Interpreting The Eagles’ Hotel California

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“Hotel California” topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for one week in May 1977 and peaked at number 10 on the Easy Listening chart. Billboard ranked it number 19 on its 1977 Pop Singles year-end chart.  Three months after its first release, the single was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing one million copies shipped. The Eagles also won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year for “Hotel California” at the 20th Grammy Awards in 1978.[4]

In 2009, the song “Hotel California” was certified Platinum (Digital Sales Award) by the RIAA for sales of one million digital downloads.[5]

The music for this song originated from a demo written and recorded by Don Felder and given to Don Henley and Glenn Frey to write lyrics for it. Once finished it was recorded in the key of E minor which turned out to be the wrong key for Don Henley to sing and was later re-recorded in the proper key for his voice which was B minor. The song is rated highly in many rock music lists and polls; Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 49 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“.  It is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The song’s guitar solo was voted the best solo of all time by readers of Guitarist magazine in 1998 and was ranked 8th on Guitar Magazine‍ ’​s Top 100 Guitar Solos.   It was most recently voted the #1 12-string guitar song by Guitar World magazine.

As one of the group’s most popular and well-known songs, “Hotel California” has been a concert staple for the band since its release. Performances of the song appear on the Eagles’ 1980 live album, simply called Live, and in an acoustic version on the 1994 Hell Freezes Over reunion concert CD and video release. The Hell Freezes Over version is performed using eight guitars and has a decidedly Spanish sound, with Don Felder‘s flamenco-inspired arrangement and intro.

Glenn Frey described the origins of the song:

The song began as a demo tape, an instrumental by Don Felder. He’d been submitting tapes and song ideas to us since he’d joined the band, always instrumentals, since he didn’t sing. But this particular demo, unlike many of the others, had room for singing. It immediately got our attention. The first working title, the name we gave it, was ‘Mexican Reggae’.

Interpretation

The lyrics weave a surrealistic tale in which a weary traveler checks into a luxury hotel. The hotel at first appears inviting and tempting, but it turns out to be a nightmarish place where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”. The song is an allegory about hedonism, self-destruction, and greed in the music industry of the late 1970s. Don Henley called it “our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles  and later reiterated: “It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.  In 2008, Don Felder described the origins of the lyrics:

Don Henley and Glenn wrote most of the words. All of us kind of drove into L.A. at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into L.A. at night… you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have, and so it was kind of about that… what we started writing the song about. Coming into L.A…. and from that ‘Life in the Fast Lane‘ came out of it, and ‘Wasted Time’ and a bunch of other songs.

The term “colitas” in the first stanza means “little tails” in Spanish; in Mexican slang it refers to buds of the cannabis (marijuana) plant.

In a 2009 interview, The Plain Dealer music critic John Soeder asked Don Henley this about the lyrics:

On “Hotel California,” you sing: “So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” I realize I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented;spirits are distilled. Do you regret that lyric?

Henley responded:

Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention—and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.

According to Glenn Frey‘s liner notes for The Very Best Of, the use of the word “steely” in the lyric, “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,” was a playful nod to the band Steely Dan, who had included the lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” in their song “Everything You Did“.[18]

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And from Shmoop:

In the title track of their hit 1976 album, “Hotel California,” the Eagles warn listeners of the two most dangerous things known to man – women and California. Or, to be more precise, California girls. They turn the Beach Boys’ plea from 1965 (“I wish they all could be California girls”) on its head. Apparently something drastic happened to girls from the Golden State between 1965 and 1976. By the time they wrote “Hotel California,” the Eagles had come to the conclusion that the “cutest girls in the world” also came with a lot of baggage.

But before we dive a little deeper into this song, let’s go over the basic sequence of events described in this ballad. As the story unfolds, the speaker is driving on a dark desert highway late at night. He feels the wind in his hair and smells some desert flowers. Before long, he starts to feel drowsy and stops at a hotel for the night. You guessed it: it’s the Hotel California. A mysterious woman stands and greets him at the door like a Homeric siren, luring the weary traveler with her seductive song. This female figure plays a central role in the song, though we never learn all that much about her. All the while, the speaker isn’t sure what to make of the place. He starts to hear voices singing about how lovely and pleasant it is to stay at the hotel. The woman is rich and fun loving, and her friends are beautiful.

So far, so good.

The speaker orders up some wine from the Wine Captain, who remarks that the speaker has brought the playful spirit of the 1960s along with him. The speaker passes out and hears the voices again singing about the Hotel California. This time, however, they mention something about having an alibi to prove their innocence. This tidbit is the first suggestion that all might not be well at our quaint hotel.

