Hotel California (1977)

The Eagles

Written by Don Felder, Glenn Frey and Don Henley
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Bev hills hotelThe Eagles’ “Hotel California,” which might well be subtitled “The Rise And Fall Of Los Angeles” is, if not the smooth, country popsters’ hardest-rocking song, certainly the most sophisticated of their grittier work. They are, of course, more readily identified with, and perhaps better loved for, songs like “Peaceful, Easy Feeling”; “Tequila Sunrise” and “Lyin’ Eyes.”

Straightforwardly enough, the opening of “Hotel California” takes us into a desert at night, although the opening Spanish-flavored acoustic guitar promises that something haunted and surreal is about to happen. We are going back to Spanish Alta California, far back. The acoustic solo is not ominous. It is cautionary. A lesson is about to be learned.

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The “warm smell of colitas” in the opening verse refers to Mexican slang for marijuana bud or “little tails,” the more literal translation. The driver/narrator has to stop for the night for some not-too-clearly explained reason. Compulsion? The oddly attractive revulsion we feel at a car wreck? Too stoned to go on?

tel California The EaglesHe ends up in a place that is on one hand stuck in time past while falling apart in time present. However, the hotel is not crumbling physically. Scarcely. It is decaying as in Poe’s story, The Fall Of The House Of Usher. It is evident early on that the Hotel California is a metaphor for the whole state’s condition, that of Los Angeles especially.

Hotel California creates a meditation upon much that went wrong with L.A. between the laid-back 1960s and the glitzy, cocaine and silicon-inflated-breasts city of the late-’70s:

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget

The core of that message is found in the verse that calls on the captain to:

“Please bring me my wine”
He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine”
And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say…
Welcome to the Hotel California

The references to a pre-fall, Edenic Southern California are numerous. The smell of colitas harks back to a mellower place where people got high, but not too high. The ringing of the mission bell figures as part of the lost state of mind. And the line, I had to find the passage back/To the place I was before, sums up the longing for the past.

There have been many, many attempts to explicate the following lines, among them that it is a light jab at Steely Dan, who had poked fun at the Eagles around the time of the song:

And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

Hotel california mission santa barbaraThere seems to be a personal cast to it, without doubt. The Eagles – caught up in fame, fortune, drugs, sex and money – can’t seem to kill the new, destructive forces and get back to their former selves. (Much of the namesake album is about the distortion of the American Dream.) The lines are ones of rage of despair. And, whether intended or not, the verse evokes the out-of-control overtones of Southern California embodied in the Charles Manson-Sharon Tate stabbing murders that occurred in a particularly gruesome way. The year? 1969.

“Hotel California” ends with one of the most vaunted guitar solos in Rock history, one that has been copied, improvised upon, mangled, and played endlessly by ten thousand garage bands in a thousand cities across the world. It is not overstatement to say that its ubiquity cannot truly be measured. Yet it remains evergreen. It is a solo chiseled into the Mt. Rushmore of Rock.

The solo grows organically out of clashing lead guitars played by Joe Walsh and Don Felder that percolate throughout the song, but stay in the background until the frustration, the despair and the longing all erupt in a sensibility that only music can convey.

  • There is an actual “Hotel California” in Todos Santos (All Saints) on Mexico’s Baja.
  • As of April 2013, the album Hotel California has sold over 16 million copies.

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  • After The Thrill Is GoneThe lyrics are ridiculously hooky. Practically every single line is a hook. The title is a big hook. It's downright sick.