Hotel California: What were the Eagles thinking?

ImageHotel California” is the title song from the Eagles‘ album of the same name and was released as a single in February 1977. It is one of the best-known songs of the album-oriented rock era. Writing credits for the song are shared by Don FelderDon Henley and Glenn Frey. The Eagles’ original recording of the song features Henley singing the lead vocals and concludes with an extended section of electric guitarinterplay between Felder and Joe Walsh. The song has been given several interpretations by fans and critics alike, but the Eagles have described it as their “interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles”.

The lyrics describe the title establishment as a luxury resort where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” On the surface, it tells the tale of a weary traveler who becomes trapped in a nightmarish luxury hotel that at first appears inviting and tempting. 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 abstract nature of the lyrics has led listeners to their own interpretations over the years. In the 1980s, some Christian evangelists alleged that “Hotel California” referred to a San Francisco hotel purchased by Anton LaVey and converted into the Church of Satan. Other rumors suggested that the Hotel California was the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

The term “colitas” in the first stanza of the song is a Spanish term for “little tails” and in Mexican slang it is a reference to the buds of the Cannabis plant.

In a 2009 interview, 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 Eagles, the use of the word “steely” in the lyric (referring to knives) was a playful nod to band Steely Dan, who had included the lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” in their song “Everything You Did“.

In a radio interview, guitarist Glenn Frey reportedly once stated: “We were listening to a lot of Steely Dan records at the time and we were impressed with the way that they could make junk sculpture lyrics about nothing and make them work into a song.”

Finally:  The photo above and on the cover is The Beverly Hills Hotel

The cover image is of the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was photographed by David Alexander with design and art direction by Kosh. The rear album cover was shot at the Lido in Hollywood.

 ImageImage

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