The Eagles have described Hotel California as their “interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles,” and it’s a pretty bang-on description. As Don Henley’s vocals start at the 0:50 mark, Henley sings about “a journey from innocence to experience…”
Glenn Frey says, “The song began as a demo tape, an instrumental by Don Felder. He’d been submitting tapes and song ideas to us since he’d joined the band, always instrumentals, since he didn’t sing. But this particular demo, unlike many of the others, had room for singing. It immediately got our attention. The first working title, the name we gave it, was ‘Mexican Reggae’
The term “colitas” in the first stanza means “little tails” in Spanish; in Mexican slang it refers to buds of the cannabis (marijuana) plant.
In a 2009 interview, The Plain Dealer music critic John Soeder asked Don Henley this about the lyrics:
“On “Hotel California,” you sing: “So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” I realize I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented; spirits are distilled. Do you regret that lyric?”
“Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention—and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.”
According to Glenn Frey’s liner notes for The Very Best Of, the use of the word “steely” in the lyric, “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,” was a playful nod to band Steely Dan, who had included the lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” in their song “Everything You Did”.
Hotel California topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for one week in May 1977 and peaked at number ten on the Adult Contemporary charts. Three months after its release, the single was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, representing one million copies shipped. The Eagles also won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year for Hotel California at the 20th Grammy Awards in 1978. In 2009, the song “Hotel California” was certified Platinum (Digital Sales Award) by the RIAA for sales of one million digital downloads.