Book Review: Hotel California (2006)

It began in the late 1960s in a bohemian, artistic enclave in the canyons near Los Angeles. It spawned the singer-songwriter era of rock music and produced what would be called “the Southern California sound” and “country rock.” It essentially ended in the 1970s as commercial success and millionaire lifestyles led to the disintegration of an edifice symbolized by “Hotel California.”

That song title also serves befittingly as the title of Barney Hoskyns’ exploration of that era. While subtitled “The True-life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends,” the book is far broader. Hoskyns, a British music writer and critic, traces the history and development of what began as a mellow, acoustic and literate style of introspective music.

Hotel California begins where the music did — in Laurel Canyon. There, musicians influenced by rock, folk and politics gathered into what would become a melting pot of styles and sounds. Among the first trends to emerge from this mélange was the singer-songwriter. According to Jackson Browne, who would be among those to epitomize the sound, when Neil Young and Joni Mitchell released their debut albums in 1968, “you started to get songs that only the songwriter could have sung — that were part of the songwriter’s personality.”

But the songwriters weren’t alone in developing and promoting what would broaden and eventually become known as the Southern California sound. Managers David Geffen and Elliot Roberts played a huge role, with Geffen founding Asylum Records in 1971. Asylum, which would eventually merge with Elektra Records, had a stable of artists synonymous with the genre, such as Browne, Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. Hoskyns notes that things were so laid back at that time, Browne and the Eagles didn’t even have lawyers when they signed their contracts.

Close behind in popularizing the music were Mo Ostin and Joe Smith at Warner-Reprise. They initially signed Mitchell and also released albums by Young, Ry Cooder, Crazy Horse, Gram Parsons and James Taylor.

Whether considered part and parcel or an offshoot of the singer-songwriter style, Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon also fostered the emergence of country rock. Depending on how narrowly the genre is defined, country rock may not have been as widely popular or as long-lasting. Still, it reflected the roots and troubadour nature of canyon counterculture. Yet even occasional commercial success didn’t make country rock a record label favorite. When the Eagles moved from the folk-rock balance of their debut album to the explicit country rock theme of Desperado, Atlantic Records label president Jerry Greenberg reacted: “They made a fucking cowboy record.”

Hoskyns details the rise and success of the artists and interlocking family of musicians who fostered and helped create the genre. Yet he also explores the commercialization of the music and its ramifications. Commercial success and the resulting influence of record labels moved many of the most popular artists from idealistic minstrels performing what Robert Plant called “hippie rebel music” to millionaires producing “more commercial and sugary” music. The vast sums of money, combined with equally vast quantities of alcohol and cocaine, also led to the labels and many artists becoming a reflection of the almost implacable greed of mid-1970s L.A. As one contemporary observer told Hoskyns, “These people had been broke and had cared and had sung about it. And now they were twenty-four or twenty-five and they had a lot of money. What were they gonna sing about?”

Although remaining a singer-songwriter, Mitchell incorporated more jazz stylings, often to the dismay of her fans and record labels. The Eagles reduced their country stylings for a more straightforward rock sound and stardom. Crosby, Stills and Nash (and occasionally Young) moved from political and activist music to more mainstream sound. Thus, much of what stemmed from this era is heard today largely on nostalgia-type tours. Still, introspective singer-songwriters are more widely accepted as a result of this era and country rock was a fertile seed for today’s alt-country.

Because Hoskyns covers such a wide range of material and artists, Hotel California occasionally seems unfocused and wandering. At the same time, Hoskyns isn’t simply rehashing old quotes or interviews with the artists and record executives. Hoskyns bolsters this extensively sourced work with dozens of his own interviews with individuals such as Browne, Ronstadt, Cooder, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, J.D. Souther, Mitchell, Geffen and Roberts. Thus, this is not some People magazine-like survey fixating on celebrity and gossip. It is a thoughtful evaluation of people and events.

Those interested in the corporatization of rock music can find stronger works, such as Fred Goodman’s The Mansion on the Hill. Likewise, if all you want is details about particular artists, there’s plenty out there, such as James Mcdonough’s biography of Neil Young, Marc Elliot’s history of the Eagles, David Crosby’s autobiography or the “authorized biography” of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Hotel California, though, strikes a readable balance among the business, the personalities and the music.

In selling their souls for fame and riches, the stars of the 1960s and 1970s helped create a world where passive consumerism replaced emotional engagement and political commitment.

Barney Hoskyns, Hotel California

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