Quick, what is the state anthem of California?
If you answer 'California, Here I Come,' you are, like me, wrong. If your answer is 'I Love You, California,' you are an unusually well-informed career state employee. And if, like billions of people around the world, you answer 'Hotel California,' well, you are technically wrong but, oh so right.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of 'Hotel California,' both the song and the album it graces which is one of the most telling, and best-selling, albums of all time. The power and mystery of 'Hotel California' has tantalized and inspired, provoked and mystified ever since its exotic and evocative guitar figures and enigmatic lyrics were first heard 40 years ago.
"It makes me want to go there and it makes me want to get away," said one tourist standing near a California street corner as a singer with a guitar gave the song a go. "Look at me," she said. "Here I am."
December also marks the 50th anniversary of 'Buffalo Springfield', the first album by the group of the same name, and of their own all-time classic song, 'For What It's Worth.' No Buffalo Springfield, which pioneered much of the California sound and begat a little group called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, maybe no Eagles. We'll get to that a little later.
While the Springfield, named after a steamroller parked near the house Stephen Stills, my old campaign friend from the '80s, was then crashing in, were a group of guys most all of whom were in their early twenties when they released their very first album 10 years earlier, the Eagles were veterans by the end of 1976. All of them were approaching or just at the age of 30.
"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave" ... from the 'Hotel California' tour, spring 1977 in suburban Washington, D.C., Don Henley on lead vocals.
'Hotel California' was their fifth studio album. Their other album, released in early 1976, was a little record called 'Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975).' The record company put it out without input from any of the band members (except, unbeknownst to the rest, founder Glenn Frey) to meet hungry market demands as the band worked on what would turn out to be their master work. It was a good thing that the opinions of the Eagles not named Frey did not carry the day; 'Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)' proved to be the best-selling album of the 20th century in America.
The Eagles, led by Frey, had begun five years earlier in the back-up band of one Linda Ronstadt, an incredible virtuoso of a singer who was herself then on the verge of becoming the queen of rock and roll, not to mention the consort of California's young governor-about-to-be, Jerry Brown. With a huge assist from the very kindly Ronstadt, Frey, who had the assurance of a deal from his neighbor Jackson Browne's friend and manager David Geffen if he had a band, brought together fellow guitar player Bernie Leadon, bass player Randy Meisner, and a drummer and sometime singer by the name of Don Henley.
Although Frey, the principal arranger of the band's music throughout its history, had made, as he told me many years later, a detailed study of the brilliant and fractious supergroup which emerged in the wake of Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -- for a time, till they broke up, the California equivalent of the departed Beatles -- he did not want to make himself and his bandmates household names. He wanted a band name like that for a tight-knit gang, short and pithy, "bad and cool." And he came up with one. The Eagles.
After a few months rehearsing and playing small clubs in Colorado, they were a tight combo, playing a country-ish rock featuring high Crosby, Stills and Nash-type harmonies with a Western texture all their own. Their debut album, 'Eagles,' out in early '72, hit big right away, propelled by a Frey-sung ditty written by Jackson Browne and Frey that was to become an instant all-time classic. If 'Take It Easy" (which I loved so much the moment I heard it in my school parking lot that I sprinted after the car playing it to find out the name of the band) lacked the earnest and often bittersweet social relevance of CSNY, well, the times were getting pretty tired, awfully disillusioned. Something upbeat and positive seemed in order, though, as it turned out, the Eagles had their own brand of progressive politics to push when the time again seemed right.
With sudden stardom, the band then veered onto a frequently acoustic, country and western-oriented concept album about outlaws in the Old West, likening them to contemporary rock stars and other youthful rebels. "'They made a cowboy record!,'" one executive disgustedly exclaimed in Frey's rueful/gleeful recounting years later.
