by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
(Editor’s note: Jeff Wasserstrom takes us around the world on a dark desert highway in this essay from our forthcoming Spring 2014 issue on California in the world and the world in California. We’re making it available now in honor of The Eagles and their fans during their six night residency at the newly reinvigorated and always fabulous Forum in LA. If you want to have the full Spring issue delivered to your doorstep when it’s out in early March, subscribe now. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, co-editor of the Asia section of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.)
Usually, the songs that pounded out of the bars and jukeboxes were the latest Top 40 smashes—“Material Girl” and “Smooth Operator” and “Time After Time.” There was also a steady supply of All-American favorites like “Country Roads” and “Hotel California,” and nobody seemed to think it strange that Filipinos should be singing, “Take me home, country roads, to the land that I adore, West Virginia…” I felt as if I were living inside a Top 40 radio station.
—Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu
Whenever I hear Neil Young sing about a “town in north Ontario” where there’s “memory to spare,” I’m transported back to a hillside in northern California in the early 1970s. I’m twelve and sitting with a friend the same age. We’re at summer camp and he’s teaching me the simple chord changes to “Helpless,” which is about to become the first song I can play on guitar.
Music does for me what biting into a madeleine did for that character in Proust’s novel: it sends me hurtling through time and space to a specific moment in the past. I’m sure this is true for many other people as well. And they, too, surely often end up in places far removed from the settings mentioned in the songs that set them in memory-fueled motion.
This is why, ever since reading Video Night in Kathmandu, with its wonderful evocation of mid-1980s Manila, where “music buzzed through the streets” from “dawn to midnight,” I’ve wanted to ask Pico Iyer a question: “When Don Henley begins crooning about a ‘dark desert highway’ in California, are you suddenly back in Manila and in your late twenties again?”
That question first formed in my mind before I ever met Pico. So I had no inkling we would become friends. Since then I’ve had several opportunities to ask him where “Hotel California” takes him when he hears it played, but for some reason I’ve forgotten. This is strange, because one topic we’ve talked and emailed about regularly is the overlap between the music I listened to growing up during a childhood and adolescence spent mostly in Santa Monica, aside from one year in England, and he listened to growing up during a youth divided between school years in a British boarding school and summers in Santa Barbara.
We’ve discovered in the process that our roughly contemporaneous cavity-prone years—he was born in 1957, I was born in 1961—had very similar soundtracks. The Eagles come up a lot. How could they not when the most important musical common ground we’ve found is our shared fondness for the songs of many of the people named in the title of the book Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends?
The best known names in that list are beloved by so many people of our generation, whether or not they spent any time in Southern California as kids, that had we just discovered that we each listened to a lot of, say, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell growing up, that wouldn’t have meant all that much. It had more significance when we found out that we even shared affection for the music and lyrics of some of the relatively obscure, though influential, unnamed “friends” alluded to in the book’s omnibus subtitle, such as Warren Zevon and J.D. Souther.
Still, for some reason, I haven’t gotten around to asking Pico whether Manila or some other locale he’s visited since in his peripatetic life springs to mind when those globally recognizable “All-American” songs he mentions in Video Night in Katmandu, and doubtless first heard in England or Southern California, start playing. When I finally do pose the question to him, there are some things I want to tell him. The first is that whenever I hear “Country Roads,” I’m transported to the mid-1980s too, around the time he was in the Philippines. But I’m in Shanghai. And “Hotel California” takes me back to a different Asian metropolis.
When “Country Roads” comes on a car radio or over the Muzak system in a store, I’m in my mid-twenties again, spending a year at Shanghai’s Fudan University doing dissertation research. My wife, Anne, has a gig teaching English that gets her “Foreign Expert” status and secures us a place in a building reserved for Westerners and Japanese of that rank. Shanghai then was much less integrated into global musical circuits than was Manila, so virtually the only contemporary Western pop songs we hear are those on the batch of cassette tapes we have brought along or those that other expats in the building have in their collections. (When my sister sends a care package that includes a new tape—the latest Elvis Costello album—this is a big deal.) There were only a few Western musicians whose songs had somehow made their way into China. Many Chinese students knew at least one or two numbers by the Carpenters, for example. And all of them seemed to know “Country Roads,” thanks in part to the simple fact that the Carter administration had invited John Denver to perform for Deng Xiaoping and his wife in D.C. when they visited the United States in 1979.
We didn’t bring any John Denver tapes with us to China. To do so would have meant leaving behind something by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, or one of the many people listed in the subtitle of that Hotel California book. To my knowledge none of the other expats we knew made room in their musical stashes for “Rocky Mountain High” or any other album by Denver. Still, “Country Roads” ended up being among the songs we heard most often that year.