The speaker notices how swanky the place is, but then the woman tells him that everyone at the hotel is a prisoner of his or her own making. (We spit out our champagne: “Whaaa?”). Everyone shows up for a dinner in the room of the “master,” and they stab at some animal or “beast” that won’t die. Naturally, this sends our speaker running for the exit, but now he can’t find the exit. The person who watches over the hotel tells him not to worry because he won’t ever be able to escape from the hotel.

And such is the fate of our weary traveling narrator.

The very first few lines of the song take us to the long, straight highways of California and the American southwest, which serves as a powerful symbol of freedom, desolation, and recklessness in songs by The Eagles. The song title suggests a sunny, laid-back place where people drink lots of pomegranate juice and practice yoga, but it also hints that the state of California (or, more accurately, theidea of California) is not really home to anyone. It’s a place for people who are between destinations: transients. One central theme in “Hotel California” is the disconnect between popular perceptions of California versus the reality.

Don Henley’s masterful lyrics focus much of their attention on this theme of perceptions of California in the American collective imagination versus the reality of the Golden State. Don Henley’s lyrics certainly have a flair for the dramatic, as he effortlessly transforms the mood and tone of the story. What once seemed like a small desert paradise quickly turns into a gothic horror.

In many ways, this is a story about California in general, and Los Angeles in particular. Don Felder, the guitarist for The Eagles who wrote the tune for “Hotel California,” has talked about how the song was inspired by driving into Los Angeles filled with high expectations that were later disappointed: “If you drive into LA at night you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have.” To many – the speaker in “Hotel California” included – Los Angeles seems like a beautiful oasis on the edge of a dark, squalid desert. Hundreds of thousands of people have migrated to California in search of sunshine, beautiful women, money, and fame. Yet many find this dream to be a mirage. As the nightman of the Hotel explains, “we are programmed to receive.”

And in many ways, California has been “programmed to receive” from its very inception. After all, in 1848, before California even officially became American territory, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra foothills, bringing in droves of immigrants from other regions in the United States, as well as Asia, Europe, and Latin America. The “California Dream” was born, and it was a dream of instant wealth waiting to be claimed by anyone bold enough to take it. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the state, hoping and expecting to find a fortune in the goldfields. But most of them never found it; the easy placer gold was soon panned out, and it didn’t take long for huge industrial mining operations to take over. Within a few years, most individual miners were reduced from independent treasure-seekers to dependent wage laborers. So in some sense, a kind of false hope was written into the fabric of California from its very inception.

And this is just what the Eagles found in California more than a century later. Despite their inextricable connection to the state of California, no member of the Eagles was originally from there. According to Don Henley, “we were all middle-class kids from the Midwest. ‘Hotel California’ was our take on the high life in Los Angeles.” Don Henley, originally from Texas, and Glenn Frey, a rocker from Detroit, came to Los Angeles in 1970 to pursue musical careers. Together, they formed the Eagles in 1971, along with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, after all four had toured as members of Linda Ronstadt’s band. The Eagles managed to create a laid back California sound that effortlessly combined elements of country with rock music. The music they constructed was intended as a soothing antidote to the turmoil of the late ’60s. This was a sound that appealed to American listeners of all stripes, as the band’s huge record sales soon proved. Between 1975 and 1979, the Eagles released four consecutive #1 albums – One of these Nights, Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975, Hotel California, and The Long Run. Greatest Hits still remains the bestselling album of all time in America.

With all this money and success the Eagles soon found that they had become “prisoners of their own device.” Fame, excessive partying, and drug use took its toll on the band members. According to Glenn Frey, “we weren’t the [Rolling] Stones, but we weren’t the Osmonds either, somewhere in between. But closer to the Stones.” According to some interpretations, “Hotel California” is a song about drug addiction; others have viewed it as a song about a mental hospital, or devil worship, or – in one especially oddball take – even a real hotel run by cannibals. (That one sure puts a delicious new spin on “you can check out but you can never leave.”)

Most likely, however, it is a song that chronicles the culture of excess, wealth, decadence, and self-destruction in the Southern California cultural milieu of the mid-1970s. In a 2007 interview with 60 Minutes, Don Henley described “Hotel California” as “a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.” What’s interesting here is that Henley and the Eagles are not trying to argue that the “American Dream” is a sham – no, they themselves are living examples of the American Dream (four Midwest boys come to California with the dream of becoming rock stars and five years later release the best-selling album in American history). Yeah, we’d say they got a pretty good deal. But instead, the Eagles are criticizing the culture of excess surrounding the rich and famous in Los Angeles – a culture that they were a part of. It turns out the old adage is true: “mo’ money mo’ problems.”

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