living what in today’s San Francisco would be the life of a billionaire or at least a multi-multi-millionaire, but which at that time was available to anyone with a decent-sized welfare check and a side-hustle. I’d just moved into a three-bedroom Victorian house atop Buena Vista Hill, paying the princely sum of $330 a month (the house next door is currently available at $7,000 if you’re interested).
It was a strange and unsettling time in Frisco. The hippie dream was dead but not quite buried, and what if anything was going to replace it hadn’t become clear.
From my new digs it was a shortish walk down to the Haight-Ashbury, now more notorious for crime and violence than peace and love, or, heading in the opposite direction, to the Castro, still in its pre-AIDS heyday. One thing that permeated San Francisco in all directions was drugs, and no longer just the pot and acid that had swept through the city’s and then the nation’s bloodstream a decade earlier. Those were mere aperitifs now; the main course was more likely to consist of cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, or for the truly adventurous, a smorgasbord of all three, punctuated and modulated by an ever-proliferating array of up and down-shaped pills.
I was no exception to this trend, though I comforted myself with the notion that I was “nowhere near as bad” as other people I knew (most of whom, to give them their due, are long since deceased). I had been attending classes at the University of California in Berkeley, and getting quite a lot out of them, but 1977 would mark my last year there until the 1990s. You’d think someone intelligent enough to be a Berkeley student would realize getting high all night before embarking on an hour-long streetcar-and-bus commute to an 8 am class was not a sustainable lifestyle, but you would be wrong.
It was during one of those nights (“One Of These Nights” being another Eagles classic) that “Hotel California” first grabbed me by the earlobes, sat me down rather forcefully, and said, “This is your life now, kid. Read it and weep.”
I suspect part of the reason so many people hate “Hotel California” is that it’s so hard to escape it. It’s not just that it’s always on the radio, but if you’ve heard it even once or twice, the riffs and chorus will have become permanently implanted in your brain. It’s the dream of every songwriter to create such an effective earworm; listeners are not always so grateful.
But the hook of “Hotel California” goes beyond music; it’s more the mood it evokes. Like millions of others, I’d come to California in pursuit of something, even if that “something” was mainly the desire not to be somewhere else. Now all of us were rattling around the Golden State, coming to terms with life in what looked, sounded, smelled, and had been sold to us as paradise, but all too often resembled its opposite.
With the cost of living low and the state relatively uncrowded – fewer than half as many people lived there as today – ne’er-do-wells like myself and my friends could live the lives of rock stars, or at least what we imagined a rock star life to be. The Eagles were singing about the real deal, which sounded simultaneously appealing and terrifying.
The lines that hit me hardest, after the long, inviting buildup of warm colitas and shimmering lights, were “They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.” What beast was this, I wondered, and why would we want to kill it? I already knew the answer. “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969,” they sang, and had they not needed that year – the year of Altamont and Manson – for the rhyme, it would have been smarter to peg it at 1966 or 67.
All the drugs, all the glitz, all the self-congratulatory “We Californians are so much more enlightened and progressive” BS couldn’t obscure the malignant id we thought we’d escaped but which had merely shifted shapes and forms and burrowed deeper into our souls. I guessed that’s what they meant by “You can check out any time you want but you can never leave.” The whole counterculture, it seemed, had amounted to little more than a change of costume.
That sort of realization is hardest on young people; those who’ve been around a while are not so quick to deposit all their eggs into the basket of one social movement or prophet or politics. But we who had come to California in our teens or twenties and were now stumbling into our thirties, had been so sure that this time it would be different. It’s the illusion pursued, often into the gates of madness, by every generation, but we boomers had been so numerous, so much the center of everyone’s attention, that it was inconceivable we could wind up as just another self-indulgent, self-serving mass of producers and consumers.
Yet here we were. After a little more thought, I’ve decided the rage engendered by “Hotel California” is not just generic boomer-hate (though that’s a factor in nearly everything these days), but a semi-logical response to all tales of boomer angst, depression, disillusionment, and despair. They force you to confront your own tenuous ideals and assumptions, and seriously, nobody wants to do that.
I have a feeling that once the remaining boomers have shuffled off to their reward (or lack thereof), “Hotel California” will get a new, less-loaded lease on life. People will appreciate it as a historical and cultural document, and admire its craftsmanship without wanting to murder the writers and musicians behind it.
I could be wrong, not that it matters, because as one of those boomers, my years in the Hotel California (it’s a state of mind, I think we can safely say, not a geographic location) are winding down. You youngsters will have many decades to put your own spin on it, but trust me, the song and the concept will outlive you, your children, and theirs as well. On a dark desert highway … well, at least you know what to look out for.