50 years of livin’ it up at the Hotel California | Music

“You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.”

It’s quite a lyric, isn’t it? A little creepy, full of foreboding and existential angst, with a dash of Kafkaesque dread. It hints at inescapable fate, while noting the futility of human attempts to exert control over the uncontrollable. 

It’s also a lyric that tells the story of the Eagles. 

“Hotel California,” the piece of Don Felder music that inspired Don Henley’s pen to scribble this couplet, is the title track from the band’s 1976 masterpiece, one of the the most commercially successful albums in the history of recorded music. The record is celebrating its 50th birthday with a tour that stops at KeyBank Center at 8 p.m. Thursday when the Eagles will perform it in its entirety, followed by a lengthy second set of greatest hits.

And it’s still selling, with most recent sales figures claiming the record as 26-times platinum, worldwide. 

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Interestingly, the Eagles have been trying to “check out” for nearly half of “Hotel California’s” life, conducting their “last ever farewell, we promise” tour for longer than any other rock band, save The Who. 

The group was formed in 1971, broke up in 1980, reformed in 1994, and spent the decades since in what amounts to a working retirement consisting of “victory lap” concert tours, with only one album of new music released during that time. Even the death of founding member Glenn Frey in 2016 didn’t force the closing of the Hotel California. Frey’s son Deacon stepped into his father’s role, and virtuosic instrumentalist Vince Gill joined the traveling party as well. Business remained good. Very good. 

The Eagles at then First Niagara Center in July 2015.

Harry Scull Jr.

For this current tour, Deacon Frey has opted out, expressing a desire to “forge his own path” after nearly five years of celebrating his father’s considerable legacy. That leaves the lineup as Henley, Gill, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit, aided by auxiliary musicians – including guitarist Steuart Smith, who will handle some of the departed Felder’s guitar parts – and, for some of the more elaborate arrangements, tunes, an orchestra and choir. For the Buffalo show, the orchestra will be comprised of members of the Buffalo Musicians Union Local 92. 

“We have 38 union string players — violins, violas, celli and basses — all performing who have been contracted by a Local 92 contractor,” BMA Local 92 President Jim Pace said. “This is one of the largest groups of Local 92 musicians to be hired for a traveling show in some time, and we’re excited about that.”

Since the official departure of Deacon Frey, Gill has been handling some of Glenn Frey’s vocal parts, among them, the country-noir epics “New Kid in Town” and “Lyin’ Eyes.” When the band returns from intermission, post “Hotel California,” a deep dive into the Eagles’ catalog of greatest hits — which is essentially an expanded replay of their 1976 “Greatest Hits” collection, the biggest selling album in history — follows, with the addition of a few nuggets from the solo canons of Henley and Walsh. Shows on the tour to date have been clocking in at 3 hours-plus. 

Given the extensive lineup changes over the years, it’s not hard to take the cynical view, interpreting the Eagles’ continued existence as an extended cash grab, a touring jukebox of classic rock nostalgia aimed at challenging precisely no one.

Yet, there’s a reason the Eagles, and “Hotel California,” in particular, continue to matter, to so many. 

Prisoners of our own device

“Hotel California” is a collection of songs detailing the dissolution of the American Dream. The literary allusions spread throughout the album run deep, principal among them a metaphorical nod to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” – that beacon on the other side of the water toward which Gatsby stares longingly, a symbol of unrequited love, hope, and the immovable distinction between class and wealth.

The title track is set in mid-’70s Los Angeles, and its acerbic narrative tone paints a picture of a deeply diseased promised land, one where the rich run amok in a haze of sex, drugs and peaceful, easy feelings, while the less privileged look on in envy. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that patrons of the Hotel California are actually prisoners, inmates in an asylum of corrupted dreams, trapped behind bars constructed of ill-gained lucre. They’ve got the money and the cocaine, but they are no better off than the everyday Americans who lust after their position, those average citizens forever on the outside looking in.

Ain’t that America, for you and me? 1976 or 2022 – what’s the difference?

Is this why the song remains a staple of classic rock radio, and a tune that has completely permeated pop culture and transcended its immediate milieu decade after decade? It must have something to do with it, even if listeners aren’t conscious of the song’s metaphorical resonance. What they are quite likely conscious of is the high level of musical virtuosity ornamenting Felder’s gorgeous chord progression and the Henley/Frey lyric. 

“Hotel California” was the first Eagles album to feature James Gang guitarist and solo artist Joe Walsh, and the band made the most of their new acquisition, turning him loose for a tag-team tandem guitar solo with Felder across the extended coda of the title tune, in what is surely one of the most epic six-string showdowns in rock history. It sounds no less stunning in 2022 than it did the first time I heard it, as an 8-year-old deeply fascinated by the mirage-like world the song and solo summoned. 

There is magic in this music, a magic that classic rock radio’s insistence on playing it close to hourly has not been able to kill.

The lamb lies down on Sunset Boulevard

“Hotel California” is about much more than its album-opening title tune. In retrospect, its easy to view the whole affair as a Yacht Rock concept album, a sort of California stoner’s version of Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.”

A central character, “The New Kid in Town,” stumbles blindly through a desert oasis where nothing is truly as it seems, and the mythical “Life in the Fast Lane” will “surely make you lose your mind,” inevitably leading to an exit off the Pacific Coast Highway, where he finds “The Last Resort” and a bottle of whiskey to aid in contemplating the effects of all this “Wasted Time.” There’s a deep sadness that permeates the story, even during the harder rocking moments. The listener is left engulfed in a feeling of loss, an air of disillusionment permeated by L.A. smog. 

Glenn Frey Don Henley Eagles scull 036

Glenn Frey, left, and Don Henley, at then First Niagara Center in July 2015.

Harry Scull Jr.

Visceral dislike of the Eagles has become a meme by this point, one exemplified by Jeff Bridges playing “The Dude” in the Coen Brothers’ film “The Big Lebowski,” an aging hippie whose adamant hatred for the band gets him thrown out of a cab by an Eagles-worshipping driver. It’s a hilarious scene, one that stands up to repeated viewings. 

But why all the haters? Surely they exist because the Eagles are often viewed as a symbol for all that is wrong with corporate rock music, if not as the very progenitor of that form. 

There’s some merit to such arguments. But the fact remains “Hotel California” is a masterpiece, a flawless song cycle that tells a distinctly American story in a deeply literary and highly musical fashion. It endures because it was built to do so. 

Don’t agree? That’s OK. Relax. Remember, you can check out any time you like. But … well, you know the rest.

The Eagles, "Hotel California"

The Eagles’ “Hotel California” won two Grammys in 1978, including Record of the Year, for the title track. The album has sold 26 million copies.

“Hotel California” performed in its entirety, followed by a lengthy second set of greatest hits. Shows on the tour to date have been clocking in at 3 hours-plus.

Lineup: Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Vince Gill, Timothy B. Schmit, plus auxiliary musicians, including an orchestra with 38 local string players.