Written by Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley
Songs are often direct reflections of real life. In the case of The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” the third single from the band’s fifth studio album, Hotel California, the song was based around an encounter musician and songwriter Glenn Frey had with a drug dealer only known as The Count.
“I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game. The next thing I know we’re doing 90. Holding! Big-Time! I say ‘Hey man!’ He grins and goes ‘Life in the fast lane!’ I thought, ‘Now there’s a song title,’” Frey explained in the 2013 documentary, History of the Eagles.
Even more, “Life in the Fast Lane” embodies the stereotypical Los Angeles spirit and the “‘’run around in your Porsche’ 24-hour boogie mode that unfortunately is too true for a lot of people,” guitarist Joe Walsh once said on BBC Radio One. His interview was later compiled in “The Guitar Greats” by John Tobler and Stuart Grundy.
“[The song] wasn’t really a statement about the guys in the band, or about anybody in particular – just it’s kind of disturbing to see the extremes that the bourgeois jet set will involve themselves in,” Walsh continued. “For instance, disco almost turned into a lifestyle, and it’s such a non-meaningful thing on which to base one’s life.”
The opening stanza sets the scene of two joy-ridding rebels always aching for life’s many excesses. “He was a hard-headed man / He was brutally handsome, and she was terminally pretty,” singer-songwriter Don Henley sings. “She held him up, and he held her for ransom in the heart / Of the cold, cold city.”
The song, one of great pleasure-seeking, would not be quite the same without its iconic guitar smolder. The introductory guitar lick hits with an immediate groove, setting up the song’s bold, breezy tone, and it was born out of an otherwise ho-hum show warmup. “We had a couple false starts on stuff and hadn’t really found anything. But one night I was in my dressing room getting ready for a show, and I had this one lick I’d play over and over as part of warming up,” Walsh told Rolling Stone, “because it’s really a hard lick to play.”
Henley was immediately impressed. “He went and got Glenn, and I played it for them,” he added. “Don and Glenn, but mostly Don, put the words together, and Glenn kind of arranged it. And there it was.”
The song quickly progresses to showcase the inevitable bottoming out that comes with such fast and free living. “Blowin’ and burnin’, blinded by thirst / They didn’t see the stop sign, took a turn for the worst,” sings Henley, a haunting quality in his voice. “She said, ‘Listen, baby, you can hear the engine ring’ / We’ve been up and down this highway, haven’t seen a goddamn thing.”
“Life in the Fast Lane” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.