Hotel California by The Eagles is a song that is admired globally, so much so that many people know the words to the ballad-like rock tune, while still wondering to themselves – what is Hotel California about?
This could be Heaven or this could be Hell…
The song has many impressive accolades such as winning the Grammy Record of The Year for 1977, as well as being in the top 50 of Rolling Stones ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ list, and is considered by Guitarist Magazine to have one of the best guitar solos ever.
Beyond being a sonic masterpiece, many people still debate the song’s lyrics and what the allegorical ballad is making reference to. So what does the song actually mean?
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What Is The Meaning Of Hotel California?
There remains a large debate on the topic of who really decides meaning, is it the writer, or is it the audience?
Regardless of your thoughts, sometimes the best place to start in search of the ‘true meaning’ of a song is with the writers, although this doesn’t discredit personal interpretation.
Glenn Frey, Don Felder and Don Henley were all co-writers of the song’s lyrics.
Frey apparently provided the idea and concept of the song, imagining a scene where an innocent traveler who becomes tired from his journey happens upon “a weird world peopled by freaky characters” and as a result, the traveler becomes “quickly spooked by the claustrophobic feeling of being caught in a disturbing web from which he may never escape.”
Frey sought to “create something strange, just to see if we could do it” citing The Magus, a 1965 novel turned film in 1968, as the main narrative inspiration for the ever-changing world the character in Hotel California inhabits.
The inspiration Frey had created was then expanded upon by Henley who wrote most of the lyrics alongside Frey.
Welcome To The Hotel California – An American Allegory
Taking the baton from Frey’s concept, Henley wrote the rest of the song’s lyrics. Rather than it ending up as the surrealist nightmare that is The Magus, which we can assume Frey may have wanted, Henley made the song into a more direct allegory about hedonism and decadence.
Henley mentions that the song follows “a journey from innocence to experience”, that the narrator grows tired on his journey, seeking relief from his journey in the decadent halls of the hotel which entrap him.
The hotel itself acts as a metaphor for his experience of hedonism;
You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave.
The narrator moves from a state of innocence to a claustrophobic state of experience that changes his perception of life forever after. Just like the main character in The Magus, the character’s peek behind the curtain changes his reality forever.
Henley confirms that:
It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream…
Which is something we knew alot about.
Alternative Interpretations Of Hotel California’s Lyrics
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that is to say, that the audience is also free to interpret the song how they like, outside of the writer’s potential intentions.
One interpretation is that the song actually has to do with Satanism. Many people chose to interpret the music of the rock genre in this way due to the free usage of Christian imagery of the devil as well as the non-churchgoing behavior many rockstars exhibited.
Certain lyrics such as ‘this could be heaven or this could be hell’ as well as ‘by they just can’t kill the beast’ could be used to support this interpretation.
Other people chose to view it as an allegory for other concepts that are also claustrophobic and represent a move from innocence to experience.
Anything that involves a post-experiential reflection on the fact that once one’s eyes are opened to something such as hedonism, the ego, or alternative philosophy, then it can be hard to act and be the same person once their perception is changed.
What Is Hotel California About – Final Thoughts
Being such a popular song, there is always going to be a continual stream of people asking “What is Hotel California about?”. While some may fall into more extreme interpretations such as satanism, a common theme of interpretation during the period, the reality is quite ambiguous and up for interpretation.
Last thing I remember, I was
running for the door.
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before.
As Henley shows, the song is about a loss of innocence and how an unconscious desire to experience the other can lead to a change in our perception. Although what the narrator is experiencing will change depending upon the audience.
For Eagles, they had experienced the world of excess and hedonism as well as the powerful ego that the music industry forms in its proponents. For them, this is likely what the song is about.
However, you can choose to interpret the song how you want. There is no wrong or right way to interpret any piece of art, once it has been released to the public it can be considered fair game in an interpretational sense.
Frey himself remarks that, in the song, they had “achieved perfect ambiguity” which is likely the reason the song is so well-loved around the world.
To get another perspective on the meaning of Hotel California, check out the video below by Polyphonic.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Wrote Hotel California?
Writing credits for Hotel California are shared by Don Henley and Glenn Frey for the lyrics, and Don Felder for the music.
What Was The Hotel California Release Date?
Hotel California was the title track from the album of the same name. It was released as a single in February 1977.
Who Were The Members Of The Eagles?
The original founding members of the Eagles were: Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, and Don Henly.
Later members include Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Timothy B. Schmit, and Vince Gill.
Where Is The Hotel California?
Hotel California was not based on a real hotel. Don Henley states that the hotel in the song was their interpretation of the high life in Las Angeles.
The hotel seen on the famous album cover is the Beverly Hills Hotel.
What Is A Colita?
Colita is Mexican slang for the buds of the Cannabis plant.
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim I had to stop for the night There she stood in the doorway; I heard the mission bell And I was thinking to myself, ‘This could be Heaven or this could be Hell’ Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way There were voices down the corridor, I thought I heard them say…
Welcome to the Hotel California 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
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes Benz 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
So I called up the Captain, ‘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 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
Mirrors on the ceiling, The pink champagne on ice And she said ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’ 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
Last thing I remember, I was Running for the door I had to find the passage back To the place I was before ‘Relax, ‘ said the night man, ‘We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!’