Terrified By Way Of The Sapphire VXIII (Part One)

The audio system in the 1975 VW Super Beetle, the Sapphire XVIII, was an AM radio. A single 3” speaker located below and to the left of the steering wheel delivered the output. It was inches away from the driver’s left knee.  I was introduced to popular music through this particular audio setup while being driven hither and yon by my mother.

The most important songs from this time period are those that scared me to bits. Of course, one would think there’s nothing to fear when being driven around the western regions of Minneapolis within the security of your mom’s car. But, getting spooked and fascinated by music seemed the cornerstone of my love of music.

It’s really easy to not like The Eagles. Despite the overabundance of talent with the band’s history, much of their music is too bland. When their music isn’t putting me to sleep, it’s reminding me how much I loathe drunken (or even sober) frat boys singing “Take It Easy.” From its inception, the band poached the ideas of other musicians, then watered them down so a wider audience could digest them. Happens all the time (and not just in the entertainment industry). I get that; it’s called good business. But good business doesn’t always make good music.

Two bands in particular, Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers (both of which would see former members show up in the Eagles line-up), created far better work from which The Eagles eventually made millions. But, that’s showbiz. Over time, the Eagles were taken over by snide, insecure rhythm guitarist Glenn Frey and the unemotional, insecure drummer Don Henley. Over the course of their career, the two worked their way into superiority by slowly edging out the larger talents Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, and Don Felder. Those who weren’t iced out, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt, have been pushed back to third class citizenry by ways of intimidation and economical buyouts. Sounds like a grand time making music.

However, it’s difficult for a group to release six records and not have a few good songs scattered throughout. One of those is “Hotel California,” their second single from the album of the same name. Released in March of 1977, it received massive airplay on pop radio (because it was Poco watered down for the masses) so it was impossible for a kid not to hear it while being driven about in his mom’s car. The imagery and music squeezed out of the Sapphire XVIII’s three-inch speaker filled me with apprehension.  It would be years, maybe decades, before I found out this song had been somewhat controversial for its perceived demonic lyrical and cover art imagery.

The music was written almost exclusively by guitarist Don Felder at his Malibu home that previous summer. Felder expertly layered together the demo on his TEAC four-track recorder, which sat in a spare bedroom. The song’s structure as we know it today was already in place by the time he brought it to the rest of the band a few weeks later: the layered acoustic and electric guitars, the purposeful pacing (its beat was supplied by Felder’s Roland Rhythm Ace drum machine and, while he wrote it in a reggae style, the closest he could get was the contraption’s “cha-cha” setting), the start/stop pinnacle – even the dueling guitar solos that bring the song to its creepy fade-out.

Glen Frey and Don Henley (justifiably referred to sarcastically as “the gods” by everyone else in the band), took notice of the demo immediately. Henley, a Texas native, mistook the reggae/cha-cha feel for something more Latino and instantly started to brainstorm further ideas. Frey, for his part, had been listening to a lot of Steely Dan that summer. The band’s darkly satirical worldview nudged him into envisioning a theme for the song (and not necessarily a complimentary one about Los Angeles and all its trappings). In his mind, there was someone driving toward the city on a desert highway and seeing the lights of the city off in the distance. Henley took the bait and disappeared to write the lyrics soon thereafter. No one else in the band would hear the results until it came time to record the vocals.

The final version is remarkable, especially when set against much of their previous material, which is more laid-back and country-fied. The band takes their time wandering through the song, an amazing feat considering the amount of cocaine they were using**.

Perhaps the secret ingredient musically is Randy Meisner’s melodic bass work which, until the guitar solo finale, is the busiest element of the song. It bubbles under and nudges the band along. Don Henley’s drumming is distracting and vague (there are some who suggest his drumming style perfectly matches his personality), yet still keeps a beat, (however flimsy).  

Luckily for him, Henley saves his own ass by writing a fantastically compelling, minimal story; the words he chose perfectly match the eerie instrumental track. The song’s narrator travels down a nighttime desert highway, sees a hotel in the distance, and pulls off to stay there for the night.  It’s a nice place and he quickly gets comfortable only to soon realize something is a bit off. He keeps hearing distant voices and is soon gripped with what William S. Burroughs famously labeled as “The Fear”: an unquestionable sense of private doom. He’s trapped.

Henley’s lyrical delivery is patient, almost disembodied; everything seems viewed outside the actual experience:

“Then she lit up a candle and showed me the way

There were voices down the corridor; I thought I heard them say...”

The song’s haunted sense is furthered by omni-definitional words:

“So I called up my captain

‘Please bring me my wine’

He said ‘we haven’t had that spirit here since ninety-sixty nine…’

This wonderfully morose scene was strong enough to enchant even a six year-old boy riding around in his mother’s VW Super Beetle. For a kid who was already beginning to understand a bit about life’s darkness because of watching the first two (incredibly dark) seasons of Scooby Doo Where Are You?, “Hotel California” was a further step toward that understanding.

Of course, the main lyrical cash-out for anyone who hears this little number is the climax of the story:

“And in the master’s chambers

They gathered for the feast

They stab it with their steely knives

But they just can’t kill the beast”

Soon the narrator makes for the hotel’s front door, looks for that way out which doesn’t exist. From there, Felder’s brilliant idea of ending the song with dueling solos pays off as he and Joe Walsh trade leads, taking the song into its apex and the finale. The ending guitar dual is synonymous with both the excess of 70’s rock and, as one of my friends pointed out some years ago, one of the most famous solos in rock history. Almost anyone can whistle at least five or ten bars of it.

No matter how elementary any underlying message, the words and music coalescing into a frightening but simple tale of getting trapped in a hotel was extremely powerful to my kid mind. Whether the song is about drug addiction, pop culture’s fondness for materialism (“some dance to remember, some dance to forget”…yap-yap-yap),  I didn’t (and still don’t) need to understand the subtext. I was uncomfortable enough with the haunted imagery. Imagery that haunted me even though I was in broad daylight, in a car next to my mom. Riding in the passenger seat, “Hotel California” transfixed me into introspection for the duration of the song just as it is right now, some thirty-eight years later …

** The band’s drug usage didn’t affect the tempo in which they played, but how much time they spent fine-tuning Each. Note. Of. Each. Song. The recording of the record took nine months in 1976. Nine months of work generating nine songs totaling a little over forty-three minutes of music. If you want to think of it as one song completed per month, then you have a pretty good idea how slow they were progressing.  This fact alone justifies the necessity of the insurgence of Punk Rock. Although punk was bound to happen anyway, Eagles or no Eagles, an album such as this makes the reactionary Punk culture that much more sensible.