'Desperado' did yield some classic songs (and is one of my all-time favorite albums), but proved a commercial disappointment, so the the band got back on professional track the following year with 'On the Border,' a much crunchier, rock-oriented album which also yielded the Eagles' first number one hit single, the ballad 'Best of My Love.' (Which I've just kept typing, no doubt tellingly, as "Beset of My Love.") By this point, Frey and Henley were the band's principal songwriting duo, and the at first rather retiring Texan Henley was emerging from behind his drum set as a lead vocalist with a rare combination of smokiness and power.
1975 saw a further advance for the band with 'One of These Nights' becoming their first number one album. The silky, slinky, intriguing yet driving title song, now a long ways from country rock, became another number one single.
After taking a break to help propel the environmentally-minded Jerry Brown to a string of late-breaking presidential primary wins over eventual President Jimmy Carter with a series of massive benefit concerts, which helped guarantee that Carter would back solar power to try to preempt Brown in the future, the band got back to work on what Henley and Frey saw as their big statement album, 'Hotel California.'
While retaining some of their country flavor, with those trademark high harmonies -- "Best oohs in the business," as Frey, never one to fake humility, put it -- the Eagles had become a harder-rocking outfit. Henley and Frey had taken joint command of the band, and Frey in particular, who had been a teenage sideman in his hometown Detroit to legendary rocker Bob Seger, wanted the band to be able to blast it out with the best of them in the stadium shows they were taking on in the footsteps of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and hard rockers like Led Zeppelin. CSNY, in addition to the glorious harmonies, had two of the top lead guitarists around in Stills and Neil Young. Their electric guitar duels had proved very loud and quite epic in their pioneering 1974 tour.
So Frey first brought on unsung ace guitar player Don Felder, a Stills friend who was then lead guitarist for Crosby & Nash, for the latter stages of recording 'On the Border.' 'Hotel California' was to see a much bigger change, with founding lead guitarist Bernie Leadon, whose relationship with Ronald Reagan's daughter (and her security) was distracting to the band in its extracurricular activities and who loved the country approach of the early days, leaving after an argument with Frey. Henley and Frey then decided to bring on guitar hero Joe Walsh, thus giving the band two top lead guitarists a la the CSNY model. And Walsh, who is a terrific guy in the bargain, had the added advantage of being a legendary partier and destroyer of hotel rooms, thus adding to the street cred of a band often seen as too smooth and mellow for its own good.
The Buffalo Springfield perform 'For What It's Worth' on 1967 TV variety shows, with Stephen Stills doing the lead vocals on his song. "Paranoia strikes deep, into your heart it will creep ..."
The stage was set.
Henley and Frey were by this time sharing a house as they worked to create the album. While they were open to their bandmates' suggestions, and would end up having a song by each of them on the album -- the most successful of which was Randy Meisner's absolutely gorgeous ballad 'Try and Love Again' -- they saw themselves as principal authors of a statement album both about the nation in its Bicentennial year and life in Los Angeles.
The sprightly and more than slightly ironic 'New Kid in Town' was about the grand feeling of being the new flavor of La La Land and the inevitable, invincible, and ultimately ephemeral way that played out.
'Life In the Fast Lane,' the title of which, like 'New Kid' and so many others, was another Frey idea, was a hard rocker co-written by Joe Walsh about the high times and hard road of the life of glitter and excess; best played, naturally, careening down an LA freeway. It proved to be another instant classic.
'The Last Resort,' which closes the album, is a Henley-esque excursion through California as the ultimate American frontier. Decrying the devouring of resources and rape of the land taken from its native inhabitants, Henley's elegant, elegiacal vocal hits many high notes as it notes the lows of our pattern of development.
