Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Hotel California - Barney Hoskyns

The book Hotel California, by Barney Hoskyns, looks at the Southern Californian music scene in the 1960s and 1970s, from the folk-rock boom of the mid-Sixties, through the singer-songwriter movement, to the hedonistic mid-Seventies.

The early parts of the book examine the transition from the age of folk singers and professional songwriters to self-contained folk-rock and psychedelic bands, and what factors precipitated this process.  As well as acknowledging the role of Bob Dylan and The Beatles in these changes, the importance of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield becomes clear. These chapters also reveal how certain visionary figures on the music scene would help to shape how things developed going forward.

I really liked how Hoskyns told the story, with an enthusiastic but authoritative style.  He allows the tale to unfold naturally and seamlessly, eschewing the cliched version which so regularly appears in mainstream accounts of the time. This is another example to me of how reading credible and well-written books is more satisfying, enlightening and rewarding than absorbing the platitudes contained in superficial television documentaries.

A nuanced interpretation of how country rock emerged is one of the book's strongest features. The author gives credit and prominence to less heralded, more marginal acts who helped to encourage the growth of this particular sub-genre of music.

Hotel California is structured in such a way that the reader is able to follow the fortunes of the various artists and personalities in a linear fashion. This is achieved because the author wisely did not attempt to fully document everybody who was involved and everything which occurred.  Space is found, fortunately, to highlight the contributions of figures such as Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon and Ry Cooder.

Another impressive aspect of the book is the way in which Hoskyns places the various changes in musical trends and tastes into some kind of socio-political context. At the same time, this is not done in a heavy-handed manner, but assertions are made in a measured way. These portions of the book help to illustrate how the Los Angeles music scene did not always necessarily shift in the "obvious" direction for the wider times and the "zeitgeist".

Parts of the story are quite sobering and poignant, even if some of the stories of outsized egos and hedonistic excesses are quite amusing. There is a wistful feel to those passages which assess how much of the original idealism and sense of community became submerged by personal ambition and avarice. Open-minded creativity was compromised by factors which at least contributed to the scene's decay and demise, and these are covered here. These sentiments are counterbalanced to some extent, however, by the realisation of just how much great and significant music emanated from Southern California during those times.

There is lots of insight into career progressions, and the motivations behind songs and albums which emerged from the Los Angeles sphere. 

I found Hotel California to be very enjoyable and rather engrossing.

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