Songsplaining: Decoding the Eagles’ Signature Song, Hotel California

It’s no mystery that rock stars during the 1970s weren’t kind to hotel rooms (to put it nicely). Take it from on-and-off-again Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh, who described the situation frankly: “I live in hotels, tear out the walls. I have accountants pay for it all.” To give you an example, Walsh recalled a single night at Chicago’s Astor Towers when he and Blues Brothers star John Belushi accumulated a $28,000 damage bill.

The Eagles, l to r: Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, Don Felder, ca. the early 1970s.

The Eagles, l to r: Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, Don Felder, ca. the early 1970s. Photo By Everett/Shutterstock

Misuse of the hospitality industry was basically part of the whole rock star legend. Let’s envision Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham roaring down the halls of L.A.’s Continental Hyatt on a Harley Davidson, and The Who’s drummer Keith Moon driving his Lincoln Continental into the swimming pool of Flint Michigan’s Holiday Inn.

But the Eagles? The laid-back band who urged America to “Take It Easy”? They weren’t really a part of that legend. No, they made their own history…

Mulling the Phrase

Senior band members Glenn Frey and Don Henley had no choice but to quietly tolerate Walsh’s hotel destruction, but once they had the opportunity to write about life on the road and what it meant to them, the result made them a fortune, rather than costing them one (in damage bills).

The Eagles - Glenn Frey, Don Henley (drums) and Don Felder

The Eagles – Glenn Frey, Don Henley (drums), and Don Felder. Photo By Times Newspapers/Shutterstock

Henley said he played around with the phrase “Hotel California” for quite a while, but the process of turning it into a song meant it had to go through a certain order that the band adopted by the mid-‘70s. At that point, the Eagles weren’t yet in need of communicating through lawyers, but they were, however, referring to each other by their last names.

A Snake and a Baby

Guitarist Don Felder was tasked with recording instrumental bits onto tape and giving them to Frey and Henley for their approval. He recorded those bits at his home in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, but, while on tour, his wife Susan, who had recently given birth, called. The call was short: “We’re moving.”

The Eagles & Don Felder

The Eagles & Don Felder. Photo By Kent/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

While she and the baby were relaxing in their garden, she noticed a nest of rattlesnakes. She and their son flew immediately to a beach house rental in Malibu. Felder joined them that evening and immediately began recording a new song.

That “Mexican Reggae” Tune

That vision of snakes in a garden is the kind of image that would have fit right in with the rhythm track that was about to be created. The chords Felder strummed followed a pattern that resembled flamenco more than it did rock. The guitar being played on the off-beat is what gave the song its working title of “Mexican Reggae” when Frey and Henley gave him the nod of approval.

The Eagles - Glenn Frey, Don Henley

The Eagles – Glenn Frey, Don Henley. Photo By Times Newspapers/Shutterstock

But that working title wasn’t really something that was consciously decided upon. In fact, as Felder pointed out after he gave them the cassette tape, Henley said, “I like that song that sounds like a Mexican reggae.” Later, Henley came up with the lyrical framework…

Both Glamorous and Creepy

The place was a building called “Hotel California.” (For those who are curious, it’s the Beverly Hills Hotel that is seen on the front of the cover.) When Frey and Henley added their lyrics, they described a weary traveler who was lured into a “lovely place” full of grotesque characters. It’s both glamorous and creepy at the same time, and the traveler just can’t seem to escape.

hotel California album cover

Hotel California album cover. Source: tonimarino.co.uk

Hotel California has become one of the most mysterious and widely debated songs in the history of rock. Since the 1976 release of Hotel California, many have tried to decode the song’s lyrics and make them into something coherent.

The Tool of Vaguery

Henley, in 2007, reflected on some of the interpretations he’s heard over the years. “Some of the wilder interpretations… have been amazing. It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew.” But, Henley also said that it was about “the uneasy balance between art and commerce.” Then there was Frey, who said “Vaguery is the primary tool of songwriters.”

The Eagles Glenn Frey Joe Walsh Don Henley

The Eagles Glenn Frey Joe Walsh Don Henley. Photo By Globe Photos/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

But let’s just keep in mind that Frey said this of the band’s most famous song: “We decided to create something strange, just to see if we could do it.” Frey said that the atmosphere of a man in a strange setting, unsure about what he’s seeing with his own eyes, is similar to the 1965 novel The Magus. John Fowles’ book was a counterculture favorite of the day, showing a secret world on a Greek island where reality is suspect.