And we didn’t just hear recordings of it. We often heard students sing snatches of song, and they sometimes asked us to sing it ourselves or sing along with group renditions of it at parties. In that pre-karaoke period (both “Country Roads” and “Hotel California” will later become karaoke mainstays in Shanghai and many other places in Asia), singing a cappella at social events was a popular thing to do. Many Chinese students had at least one number, often an operatic one, which they could perform passably to superbly at the drop of a hat. They assumed “Country Roads” was that kind of song for everyone who looked like us, treating it as a kind of national anthem. We generally tried to be good sports about this and were glad that, unlike the “Star Spangled Banner,” at least “Country Roads” was easy to sing.
What then of “Hotel California”? Whenever I hear Don Felder’s distinctive guitar opening now, I’m instantly in a New Delhi café in a supremely jet-lagged, disoriented state. I’d been in India less than 24 hours when that song from my teenage years in California became the first one I ever heard in India.
The mechanism of this musical memory must be somewhat different from the one that sends me to China whenever John Denver waxes nostalgic about the Shenandoah Valley. For while I had heard “Country Roads” plenty of times before going to Shanghai, I had never thought much about it, nor did I associate it with any special setting or moment. The Eagles, by contrast, were a group I listened to—and thought about—a lot while growing up in California, dreaming of a career as a singer-songwriter. And long before “Hotel California” began evoking an Indian café on my first visit to the country in 2010, it made me think of a very different time, place, and companion.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, whenever I heard “Hotel California,” I would be transported back to an afternoon in the 1970s in the west LA home of close family friends, soon after the album Hotel California was released. The house was one I hung out at a lot in those days. I was close to two of the three brothers in the family, Danny and David.
In this moment, David keeps picking the needle up off the turntable and restarting the song after first twenty and then thirty and then forty seconds of it have played. He is determined, in a way that fascinates me because it seems to border on the obsessive, to figure out how to replicate exactly the song’s bass line. The intensity of his focus strikes me as special, because I can never get myself to work as hard as David on mastering a lick. (It isn’t until later that I realize he is equally bemused as a teenager by how long I can spend worrying over and reworking a lyric I’ve written, which already seems to work fine in terms of meter and rhyme.)
It took the strangeness of hearing the song right after arriving in India to break the memory hold of that west LA living room, but by the time that happened, I had already spent years thinking about the song’s peculiar global ubiquity. Seeing it mentioned in Video Nights in Katmandu was one thing that got me thinking about this topic, but so did noticing how often, from the mid-1990s on, I would hear the strains of the song at least once during my periodic return visits to China. I also began to notice how often I would see the song mentioned on Beijing-based blogs, often disparagingly.
Most memorable in the digital-dissing category was a 13 September 2005 post on the invaluable Danwei site that was titled “Seeking Graffiti Artists and Hotel California-Haters in Beijing.” It described an upcoming creative happening—a musical exorcism. The event would include “an artistic attempt to destroy the song ‘Hotel California’ in a 24-hour sark [sic] fest performed by bands, DJs, spoken word artists, dancers, etc., who are invited to help crush the Eagles song that has been causing serious auditory pollution in China for the last two decades…Let’s hope Country Roads and everything ever recorded by Kenny G are next on the list.”
Eagles guitarist and singer Glenn Frey is reported to have said during a master class about songwriting that “Hotel California” should be approached like a Twilight Zone episode. By the time I went to India in 2010, I had come to think of its omnipresence in China, and the varied responses to that ubiquity, as having a Twilight Zone-like weirdness to it. And that was before I had seen and listened to the YouTube video of it performed on traditional Chinese instruments (a performance that, by the way, really is a “freaking gem!!!!” as the Beijing Daze blog raved).
The strangest Chinese “Hotel California” story, though, involves an American spy plane. As someone who teaches and writes about United States–China relations, I was intrigued by lots of things about the incident involving one of these aircraft that occurred in 2001, which began when an American EP3 collided with a much smaller Chinese plane, costing the pilot of the latter craft his life and requiring the former to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
The American crewmembers were immediately taken into custody by Chinese authorities on the island, which is sometimes referred to as China’s Hawaii and is located well to the south of Hong Kong. The ensuing diplomatic crisis was resolved fairly quickly, but relations between Beijing and Washington stayed strained until 9/11 came along and triggered a reset in so many diplomatic relations, including ours with China.
