Music Analysis:
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Hotel California - Allegory and Economical Lyrics
Albums: Hotel California, 1976 & Hell Freezes Over, 1994

This song is just one great testimony to the now well-established fact that the Eagles were wonderful storytellers. Slip in any one of their CDs, and you are virtually transported to a cinema hall showing a series of short, but breathtakingly captivating movies! They had a penchant for writing conceptual songs about relationships and lessons of life that followed in the footsteps of very talented songwriters of the 1970s such as, Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther, who, in fact, co-wrote some of Eagles’ best songs including their first hit, Take it Easy (from their self-titled first album, Eagles, released in 1972), and the lovely ballad, Best of My Love (from the 1974 album, On The Border), respectively. Don Henley, who was an English Literature major in his college years (although he never graduated), brought in the narrative style to this mix to create a unique brand of popular music that initially came to be known as California Country Rock, but later became well known around the globe as Classic Rock. In my interpretation, Hotel California, without a doubt the Eagles’ most popular song, is a narrative on a lesson learned in life. It is important to discuss the amount of thought and craftsmanship that has been injected into narrating the plot of the song to get its message across to the audience as strongly as possible.

The narrative, which is in first person, begins with the protagonist empathetically reflecting on his memories of how the hopeless musician in him was attracted by the money, luxury, and fame that Hollywood’s Recording Industry had on offer without exposing the dark side of the life that was promised to him. He too, blinded by the sudden heightened sense of hope that was previously lacking in his life, doesn’t care much to get all the details of what he is getting into and gets wrapped up in the glamour and splendor in no time! Therefore, communicating a sense of self-empathy is extremely important to getting the message of the song out to its audience, that is, why people get drawn into materialism and their ultimate, but often tardy, realization of the dangers of it; and for this purpose, the complete first verse is narrated in the past tense, while the second verse and the two refrains are narrated in the present, present perfect, and present continuous tenses absorbing the audience in to experience the changes the protagonist is going through and the third and last verse, switches back and forth between past, past continuous, present, present perfect, and present continuous tenses as the drama reaches its climax as a result of the protagonist fast realizing the true state of his life. It is an extremely effective and powerful arrangement of the narration, what we call art direction, and it enforces the message of the song on the listener.

Like any great story (though not exactly a fairy-tale!), a ‘once upon a time’ connotation sets up the time and place from where the story can develop. It is essential that you tell the audience, children and adults alike, right upfront, when and where they are being taken or they will be lost! Just imagine the song without the first four lines; the audience will have no reason to have any sympathy for the protagonist; while feeling what the protagonist is going through, they will not know what to feel for the protagonist! Now imagine the first verse (at least lines three and four) in present tense – Up ahead in the distance I see a shimmering light, my head is heavy and my sight gets dim, I have to stop for the night – this would have destroyed the reflective nature of the story, and the audience will not have a clue that the protagonist is trying to warn them of a bitter lesson he learnt through his own tragic experience. The song theoretically could move to the present tense at the beginning of line five, but for the sake of consistency and decorum, the tense is maintained in the past until the first refrain.

The transition from past tense to present tense is done very smoothly with the last line in the first verse I thought I heard them sayWelcome to the Hotel California. The beauty of the now infamous refrain is, it is not just inviting the protagonist to the Hotel; you, the audience too, is cordially invited to witness the splendor! Well, maybe, I should say the drama! After explaining why he ended up in Hotel California, from the first refrain through to the last line of the second refrain, the narration gradually builds up the glamorous life as our protagonist gets entangled in the luxuries and hedonistic pleasures. When you are right there with him, knowing where he was before and seeing everything that he is seeing, it is not difficult to understand why he gets caught up in this whirlwind of a life; so there lies the reason for using the present tense (and its variations) in the two refrains and the second verse. Now consider a few lines in the second verse in the past tense and their effects on the listener. Take the first two lines for example, her mind was Tiffany-twisted, she had the Mercedes bends, she had a lot of pretty boys, that she called friends; hold on, so the protagonist already had his share of fun and now he says it was all a mistake, how unfair on the audience is that? Wouldn’t that take the oomph out of their experience? One thing is for sure, you can forget that sexual grunt that follows! Even if you assume the fun is left in those lines in a reflective context, the use of past tense would considerably weaken the impact of the second verse on the listener; therefore present tense was an excellent choice. There is just about enough indications to maintain the reflective nature of the narrative without spoiling the experience in the lines Some dance to remember, some dance to forget (notice it is not danced), a distinction which he probably could not have made initially, but gradually realized as time passed; and he said, we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969, which is also a reflection of the tricks the owner(s) played on him, but at first, appeared to be the cup of life he had asked for. However, these two lines do not at all take anything away from the live drama on show.

