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Book Review: Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns

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Our love for music often extends beyond listening to it. We want to know about the people who write and sing the songs that bring us the most joy.

There's no shortage of popular mythology — and hence books — about, for example, Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and all the drugs and music that helped define the hippie generation. Plenty of legends – and hence journalism – arose from the punk movement too. And Motown, the Beatles, Doo-Wop and jazz all have their devoted scribes and historians.

Enter British journalist Barney Hoskyns, the former editor of Mojo, to fill in a notable gap. What happened between Altamont and disco? How did David Geffen come tantalizingly close to his impossible dream of creating an "American Beatles" out of four bickering North Americans named Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? How did the Eagles, with their perfect (too perfect?) symbiosis of country and rock, come to be the most popular band in America? How did Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Little Feat fit in?

Do you care? If you are among the millions to whom their music means something, there's a good chance you do, and Hoskyns's book will interest you. A speedy, somewhat disorganized tour through the L.A. musical milieu circa 1966-75, Hotel California is loaded with interesting stories and observations about those and other artists along with the managers, label execs, and hangers-on who helped create the scene.

One of the book's virtues is a taut style that conveys a lot of information in crisp bursts of prose. Equally important is Hoskyns's extensive research, based on a huge trove of contemporary sources and a great many of his own new interviews.

The biggest lesson of the endeavor may be that this important music scene depended upon a successful symbiotic relationship between artists and producers (both the studio-engineering kind and the money kind), based on a mutual feel for music and for popular taste. For every ambitious (and by all accounts obnoxious) Stephen Stills, who created the seminal Buffalo Springfield, there had to be an A&R man like Warner-Reprise's Lenny Waronker:

A native Angeleno, Waronker was … intrigued by a new strain in the L.A. sound: a countryish, back-to-the-roots feel heard in songs by the Byrds and other groups. "My goal was very simple," he says. "It was to find a rock band that sounded like the Everly Brothers"… When [he] saw the Springfield live they were wearing cowboy hats, with Neil Young positioned to one side in a fringed Comanche shirt. He went berserk: "I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is it!'"

"For the new back-to-the-earth minstrels – chilling out in split-level cabins with their cats and patched-denim jeans, penning soul-searching songs about themselves and each other – living in Bel Air and driving a Rolls-Royce simply wasn't hip," Hoskyns explains. Instead they congregated in woodsy Laurel Canyon, where Joni Mitchell and soon-to-be-legendary manager Elliot Roberts arrived in early 1968 "from New York, where the Greenwich Village folk scene was petering out before their very eyes."

Certainly some qualities of that time and place nurtured a musical movement with an identifiable sound, but the book's analysis can be a little confusing. If it was the time when the solo singer-songwriter came into his and her own, why were the Eagles the scene's biggest commercial success story? Was the public really, already in 1968, worn out by loud rock, as Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times and Hoskyns quotes with approval – had "the high-frequency rock'n'roar… reached its zenith"? The public seemed ready for smooth country-rock from James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne, but was that precisely the same public that had been grooving, as Happy Traum described it in Rolling Stone, to "psy-ky-delick acid rock and to the all-hell-has-broken-loose styles of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin" (not to mention Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and the Rolling Stones)? The book doesn't delve deep enough to answer questions like this.

Of course the age of loud music was anything but over. But although the book may overestimate the importance of the direction popular music took in Southern California in this period — as distinct from the popularity and intrinsic value of the music itself — it still draws an engaging and useful picture of that time and place, from the singer-songwriter-fueled genesis of country-rock to its burning out in a blaze of rock star excess in the mid-70s.

By necessity, given the amount of ground Hoskyns covers in a fairly short book, the portraits of the major players are sketchy, which can get frustrating. The outsize talents and personalities of people like David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Lowell George, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, and Don Henley are a big chunk of the story, yet they're brought to life only with little anecdotes, quotes and scraps of detail. (Interestingly, David Geffen jumps off the page more vividly than do most of the artists.)

Fortunately, Hoskyns includes an extensive Suggested Reading section. Personally I recommend starting with Crosby's autobiography, Long Time Gone – it's a wonder that man is still alive. Meanwhile, for an overall picture of the scene, with some valuable if not definitive analysis, Hotel California is a useful source and an enjoyable read.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Very enjoyable post, Jon. I always thought that The Eagles were two bands: BJW (Before Joe Walsh) and WJW (With Joe Walsh). As I listen to the songs again, I’m still not sure which version I like better, but they were both pretty darn good.

  • JR

    I divide the Eagles into the Randy Meisner period and the Timothy B. Schmit period. With Meisner’s departure they lost all trace of their original western character and became a sterile, corporate AOR band. (Although I’ve always thought Schmit’s song is the best one on The Long Run – that’s weird.)

  • good review jon. i’ve always thought it was interesting and sort of amazing that music from this era actually happened at all…given the ever-present piles of cocaine everywhere.

  • I knew Barney Hoskyns both professionally and socially back in the day and he was always one of the smarter writers. Glad to see he’s still doing it.

  • Mark: yes… drugs are everpresent throughout the story.
    Amazing such good art was made.

  • Arlen Crawford

    Excellent review, Jon. I just finished the book and you summed it up rather succinctly.

    I spent my teens in this era and remember the music so very well. I always wondered about the backstories and this book filed in the blanks rather well.

  • Jiju Alex

    Comprehensive and highly enjoyable review. I am from India and had been a great admirer of this band ever since i heard hotel california. Thank you for reviwing the book so aptly