Henley And Meaningful Lyricism

 

I grew up listening to The Eagles. As a child I enjoyed their vocal melodies and guitar solos and catchy hooks. Later, as a college student obsessed with poetry and literature I listened to The Eagles for much the same reasons, but additionally because their lyrical content has always been so strong; their messages both meaningful and poetically expressed. Their surrealist odyssey “Hotel California” is one of the greatest songs of all time, held in my regard equal to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” in both its imagery and its craftsmanship.
Of course, a lot of the poetry evident in the The Eagles’ work originated in the mind of Don Henley, the co-founder (alongside Glenn Frey), vocalist, and drummer. He wrote “Hotel California” as a nightmarish manifestation of the American Dream’s wicked shadow that is often overlooked while someone (musician, actor, celebrity) is entranced by the golden glow of that fool’s gold paradise. It has a haunted Southwest hotel feel to it, lyrically and musically, and, of course, that guitar arrangement mesmerizes like a desert snake swaying before snapping its lethal fangs. Few songs lead listeners on such an imagist journey like “Hotel California”.
“Desperado” is yet another lyrically powerful song resonating with sad, poignant sentiment, superb musicianship, and strong symbols. In this case the image is that of a card player losing at a card game that represents love, and life. He becomes numb, losing “all your highs and lows” until “the feeling goes away”. Henley constantly reasons with the subject of the song, begging him to “come to your senses” and “let somebody love you”, while also admonishing him to stay away from “the queen of diamonds”. Alongside the card game theme, there is also a theme of weather and how the song’s subject is letting “wintertime” overcome him, anesthetize him to life’s joys, and lead him to dithering in the rectification of his situation. Weather is not solely literal in this sense, but figurative. The subject is suffering from bad luck, and subsequently is becoming numb to life rather than trying to let the “highs and lows” motivate him toward change, toward “the queen of hearts”, losing himself to indecision as he sits on his “fences”, unable to “open a gate” and enact change “before it’s too late”.
Don Henley has stated in several interviews that he was influenced early in his adult life by American Transcendentalism. After his father died he returned home from college to help his mother. While recovering from that tragedy he read the works of Thoreau and Emerson, learning an appreciation of Nature, but also (I suspect) an appreciation for symbolic imagery that serves higher thoughts which can “transcend” the ages. For instance, his song “Boys Of Summer” is, on its surface, a dirge about a young man in love with a woman who is not equally committed to the relationship. In fact, she is running after the “boys of summer”. It is about lost love, in other words, or the naive illusion of love, as evidenced by the refrain “I can tell you my love for you will still be strong after the boys of summer have gone”. Yet, the song is not only a song about a literally unrequited love, but also the loss of youthful innocence. In this case, the woman he is defiantly in love with is actually his own youth, which he naively wishes to cling to despite the merciless march of Time. He celebrates her by describing her in minute detail, speaking of “brown skin shining in the sun” and how she walks “real slow, smiling at everyone”. She is a beach belle, an American beauty; a Venus recently walking out of the surf after having stepped out of Botticelli’s shell. And though he loves her, she is not his alone, nor anyone’s. Even the “boys of summer” have to share her, for no one has claim over her. He realizes the mutability of life with the lyrics “a little voice inside said ‘Don’t look back, you can never look back’”, and he acknowledges it with “those days are gone forever, I should just let them go” before relapsing into his own nostalgia with another memory of that semiotic siren: “but I can see you”, and then concluding with that monomaniacal refrain “my love for you will still be strong after the boys of summer have gone.”
Henley would refine this sentiment in the achingly sorrowful song “End Of The Innocence”, a beautifully constructed dirge dedicated very much to what the title suggests. Yet, while “End Of The Innocence” expresses the nostalgia of youth, it also transcends the simple loss of innocence of a single man and aspires to express the United States’ loss of innocence as a nation. The lyric “armchair warriors often fail, and we’ve been poisoned by these fairytales” refers to the Reagan administration and its aggressive response to Communism during the 1980’s. “Armchair warrior” was a maledictory term that existed before Henley utilized it, but it assumes a greater imagist strength when coupled with the lines preceding it, “they’re beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we’ve elected king”, which is certainly a scornful rebuke to Reagan, but also serves undeniably as a powerfully poetic image of derision. Not only is this song a dismissive condemnation concerning politicians and world affairs; it is also a deeply personal song mourning what once was, its nostalgic lens cracked and the eye blurred with age and distance. The image evoked of a man and a woman laying on the ground and her hair falling all around him represents the delirious happiness of youth and how it is coming to an end despite “your best defense”. This sadness is further codified with the beautifully nihilistic lyric “somewhere back there in the dust, that same small town in each of us”, which evokes the American mythical idea that that the optimal past (small town USA) has been reduced to “dust”, crumbling beyond repair or return. Needfully, Henley concludes the song by reconciling himself with the obliteration of the past, or the past’s mythicization, saying “let me take a long last look before we say good bye”. Equally interesting and thematically appropriate is the song’s black-and-white music video, directed by David Fincher. The fact that it is black-and-white invokes such gullibly youthful conceptions of “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”, while simultaneously lending a strange timelessness to the video and its themes. It could have easily been shot in color, but the black-and-white format was a conscious choice, embracing nostalgia and disavowing it simultaneously. Like the song itself, it assumes a stoic stance of analysis while also indulging in the emotional resonance of that time and its mythology. It is like an iconoclastic celebration of America; the glorious shattering of a mirror that showed what we wanted to see so we can see what we need to see in the shards.
