"You've arrived on a rather special night. It's one of the master's... affairs."
Doesn't this story have that kind of ambiance? One of the cool things about the Eagles' "Hotel California" is that the story it tells is one of the oldest tropes in the book - the weary traveler who stops at an inn for the night, finds it at first delightful, but after a while it dawns on us that something is not quite right. And then it's too late to leave! You're TRAPPED, bwah ha ha haaaa! You're a slave to the ghost mansion now. You will have to spend eternity here, welcoming new guests who were once just like you...
Is there any honor that this song hasn't won? 49th greatest song of all time, says Rolling Stone magazine. One of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll, says the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Record of the Year, says the 1977 Grammy awards. Ranked #8 in the Top 100 Guitar Solos, says Guitar Magazine. A zillion comments on Songfacts. Live in California for a while and you're bound to catch somebody humming it. It augers into your brain and stays planted, resurfacing when you're trying to sleep.
Like any famous, popular song with poetic, metaphor-laden lyrics, it attracts its share of wild mass guessing and bogus interpretations. So, just to get it out of the way: This song has nothing to do with cancer, Satanism, mental hospitals, cannibalism, drugs, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, the Gunpowder Conspiracy, Rosicrucianism, same-sex marriage, predicting Michael Jackson's death, CIA acid experiments, or Roswell aliens. Not that this will stop anybody.
The band's been endlessly plagued by people who don't get it. As recently as a 2009 interview for Plain Dealer newspaper, the music critic asked Don Henley if he regretted calling wine a "spirit" in the lyrics, since wine (at least the unfortified kind) is a different thing from alcoholic spirits. The reply is too long to go into here, but Henley basically told the critic to go run west until his hat floats, for being the 1000th idiot to not see that he was talking about "spirit" as in character, gumption, soul, not "spirit" as in vodka. Don Henley is ready to work a phone desk in technical support.
Or he could borrow Don McLean's answer. When a reporter asked McLean what American Pie meant, McLean responded in taciturn fashion, "It means I never have to work again!" It must be lonely being a wandering minstrel in the land of the deaf.
While we're interpreting, "colitas" are a kind of desert flower, also known as Antelope Sage. And the word "steely" means "steel," the exact metal you'd expect knives to be made of, but the use of the word was a poke at the band Steely Dan, playing lyrics-tag after Steely Dan included a line referencing the Eagles in "Everything You Did."
Bottom line: There's something dark and ugly lying underneath the happy exterior of California, and by extension the United States. That's all "Hotel California" is saying. But it says it with unsurpassed poetry and some of the sweetest guitar notes plucked by Don Felder and Joe Walsh. If we must pin a physical place to this metaphor, we'll go with the Beverly Hills Hotel, which the Eagles used for the album cover.