Lovely Place, Lovely Face: the Lyrical Lore of Hotel California

Welcome to the Hotel California/Such a lovely place/Such a lovely face/
Plenty of room at the Hotel California/Any time of year, you can find it here…

Sounds delightful. But just where is here? And can one really bed down under mirrors on the ceiling while pink champagne chills on ice at that elusive hotel Don  Henley’s Eagles made famous via song back in 1976?

From Tijuana to Cabo san Lucas, Mexico’s Highway 1 snakes 1,000 miles along the Baja Peninsula, a cracked and crumbling lifeline linking the dusty communities that dot the desert north to south. One of those towns, roughly an hour north by car from Cabo’s glitz and glam, is a sleepy surfing village called Todos Santos.

It’s here that a colorful two-storey hotel has, for many years, been considered by some to be the Hotel California where weary road warriors often roll up late at night.

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…

So did Henley, as legend goes, write the song while renting a room at the hotel in the ‘70s for two bucks a night?

According to travel writer Joe Cummings the Detroit Free Press ran a story in 1996 – 20 years after the song was written – that added credence to the legend. However, if that’s true the story has since been stricken from the paper’s archives although Cummings maintains that other notable publications such as the Los Angeles Times followed suit.

And just like that, recycled rumor became truth. Because, to borrow a line from Bill Murray’s character Steve Zissou in the film, The Life Aquatic: “It was in the paper. I assumed they checked their facts.”

One problem: nobody really did. Specifically, no one bothered to ask the Eagles.

Until 1997, when Cummings sent a fax to Don Henley – who co-wrote the lyrics with Eagles bandmate Glenn Fry – asking him to clarify the situation. Henley responded: “I can tell you unequivocally that neither myself nor any of the other band members have had any sort of association – business or pleasure – with that establishment.”

Henley added: “To the best of our knowledge, the hotel you speak of was established after our song ‘Hotel California’ became popular and it appears to be a blatant attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the song.”

Opportunistic marketing ploy? Perhaps. But photo archives suggest the hotel actually was built in the late  ‘40s and, when it opened in 1950, was called Hotel California.

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…

Conspiracy! Okay, maybe not. But it seems that, over the years, the hotel’s name has changed more than once (it was also, for a time, called Hotel Mission Todos Santos). Today, though, sixty years after the original hotel opened, it has undergone extensive renovations under new ownership and appears to be a lovely place. Even Vanity Fair is well-versed on it, leading a chorus of testimonials on the hotel’s revamped website (www.hotelcaliforniabaja.com) with this opening: “Easy living at the Hotel California …”

What a nice surprise/Bring your alibis …

Current owner Debbie Stewart, who originally hails from Surrey, B.C., says that, while she’s tried to separate fact from fiction, there are still “lots of people in the world who think the song was written here.”

Henley’s not sure why people are so eager to buy into such claims, writing in an email to the Vancouver Sun: “I don’t know why there is such a fervent desire to believe that there somewhere exists a physical manifestation of the Hotel California, but I guess it’s maybe for a similar reason that some folks see the face of Jesus on a piece of toast.”

It’s an interesting comparison given the song is an allegory about the illusion of the American dream.

And just like that dream, the seductive spell of Hotel California remains potent, certified by the Recording Industry Association of America at a million digital downloads in 2009, nearly 35 years after it was recorded.

It’s a musical legacy that Rolling Stone contributing editor and author David Wild says has a lot to do with the way the Eagles commented on the good, the bad and the ugly of the American Dream.

Hotel California brilliantly captures the endlessly seductive allure of something beautiful that also may be false and rotten at its core,” Wild wrote in an email. “[It] suggests that the band – especially Don Henley and Glenn Frey – could both relive the dream and capture the nightmare.”

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…

-30-

Story by Graeme McRanor originally published in the Vancouver Sun and nationally across PostMedia Network

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