“Hotel California evolved in the reverse style of song-making, with Don Felder”s guitar track laid down first and lyrics added later,” said Glenn Frey of The Eagles at a Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session held at NYU Steinhardt on October 25th.
Felder’s “Mexican Reggae” soundtrack inspired lyrics for a song considered the band’s masterpiece.
Frey recalled sitting across from Don Henley with a legal pad and conjuring up a narrative.
He told Henley: ‘This song should be like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Start out with a man driving in his car…takes a hit off a joint…comes up on the horizon, sees a place in the distance with some lights…He drives over there; they open the door…there’s a bunch of weird people…’”
They wrote Hotel California in 1974 at a time when the sharp, brave lyrics of Steely Dan held sway over the songwriters’ imaginations.
“They said things in their songs that Don and I would never even dream of saying,” Frey said. He added that the The Eagles had been thinking that they “should go to the graveyard” in their lyrics and “Hotel California was the perfect song.”
At the Master Session, moderated by Grammy nominated songwriter, Phil Galdston, Frey mused on the meaning of the song that has been analyzed, conjectured about, and even regarded as Satanic in some circles.
“What does it mean? It means nothing. There’s meaning in Hotel California, but it’s in pictures,” Frey said. He reminded his audience, “Before music videos, songs like the Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, were written for listening while you were driving in a car, making a movie in your head.”
A nod to Steely Dan is in the line, ‘They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.’
And what is written between the lines, ‘You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave’?
Frey said that a few years before writing Hotel California, Henley ministered to a friend who became suicidal after her husband left her.
“Don would go over to her house and talk her off the ledge…and she would always say, ‘I don’t really see a reason for going on; I’ll just “checkout.” That’s what she called dying.. So when we say, ‘checkout of the hotel,” it means a little more to us.”
(Photo: The Master Sessions are organized and moderated by Grammy-nominated songwriter Phil Galdston (left), a member of NYU’s Artists’ Faculty. Gladston (Save the Best for Last: Vanessa Williams) has been named the first member of the Steinhardt’ s songwriting faculty, as well as Songwriter-in-Residence.)