My interest in the incident was taken to a whole new level when “Hotel California” entered the picture. It did so when, after their release, some members of the American crew talked about the lighter moments in their otherwise tense days of captivity. At one point, a guard or multiple guards (the accounts of the American crewmembers vary on the details) asked the Americans to recite (or write down) the lyrics to “Hotel California.” Presumably, this request was made because it was a favorite song of the person or people who made the request. Perhaps, though, the request was made in the hope that hearing the words spoken rather than sung or seeing them written out would make their meaning clear. It is, after all, a hard song to parse, even if English is your first language and you are steeped in American popular culture. How many listeners in the United States know, for example, that the song’s allusion to “Steely knives” was inspired by the admiration Glenn Frey and the other coauthors of “Hotel California” had for the lyrical dexterity of Steely Dan?
One thing I like about the spy plane story is its utter lack of menace. “Hotel California” is a singularly dark song, with violent undercurrents (those “Steely knives” are used for stabbing, even if they “just can’t kill the beast”). In global circulation, though, the song tends to convey sunshine rather than noir. In every version of the spy plane tale that I’ve seen, the intent of the guard or guards is friendly, not threatening, even if the song refers to prisoners who, as we all know, check out but never leave.
“Hotel California” is often misread in the same way as “Born in the U.S.A.,” another dark song that is often treated as if it were a rousing patriotic number. When I mention “Hotel California” to people in China and say that I am from the state referred to in its title, they tend to look at me as if I am lucky to be from such a wonderful place. The word “California” is linked to so many positive images that the song’s cynical take is either not grasped, or is understood but ignored, or, perhaps, embraced as part of our state’s weird charm.
“Hotel California,” it seems, has come to signify to many people around the world what Amy Wilentz, in her insightful and amusing book I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger, describes Beach Boys songs about the state meaning to her during her East Coast childhood. She recalls “California Girls” marking a turning point in her early travels via flights of imagination. Until she heard it as a preteen, she had been steeped in books that took her to a favorite period and locale: England in the days of Rochester and Heathcliff. The music of the Beach Boys, though, “sounded clean and happy” and set her “red-sneakered foot” tapping to new rhythms. She was drawn to the image of the bright place the Beach Boys sang about, which seemed strangely “more alien” even than the land of the Beatles. The song made her dream of becoming a “California girl” who was part of an exotic “geography and vernacular” defined by sunshine and joy.
My sense is that “Hotel California” does the same thing for many people now, despite its lyrics sketching out a nightmarish scenario. If the song’s dark lyrics were taken seriously, would people around the world keep opening up new places to stay called “Hotel California”? Some hotels with that name predate the Eagles song (one opened in Mexico as far back as 1950), but others, including a recently opened hotel in Bangkok, postdate the recording. At least some of these—and I’d bet most—seem to have taken the name because—not in spite—of the song. The first thing you see on the website of the Bangkok hotel is the phrase “Welcome to the Hotel California.”
When I heard the first strains of the song in that New Delhi café, and saw a smile come over the face of Ravi Sundaram, the man I was meeting there, I took it as an indication that “Hotel California” was as popular in India as it is in other Asian countries. I’d later learn, though, that hearing the song takes Ravi to a different South Asian country.
When the song started playing, I was feeling strung out—and not just because of the long series of flights that I had taken to get to India. I had arrived around midnight and, though it had been great that a driver met me at the airport, it had been disconcerting when his car wouldn’t start and he asked me, sheepishly, to please get out and help a couple of passersby push it in the pitch-dark parking garage in hopes of getting it going. Luckily, this worked, but, unluckily, he had no idea where my hotel was. He got us to what he assured me was the right general neighborhood, but it didn’t look promising, with rundown buildings and stray dogs prowling the streets. Fortunately—it was a night of many ups and downs—he found a McDonald’s that was still open, and one of the workers there told him the hotel was right down the road. A boutique hotel in an old colonial building, it turned out to be delightful and my room had a comfortable bed that looked very inviting when I saw it. Unfortunately, jet-lagged, wiped-out, yet keyed-up, I had trouble falling asleep, woke again soon after nodding off, and couldn’t get back to sleep.
Not long after that, I was out in the street again trying to figure out how to hail a taxi, so that I could make it to the café to meet Ravi—an urban studies and new media scholar whose work I admired but whom I didn’t know well, having just met a couple of times in the United States. I felt good about making it to the restaurant without incident, but walking in I found myself wondering why the hell I had agreed to make the trip. It all seemed too much, especially since I knew I’d have to start the series of long flights back to California in just a few days.
