Hotel California by the Eagles – What does it mean, where is it and what are Colitas?

Song
Hotel California Album Cover

One of my favourite albums and a global classic. I delve into some of the key questions asked about the album and song…

What Is Hotel California About?

The album can be seen as a metaphor for their lives in the 1970s. The story behind Hotel California is the band’s rapid rise to fame. Between their arrival on the scene, and ‘California – the band wrote, released and toured four major albums and delivered a Greatest Hits album that remains one of the all time best sellers.

After forming the band in ’71 they had enormous success in a short space of time. Between 1971 , and heavily experienced the associated burden that came with it. Money, parties, and drugs all took their toll. Don Henley (long before he wrote songs about New York) came up with the concept and title into which the other band members added songs.

What is the Meaning of, “Welcome to Hotel California”?

The meaning of Hotel California can be assumed as the record industry. The band, mostly California outsiders arrived in Los Angeles, along a dark desert highway to be welcomed into the music industry. Like the welcome to a hotel that promises much, “Welcome to Hotel California” is “Welcome to the Music Industry. 

As the song progresses we learn about the excess or success of the record industry and the power of music.

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

Along the way, the songwriters Don Felder, Don Henley & Glenn Frey add in some jibes at other bands. The line “they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,” is a playful jab to at Steely Dan. On ‘Everything You did’, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote, “turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening”. Taken from the album ‘The Royal Scam’ which was released six months prior.

“Her mind is Tiffany Twisted, she got the Mercedes Bends”

seems to be a reference to a divorce settlement. Considering the album was about the dark side of success you can see how the valuations were in material things – jewellery from Tiffany’s, a Mercedes-Benz. The definite misspelling could also reference ‘the bends’ that a diver would experience if they came up too quickly.

But the song takes a darker twist as the ‘hotel’ inhabitants start to realise the darker side of the music industry. Suddenly the band were thinking back to more simple days before fame…

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

… only to realise that they were stuck in a record contract.

‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

‘You can check out any time you like’ could be a reference to death a suicide or drug overdose, ‘but you can never leave’ meaning that even after death you are in a record contract.

Further Tracks

  • New Kid in Town’ was about being the hot new band and watching as the next group on everybody’s lips came into town: “Everybody’s talking… people starting walking…”
  • Life in the Fast Lane’ was a line the band heard whilst literally ‘racing up and down the freeway’ trying to find drugs. Another member of the party kept saying, “life in the fast lane…”, and so a song was born. 
  • ‘Wasted Time’ was a tired band looking negatively at the past and thinking, was this all wasted? Their success clearly dictates otherwise. ‘Pretty Maids All In a Row’ is a reference to lines cocaine.
  • The last track on the album, the bleak ‘The Last Resort’, ends with what feels like a comment on the industry and the changing culture of California: “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

Where is the real Hotel California?

  •  The hotel on the cover is the Beverly Hills Hotel (one of the many LA Rock n’ Roll Landmarks). It is not the Chateau Marmont. If you go there, don’t expect to get a picture like the front cover. That was taken from a cherry picker 60 foot in the air!
Hotel California Back Cover

Who Wrote Hotel California?

  • The album was written by and shares the perspective of California ‘outsiders’. Despite the Eagles sounding like a California band, only Bernie Leadon was originally from The Golden State. The songwriters (for the single Hotel California) were Don Felder from Florida, Glenn Frey from Detroit and Don Henley from Texas.
  • Whilst the band sang harmonies, four different members took lead vocals on different tracks. Don Henley on the title track, ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, ‘Wasted Time’, ‘Victim of Love’ and ‘The Last Resort’. Glenn Frey on ‘New Kid in Town’, Joe Walsh on ‘Pretty Maids in a Row’, and Randy Meisner on ‘Try and Love Again.’
  • The guitar riff from ‘Fast Lane came from Joe Walsh practicing. The other band members loved the riff and built from there.

What Year was Hotel California Released?

  • The album and single (of the same title) were released in December 1976, less than 5 years after their formation.
  • This was their second album release of that year. In February 1976, they also released ‘Their Greatest Hits’ which remains one of the world’s top-selling albums.

Where was the album recorded?

  • The album was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami and the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles.
  • Longtime Eagles Producer Bill Szymczyk has been at the controls for all of the band’s albums.
  • The album was released on Asylum Records, the label owned by their former manager David Geffen.

What are Colitas?

Colitas are a plant found in the desert that emanates a sweet smell in the warm evenings. But there is no such plant on a Google smell. Despite their denials, maybe the “Warm Smell of Colitas” was indeed a reference to marijuana buds.

Just How BIG Was This Album?

  • The album spawned two number one singles, the title track and ‘New Kid in Town’, as well as a third tune which almost reached the top 10 – ‘Life in the Fast Lane’.
  • To date, the album has sold more than 21.5 million copies – that’s massive! Still, that is six million less than Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and a whopping 10 million less than their very own Greatest Hits that was released just before Hotel California. (source)
  • It won many awards:
    • 1978 Grammy for Song of the Year – Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Don Felder. (But lost Record of the Year to Rumours)
    • 1978 Grammy for Best Pop Performance – Eagles
    • 1978 Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance  – Eagles
  • Both the single and album are in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors musical recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance.
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame defined this as a song that shaped rock and roll.

Anything Else?

  • The Eagles have just successfully defended a trademark after a hotel chain requested the trademark for a ‘Hotel California’ in Mexico, located around 1,000 miles south of San Diego.
  • A near mint condition copy of the original pressing of the album will cost you around $60.

Essential Reading on Hotel California

If you’re still here, then I thank you for reading. I have endeavoured to double check these facts along the way. Some of them may be my personal interpretation of the songs and their meanings. Whilst band members including Don Henley and Glenn Frey have shared thoughts on the meanings of some songs, they have never explicitly stated the connections. Perhaps the music is better for your interpretation that simply following the dots, with many of my insights have come from watching documentaries like ‘History of the Eagles’ (available to stream) and books.

Hotel California Book
Barney’s excellent book offers more of the context for LA and Hotel California.

The Eagles grew up in Los Angeles at a time of great cultural change, well documented in the BBC’s ‘Hotel California – LA from the Byrds to the Eagles’ which is available on the Internet archive. This album and these stories were the influence for me to take a small pilgrimage of sorts to Los Angeles and seek out some of the locations, like the Troubadour Club and Laurel Canyon, made famous by the Eagles and others. My blog post covers those Rock n Roll Landmarks of Los Angeles.