Nostalgia, myth, and history feature predominantly in a later work by Henley and The Eagles. If “Hotel California” is a dirge for the American Dream, and “Boys Of Summer” is a dirge for youthful innocence, the song “Long Road Out Of Eden” is a dirge for the United States as it expands into a world police empire. While not as “radio-friendly” as other songs in The Eagles’ catalogue, this ten-minute titan is as deserving of listeners as any of their other work, but more importantly it is as deserving of minds as any poem by Byron, Shelley, or Shakespeare. Indeed, the song reminds me, too, of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, for it speaks of the yearning for love while great wars occur in the distance, the difference being that “Long Road Out Of Eden” assumes the perspective of an American soldier in the Middle East wanting to be home with his loved ones rather than being caught in a war where “he can’t tell wrong from right”. There are other character perspectives in the song’s story, too, contrasting sharply with the soldier’s terrible lot. One perspective comes from a caricature member of the 1% who drives a gas-guzzling SUV and who is “having lunch at the petroleum club, smoking fine cigars and swapping lies”. His experience of the “Eden” that is America is greatly different than the soldier fighting in a war to secure the oil fields in the Middle East.  Henley mocks the myopic perspective of the 1% by saying “we’re riding to utopia, road map says we’ll be arriving soon”, stating that the materialistic consumerism in America has not yet brought us to utopia, but rather is destroying it; that “Eden” is a place of contentedness and reconciliation with our limitations, as well as the avoidance of excesses. “Eden” is not a place of excess, but cultivation. We must tend our gardens and not glut ourselves. The soldier says “back home I was so certain, the path was very clear, but now I have to wonder, what are we doing here?” This indicates how blinded he had been by the media propaganda that propelled the U.S. into the invasion; propaganda promoted by the Bush administration. Having arrived and seen firsthand what awaits him on the other side of the ocean, however, he has become disillusioned. Henley furthers this elucidation with the comparison of the U.S. to a road trip driven by a motorist “bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda” that results in our nation “driving dazed and drunk”, veering from our course as the land of the free and becoming the enforcer of an absurdity: that pushing democracy forcibly upon other nations somehow makes the world a better place. But, in truth, such endeavors only ever undermine democracy, twisting and warping it into something that is not sustainable, nor even viable in the first place. This paradox does not allow democracy to flourish where intended, but is undone by its own fascist inception. Toward the end of the song Henley speaks of meeting the “ghost of Caesar on the Appian Way” and how this phantom says “the road to empire is a bloody stupid waste”. This invokes Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, which everyone knows, but also reminds me of John Gould Fletcher’s poem “Mexican Quarter”.  The latter states “All things pass away […] youth is for a day […] Babylon and Samarkand are mud walls in a waste of sand”.  The soldier, a young man, would “give anything to be there in your arms tonight”, which shows the dichotomy of Eden for the 1% as opposed to those making the true sacrifices, excluded as they are by the attempt to bring the country to “Eden”: a futile endeavor insomuch as the definition pertains to imperial aspirations.  The song ends very cleverly with a subdued marching drumbeat that gradually fades out, thus tying the music to the lyrics thematically. It also calls to mind the humorously existential poem “On The Vanity Of Earthly Greatness” by Arthur Guiterman who says “Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf, and I don’t feel so well myself.” The last lyrics of the song, just before the refrain, refers to the “bitten apple” and the “power of the tools”, referring to the Tree of Knowledge, concluding the pessimistic analogy by stating “all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools”. In other words, despite all of our technology and abundance and prosperity, it cannot last, and indeed will likely come to an end because of our arrogance and our inability to want less, to find contentment in the Eden we have already established, or could establish if we only focused inwardly instead of outwardly in imperial transformations of the world.
I could rant in adulation of Henley’s lyrical poetry for pages, so I will conclude with one last observation. Namely, this expertise in meaningful songwriting is sorely lacking in modern music. Granted, due to the sheer variety of music brimming on every radio station much of what is played has to be not only “radio friendly”, but must hook the listener within the first four seconds of the song, but such restrictions seriously hinder the capacity for more lyrically complex works. Yet, is that really an excuse? While modern “artists” seem content to concern themselves with petty feuds between celebrity singers, tone-deaf exultations of money and fame, as well as the myopic obsession with media and social-image, they lose sight— much to the disadvantage of all of us as a culture— of Time’s arc and the transcendental subjects that are crucial to our humanity and its needful modesty. Everyone loves a good, mind-numbing Pop song, but must it be the only music played on the radio nowadays? We have to balance the junkfood with soul food occasionally. That said, I do admire certain modern artists that combine lush musicality with deeper lyrical insights, thus creating a wonderful symmetry of expression. They just do not get the air time they deserve.

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