“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for : the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”
East of Eden
It was the second half of the 1970s, and the Eagles’s early tracks seemed like a faraway memory, almost like couthy, pleasant dreams rudely interrupted by the realities of business and fame.
Their previous album, “One of These Nights” had conceived three Top 10 singles, and their “Greatest Hits” album sold in astronomic numbers — It was on its way to becoming the best-selling album of all time, that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had to invent platinum certification.
Looking back, Glenn Frey said, “We were under the microscope. Everybody was going to look at the next record we made and pass judgment. Don (Henley) and I were going, ‘Man, this better be good.’”
A deep malaise had set into the background, one that a high-rolling life such as theirs could not soothe.
On one eventful day, guitarist Don Felder was spending time in a rented house in Malibu — Quietly inhaling the ocean breeze, leisurely playing his guitar. Malibu couldn’t have been a more perfect mise-en-scène as Felder suddenly came up with the starting sequence of “Hotel California” — The iconic, eerie chords setting the somber tone for what would eventually become their best-known hit. It sounded like a mixture of Spanish music and reggae, which was a far cry from the band’s country influences.
“I looked out at the California sunshine sparkling on the Pacific Ocean,” said Felder, “And my two little kids were playing in the sand on a swing-set out in front of me, and I just started playing those chords – That introductory progression. I just played it over and over. And I thought, ‘I have to go record some of this before I forget it.’”
As the band built on Felder’s tune, improving the melodies, writing the lyrics — The drummer, Don Henley thought up a thematic concept : The dark side of Hollywood, the pressures of stardom and buying into the rockstar lifestyle — A hard look at what was going on in the band’s lives, personally and professionally, while they were still going through them.
Henley said, “We were getting an extensive education, in life, in love, in business. Beverly Hills was still a mythical place to us. In that sense, it became something of a symbol and the ‘Hotel’ is the locus of all that L.A. had come to mean for us. In a sentence, I’d sum it up as the end of the innocence, round one.”
He also remarked, “I’ve learned over the years that one word, ‘California,’ carries with it all kinds of connotations, powerful imagery, mystique, etc., that fires the imaginations of people in all corners of the globe. There’s a built-in mythology that comes with that word, an American cultural mythology that has been created by both the film and the music industry.”
Once they laid down the theme for the album, other songs came about. Referring to the songs, Felder explained, “When you get into the Hotel California and you have a hit, you’re The New Kid in Town. And then once you have a great deal of success in the business, you start living Life in The Fast Lane. Every once in a while, you start to go, ‘Is this all a bunch of Wasted Time, all the years we’ve sat in bars and turned into parties?’ So the concept came out of that framework.” (Emphasis mine)
The Eagles refused to give the music industry what they wanted — More of what made their previous records “successful”. Instead, they defied expectations by abandoning their bluegrass and country roots and took on a more overt rock sound. What resulted is one of the most legendary albums in music history, and it was ironically, a form of criticism on the music industry itself. While the record companies were selling records, the Eagles showed that they just wanted to play music.
There comes a point in the life and work of most creatives where their audience’s expectations build up — And they have to assess themselves on whether they are businessmen or artists, if they are making art or simply commodities, as they have to boldly decide to follow where their interests lead them.
Though this certainly doesn’t mean that artists shouldn’t have entrepreneurial skills.
Steve Jobs, for example, was a shrewd businessman, yet he had the heart and soul of a craftsman — He was able to come up with some of his most revolutionary inventions such as iTunes, because he genuinely loved music. He never viewed his ideas as “products” but rather as dreams put into reality — Otherwise he would never have given so much care for them, as he even made sure that the insides of his devices were beautifully arranged, even though no one would pry them open and see.
The further you go with your work, the more you need to just keep moving forward and not look back — To just follow the flow of your art, and no matter how dear your previous works have been to you — To not think so much about what made them successful, to not try to replicate them.
Never look back unless to find mistakes and learn from them.
If you stay put in one place for long, you will be easily defined and in turn, appear uninteresting to your audience. Contrarily, if you keep broadening your horizon, you will always have air of mystery around your work — Constantly having your audience closely engaged as they eagerly anticipate you to surprise them in new ways.
Just as the Eagles sang in “The New Kid in Town” — When you’re a success :
“Great expectations, everybody’s watching you.
People you meet, they all seem to know you.
Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.
Everybody loves you, so don’t let them down.”
But then, when people get bored of you :
“You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you.
They will never forget you till somebody new comes along.
Where you been lately? There’s a new kid in town.
Everybody loves him, don’t they?”
After a success, you must always return to a blank drawing board and start again from square one.
Treat all of your tasks as unique, because they very often are. This way you can build a significant portfolio, encompass a wide spectrum of concepts and from that, you can reach a much larger audience. Your contributions as a creative will be a lot more meaningful too, and of course, you can avoid the sadness of being a one-hit wonder.
So stay true to your craft — Whenever you’re struggling to create something new, remember that you’re doing this because of your love for it — You’re not trying to impress anyone, because you’re walking on a path that’s different from theirs. You’re following where your work leads you.