What the Eagles' “Hotel California” Really MeansJuly 15, 2021
During the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, a new breed of witch hunters cast a trawl across pop culture that captured songs, artists and albums that were supposedly part of a demonic conspiracy to corrupt American youth. A song often appears in these lists: Hotel California, of the Eagles. Seriously? The Eagles? THE biggest bestselling rock band in the US? Soft-rock superstars who paved the way from colorful cocaine to even softer rock superstars?
They wouldn't be Black Sabbath, but the Hotel California it was really about Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, he told himself (just listen to him backwards). Depending on your feelings about Satanism and/or the Eagles, "the truth turns out to be far less interesting than the myriad rumors that have surfaced," he wrote. David Mikkelson on Snopes. "The song is often interpreted as an allegory about hedonism and greed in Southern California in the 1970s." It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hotel California, the album, took the Eagles beyond “success to a scary level” and caused them to burn out completely. Around the time of your last 70's album, the long run, they felt trapped in a celebrity hell, which would have to freeze before they rejoined, as Don Henley observed (hence the title of Hell Freezes Over 1994). For the Eagles, hell was the other people in the band, the constant touring, and the incredible amounts of money spread out in front of them, more a curse than a blessing, apparently.
Despite these internal tensions, the Eagles produced a perfect soundtrack for the 70s.
“They reflected the emerging musical style of post-war America of the 70s, and the first generation truly sexually free…. they had no problem being identified with a band that sang like angels and partied like demons.” write Marc Eliot. Hotel California has been so identified with American culture that "when an American spy plane made an emergency landing in China in 2001," he said. Mark Savage on BBC, "crew members were asked to recite the lyrics to prove their nationality."
In reality, Hotel California it was not written as praise to Satan or America. Its working title was mexican reggae, a nod to the unusual pattern of strumming, which “followed a technique closer to flamenco than to rock”, writes Savage, “but played in off-beat”.
The forbidden landscape in the song's lyrics, an “atmosphere of a man in an unknown rural environment, unsure of what he is witnessing”, came from the novel The Magus 1965 by English writer John Fowles, a beloved counterculture author, says Glen Frey: "We decided to create something weird, just to see if we could."
There was, of course, more to the song – the default interpretation of Hotel California as a critique of the excesses of the 1970s, it was confirmed by Don Henley and Frey, who wrote most of the lyrics. The song, said Henley in a 1995 interview, “captured the zeitgeist of the time, which was a time of great excess in this country and in the music business in particular…. Lyrically, the song deals with traditional or classic themes of conflict: darkness and light, good and evil, youth and old age, the spiritual versus the secular. I guess you could say it's a song about loss of innocence” – a feeling, as Joe Walsh says in the above interview clip, that grew out of the experience of arriving and trying to get to LA “Nobody was from California,” says Walsh. "Everyone was from Ohio."
Hotel California it also "hides" a dig at rival Steely Dan in the lyrics, "they stab it with their steely knives" and barely hides Henley's contempt for his ex-girlfriend, LA jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, as he later admitted : “There's something from every girl I've been with, in all my songs; they are combinations of characters, with fiction. However, some of the most derogatory parts of Hotel California, are definitely about Loree Rodkin – “Her mind is Tiffany twisted, she got the Mercedes bends/She got a lot of pretty boys that she calls friends” – this is about her, and I wouldn't be bragging if I were Mrs. Rodkin. As far as I'm concerned, she's the Norma Desmond of her generation.”
Henley's most incisive commentary on the song comes from the documentary History of the Eagles from 2013, in which he speaks frankly about the band's critical opinion for the success and culture that produced and embraced the Hotel California:
On almost every album we've made, there's been some kind of commentary about the music business, and about American culture in general. The hotel itself could be taken as a metaphor not just for the myth-making of Southern California, but for the myth-making that is the American Dream, because there's a fine line between American Dream, and American Nightmare.
As for those baroque guitar arrangements? For this part of the story, we should turn to Don Felder, who composed the song – after Walsh joined the band to replace Bernie Leadon – to showcase the talent of the two lead guitarists. See above, Felder talking about his greatest contribution and see him play the solo “Hotel California” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a clip from Sunday Morning of CBS.
Above, see an interview with Felder behind the scenes at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in which he discusses the role of improvisation in his process, and how his jazz background led him to write the mexican reggae which would end up on American radio every 11 minutes, his most refined statement of "themes that run through all our work". Henley says: “The loss of innocence, the cost of naivete, the dangers of fame, of excess; the exploration of the obscurity of the American dream, the realized idealism and the frustrated idealism, the illusion against reality, the difficulties of balancing love relationships and work, trying to adjust the conflicting relationship between business and art; the corruption in politics, the fading of the sixties dream of 'peace, love and understanding'.
This article was translated from the original in English by Copywriting Artes & contextos
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