Hotel California: Learning How to Read
Issue #56, Summer 2001
The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are "status quo" is the catastrophe.
— Walter Benjamin
It's hard to get the overeducated, underpaid intellectuals in my circle of friends to agree on anything. But I've learned how to produce solidarity in their ranks. When the discussion turns to music, I make a startling confession: I like the Eagles. And I love the album Hotel California, particularly the title song. The response to this declaration is as predictable as the hourly reprise of Eagles hits on classic rock stations. My interlocutors are dumbfounded. When I refuse to retract my statement, they question me anxiously: "You're kidding, right?"
No, I'm not. Even on a bad day, I brighten when I hear the words "Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona." And I always turn up the volume when I hear Joe Walsh's squiggly guitar at the beginning of "Life in the Fast Lane." I suppose that if I were a middle-aged Boomer in an SUV, this affection for megahits of the 1970s would make more sense to people. In that case, I would be trying, however pathetically, to recover my youthful abandon: the days when I would smoke pot, watch the Watergate hearings, and roll around with my honey in a custom Chevy van. Unfortunately, I don't even have this sort of nostalgia as an excuse. When the Eagles were flying highest, I was in second grade, playing make-believe in the back yard. The only music I listened to regularly was my father's, on Saturday broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Hell, in 1976 I knew more about Georges Bizet's Carmen than I did about anything on the pop charts.
So what explains my soft spot for the Eagles? Its true I've become fond of music that mixes country and rock in recent years — the present-day fare featured in No Depression magazine inspired by musicians like Will Oldham, Jay Farrar, and Jeff Tweedy as well as "classic" offerings from the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. But my attachment to the Eagles goes beyond this affection for the genre. I liked them long before I could stand country. And I like them in spite of the fact that most fans of Uncle Tupelo regard the Eagles as the musical equivalent of the Death Star.
The reason? "Hotel California" taught me how to read. Not literally, mind you. I owe that favor to the brightly colored SRA workbooks in Mr. Johnson's open classroom. But it was through listening to the Eagles' monster hit that I learned to "read" for something more than plot. I didn't own the song until I was well into my twenties. But you couldn't avoid it, growing up in my middle America. At the mall, at the pool, in your car, "Hotel California" was everywhere during the Carter Administration. And so, since I had to listen to the song anyway, I turned my mind loose on it.
From my present perspective, as a scholar of American literature, I can recognize that "Hotel California" follows in the footsteps of such classic authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, not to mention Franz Kafka. Like many of those authors' works, "Hotel California" tells a story that is only half the story. The song's first-person narrator is driving in the desert. He sees a building in the distance. It turns out to be a hotel. He decides to stop for the night. Once inside, he experiences a series of disquieting encounters, culminating in a hideous banquet. When he tries to leave the hotel, he is told that it would be futile to try: "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." With this horrifying statement, the song's lyrical content comes to an end. But the music carries on, with minor variation, for a few more minutes, though not on most classic rock stations, which cut it short.
As my plot summary should make clear, "Hotel California" is faithful to the conventions of the horror story. The early 1970s witnessed a remarkable resurgence in a number of B-movie genres, but horror was particularly popular. The Exorcist, the infamously brutal Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the deliberately and delightfully playful Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a wide range of lesser-known movies all testify to the power of horror to captivate people suffering through what Tom Wolfe called the "me" decade. So does the rise of Stephen King in the world of the paperback bestseller. It is unusual for a pop song, unless it is a seasonal novelty, to fit into the horror genre. Yet "Hotel California" makes effective use of horror motifs, demonstrating in the process how in tune its creators were with their cultural moment. What sets "Hotel California" apart from most examples of 1970s horror culture is its reluctance to go into details. Instead of the excessive brutality we see in The Exorcist or Stephen King's work, the song provides minimal explicit imagery. The only outright violence comes at the banquet, where "they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beast." Compared to a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however, even these lines are remarkably restrained.
