So it turns out my planned discussion topic has more to talk about than I thought. I’ll have to save it for next week. In the meantime…
One of the managers at my former place of employment had a radio system setup that played the same songs at the same time every day. Some of the songs I liked, some I was indifferent to, and then there was “Hotel California”. I like Eagles as much as anyone outside the diehard fanbase. They make good music and there’s a reason there so many tribute bands and covers in the world. Had I just heard this song now and then it would have been fine. But every day at roughly the same time? I grew to loathe this song. It even tried playing on the radio this morning and I had to turn it off and wake up to a CD I have in the player.
It all comes down to taste. The song is very depressing, which already isn’t something I want to wake up to. The metaphors they use are often disturbing. The single is also the title track from their 1972 album, with music by Don Felder and lyrics by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The thing is I could never figure out what the story of the song is. Could our narrator, sung by Henley, be in jail? Some dark hellscape where he can’t get out of a hotel that turned out to be a demonic trap? Is it a metaphor for spinning into depression or madness or some addiction? As it turns out somewhere in there is the right answer.
The song is depressing and at times disturbing (most notably the part about the unkillable beast they’re trying to have for dinner, or the night man saying “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”, which I always imagine follows with a sinister glowing of the eyes. The images might actually be on purpose but the depicted hotel isn’t some devil trap, nor is it an actual place in the real world. It’s all metaphor, a reaction to the world the Eagles were seeing. From Access 2 Knowledge:
Despite popular belief, the Eagles turned down all the theories. They have confirmed that “Hotel California” actually has nothing to do with Satanism, psychiatric hospitals, or cocaine addictions. The hit song is actually an interesting examination. It focuses on the pitfalls of living within Southern California in the tumultuous 1970s.
It goes on to say that it was a response to the music world as well as the 1970s overall, especially in celebrity land. Lots of drugs, loose women, and all the cash to pay for both. The members saw this and even worried that the temptations may be attracting them as well. While we know this still goes on in music, especially in certain music genres and circles, they saw this all over the place at the time and found it disturbing. The song itself speaks to the lost innocence and the lure of the drugs, girls, and cash being used to entice them.
Throughout the song, the lyrics entwine a surrealistic viewpoint into a fictional tale of weary travelers checking in for a night at a luxurious hotel in the heart of Los Angeles. Although the hotel draws the travelers in with its inviting and tempting appeals, they soon figure out that it is a nightmarish place they can never leave behind. In this tale, the “Hotel California” is an allegory about the inescapable musical industry within the dark underbelly of the American dream. While there are certainly real hotels with the name, you can’t find Hotel California in real life outside of the iconic Eagles song. It is a great metaphor for the charms of the West Coast and its effects on the unworldly musicians that fall into its glittering trap of fame and fortune without an escape.
So the lady at the door represents temptation, the night man a warning of the lost innocence, because while they could stop with the drugs and women their impact would remain with them. Also this was the culture of the industry they wanted to be a part of, and while this song rejects that culture they still wanted to make music. They didn’t have the resources people do today thanks to the internet to get their music out. Wikipedia collects a few interviews and chimes in.
Frey and Henley were both interested in the tune after hearing the demo, and discussed the concept for the lyrics. In 2008, Felder described the writing 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.
Henley decided on the theme of “Hotel California”, noting how The Beverly Hills Hotel had become a literal and symbolic focal point of their lives at that time. Henley said of their personal and professional experience in LA: “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 LA had come to mean for us. In a sentence, I’d sum it up as the end of the innocence, round one.
Frey came up with a cinematic scenario of a person who, tired from driving a long distance in a desert, saw a place for a rest and pulled in for the night, but entered “a weird world peopled by freaky characters”, and became “quickly spooked by the claustrophobic feeling of being caught in a disturbing web from which he may never escape.” In an interview with Cameron Crowe, Frey said that he and Henley wanted the song “to open like an episode of the Twilight Zone“, and added: “We take this guy and make him like a character in The Magus, where every time he walks through a door there’s a new version of reality. We wanted to write a song just like it was a movie.” Frey described the song in an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas as a cinematic montage “just one shot to the next … a picture of a guy on the highway, a picture of the hotel, the guy walks in, the door opens, strange people.” Frey continued: “We decided to create something strange, just to see if we could do it.” Henley then wrote most of the lyrics based on Frey’s idea, and sought inspiration for the writing by driving out into the desert as well as from films and theater.
Apparently the description of the lady at the door, “Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends / She got a lot of pretty pretty boys she calls friends” was inspired by a break-up Henley and his girlfriend at the time had, while the reference to the “steely knives” was a playful reference to fellow band Steely Dan, who had mentioned the Eagles in one of their songs. And yes, Henley knows wine isn’t a spirit and he’s sorry he wrote it because he feels the point is lost trying to be “well, actually…” about something nobody else cares about. The metaphor here may be the spirit of social activism according to one theorist but considering the song is about the drugs and money culture I’m not so sure. By the way, this almost became a movie.
According to Rolling Stone, Julia Phillips, the producer of films like Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was interested in shooting a movie based on the song’s story. The band members and Phillips met to discuss the project. In her memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Phillips wrote that the band members were difficult to deal with and arrogant. Henley said that Phillips offered the band members cocaine and was “nonplussed” when they turned it down. Tension between the two parties ended the pre-development deal for the film. Rolling Stone reported that the band was not upset at this development, as they were not particularly enamored with the idea of “Hotel California” being adapted into a film. This was because Henley feared that he would lack control over the project.
Finally, and I may be the only one who finds this funny, but a song about the vices of the music industry won a Grammy from that same industry. Go figure.
So there you go. It’s not about the devil’s court (specifically), drugs addiction (necessarily), jail (except metaphorically), an actual hotel, or the nut house. It’s about how the dark side of the entertainment industry was large and in charge, and the band wanted to speak out against the drugs, women, and greed that was corrupting the industry…and still is really. My only hope is writing about it will somehow lead to not having to hear it for awhile. Yes, it is a well made song and maybe it is supposed to be disturbing, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear it.