I listened to and loved this song for many years without understanding the lyrics. While driving down to California on 9/2003, I suddenly had an epiphany where it all made sense. My interpretation follows.
This song is about the temptation and danger of materialism. We are bombarded by societal messages to accumulate material goods, be it fancy cars, or expensive jewelry. We feel drawn to these status symbols, but they also can cause us great unhappiness.
> On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair > Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the airThe singer is free and liberated at the start of the song. Highway, isolated desert, wind blowing through his hair: all symbols of freedom. Colitas is marijuana, which of course also symbolizes a liberated mental state.
> 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 nightThe shimmering light is the materialism. It shimmers and glows like gold. The singer feels intoxicated by it. It casts a spell on him.
> 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'The doorway is the transition into this new life, of materialism and greed and away from freedom. "She" is his way into this life, whether it be newfound wealth or sudden status. He sees that the world of materialism and flashy possessions could be glamorous (heaven), or it could be torturous.
> Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way > There were voices down the corridor, > I thought I heard them say... > > 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 hereCalifornia represents materialism in many ways. It is the place of the gold rush (lovely place). It has Hollywood (lovely face). People come out to California to try to strike it rich.
> Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bendsTiffany's for expensive jewelry, Mercedes for expensive car. Both status symbols. People's perspectives get distorted by these things, which explains the words "twisted" and "bends". I like the wordplay here.
> She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friendsArm candy is another status symbol.
> How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat. > Some dance to remember, some dance to forgetAll these people are bought into the materialism, the "dance" of pursuing possessions. Some do it to remember back to their childhood or earlier in their life when they had more money. Some go after money to forget about something else more painful in their life.
> So I called up the Captain, > 'Please bring me my wine' > He said, 'We haven't had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine'I don't know what this verse means. Various strangers have e-mailed me with their hypotheses. If you have a suggestion, mail me. If you would like to vote for one of the following, you can also mail me.
A. (from Deeparnab C.) 1969 is Woodstock. The spirit means "free spirit", i.e. creativity and freedom, unshackled by money.
B. (from Nathan S.) Christian interpretation. Wine is Jesus's blood. He is in an old Christian church that turned Satanic in 1969. [My note: this makes no sense to me. But at least you could say "spirit" means Holy Spirit in this case.]
> And still those voices are calling from far away, > Wake you up in the middle of the night > Just to hear them say... > > [chorus] > > Mirrors on the ceiling, > The pink champagne on ice > And she said 'We are all just prisoners here, of our own device'Pink champagne is another symbol of luxury. The last line is saying that we are trapped in the pursuit of wealth, but we did it to ourselves by buying into the idea.
> 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 beastThe beast is the primal desire within us to go back to freedom, away from the trappings of society. These people who have been suckered in want to kill that part of themselves which still longs for the liberated days, but they can't defeat it.
> Last thing I remember, I was > Running for the door > I had to find the passage back > To the place I was beforeThe singer wants to get back to his former, free lifestyle.
> 'Relax,' said the night man, > We are programmed to receive. > You can checkout any time you like, > but you can never leave!We are brought up and conditioned by society to be receptive to its messages about status and wealth. We can mentally "check out" and decide to resist those messages, but we can never really get away from them or their strong pull.
So there you have it. Money, status, societal messages, California, getting trapped, hell. How ironic that I figured all this out while driving my U-Haul on my way to move to California.