I love the Eagles. Not a fan of Country as a genre, but there’s something about that Country/Rock cross-over (California Rock?) that reminds me of summertime and lakes and cottages and bonfires on beaches.
I have Hotel California (1976) on vinyl, kept in storage with the rest of my favourite records and waiting for the day that I purchase something on which to play them- with all the atmospheric pops and skips intact (although I have always taken meticulous care of my vinyl, so the latter are few and far between).
The entirety of the album is thematic- it’s a ‘concept album’ that the Eagles have said was meant to represent the decline of the US as it slipped into materialism and superficiality. In hindsight, the record was distressingly prophetic.
Both the title song and the album as a whole generally rank pretty high when ‘greatest songs/albums’ are tallied- if you put any stock in such things. I don’t, really, but I DO have to agree that it contains some great story songs, two in particular, that figure near the Top of my personal Pops as incredible story songs.
The title tune recounts the saga of someone trying to live the high life associated with California in the 1970s. It’s an allegorical trip through the desert to the fancy hotel that appears like an oasis out of the darkness.
On the surface, the hotel seems to offer all the trappings of fame and fortune that California seemed to promise those who arrive, with stars in their eyes, seeking such things. But the ‘spirit‘ of the peace and love movement of the previous decade hasn’t been around the Hotel California ‘since 1969‘, while the excesses and wealth of the 70s have imprisoned all those who reached for the heights and found nothing but materialism and superficiality.
The opening guitar riff takes me to that highway- and to the sense of uncertainty and entrapment that the song suggests is the direction that society has chosen. It is a harbinger- and one that has been realized as we look back from a distance of 37 (!) years.
The album’s final track has an even bleaker message. The Last Resort is an epic composition, covering environmental degradation, institutionalized racism and the myth of manifest destiny.
While Hotel California is all about evoking lonely and deserted highways, The Last Resort takes me to a beach, on a lake, as the sun is setting and the stars and Northern Lights are beginning to brighten the darkness. It never fails to transport me to my personal paradise.
Don Henley’s lyric traces America’s history- and its tendency to destroy as it attempts to create. It is about the evils of colonialism and the guiding principle of manifest destiny as it became enshrined to further the development (or, more accurately, rape) of the land and its indigenous peoples.
The New World was seen as a place of redemption- a Paradise- for those descended from the Puritan settlers after they fled religious persecution in Europe. Manifest destiny was the rhetorical mantra behind the push West- spreading American virtues and institutions as decreed by the destiny established by god.
Territorial expansion was seen as the providence, right and responsibility of the United States- the self-perceived and -appointed model for the rest of the world. By expanding and spreading its values- whether those values were wanted and appreciated or not- they were fulfilling the will of god and doing his work.
Although the song presents the historical progression West of the principle of manifest destiny, Henley saw history repeating itself as development destroyed more and more of the natural environment and served to pollute the atmosphere as forced conversions polluted relations with the First Nations peoples whose lands and ways of life were taken and changed irrevocably.
Myths are not always positive. Manifest destiny was a narrative script that attempted to justify the destruction of those who stood in the way of the spread of American ideals, beliefs and practices. The repercussions are still being felt.
Whether or not we use the term these days, the actions of the US government in condemning the elected governments of foreign nations and the invasions of other countries, all hearken back to some degree to the concept.
‘Our way’ is the only way. And that ‘way’ will be shared regardless of the opinions of the recipients of the ‘wisdom’.
We destroy that which we can’t understand or that which is simply beautiful- in the name of god, destiny, progress, sustainability, the economy, greed, the American Dream… These are the lies we tell.
The Eagles witnessed this in 1976- and foresaw its furtherance in the future. That future is our present- and we are faced with the same concerns and considerations to the nth degree. The song is a beautiful and insightful presentation of the need to use our myths, and the cultural scripts that stem from the narratives, with care and engaged and critical examination.
The prophetic voices of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Randy Meisner and Don Felder weren’t heeded almost 40 years ago.
Despite the fact that it’s a long weekend, and that the summer is winding down, I’m not at a cottage this Sunday night, so I’m missing the physical atmosphere that these songs conjure from my memory. The sense of loss and futility come through regardless of location, but, as I sit and enjoy the rapidly cooling evening, the beauty of the thread of optimism that is woven into them rings out as well, like a Mission Bell in the desert.
Time to pay attention and let these stories drown out the wrongs done in the name of the myths of past eras and stop kissing our paradises- individual and communal- goodbye.