But it is precisely this restraint that makes the song so suggestive. When you're watching a movie with the visceral impact of The Exorcist, it's hard to reflect on its deeper implication. Even if you sense that it has to be about something more than the demonic possession of a teenage girl, you are too busy being thrilled to spend time pondering its ideological content. By contrast, "Hotel California" invites you to interpret it. In this respect, the song is more like Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or Kafka's The Castle than it is like a 1970s horror film. Those books share with "Hotel California" a peculiar kind of obviousness. They have a way of making their plot lines seem silly. Reading The Scarlet Letter, you have a hard time believing that it's really the story of a man who grows a letter "A" on his chest. The same applies to "Hotel California." Its lack of specificity takes some of the bite out of the horrific story. Listening to it, you get the sense that it is about something more than a man who made a poor choice of lodging.
At least, I did. I've always found it scary, but only in an indirect way. Watching Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the first time, I found myself identifying strongly with the female protagonist who has to stop for the night. I feared for her, through her. If I identified with the narrator of "Hotel California," though, it was in his capacity to spin a tale that solicits reading between the lines. I feared the situation he is trying to make us see. This explains why the most important part of the song for me was not the description of the beast itself, but the scene that precedes the banquet: "I called for the captain, 'Please bring me my wine.' He said, 'We haven't had that spirit here since 1969.'"
Already as a child I was afflicted with a sense of my belatedness. Born in May of 1968, I didn't become conscious of world events until the '60s decade had passed. My earliest historical memories are of the hangover from the '60s: the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the OPEC oil embargo, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and Watergate. Long before I had a clear understanding of what had actually happened in the 1960s, I sensed that the 1970s represented a turn for the worse. As I started to learn more about the major events of the '60s — the revolt against conservative social mores, the resistance to the Vietnam War, and, above all else, the Civil Rights Movement — my nostalgia for the decade grew stronger and stronger. The paradox was that, like many people of my generation, I longed to relive a time that I hadn't lived through in the first place.
No doubt, this is why the popular music of the 1960s exerted such a strong pull on me. When I finally did break free of my father's classical yoke, I became a huge fan of the Beatles. As much as I like their music, however, I was every bit as captivated by their story: the early gigs in the red-light district of a foreign land, the meteoric rise to the top of the charts, the experimentation with drugs, and, finally, the breakup. Somehow the Beatles' disintegration at the end of the 1960s seemed the perfect metaphor for understanding the transition into the 1970s. A little later in junior high school, when I started exploring other "classic" artists of the era, the premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970 and of Jim Morrison in 1971 came to seem like further proof of this passage into darkness.
I'm sure many music-obsessed kids in my age group reached similar conclusions. After all, the media spent a great deal of time forcing that narrative of decline down our throats. By the mid-1980s, it had become an industry in itself, with countless '60s revival shows playing on rock stations across the nation; in my home market of Washington, DC, it was the psychedelic hour on DC 101. But although there were many factors contributing to my belief that I was living in what Germans call a Spätzeit (a period of decline characterized as "late"), "Hotel California" was one of the most important.
All through my teenage years, I kept returning to the song as confirmation of my sense that the United States has passed its peak. Interestingly, many conservatives shared this conviction that the 1960s had represented a turning point. For them, the "excess" of that decade was an indication that the nation had taken a wrong turn somewhere and had to backtrack to find its true path. For me, by contrast, the upheavals of the 1960s seemed like the first steps towards a better world, one we had betrayed, first with the inward turn of the 1970s and then the reactionary politics of Ronald Reagan and company.
In order to interpret "Hotel California" in this way, it was necessary for me to read between the lines. The Captain wasn't really talking about wine when he said "We haven't had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine." Spirit had to have a double meaning. I was sure that it referred to the spirit of change that inspired the social movements of the '60s, the belief that anything was possible, that we wouldn't get fooled again, the belief, finally, that we were really a "we" distinct from "them."
Once I had interpreted spirit in this way, then the whole meaning of the song metamorphosed. The Hotel California wasn't a real hotel, but a metaphor for the state where the revolution had progressed and, consequently, retreated the furthest. More than that, it was a metaphor for the state of mind produced in California, one that no longer had any vision of the future. It's no accident that, right after the lines about the missing "wine," the song continues with a ghostly siren song: "And still those voices are calling from far away." To be sure, they could be coming from the future. Yet, following on the heels of nostalgia for the spirit that died in the '60s, it is far more likely that they are coming from the past. That's certainly the message that I got from them.