Lyrics, Lawsuits, and Resentment

Sure, we can then assume that any meaning in the song was unintentional, but the band gave a little more thought than that. With such unexplained images and lyrics, rock fans have preferred to search for specifics in their favorite songs. At one point, Hotel California was played on American radio every 11 minutes.

The Eagles - Timothy B.Schmit and Don Henley

The Eagles – Timothy B.Schmit and Don Henley. Photo By Picture Perfect/Shutterstock

The song also meant enough to the band itself that they took time out from suing each other to start another legal battle, this time against a Mexican hotel using the name. The fame and fortune from the song was never matched, and the Eagles’ attempts at trying to best it is mainly what drove them apart.

That said, it’s high time we went through the song’s lyrics and decipher what the heck these guys were singing about.

Verse I: Colitas

“On a dark desert highway
Cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas
Rising up through the air”

The term “colitas” literally means “little tails” in Spanish, but according to Felder, the colitas is a plant that grows in the desert which blooms at night and has a kind of pungent, almost funky smell. The little tails are the very top of the plant.

Don Henley

Don Henley. Photo By Bei/Shutterstock

It was Henley, though, who came up with a lot of the song’s lyrics, including “colitas.’” Frey told the SF Chronicle in 2003, “That was a dark, strange period of my life.” Felder explained that when they wrote lyrics, they tried to “touch multiple senses, things you can see, smell, taste, hear.” The word is also rumored to be Mexican slang for marijuana, but none of the Eagles’ members have addressed this interpretation.

Verse I: Shimmering Light

“Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light”

There is a popular, yet false perception that the song is about heroin addiction and the allure of drugs, although some say it’s more of the allure of the music industry in Hollywood. The drugs, the money, the women – all drawing the protagonist in with their false promises of happiness.

The Eagles 1997, Don Felder and Joe Walsh

The Eagles 1997, Don Felder and Joe Walsh. Photo By Globe Photos/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

This introduces us to the weary traveler stumbling upon something deceptive or even supernatural, like a wanderer seeing a mirage. Felder summed it up: “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.”

Verse I: Heavy and Dim

“My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway”

This is a word play describing the almost hypnotic effects of the “cool wind,” “warm smell of colitas,” and “shimmering light” in the earlier lines. The wind and smell of colitas were pleasant, but the traveler is ready for a change of pace. Many believe that the eye is the window to the soul, and guides a person down his or her path.

Don Henley, Vince Gill

Don Henley, Vince Gill. Photo By Frank Micelotta/Picturegroup/Shutterstock

And when the sight grows dim, it can suggest an opening to possible trouble. And there “she” was, standing in the doorway – where “she” could be many things: perhaps a woman, a bad decision, his past, or his future. The bottom line: “She” is bad news that happens to look very good.

Verse I: Bell and Hell

“I heard the mission bell
And I was thinkin’ to myself
This could be heaven or this could be hell”

There is a chance the song is referring to San Miguel Arcángel, one of California’s oldest inland missions. Mission or church bells tend to ring for church functions, but, in this case, it can also serve as a divine warning from above – a call to escape. It would then be a contrast to the mysterious female in the doorway.

San Miguel Arcángel

San Miguel Arcángel. Source: Wikipedia

However, in this confusing scene, the efficacy of the bell is questionable – and seems to be part of the force drawing him into the hotel. The question is if the bell is warning or seducing him. As for the perplexity between “heaven” and “hell,” most would agree that it’s referring to the hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle, and specifically that which ruled in the music industry.

Verse I: The Way

“Then she lit up a candle
And she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say”

The “candle” might be referring to a cigarette or the less literal meaning of light, as illuminating the path. “She showed me the way” refers to the woman leading him into a life of drugs, sex, and hedonism.

Don Henley and Alanis Morissette

Don Henley and Alanis Morissette. Photo By Ron Sachs/Shutterstock

There is also the possibility that the traveler is painting the woman as some kind of Ariadne figure – a savior who leads him both in and out of darkness. These “voices” are the temptation and seduction of making music and the lifestyle that accompanies it in California (aka the hot bed of the entertainment industry).

