Several years ago I walked into a bar in Central America and heard the Eagles’ Hotel California playing on the sound system. I turned to my friends and said “Good gods! You can probably hear Hotel California in any bar on the planet!” Indeed, some years before that I was in Europe and heard it in a hostel in Scotland. An iconic song. Which I have always been drawn to, despite not really listening much to what is termed “classic rock”. But still, something about the song always spoke to me. There is an otherworldly quality…
And of course, that’s it. “Hotel California“, written by Don Henley, Don Felder and Glenn Frey, can be understood as a classic story about a person getting lost in Fairy.
Over the years the song has been picked apart and the theories about what it means have ranged from an allegory about drug addiction, to relationship pitfalls to mental illness to Satan, Hollyweird and the Manson killings. The artists themselves say it’s about trying to get along in California in the 70s, and “excess in America” and the “dark underbelly of the American dream”, all of which could, theoretically, encompass things like drugs, sex, insanity and murder. And cults. But I think it’s more interesting to compare the song to the body of stories that exist in relation to Fairy, and the pitfalls of entering that perilous land.
We know that there are several ways a mortal can enter Fairy. They can stumble in, say through an enchanted mushroom fairy ring. They can catch the eye of the Good People and be drawn in as Tam Lin was, when he fell from his horse and into the arms of the Fairy Queen or when the Queen of Elfland beckoned Thomas the Rhymer to come to her. They can be stolen as a child and a changeling put in their place. They could be stolen to do manual labor or to be midwives. They could be caught up in the Wild Hunt. Or they could go looking for Fairyland…
And once someone has entered Fairy, there is usually time distortion—a day passes in Fairy but years have passed in the mortal world. It has long been believed that if a person consumes food or drink offered in Fairy, they will be permanently stuck there. This can happen if they join a Fairy ball, as well—they will dance forever. Things in Fairy are often not as they seem. The shining piles of jewels offered usually turn to dead leaves or dust back in the mortal world. The spectacular halls and dwelling places often are, once the glamour has been removed, simple tunnels in the ground. Those who manage to make it out of Fairy will be forever haunted by what they saw, and may forever hear snippets of song or music from Fairy.
So how does this relate to Hotel California? The first stanza goes:
“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim”
First off, “colitas” has been defined as a colloquial term for “little marijuana buds”, so right off the bat we have entheogens in play, another way a person can see fairies, no? Then we have a “shimmering light”, and flickering lights will often show up in fairy folklore, one of the more famous forms being the Will O Wisp which will draw travelers off the safe paths, getting them lost at best, and dead, at worst.
The next stanzas are:
“I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
‘This could be Heaven or this could be Hell’
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say…”
“She” can be read as the Queen of Fairy, who has drawn this traveler off the road in much the same way as Thomas the Rhymer was drawn to the Queen of Elfland, “a lady bright”. Also, in this segment our traveler hears the “mission bell”, and we often have stories of hearing bells in relation to Fairy. As for Heaven and Hell, Thomas the Rhymer at first calls the Fairy Queen “the Queen of Heaven”. Then later on, the Fairy Queen brings him back to the mortal world because she was afraid he may be offered as a sacrifice to Hell, harking to the concept that fairies pay a “tithe” to Hell.
Moving on a little we have these lines:
“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”
“Tiffany-twisted” relates to the luxury jeweler Tiffany, and that, plus the Mercedes reference, can be seen as a nod to the “glamour” that surrounds fairies and Fairy itself. Then there are the “pretty, pretty boys” who could be other mortals lost in Fairy, collected by the Fairy Queen, or could be other fairies. Fairies, on the whole, tend to present themselves to mortals in beautiful, human-like forms. These “pretty, pretty boys” are dancing in the courtyard, and dancing, as I have mentioned above, is a common theme in fairy lore.
The next lines say:
“So I called up the Captain,
‘Please bring me my wine’
He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine’
And still those voices are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say…”
Here our traveler commits a major faux pas in Fairyland, partaking of the drink. Then there are the voices, calling, waking one up, beckoning…
Moving on, we’ve got:
“Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast”
Here we have mirrors, classic magical portals and implements of confusion, a feast, yet another pitfall of Fairy, and reference to “prisoners”, which is what many mortals who enter Fairy become. The lines “They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast” is often read as a nod to Hollywood Satanism, as in Anton LeVey, however, for this discussion, it could be seen as a reference to the afore-mentioned tithe to Hell that some fairy stories talk about. I, however, prefer to see it in light of the elemental nature of fairies, wonderfully described in Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”, when the odd, but genteel fairy lord of Lost Hope “began to lose his resemblance to humankind: his eyes grew further apart, there was fur upon his face and his lips rolled back from his teeth in a snarl”. Often, creatures of the Otherworld cannot ultimately be completely destroyed, only bound or dismembered and cast down into abysses where they remain, ready to rise again at some point.
Finally, we have:
“Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
‘Relax,’ said the night man,
We are programmed to receive.
You can checkout any time you like,
But you can never leave!”
Our traveler is trapped in Fairy, is trying to find the passage back to the mortal world and is prevented from doing so by a guardian. All fairy tale themes. Delightfully, the guardian here is the hotel night man who is “programmed to receive”. This makes me think of another modern fairy-like story, the original movie “Westworld“, where the android denizens are preventing the mortal parkgoers from leaving and are, in some cases, killing them. (I can’t speak to the 2016 Westworld series—I only watched a few and never went back to it). The original movie came out in 1973—Hotel California was written in 1977, so Westworld may well have been an inspiration on this last stanza. Regardless, “you can never leave” is an obvious Fairy parallel.
So, do I think Henley, Felder and Frey sat down and wrote Hotel California about Fairy? Well, no, they themselves say they wrote it about California culture and it’s pitfalls. But there are common themes at play here for sure, and Jungians would likely say there are certain archetypes repeating in this case. I will just say I think it’s something I term an “everlasting thread”, wherein a line of experience or worldview keeps running through everything. There is enough “thread” in Hotel California to make the case that it lives one life about the seamy side of American culture—and another as an old, old story of imprisonment in Fairy.
This essay copyright 2018 Chronicles of a Liminaut