I was thirteen years old the first time I heard “Hotel California” by The Eagles.
I loved this song immediately, and I love it still, even though I’ve heard it literally thousands of times. (Hey, I was thirteen years old in 1981; that’s plenty of time to hear a single rock ballad thousands of times.)
This is a great example of compact storytelling. In a mere 345 words, Glenn Frey and Don Henley manage to spin a tale that contains multiple scenes, vivid surrealistic imagery, and a deeper theme of lost innocence.
Consider the first stanza:
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
I had to stop for the night.
When you read these lines, you can actually see an image of this guy, riding along a “dark desert highway.”
Frey and Henley don’t mention his means of conveyance, but I have always pictured him on a motorcycle. Why? He feels the “cool wind” in his hair. (Note the genius of brevity and implication here.)
The hotel is mirage-like (“a shimmering light”). You feel the weariness of the narrator (“My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim…”)
But I really love the next stanza:
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
Consider the lyricists’ choice of words: This lone woman is waiting in the doorway of the establishment. This conveys (without Frey and Henley explicitly telling you) that the Hotel California is an old Spanish-style inn, versus the local Best Western. He hears “the mission bell.” When was the last time you heard a mission bell at a Best Western or a Motel 6?
And to completely cement the atmosphere, the woman lights up a candle to show the narrator the way. Wow. Can’t you just see this woman, holding a candle, as she leads you down a darkened hallway through a converted Spanish mission in Arizona or New Mexico? I sure can.
And that’s only the first two stanzas. “Hotel California” gets even more surreal as it continues. There’s a fairly solid story here; and again: 345 words. But not a word is wasted. No wonder this song still gets a generous amount of airplay, forty years after its original release.