The narrative takes a sharp twist with the last line of the second refrain – what a nice surprise, bring your alibis. This sets up the climactic awakening of the protagonist to the true state of his life. Then, one after another, he is met with a series of frightening encounters that throws him out of the illusive brightness of his comfortable room to the verge of a deep canal leading to the dark basement of life! Each of these encounters are described in mixed tense as the protagonist is now in a state of panic, which cannot be more appropriate for the narrative; no, it is ingenious! For instance, the encounters with his woman in the bedroom and the night man at the exit are described in the past (she said and he said) although what they told him, respectively, are stated in the present tense to make the audience feel those life-altering messages. Similarly, the more ominous experience of witnessing his fellow musicians at the owner’s chamber is narrated in the past tense with gathered for the feast, but the event of them desperately fighting their rights out with the masters in a losing cause is presented in the present tense with stab it with their steely knives. Then he uses past continuous in I was running for the door to create a sense of reflective drama and wrap up the narration in the present tense in his fateful moment with you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave! This final verse combines in equal measure the reflective nature of the first verse, now frighteningly exposed, with the live drama of the second verse, now all too real, to bring about one of the best climactic finales to one of the most imaginative narrations ever heard in modern popular music.           

Another key aspect of the song described in the line-to-line analysis is the use of characters and symbolism to advance the narrative. There are 3 supporting characters besides the protagonist. The first character is the beautiful woman at the entrance, who, while representing the attractive women available to the protagonist, on a larger scale, symbolizes the luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle that was on offer at the outset. The second character is the captain of the Hotel, the owners of the Recording Industry in other words, who he later refers to as the ‘beast’ due to his change in perception. The last character is the night man, a threatening man placed at the exit to intimidate disgruntled artists who attempt to leave the Industry possibly prior to fulfilling their contractual agreements. Other non-living symbols such as, the desert highway, Hotel, candle lights and so forth, are used, along with the characters, to create the visual canvas that allows the song’s real meaning to be kept under wraps and left to the audience’s imagination while inviting the audience to get on the emotional roller-coaster ride with the protagonist. On a rather amusing note, the followers of the mental hospital and cancer patients theories have suggested that the woman at the entrance is a nurse (sounds like hospitals have come a long way since the days of Florence Nightingale; no wonder people go insane these days!) while the followers of the devil-worshiping cult theory have suggested that the beast in verse three is a reference to Satan himself! Close enough!

Last, but not least, as if there was not enough craftsmanship and creative magic already to floor the audience, the lyrics showcase a classical sense of balance and symmetry amid stark contrasts in almost every aspect of the song that is the stamp of any perfectionist; and the Eagles were nothing short of that! To begin with structure, the song has three verses, eight lines each, and between verses, two refrains of four lines each, giving it an A-B-A-B-A form. From a narrative’s perspective, the song follows an A-B-A form with the protagonist moving from the dark side of life (first verse) to seemingly brighter opportunities (beginning of first refrain through end of second refrain) only to find that it was an illusion and end up trapped in the dark again (third verse). The supporting characters too move from the beautiful woman at the entrance (first verse), to the owners (second verse), and the ominous night man at the exit (third verse) to form a nice equilateral triangle that give you a sense of the protagonist’s rise and fall. Within the poetry itself, there are phrases such as, this could be heaven or this could be hell; Tiffany twisted and Mercedes bends; sweet summer sweat; some dance to remember, some dance to forget; which are intrinsically balanced expressions which add a Midas touch to the narrative and ground the song in classical symmetry.      
What an exhilarating portrayal of a concept almost philosophical, yet all too real and true of our times to be left alone for the pundits to ponder! The mastery of the English language and the understanding of the nature of human thought showcased by Henley and Frey is so awe inspiring that it is difficult to comprehend how anybody can conjure up, line after line, such an impressive repertoire of elegant cinematic expressions such as, sweet summer sweat, Tiffany twisted, or Mercedes bends and intersperse them with perplexingly perceptive dichotomy such as, some dance to remember, some dance to forget, we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969, or mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice to create a mind-blowing piece of drama. Behooving to the narrative like a cold hand is to a winter glove, these sparkling diamonds of poetic genius, which would have brought a twinkle to Shakespeare’s eyes, elevate the song above its contemporaries to a peak by itself; and I have not even discussed the music!

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