Chorus: Welcome to the Hotel California

“Welcome to the Hotel California”

The Hotel California is not meant to be an actual brick and motor hotel, but more of a metaphor. Joe Walsh related to the popular question of “Where’s the Hotel California?” he said, “A lot of places say they’re the one. There is no ONE. It was L.A.” In the ‘80s, several Christian evangelists alleged that Hotel California referred to a San Francisco hotel bought by Anton LaVey – the founder of Satanism – who then converted into the Church of Satan.

Don Henley and Glen Frey of The Eagles

Don Henley and Glen Frey of The Eagles. Photo By Alex Berliner/BEI/Shutterstock

The Hotel likely represents memories, and in this case, the memories are specific to Henley and the other Eagles as they were making a name for themselves in the industry. The Hotel is that “safe heaven” of both nostalgia and guilt – avoiding both the future and the present by living in the past.

Chorus: Such a Lovely Place

“Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (any time of year)
You can find it here”

It’s always been a popular perception that the music industry is fantastic once you make it, but the reality is far more negative (with all the drugs, alcohol, women, and other vices).

The Eagles - Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B.Schmit and Steuart Smith

The Eagles – Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B.Schmit and Steuart Smith. Photo By Picture Perfect/Shutterstock

“Such a lovely place” is the symbolic description of the escapism that comes with it all. “Plenty of room” refers to the lack of barriers in the hedonistic lifestyle. And, it can be attained at all times – “any time of the year.” The world is at their (our) fingertips.

Verse II: Tiffany-Twisted

“Her mind is Tiffany-twisted
She got the Mercedes Benz, uh”

“Tiffany-twisted” is a reference to the infamous jewelry chain Tiffany & Co. Tiffany connotes wealth; it caters to bejeweled, glamourous women who enjoy the bow around the box. “Her mind” is tied up in all the materialism typical of the life of luxury.

TIFFANY AND CO

TIFFANY AND CO. Photo By Clive Dix/Shutterstock

As for the Mercedes-Benz, it could be taken literally, of course, but it could also be a reference to the Janis Joplin song Mercedes-Benz (“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends…”). There’s also a play in the pronunciation of “Benz” as “Bends.” The “bends” is another name for decompression sickness, which occurs when you go up too fast when diving. That said, it could be a metaphor for her “twisted” mental state.

Verse II: Pretty Boys

“She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys
That she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard
Sweet summer sweat”

This verse could easily be referring to the woman (“she”) in the first verse or perhaps another female guest of the “Hotel.” Either way, the idea is somewhat clear: she’s a wealthy woman. But what we’re seeing here is that she’s past her prime – her various sexual partners are called “boys,” indicating an age gap.

Stevie Nicks, Don Henley and Donna Summer

Stevie Nicks, Don Henley and Donna Summer. Photo By Bei/Shutterstock

The way the word “pretty” is overly enunciated seems to mean something, though. It leads some to believe that the boys “she calls friends” are actually gay. That is, the adjective “pretty” has often been used in a derogatory way to refer to gay men.

Verse II: That’s the Spirirt

“Some dance to remember
Some dance to forget
So I called up the Captain
Please bring me my wine
He said, We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969″

We all know that a “spirit” is a highly distilled liqueur; wine is not a spirit. So “spirit” in this lyric is a mood or feeling. When asked about the wine/spirit discrepancy, Henley revealed that many have “completely misinterpreted” the lyric and even “missed the metaphor.”

The Eagles - Don Henley,Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B.Schmit

The Eagles – Don Henley,Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B.Schmit. Photo By David Fisher/Shutterstock

He explained that the line in the song has pretty much nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. “It’s a sociopolitical statement,” he stated. “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.” Well then…

Verse II: Those Voices

“And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say”

“Those voices” are always on the traveler’s mind, haunting him. The end of the second verse continues on the same note the first (“There were voices down the corridor; I thought I heard them say”).

Don Henley, Sharon Henley and children

Don Henley, Sharon Henley and children. Source: Shutterstock

The lyrics continue with the imagery of a prison – a prison of vices… and “voices.” The voices in the “middle of the night” can be the other “guests” in the “Hotel,” but they can also be the cravings you can’t escape. Going from “I thought I heard” to “(I) hear them say,” might mean that he tried to forget his experiences at the Hotel, but the sounds keep haunting him, luring him back.

Chorus: Such a Lovely Place

“Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise)
Bring your alibis”

Henley was the one who decided on the theme of “Hotel California,” pointing out that The Beverly Hills Hotel became both a literal and symbolic focal point of their lives during the ‘70s. He said that if he had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be “The end of the innocence, round one.”

