Music Analysis:
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Hotel California - Allegory and Economical Lyrics
Albums: Hotel California, 1976 & Hell Freezes Over, 1994

If there was a ‘World’s Top 10 Most Talked about Songs’ list, the Eagles’ Hotel California will need not shed a single drop of its ‘sweet summer sweat’ to find a place in it! This masterpiece of 20th century popular music has got to be one of the most, if not the most, analyzed and often over-analyzed songs of our time. A quick search on the web will yield countless interpretations, which range from the insightful to the interesting, which makes you think ‘hmm,’ but more often than not, from the amusing that makes you burst out ‘ha!’ to the downright appalling that makes you go ‘huh?’ Nevertheless, the curiosity surrounding the song almost three decades since its conception is ample proof of the brilliance of its lyrics by Don Henley and Glen Frey, which epitomize the meaning of allegory, and the cinematic portrayal of the concept through Henley’s ingenious art direction as well as his passionate singing to some of the most breathtaking guitar work in the history of rock by Don Felder and Joe Walsh. There are two versions of the song that I will be discussing from a musical perspective in this section, the first being the original 1976 version on the Grammy-winning Hotel California album and then the incredible acoustic version from the landmark 1994 Eagles reunion concert - Hell Freezes Over.

The fascination surrounding the song cannot be truly appreciated without discussing the merits of some of the attempts made to ‘crack the code!’ To give you a few examples of the theories that have crowded cyberspace, it has been said that Hotel California is about the materialism and excess which the Eagles tasted firsthand during their immensely successful stint in the Los Angeles music industry, and at large, consumed the United States in the 1970s. Another interesting interpretation is that the song is about a brothel and drug addicts, which can be classified as a somewhat accurate, but a rather superficial observation of the hedonistic lifestyle that materialism and excess brought about in America during that period. Other more amusing readings of the song range from a devil-worshipping cult, a mental hospital, cancer patients, and the funniest of them all, the real Hotel California based in Todos Santos, Mexico! Talk about free advertising! Being an avid fan of the masters of humanistic wit, I can guarantee that the owners of Todos Santos could not have paid Henley and Frey enough to be that bland! Well, those interpretations at least make you laugh. Now, what about this? Hotel California is about marriage, divorce, and suicide, and even worse, it is a tribute to Janice Joplin (the first white woman to sing blues and was well known for her extreme flirtations with hot topics, men, and drugs, which ultimately proved fatal). I am yet to find reasonable clues to draw these interpretations, but will just say that everybody is entitled to their opinions; after all, the knowledge of the absolute truth will always be reserved for the Eagles! So here goes yet another bewildered fan trying his arm at cracking the code!

Lyrics:
I am a follower of the school of the first theory, which states the song is about materialism and excess that became the zeitgeist of the 70s in Hollywood’s booming music industry and in the United States overall. Henley and Frey, themselves have acknowledged this fact in interviews although they have never provided a detailed explanation of the lyrics; and why should they take the steam out of all the excitement surrounding this song’s meaning? Being exposed to the Eagles’ (especially their chief songwriter, Don Henley’s) frame of mind and ideas through the many extraordinary songs they wrote, composed, and produced, does give one an edge to understanding with greater accuracy what they might have been trying to convey. In ninety percent of the Eagles’ hits, Don Henley’s almost mystic knowledge of human nature and his depth of caring for humanity and nature shines through his humanistic message of the importance of understanding yourself and appreciating what you have. Enveloped in sarcastic wit, these messages hit you in the head like a thunderbolt and is one of the key factors for the Eagles’ timelessness. Hotel California too, is an attempt to warn people of the dark side of materialism and the dangers of excess that enslave people before they are aware of it.

There are two stories running parallel in my interpretation of Hotel California. The first story is the cinematic component, which paints the visual of the protagonist as he walks down a dark, desert highway, enters Hotel California, becomes engulfed in the sumptuous and hedonistic pleasures the Hotel offers its guests, realizes the dangers of it all and tries to run away, only to find out that he is trapped! This story is a symbolic expression of the more important story – the feelings and changes in perception of life that go through an aspiring musician’s (or generally speaking, anybody’s) mind who blindly desire material pleasures to fill up voids in his life, gets caught up in the excess and finds out that he has become a slave to his possessions and desires, which is the message the song is trying to send out to people. The genius of the concept is how the emotional turmoil of the protagonist within the intangible story is brought to life through the movement of visuals in the tangible story where the audience can feel what the protagonist is going through without having to know exactly why! It explains why there are so many varying theories about this song, but almost all of them about the dangers of the dark side of life.

