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, the idea 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."