The Eagles - Timothy B.Schmit, Glenn Frey and Don Henley

The Eagles – Timothy B.Schmit, Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Photo By Picture Perfect/Shutterstock

He also spoke of the band’s experience in L.A. at the time: “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’ the locus of all that L.A. had come to mean for us.”

Verse III: Mirrors and Pink Champagne

“Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice”

The “mirrors on the ceiling” can be a double entendre. One meaning can be the idea of constantly being watched and captured – rock stars do something, paparazzi captures it, and they end up watching themselves on TV. Then there’s also the fact that sleazy hotels tend to have mirrors on the ceiling, which might be a sexual innuendo and suggest that Hotel California is cheap (both literally and spiritually).

Beautiful glass with a pink cocktail and ice cubes on the background of the pool with blue water

Source: 123rf.com

Then, there’s the “Pink champagne on ice” lyric, which touches on the sugar coating of the degeneracy of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle that is Hotel California. People are literally drinking from rose-colored glasses.

Verse III: Prisoners

“And she said,
We are all just prisoners here of our own device”

This line is key to the metaphor of the whole song. The Hotel, with all its pleasures, is really just a prison that they are stuck in because of their own “devices,” or rather vices. One definition of the word “device” is “a crafty scheme or trick,” meaning they have tricked themselves into living in a prison.

The Eagles - Timothy B. Schmit, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh.

The Eagles – Timothy B. Schmit, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh. Photo By Gallo Images/Shutterstock

“And in the master’s chambers

They gathered for the feast”

This is the climax of the decadence, and there’s an underlying spookiness that comes with these lyrics. Everyone is essentially subject to the master – it’s something that can’t be avoided. “Master,” “chamber,” and “feast,” are all words associated with high class, high power.

Verse III: The Beast

“They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast”

Frey revealed that the “steely” adjective is a shout out to Steely Dan. Apparently, Walter Becker’s girlfriend loved the Eagles. According to Frey, it was something that drove Becker nuts. Apparently, the couple was having a fight one day, which led to the lyric, “turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” in the song Everything You Did.

Steely Dan

Steely Dan. Photo By John Atashian/Retna Ltd/Shutterstock

During the writing of Hotel California, Frey admitted that they wanted to strike back. “We just wanted to allude to Steely Dan rather than mentioning them outright.” So, instead of “Dan” they changed it to “knives,” which is still, as Frey put it, “you know, a penile metaphor… stabbing, thrusting, etc.”

Verse III: Running Away

“Last thing I remember
I was running for the door”

The traveler’s eyes are open to the horrors of “Hotel California,” and he is running away from his nightmares and nostalgia in order to go on with his life. It’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition with the beginning of the song, where he was at first on the road trying to escape real life.

A door is opening into a beautiful forest with autumn leaves

A door is opening into a beautiful forest with autumn leaves. Source: 123rf.com

“I had to find the passage back

To the place I was before”

He’s trying to find his way back to self-actualization and realness – away from the materialism and hedonism of Hollywood. He wants to return to the person he once was, before he was steered off his path. If taken as a drug metaphor (it was the ‘70s after all), then this can either refer to a “bad trip,” or to quitting drugs in general – back to sobriety.

Verse III: Relax

“Relax, said the night man
We are programmed to receive”

The “night man” can be a reference to the hotel’s overnight guard, but he also represents the part of the traveler that wants to stay and keep partying. Society and human nature seem to be telling him to “relax;” there’s a lot of pleasure to be had.

Glenn Frey

Glenn Frey. Photo By Dave Allocca/Starpix/Shutterstock

The next line suggests that the human psyche is “programmed” to enjoy receiving things more than giving. In other words, it’s only natural for people to surrender to such desires. Biochemically speaking, the cells in the body communicate by binding chemical signals to a receptor. In this sense, the body is technically “programmed to receive.” When using drugs, the chemicals attach to the receptors which cause a certain stimulation.

Verse III: Never Leave

“You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

This lyrics gives the impression that while you can physically leave the hotel, you can’t go back to a normal life, unscathed. The “hotel” had a hold on the traveler and always will. You can take the man out of the hotel, but you can’t take the “hotel” out of the man, so to speak.