She came from providence, the one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee,
Just as her father came across the sea
"She heard about a place, people were smilin',
They spoke about the red man's way, how they loved the land
And they came from everywhere to the Great Divide
Seeking a place to stand or a place to hide
"Down in the crowded bars out for a good time,
Can't wait to tell you all what it's like up there
And they called it paradise, I don't know why
Somebody laid the mountains low while the town got high
"Then the chilly winds blew down across the desert,
Through the canyons of the coast to the Malibu
Where the pretty people play, hungry for power
To light their neon way and give them things to do
"Some rich men came and raped the land, nobody caught 'em,
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes and, Jesus, people bought 'em
And they called it paradise, the place to be,
They watched the hazy sun sinking in the sea
"You can leave it all behind and sail to Lahaina
Just like the missionaries did so many years ago
They even brought a neon sign 'Jesus is Coming',
Brought the white man's burden down, brought the white man's reign
"Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God
"And you can see them there on Sunday morning
Stand up and sing about what it's like up there
They called it paradise, I don't know why
You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye"
'The Last Resort'
Don Henley and Glenn Frey
With these and some pointed love songs, sometimes acidulously so, the Eagles had an outstanding album. What took it into the eternal stratosphere of popular music was, of course, the matchless title track.
Ironically, given that it was the on-stage dispute between Felder and Frey (who had hired him in the first place) -- a lengthy back-and-forth barking and near fight that I witnessed from about 50 yards away at a Long Beach benefit concert -- that led to the band breaking up in 1980, a break-up that would last 14 years, it was the same Felder and Frey who initially came up with the title song.
Felder submitted tape of a very intriguing guitar instrumental to Henley and Frey, and Frey loved the composition right away, dubbing it "the Mexican Reggae piece."
Frey wanted to do a song about the enchantingly dark yet glittering promise of the California Dream, which Henley in turn saw as commentary on the ultimate version of the American Dream. Frey rather cinematically envisioned a traveler driving across the desert at night, as he had, sighting the increasingly bright lights of Los Angeles on the dark horizon, then being drawn into mystery and adventure.
"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
"There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
'This could be heaven or this could be hell ..."
Henley, a brilliant wordsmith, did most of the shaping of the actual lyric. Between the two of them, they had an absolute field day, creating an enigmatic and evocative story that at once draws you into the "Hotel California" and repels you from its not infrequently devastating charms.
Also from the "Hotel California' tour, spring 1977 in suburban Washington, their number one hit 'New Kid In Town,' with Glenn Frey on lead vocals. "They will never forget you till somebody new comes along ..."
Some think it a drug song, some believe it to be about satanism. CSNY thought they were dissed ("We haven't had that spirit here since 1969"). And many millions more have their own personal interpretations.
With Henley's incredible lead vocal, the band's great harmony singing, and a lot of brilliant guitar interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh, it's an epic for the ages. It makes the Beatles' fantastic 'A Day In the Life' seem like a piece of straightforward journalism.
And it might never have happened without the Buffalo Springfield. Also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Springfield, formed as I discussed in my October appreciation of Neil Young, when Stephen Stills fortuitously caught up with his acquaintance Young's old hearse headed in the opposite direction on Sunset Blvd., lasted only from 1966 to 1968.
The mercurial Young left the band several times, including their gig at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, a key event of the Summer of Love. That caused then Byrd David Crosby to play in his place, thus cementing his friendship with Stills. And that led ultimately to a duo which, with the help of Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliot, became a trio with the addition of Englishman Graham Nash, refugee from yet another future Hall of Fame band, the Hollies. (Tellingly, it was on his second day in LA that Glenn Frey drove up to the Country Store in Laurel Canyon, hoping to see some of the CSN guys. And there was fellow ace rhythm guitarist and harmony singer Crosby, looking, as Frey recalled, just like he did on one of the famous Byrds album covers.)
Good as the Byrds were -- they were brilliant exponents of the emerging style of folk rock, and great interpreters and popularizers of Bob Dylan songs -- the Springfield were better. They were far more versatile. With Stills and Young, even at 21 years of age, they could play pretty much anything in what is now known as Americana -- folk, country and western, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, and rock. They were like a sprightlier, more song and less jam-oriented LA version of San Francisco's Grateful Dead. Except they were far more driven than the no less brilliant Jerry Garcia and company. (And they were better singers, indeed, Stills and Crosby were later to teach the Dead in that department.) Of course, the Dead never broke up. Not even when Garcia, a truly great guy, so sadly and prematurely passed away in 1995. They are thriving still as Dead and Company, with contemporary pop star/guitar ace John Mayer proving a stunningly good stand-in for the very different Garcia.
