This Could Be Heaven—Or This Could Be Hell

An evening with the Eagles, on their Hotel California tour.

An image of the Eagles spins like a vinyl record.
Redferns / Getty; The Atlantic

Rock and roll’s relationship with time—as in Father Time, not, you know, tempo—is fascinating. Men and women barely into their 20s, dewy young people without a mark on them, somehow contrive to write songs of shattering, been-there maturity. Whiskery wisdom ballads, epics of regret, failure binge blues, and howling prophetic voyages. Wide-eyed they sing them, these songs of experience. And then they grow old, and it all comes true.

I could have done so many things, sang Don Henley at Boston’s TD Garden Saturday night, if I could only stop my mind. Henley is 74; he wrote those lines (from “Wasted Time”) 45 years ago. How does he feel about them now? Rather deeply, to judge from his delivery. (Hoarse, intense.) Up in the clanging concrete tiers, we commiserated with whoops and waved cellphones.

We had gathered, masked and flapping our vaccination cards, to watch the Eagles perform their 1976 album, Hotel California, beginning to end, with a greatest-hits set to follow. Eagles 2021 is sort of a patched-up postmodern proposition: Timothy Schmit, bassist since 1977, is still there, as is guitarist Joe Walsh, but Glenn Frey, Henley’s other half in the band, died in 2016. His place is taken by his son Deacon, with the lineup further augmented by the country star Vince Gill and the fabulously discreet guitarist/sideman Steuart Smith. The musicians wear white shirts and black waistcoats, Western tailoring: Senior desperado is the look. And what about us, the asses in the seats? We too were sort of a patched-up postmodern proposition: haggard loyalists, jolly middle-of-the-roaders, multigenerational clumps.

By the time the Eagles released Hotel California, they were knee-deep in experience. Ankle-deep, at any rate. The Southern California sound, which they had helped invent, ruled the airwaves: an edgeless boogie on the low end, a keening country-folk white man on top. Mildly rocking, beautifully harmonizing, with songs that folded shivery Neil Young vibes into a seam of near-disco sleekness, the Eagles appeared to have found the elixir. Pained lyrics about runaround women, sung by long-haired alpha guys. Their previous album, Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), was a behemoth; it would go on to be the biggest-selling U.S. album of the 20th century. And riches were cool in 1976: The Eagles embraced, as the phrase goes, the lifestyle.

But gorgeous Glenn Frey and sharp-eyed Don Henley, the drummer with the “sweetly frayed high tenor” (as the critic Barney Hoskyns called it), came out of L.A.’s self-regarding singer-songwriter scene. They weren’t going to just sit there and be pop stars. Jet-setters that they were, the eucalyptus whiff of Laurel Canyon was still upon them. So they had their cake and wrote a concept album about it too. An album about vanity and materialism and mortality and faded love and the hollowness of success: Hotel California. The songs were fantastic, alternately streaked with melancholy and slightly vicious. “New Kid in Town” was an industry satire and also kind of a mellow heartbreaker: They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along. Then there was the taillights cocaine frazzle of “Life in the Fast Lane,” which was the sound of the Age of Aquarius curling up and dying.

“Well, that was it,” said Henley, as the strains of “The Last Resort”—Hotel California’s final track—faded into the stony maw of the TD Garden. “Our monument to mirage.” What a great line. And what an interesting man he is, still a beaky, worldly, acerbic presence, still a consummate outsider-insider. But the folkloric figure, it turns out, the connector, is Joe Walsh: time-destroyed but still standing, long black coat and leather trousers, ghostly white hair, hurrahed by the crowd every time he steps forward. We love Joe for his slightly un-Eagles personal voltage and the rumor of his long-ago rampages. We love him for his frailty. He soloed heroically during “Life in the Fast Lane.” He sang a raddled, grimacing, broken-voiced, incredibly moving version of “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” Why do we give up our hearts to the past? And why must we grow up so fast?

I sat in my seat, mask-muffled, transported by the still-intact Eagles harmonies, baffled by the complexity of the moment. Hotel California is asshole music, in some ways: introspection from the window of a Learjet. But it’s also self-aware, and wonderfully crafted, and very lovely in places. It is of its time; it is dire with foreknowledge. Because what about the title track, the frozen sub-reggae lurch of it, the spooky symbolist horse-with-no-name lyrics? The weird breeze, the mirrors on the ceiling? We are all just prisoners here, of our own device. At the Garden, Henley delivers this line in an especially knowing, pining voice. Luxury gone rotten, an approaching storm. From his gold-plated heyday he somehow glimpsed it. He smelled it. And it’s still there. The Hotel California, shimmering American palace of God-knows-what, is still our future.