Don Felder and Joe Walsh

Don Felder and Joe Walsh. Source: Pinterest

The song’s ending is ambiguous. Does our traveler make it out? Does he find his way back to himself? Or does he succumb to the pull of the hotel? His fate is left up to us, the listener, to decide. After all, it’s something the Eagles wanted from the beginning – the “vaguery.”

The Guitar Solo

The song ends with a long dual guitar solo by Felder and Walsh, which happens to be one of the Eagles’ most famous guitar solos. It’s even considered to be one of the best of all time. This solo actually took two days to record as they wanted to get it perfect.

Don Felder

Don Felder. Photo By Ian McIlgorm/Shutterstock

Felder said that when he wrote the ending, he recorded his guitar sections on a Les Paul and played Walsh’s “answers” on a Strat, so that it would “sound like a different guy, the way Joe might play it.” When they were in the studio, he and Walsh started jamming, and Henley said, “No, no, stop! It’s not right.” He replied, “What do you mean it’s not right?”

Play It Like the Demo

Henley wanted the guys to play the solo like they had in the original demo tape. He said to them, “You’ve got to play it just like the demo.” But Felder said the problem was that he recorded the demo a year prior. He couldn’t even remember what was on it.

Don Felder

Don Felder. Photo By Mediapunch/Shutterstock

So, he had to call his housekeeper in Malibu, who found the cassette, put it in a stereo and played it with the phone held up to the speaker. “We recorded it, and I had to sit in Miami and play exactly what was on the demo,” Felder explained. Walsh listened to the way he had copied him with the Strat guitar, and he played something very close to it. “It was close enough to the demo to make Don happy,” Felder said.

It Could Have Been a Movie

Rolling Stone reported that, Julia Phillips, the producer of Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had been interested in making a movie based on Hotel California’s story. She even met with the band to discuss the project. In her memoir, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Phillips wrote that the Eagles members were difficult to deal with and arrogant.

Don Henley and wife

Don Henley and wife. Source: Shutterstock

According to Henley, Phillips offered them cocaine and was “nonplussed” when they turned her (and the drugs) down. The developing tension between the two parties marked the end of the film’s pre-development deal. Rolling Stone reported that the Eagles weren’t upset as they didn’t really like the idea from the beginning.

Felder, You’re Fired

In 2001, Felder was fired from the band. His response? Filing two lawsuits against “Eagles, Ltd.” as a California corporation: Don Henley, as an individual; Glenn Frey, as an individual; and “Does 1–50,” for allegedly wrongful termination, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. His asking price: $50 million in damages.

Huey Lewis, Ronan Keating and Don Felder

Huey Lewis, Ronan Keating and Don Felder. Photo By Richard Young/Shutterstock

According to Felder, from the 1994 Hell Freezes Over tour and onward, Henley and Frey insisted they each receive a higher percentage of the band’s profits. Beforehand, however, the money was split in five equal portions. Felder accused the band of forcing him to sign an agreement stipulating that Henley and Frey would get three times as much of their 1972–1999 proceeds.

They Had Every Right

According to Henley and Frey’s attorney, Daniel M. Petrocelli, they felt “creatively, chemistry-wise and performance-wise” that Felder should no longer be part of the band. He also pointed out that they had every legal right to do so – that it “has been happening with rock ‘n’ roll bands since day one.”

The Eagles 1997 Glenn Frey Joe Walsh Don Felder

The Eagles 1997 Glenn Frey Joe Walsh Don Felder. Photo By Globe Photos/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

Henley and Frey reacted by countersuing Felder for breach of contract, alleging that he wrote a “tell-all” book, which was called Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974–2001). In 2002, the L.A. County Superior Court consolidated the two complaints, set a trial date for 2006, and the case was finally dismissed in 2007, after an out-of-court settlement.

RIP, Glenn Frey

From around the year 2000, Frey suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which affected various joints in his body. The medication he was prescribed eventually led to colitis and pneumonia. By November 2015, the Eagles announced they were postponing their concert at the Kennedy Center Honors because Frey needed surgery.

Glenn Frey

Glenn Frey. Photo By Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

He never had the surgery, though, due to complications from pneumonia. He was placed in a medically-induced coma and died on January 18, 2016 at 67 years old. A couple of years later, Frey’s widow filed a lawsuit against Mount Sinai Hospital and the gastroenterologist, Steven Itzkowitz, for the “wrongful death” of her husband. At the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, the remaining Eagles members performed Take It Easy in his honor.