“Hotel California” – Eagles, 1977.
“Hotel California” is not a song I like very much. That’s something of an understatement, really. I detest it. The hatred began as a seed of indifference, nourished by decades of hearing it overplayed on the radio, oversung off-key at karaoke bars, over-requested at weddings and over-selected on pool hall jukeboxes, blossoming finally into a putridly fragrant flower of pure, embittered, soul-deep loathing. Even hints of the first tinny, ear-scraping chords are enough to send me into paroxysms of bile-spitting fury, questioning how anyone could possibly endure this egregious example of rock & roll wallowing in its own crapulence yet again. And I know I’m in the minority opinion, as there are millions who consider it one of the finest rock songs ever written. Rolling Stone magazine ranks it 49th on their list of the 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs of All Time. Myself, if I have to hear the insipid banality of the warm smell of colitas or sweet summer sweat or prisoners of our own device one more time, I may punch something. You know when I laugh the loudest at The Big Lebowski?
Yep, right there. As an aside, there’s a story to this: The infamous Allen Klein was planning on charging the Coen Brothers $150,000 to use Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits, which would have broken the movie’s music budget. When Klein saw this scene, he erupted in a fit of gut-busting laughter and told the Coens they could have “Dead Flowers” for free. So even though I rue realizing I have anything in common with Allen Klein, on this point he and I are in complete agreement. And before you ask, yes, Dad had a worn copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Mom loved Glenn Frey, so clearly that was one trait that skipped a generation. (My son does not know who the Eagles are so perhaps we’ve broken the cycle – now I need to cure him of his fixation with Nickelback.)
At this point you are wondering, why on earth is this song on the list?
In July 2008, just after a certain junior Senator from Illinois secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, my wife announced that she’d purchased tickets to the upcoming Eagles show in Toronto, part of their Long Road Out of Eden Tour. It is a common occurrence in marriage, I suspect, that from time to time one partner must work on feigning excitement in something that the other is bubbling with enthusiasm over. “We’re going to see the Eagles” was about as scintillating to me as suggesting that we attend a three-hour dramatic reading of Canada’s federal tax code. I chewed through my tongue to prevent quoting the above-noted Lebowski moment and said “great!” while simultaneously invoking my inner weasel to think of legitimate reasons to not attend. Still, I knew it was important to her, and I reconciled with the idea by reasoning that the Eagles were considered in some circles to be legends, and that seeing them live would be something to tick off the proverbial liste de seau. I’d just have to endure the visions of a bunch of aging 70’s rock fans swaying on replaced hips to that damnable song for 7 interminable minutes.
The date arrives, we find our way to the venue and take our seats. It’s the first time I can recall that I’ve never felt the slightest twinge of anticipation about a concert. This should be a big deal, and it isn’t. I’m wasting a seat someone else who will enjoy these guys even a modicum more could be otherwise making better use of. No matter though, I’m here and I’ve gotta get through this. I’ve gotta choke this down like that childhood plate of brussel sprouts. The lights go down, the crowd roars, and the Eagles take the stage. Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit walk out attired in matching dark suits, pick up their instruments, check their amps and start to play.
And they rock.
By the second song I’m sold. They’re incredible. They play with the studied, impeccable craftsmanship acquired only by those who’ve been at it for forty years. They banter together and with the audience with the healthy self-deprecation that is earned only by a life hard-lived and knocks well-taken. (Glenn Frey, introducing “Take it to the Limit,” or as he calls it, the ‘credit card song:’ “I’d like to dedicate this to my first wife, or as I call her, Plaintiff.”) They blow the typically reserved Canadian audience back against the wall with nothing but tunes and talent. Joe Walsh even earns some hometown cred (or cheap applause, if you will) by donning a Maple Leafs cap for a couple of numbers. Running through a healthy combination of Eagles classics, covers, selections from their respective solo careers and material from the new album, the Eagles, for lack of a better word, fly. It’s one of the tightest, most accomplished, most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. No messing about with pyrotechnics or stage diving or bollocks political posturing. Just four gifted guys bringing their best, seasoned game. This is a shimmering blade of rock and roll forged with an expert hammer and polished to a perfect shine.
Naturally, there comes an inevitable point midway through the song list. Those all-too-recognizable tinny chords start twanging. The crowd loses it. As Don Henley invokes the dark desert highway, my wife gives me a knowing look, and I smile. Yeah, okay. This isn’t so bad.
Since that night, “Hotel California” has been a lesson in humility for me. A reminder to temper my opinions, to crawl back from the edges of extremism and recognize that the truth lies somewhere in the mushy middle. It’s one thing to hate a particular song, or movie, or any work of art, really, but there are precious few instances where that can lead legitimately to a complete dismissal of the artist as a worthwhile creative force. There is usually some value to be found in everything, and in the cases where there isn’t, it’s not worth giving those sorts more than a microsecond of our precious consideration. Music preference, and by extension the professional criticism of same, has always been about strong opinions, but the danger is in letting ourselves get caught up in how much this band is infallible while this other one sucks beyond redemption. It’s hardly worth the rise in blood pressure, especially when – as the Eagles proved for me – you can still occasionally find yourself pleasantly surprised, and well and truly rocked.