On 'Buffalo Springfield,' the young band, sounding especially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, works to develop a blend of folk, country, and rock music, with some obvious inflections from the "British Invasion," most notably the Beatles. The psychedelia wouldn't come until their second and best album, 'Buffalo Springfield Again,' the following year.
Of the dozen songs on 'Buffalo Springfield,' seven are written by Stills, who sang lead on all of them and is a dominant presence with his versatile musicianship. The other five songs are all written by Neil Young, whose quirky intrigue and arresting imagery is evident early on. But he only sings lead on two of compositions, leaving the rest to rhythm guitarist Richie Furay.
The album has a wonderful energy and freshness to it, the product of very young people coming into their own power, along with strong harmony singing and one huge classic from the Sixties. Young even has a slender first hit of his own in the contemplative 'Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing.'
The Eagles perform 'Hotel California' during a 2005 tour of Australia.
An instant classic protest song, Stills's 'For What It's Worth' actually was inspired not by the Vietnam War but by the police reaction to demonstrations against attempts to crack down on a burgeoning youth culture along LA's Sunset Strip. The big anti-war protests came later, with this song all ready for use.
As you can see below, the Stills lyrics are so evocative and adaptable that the song, with its thoughtful melodic journey led by his excellent guitar playing, is timeless, applicable to situations back then, right now, and on and on into a no doubt imperfect future.
"There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
"I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
"There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
"It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
"What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
"It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
"We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down"
Technically, 'For What It's Worth' was on the hurried reissue of 'Buffalo Springfield.' Stills wrote it after November 1966 protests, then got it recorded and ready to go for release as a single just over 50 years ago.
That song alone may have guaranteed the Springfield a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stills and Young, of course, would be back for second inductions. Others went to more heights as well. Bassist Jim Messina, who replaced Young's troubled fellow Canadian friend Bruce Palmer, formed the classic rock duo Loggins & Messina after he and Richie Furay founded Poco, a top country rock band that Frey was to study closely as he planned the Eagles. And two members of Poco, Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit, were to become Eagles themselves.
Schmit was on hand in Washington earlier this month with Don Henley and Joe Walsh for the Eagles' Kennedy Center Honors, the last of the Obama Presidency. The band was to have been honored last year at the annual equivalent of a cultural knighthood, but the Eagles deferred the honor until the suddenly ailing Frey was well enough to participate. Instead, as I discussed in "Fallen Eagle," he shocked those of us who hadn't kept up by passing away on January 18th.
Had he not been a rich rock superstar who wanted to be a leading man, Frey, one of the truly great characters, could also have been one of the great character actors. Check him out as music industry hustler Bobby Travis, a great performance in the very entertaining 'Dead Dog Records' arc of 'Wiseguy,' arguably the key forerunner to today's Golden Age of television. Or re-watch the classic 'Jerry Maguire,' in which Frey's football executive amiably goes toe to toe with Tom Cruise's eponymous sports agent. Former Rolling Stone wunderkind Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed 'Jerry Maguire,' also used some key Frey sayings and mannerisms in his Oscar-winning 'Almost Famous.' Not unlike Bobby Travis, Frey's brashness could be irritating. But, like Bobby Travis, he had real heart. And he was quite shrewd and, not at all incidentally, usually right.
Will the Eagles fly again? I don't know. Henley, with some public hesitation, says no, that Frey, who continued to sound and look terrific in his late 60s, was simply too integral to the band.
In any event, the Eagles produced a tremendous array of songs, always meticulously recorded and performed, with 'Hotel California' a true landmark achievement.
They were, as it were, "kinda bent" at times but they sure never broke in their very eventful and almost always outstanding long run.
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