“…At the time we were also quite fond of Steely Dan and listening to a lot of their records. And one of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs and it did not have to necessarily make sense you know, they would just, sort of...they called it jokes sculpture.. And well we thought of this Hotel California, we started thinking of there would be very cinematic to do it, sort of like the Twilight Zone. You just have a ..., one line says there is a guy on the highway, you know the next line says there is a hotel in the distance, then there is a woman in there and she walks in. You know it is sort..., it is just all one shot, not necessarily you know, just sort of strung together and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it. So we are sort of trying to expand our lyrical horizons and just try to take out something in the bizarre as Steely Dan did that…” - Glen Frey (http://www.eaglesmusic.com/HotelCal/hc.html)

That is how Glen Frey recalled the portrayal of the song’s concept comparing it to an episode of Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, an extremely popular and critically acclaimed fantasy science fiction television series from the late 50s and early 60s, where the story, narrated by Sterling himself, jumps from one scene to another without necessarily making sense, but always has a sharp twist with a moral lesson. These elements along with the brilliance of Steely Dan’s wit (though sans their signature comical nature) can clearly be seen in Hotel California. For simplicity’s sake, I am going to assume the position that our protagonist and narrator is an aspiring musician looking for money, luxury, and fame although the song’s theme can apply to anybody entangled in materialism and enslaved by excess. Let’s examine the two stories running in parallel in that context.

 

Verse I & Refrain I - Visual Movement
Visualize a tired man walking on a highway in the middle of the Californian desert at night. He’s got a nice cool breeze blowing through his wavy hair and he can smell the warm aromas of the desert rise up through the air as a result of the cooling of the night. In the distance, he sees a faint light; his head heavy out of fatigue and his eyes dim out of sleeplessness, he has no other choice, but to stop for the night to get some rest.

Next scene. Zoom into the Hotel. He sees a beautiful woman at the Hotel entrance and is immediately attracted to the place. He thinks this place could be heaven or hell, but I am staying here tonight! The woman lights up a candle to escort him to his room. He hears people down the corridor (like a Hotel choir), as he walks to his room, welcoming him to the Hotel. They are singing how beautiful this Hotel is and how there is room for everybody all throughout the year. He too agrees admiring the beauty of his escort.

 

Verse I & Refrain I – Emotions and Perception Movement
Now, think of symbols to derive the protagonist’s emotions and perceptions.

On a dark, desert, highway, cool wind in my hair
The protagonist, an aspiring musician, is leading a fast life lacking in hope, feeling empty and lonely. He is always high on drugs, wearing gelled up hair to be fashionable and desperately desiring attention of others (fame).



Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air

Colas (in Spanish) is said to be the most potent tip (the best part) of the marijuana leaf, so colitas mean little tails of marijuana! Therefore, this refers to the smoking of marijuana, to which rock artists are well known to be prone.

Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering light
Far away (in the Los Angeles music industry), he sees a glimmer of hope possibly after being offered a recording contract.



My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night
Having seen some hope of achieving the money, luxury, and fame that he had always wanted, his mind fills up with desire and as a result he stops seeing clearly. He has no other choice but to see what the music industry has to offer.



There she stood in the doorway, I heard the mission bell

At the outset itself, aspiring musicians are shown the beautiful women and the luxurious life to induce them in. They too are quick to identify the potential to fulfill their dreams (mission) - acquiring money, luxury, women, and fame.



I was thinking to myself ‘this could be heaven or this could be hell’

He thinks, ‘it doesn’t matter how good or how bad this thing is, I’m doing this!’ Another sign of disregard for his values and morality.



Then she lit up the candle to show me the way

A candle is not bright enough to illuminate the entire location, but just the immediate surrounding areas, which means, the protagonist could only see the beautiful woman who escorted him (or in general, he only saw the finer things that were on offer). This also suggests that the Music Industry really didn’t show him the entire picture of what he was getting into, such as ambiguous contracts.

There were voices down the corridor, I thought I heard them say
He knew there were others like him in the Music Industry, and his hopes were so high that all he heard was an equally happy crowd welcoming him to the place. The emphasis is on the word ‘thought’ meaning in the end it was an illusion of his mind. This could also mean other people who had already succumbed to the temptations and could not get out of the grip of the Industry were mockingly inviting newcomers, but since the other uses of the word ‘voices’ is usually for the protagonist’s thoughts, the earlier interpretation is more likely.

“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.”


He is hearing all these voices in his head (thoughts) ringing (shown by repetition) the fame, comforts, and beauties the music industry will offer him and just like the many success stories he’s already heard of, he too is highly hopeful he will be able to find success there.

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