In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Glenn Frey had a nice phrase: “The perfect ambiguity.” That purposeful vagueness, according to Frey’s old Eagles bandmate Don Henley is what the band always had in mind when they were writing lyrics. The Eagles had ideas that they wanted to get across, but they didn’t want to express those ideas with too much precision. Instead, they made vague gestures at profundity, and people could then take those vague gestures and spin them off into their own interpretations. With that in mind, “Hotel California,” certainly the most famous Eagles song, might also be the band’s defining work. It’s the most perfectly ambiguous thing they ever did.
Depending on who you ask, “Hotel California” is about: drug addiction, rising divorce rates, a mental hospital, or the Church Of Satan. (There are probably other theories, too.) The band didn’t have any of those meanings in mind. Instead, they wrote the song about their own vague assortment of ideas: innocence ending, the dream of the ’60s dying, the degradation of American values, the romance of California. None of it quite fits together. Maybe it doesn’t have to.
The three Eagles who wrote “Hotel California” were Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey. All of them had been living in California for just about a decade when they wrote the song, but none of them were native Californians. None of the Eagles were. Frey has talked about how Los Angeles was still a place of mystery and romance for the band — even after they’d lived there for years, and even after they’d helped define the place in the cultural imagination. Felder has spoken of the way Los Angeles, when you’re driving through the desert, glows like a light on the horizon long before the city itself comes into view. That’s probably the best way of understanding “Hotel California” — an ode to this beautiful and mysterious place that turns out to be full of rot and decay and hopelessness.
At its best, “Hotel California” is a song full of resonant imagery. The opening line is a great one: “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair / Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air.” It’s filmic and sensual, and it puts you in a particular place at a particular time. The driver seems to be on his own. He seems to be driving a convertible. He’s either smoking weed or really taking in the aroma of the local plant life. He stops for the night at a desert hotel, sees a beautiful woman, and goes off on some existential-dread head trip.
Some of the lyrics of “Hotel California” are nasty little shots at one of Don Henley’s exes: “Her mind is Tiffany twisted / She got the Mercedes bends / She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends.” Some of them are paeans to the lost purity of the hippie era: “I called up the Captain, ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” Some of them are hallucinatory depictions of hedonism and excess: “In the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast / They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast.” (That last line is a nod to Steely Dan, too, or maybe a dart thrown at them.)
None of this hangs together, and none of it is supposed to. It’s “American Pie” all over again — free-floating poetic profundity, grasping at making a sweeping generational statement while mostly being about its own depth. In this case, it’s also about how the Eagles, kings of California when they wrote the song, were alienated and disconsolate, fed up with the world they saw around them. (In that way, it’s not too different from “New Kid In Town,” the previous Eagles #1 hit and the song that immediately follows it on the Hotel California album.) It’s luxurious fake-deep rich-guy misery. It’s well-written and well-recorded, and I hate it.
“Hotel California” started off as a Don Felder instrumental. Felder recorded himself playing bass and 12-string guitar over a drum machine, and he brought the demo to Henley and Frey, who were into it. Henley said that the song sounded like “Mexican reggae,” and for a while, “Mexican Reggae” was its working title. Henley wrote most of the lyrics, with Frey helping out, and Henley sang lead on the final track. Felder wanted to end the song with him and new member Joe Walsh having a guitar-solo duel, but Henley liked the way that the demo version of the song ended. So Felder had to call his housekeeper and get her to dig up the demo tape and play it for him over the phone. In the end, Felder and Walsh played the long, sprawling solo together in twin-guitar harmony.
At six and a half minutes, “Hotel California” wasn’t an obvious choice for a single, and Felder was worried when Henley announced that it would become one. But the band insisted that their label release the song as a single in full, not cutting it down for radio, and they got what they wanted. I’ve heard “Hotel California” about a million times in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a radio DJ cut it off early.
If I could be even the tiniest bit objective about “Hotel California,” I’d have to admit that it’s an effective song. The lyrics’ hazy, psychedelic imagery is gratingly unspecific, but all of the lines are evocative, and all of them get stuck in your head. Henley sings everything with clear purpose and enunciation, which probably helped incite all the dorm-room speculation about what, exactly, those lyrics meant. I don’t much like Henley’s voice — it’s hard and nasal and unpleasant — but it does find an emotional tone, lost and disgusted.
The band plays with a fluid grace. There’s a lot going on on “Hotel California.” The quasi-reggae skank doesn’t do much for me, but Randy Meisner’s bass is supple and intricate, and it quietly adds a lot. Throughout the song, Felder and Walsh’s guitars seem to be in intense conversation with one another, and there’s a sad triumph in the way they come together at the end. Every single element of the song radiates and downbeat dejection, capturing fear and disappointment with sharp focus. But the song is also self-impressed and overlong and boring. It’s weighed down with its own perceived significance. I can’t be objective about that kind of thing. It always bugs the hell out of me.
But this is where the objectivity thing comes in. Nobody can ever be objective about music. The whole idea of objectivity in music criticism is a total myth. When we write about this stuff, we bring our own baggage. And when we act like that baggage doesn’t exist, we lie to ourselves and our readers. I have baggage with “Hotel California.”
This is my baggage: During my frenshman year in college, my roommate was a guy named Danny, a sensitive jock from some town outside Buffalo. Great kid. Extremely nice. Danny had been the captain of his football team, but he was into Jewel, and he put pictures of wolves up on on his wall. That year was when Napster first spread around among college students, and it was also when Danny decided that he wanted to learn how to play guitar. So Danny downloaded two songs, “Hotel California” and “Tears In Heaven,” and tried to teach himself guitar by playing along with those two songs over and over again. (Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” peaked at #2 in 1992. It’s a 4.) He got pretty good.
I didn’t like “Hotel California” before I heard it coming from Danny’s side of the room 15 times a day. Now I hate it on an instinctive, pavlovian level. When I’m scanning through the radio in the car and I hear “Hotel California,” I hit the button for the next station before I’ve even registered what I’m hearing. I haven’t kept up with Danny. I think fondly of him, and I hope he’s doing well. But fuck “Hotel California.”
Anyway, the Eagles will be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: In 1990, Ambient techno greats the Orb, recording under the name Jam On The Mutha, released a version of “Hotel California” that was more of an unauthorized remix than a new version of the song. Here’s their take on it:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: French flamenco-pop group the Gipsy Kings released their own Spanish-language version of “Hotel California” in 1990. Here’s their cover:
And here’s the iconic scene from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 movie The Big Lebowski that introduces John Turturro’s character Jesus Quintana as the Gipsy Kings’ “Hotel California” plays in the background:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Frank Ocean sang over the “Hotel California” instrumental on “American Wedding,” a song from his 2011 debut mixtape Nostalgia, ULTRA. Don Henley got mad about it, threatening legal action and saying that he was “not impressed” and that Ocean “needs to come up with his own ideas and stop stealing stuff from already established works.” Here’s “American Wedding”:
(Frank Ocean has never had a top-10 single. Ocean’s highest-charting solo song is 2012’s “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” which peaked at #32. As a guest, his highest-charting single is the 2017 Calvin Harris/Migos collab “Slide,” which peaked at #25.)