Until very recently I wouldn’t have known who The Eagles were if I bumped into them on the street. Quite what they would be doing walking around East Auckland is beside the point, but the fact is I’ve been living inside a bubble. I really don’t know why, but given that they are one of the world’s biggest rock bands, I wouldn’t know them from Adam.
Sure, I’ve seen the music video to Hotel California, and so I know that the drummer sings that one; and I know that the Super Furry Animals sold a tank – purchased to promote their debut album on the festival circuit – to said drummer, Don Henley; and I know that Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh have each had relatively successful solo careers – but again, I couldn’t describe either guy other than that fact that they both have faces.
I’ve even seen an Eagles concert on TV – a rerun of The Old Grey Whistle Test – with a pre-Hotel California version of the band playing through their early hits; but again, their very absence of familiarity has clouded my memory and so all I can remember is a bunch of polite Americans playing some non-descript MOR. I’ve even read Barney Hoskyns’ book Hotel California, which covers the formation of The Eagles (amongst other things), but I’m still none the wiser.
So for some reason, even though I consider myself well-read in terms of musical history, and I’ve learnt the proper guitar parts to Hotel California (with a capo at the seventh fret), I’ve remained ignorant to who they actually are – until very recently.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the History Of The Eagles documentary on TV. Strangely enough, the film doesn’t really give a glimpse of the band at their heyday – it kicks off with the Hell Freezes Over reunion tour, and takes that chapter in their career as the jumping off point, occasionally looking back to the ’70s from time to time.
Joe Walsh is immediately lovable – a teddy-bear of a drunk who now looks more like the sort of old man with jam-jar glasses you’d expect to see sat on a porch rocking-chair in a trailer park. Don Felder is equally non-threatening – a quiet soul, happy to be playing guitar to adoring fans. The real threat seems to come from the band’s two chief songwriters, guitarist Glenn Frey and drummer Don Henley. It’s very clear that they call the shots, and without them there wouldn’t be such a thing as The Eagles.
In one cringe-inducing moment Glenn Frey, speaking directly to camera, recounts – almost proudly – the conversation that led to Don Felder leaving the band: “I said ‘If we’re going back on tour, I’m getting more money than you.’” Hmm.
Felder (and Walsh for that matter) both agreed to terms that would give a higher proportion of profits to Frey and Henley. Eventually, the relationship soured to such a point that Felder left the band and was replaced by another guitarist for touring duties.
This wouldn’t be so strange if Felder was just a guitarist without any input into the band’s songs. But Felder brought the band their best-known song – a demo tape he brought along to a recording session contained the original instrumental idea for Hotel California – so for me, he’s just integral as Frey, Henley or Walsh.
Hotel California really is a fantastic song, and well worthy of the plaudits it regularly receives as the best guitar-based rock song, or the best guitar solo, etc. For a long, long time I tried to ignore the genius of the guitar-parts, instead preferring Jimmy Page’s solo in Stairway To Heaven, but I always find something new in Hotel California every time I hear it – it’s just magical. However, heard alongside the rest of their material (except maybe Life In The Fast Lane or Victim Of Love), the song sticks out like a sore thumb, more in line with something you might expect from the twin lead-guitar attack of Thin Lizzy.
I’ve never been an avid listener of lyrics, but they’re so ‘front and centre’ in the song, that it’s not hard to hear them. One aspect of the lyrics had always slightly annoyed me though – and I’m glad I’m not the only person to pick this up…
In a 2009 interview, Plain Dealer music critic John Soeder asked Don Henley about the lyrics: “On Hotel California, you sing: ‘So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.’’ I realise I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented; spirits are distilled. Do you regret that lyric?”
“Thanks for the tutorial,” Heney replied in a self-important and humourless tone he displays all the way through the History Of The Eagles documentary. “And no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention – and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a socio-political statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.”
It might be hard, but going forward I’ll still try my best to enjoy Hotel California, ignoring the fact that Glenn Frey and Don Henley are seemingly such terrible human beings.
Hit: Hotel California
Hidden Gem: Victim Of Love