I tried to shake off my dispirited mood by reminding myself of why the invitation to come to India had seemed so appealing when it was initially delivered—in a café in Germany not unlike the one I was entering in Delhi. I’d just given a series of invited talks in Heidelberg, and these talks inspired a local anthropologist, who studies Indian middle class life and religious traditions, to think that I’d be a good addition to a workshop on global cities that she was planning to hold in New Delhi in collaboration with local universities and the Goethe Institute. When she and a colleague asked me if I’d be willing to give a talk, I agreed readily. I’d grown interested in China-India comparisons, wanted to get to see Delhi, and found appealing the notion of getting to South Asia this way. I often come back from trips with new stories about the workings of globalization. In this case, I’d even be able to dine out on a good shrinking world tale before going, telling people that it was a sign of our times that I, an American China specialist, would be making my first trip to India courtesy of a German university.
Remembering that chain of events put me in a better mood, and I began to think about the embellishments I’d be able to add to the tale when I got home. I’d begin, of course, with the oddity of a McDonald’s being a key provider of local knowledge right after I landed on the other side of the world. When “Hotel California” began playing, right as Ravi and I had begun talking about plans for our China-India panel, I smiled in part because I knew that hearing it would give me another global story to tell when I got home, and in part because I was in need of comfortingly familiar sensations of any kind just then.
There was so much that needed to be sorted out about our activities, that Ravi and I kept talking while the song played, though each of us stopped from time to time mid-sentence to listen to a favorite line. I didn’t know Ravi well enough to slip out of our professional conversation right then and ask him what the song meant to him and what lay behind his smile. But when I got back to California, I felt we’d become good enough friends that I could ask him via email to tell me about his relationship to “Hotel California.” “I heard it when I was a kid in Nepal in the 1970s, on an LP,” he replied, “and immediately became an Eagles groupie and a Don Henley fan.”
Which brings me back to Kathmandu and Pico Iyer. As I was finishing this essay, I finally wrote and asked him where “Hotel California” takes him. He wrote back immediately saying he was rushing out the door—to the corner store? Nepal? With Pico, one never knows.
“The first place that ‘Hotel California’ takes me is the dreamy lake in the hill-station of Dalat, in Vietnam, where I heard the haunting chords of the Eagles’ song (in cover-version) drifting across one of the country’s most otherworldly honeymoon locations in the spring of 1991, on a chill Alpine night,” he wrote. “For someone living in America, returning to our best-known recent enemy only sixteen years after combat had concluded, it was already a charged experience to walk around the places that had serenaded one from the nightly news during formative years—Da Nang, Hue, My Lai. Even now, most Americans going to Vietnam are moved and sometimes perplexed by the warmth and hospitality they receive at almost every turn of a country we associate with our assaults. But that particular song, in a chill mountain climate where almost every couple was dressed in their best clothes for photographers, carried with especial potency the sound of longing you hear across the country—across the world—for everything that California represents (ironically, the freedom and sense of possibility and a future tense that the song so unsparingly negates).”
Pico then turned quickly: “I also can’t help think of the Tibetan refugee from Amdo who, with no prompting, would burst into every last verse of ‘Hotel California’—not an easy song to have by heart—and then ‘Californication’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, though both slurred together in his ears, as if the words were less important than the easy-riding, Beach Boys sunlight they suggested to him. His delivery of the song was not unlike a love-call from a wolf, of course, but the poignancy of his choice of material was that, although he knew he could try to win Western girls over with stark, unaccompanied Amdo nomad songs, he somehow chose the Californian threnody as his way to try to get to California (a trip he would regularly make, and return from with head hung between the knees).”
“I suppose I relate to the song in part because I am an immigrant, too,” he continued, “drawn by the California that exists only in the head when my parents moved here in the 1960s. And then, as a student reading English at Oxford in the mid-seventies, when the Eagles (Little Feat, Jackson Browne, even J.D. Souther) were at their peak, I remember how all of us eager literature students exchanged phrases, snippets, news of ‘Desperado’ or ‘Take it Easy’ or some such, and the Eagles seemed a shorthand for the worldliness we coveted (even in such songs as ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ and ‘The Last Resort’). The first literature student I ever met at Oxford—from Liverpool no less—started reeling off the names of California small towns as soon as we were introduced and he heard my parents lived in California. Of course, he’d never been there, except via the turntable. And of course, he made his way over to my home as soon as he could, if only to set the reality against the exportable dream. Just a small reminder—as is touchingly, complexly visible if you spend days on end in the Arrivals area at the Tom Bradley Terminal in LAX, as I once did—of all the baggage even those from the most privileged and cultured of places bring to Hotel California when they come here.”
Image at top: Hotel California in Nagoya, Japan. Photograph courtesy of BMEAbroad.
Thanks to Scott Loftesness for his photograph of Hotel California, Havana.