Wednesday, November 4, 2009

For a Song: Hotel California

The Eagles: Hotel California


It’s probably true that most of my readers have never wondered if I like the Eagles. But the answer is usually no. There is, obviously, one exception. Hotel California. I should say that the only music of theirs I ever heard was whatever made it onto the radio, so they may have done other songs I would enjoy. But this is the only one I know.

Hotel California came out at an interesting time. In the 1970s, psychedelic rock morphed into progressive rock, and then faded away. Reggae arrived in the United States, and made a big impression on some people, but never achieved consistent commercial success. The Eagles ruled the airwaves with a mix of country rock and hard rock.

Culturally, the 1970s were about the belief in magic. The works of J R R Tolkien found a mass audience. Star Wars was huge. (I know Star Wars takes place in space, but in theme and plot as well, it is fantasy, not science fiction.) A remake of The Wizard of Oz, (remember The Whiz?), was a Broadway hit. And something called magic realism was coming from novelists in Latin America.

Hotel California is neither country rock nor hard rock. It is related rhythmically to reggae, but the arrangement is hard rock. Like so many songs of that vintage, Hotel California has been covered many times. But the covers of Hotel California include reggae, flamenco, and gypsy versions. It’s almost surprising that this unusual rhythm made onto mainstream radio in the first place.

Then there are the lyrics. Hotel California tells the tale of a man who is traveling through an area that is unfamiliar to him. Seeking a place to stay for the night, he comes upon the title establishment. He decides to stay for the night, only to learn that, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Described this way, it sounds fairly mundane. But why can he never leave? The lyrics never say. There are strange behaviors here, some of which sound like rituals, (“they stab it with their steely knives”). So, although nothing magical is spelled out, I have always taken this to be a tale of magic. Beyond that, the song is a mystery. My interpretation changes every time I hear the song. And that is what I treasure about it. But I still feel weird about liking anything by the Eagles.


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Anonymous said...

The song's about cocaine addiction. The stabbing with sttely knives is in reference to the razors used to make cocaine lines.

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