What I found most disturbing in my interpretation of "Hotel California" was its implication for the last line. If you find yourself in a spiritually deprived state, the natural impulse — conservatives have this right — is to "find the passage back" to the place you were before, to turn around. But if it is true that "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave," then this possibility is foreclosed. Despite what the Margaret Thatchers of this world will tell you, there's no going back.
As I sit here today, informed by years of reading philosophy, this point seems laughably obvious. Even when we sift through our memories, we are still going forward within the space of linear time. To a 12-year-old, though, the idea that there is never a "passage back" seemed horribly bleak. I wanted so badly to live in a future projected from the most extreme point of the '60s (for which my birth month, May of 1968, was as likely a candidate as any), yet found myself in a far less hopeful historical situation. This was the horror of "Hotel California" for me. And, though I admit to being scared by the horror films of the '70s, I was less disturbed by the slamming of that slaughterhouse door in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than by the realization that the door to the past had been shut for good.
In the end, though, the fear that "Hotel California" inspired was less important than the confidence it gave me in my interpretive powers. By inviting me to look for the deeper meaning in its tale of a desert vacation gone wrong, it alerted me to the possibility that every story might be the vehicle for another, different story underneath it. In short, the song introduced me to the concept of allegory. Now, some 20 years later, I have made reflection on allegory a cornerstone of my scholarly work. I spend countless hours pondering the different, contradictory definitions of the term. I read novels, not only for their concealed politics, but for the insight they provide us into the act of reading for something concealed. And "Hotel California" has to shoulder much of the blame.
My favorite theorist of allegory is Walter Benjamin. He was interested in the perception of decline, the way artists have confronted the feeling of belatedness that seems to be an integral part of the modern experience. For centuries, people have been afflicted with the sense of having been born too late. The strange thing is, as Benjamin noted, that this feeling goes hand in hand with the relentless "progress" promoted by a capitalist economy. Not surprisingly, this perception has often been most acute during periods of political regression. Denied the opportunity to transform the social order, people turn their attention to transforming their personal lives. They give themselves the "makeover" they can't give to society. But these attempts at personal transformation are shadowed by the prospect of what could have been. No matter how many fads they run through, no matter how many items they purchase in order to refashion their identity, they can never completely escape the political tragedy of the recent past. This was true of the German Baroque that Benjamin pondered in The Origins of German Tragic Drama. It was true of Paris during the Second Empire, to which he devoted his vast, unfinished Arcades Project. And it was true of the post-WWI era in which he conducted his analyses. The 1970s have much in common with those periods.
Benjamin was no pessimist. At one point in the Arcades Project, he declares his goal to be showing that, in reality, "there are no periods of decline." He believed that, even though you can't literally go back in time, you can still make good on the promise of the past. But in order to do so, you have to reinterpret it. Benjamin called this process Eingedenken, which translates literally as 'remembering into.' It provides the means to actualize the potential in what could have been. Where a more conventional approach to history sees refuse, it sees raw material. It redeems. For Benjamin, it would still be possible for us to connect with that spirit that has been missing since 1969. The trick is to distinguish between what we can't change — our forward motion in linear time — from what we can — our attitude towards a million dreams deferred.
This is the lesson I take from "Hotel California." The song, and the Eagles, are surely in need of some redemption. The materialism of the 1970s that "Hotel California" both exemplifies and condemns — the Eagles were no less "Tiffany-twisted" than their fans — is still with us, only without as much hope for personal transformation. And politicians around the world are still trying to take us back to the place we were before the 1960s happened. Yet there's still hope. As long as we are able to "read" for politics, we still have the chance to find a different, better narrative within the one that holds us prisoner. We can be free. But it will have to be a freedom of our own device.
Charlie Bertsch teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, home of the singer Linda Ronstadt, for whom the Eagles started as a backing band. He welcomes your revulsion at his counterrevolutionary taste preferences, not to mention your feedback on this piece.