Rock Allegory: Lady Fortuna & “Hotel California”

Rock Allegory :: Lady Fortuna & “Hotel California”

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by emmiD of Writers Ink Books. Visit our page on the 5ths (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.
Our first allegory was Carole King’s “Tapestry”, way back in April.  Allegories tell a surface story while a stronger meaning lurks beneath the obvious.

“O Fortuna” by Carl Orff seems a strange beginning to a post about the classic “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

Stranger things have happened.

Just as strange things happen in the Eagles’ classic rock song, which you can listen to at this link, which is of a live performance in 1977. Don’t blow off the guitar solo and duet at the end; that’s part of the charm.

The persona in “Hotel California” seems to relate a surreal visit to a roadside hotel that turns ugly before it imprisons him. However, through allegory, the song relates a pursuit for fame and fortune. These cost more than the persona anticipated and never wished to pay.

“O, Fortuna”

The lady who draws in the persona to the Hotel California is Lady Fortuna, a goddess who rules over fame and fortune, luck and fate.

Carl Orff (a rather uneasy German composer, seeking Fortuna with her sacrificial demands) does not consider this goddess benevolent.

Lady Fortuna’s world is lit by the moon, changeable in its monthly course: “statu variabilis / semper crescis / aut decresciss” (Orff). In our pursuit of her, we must enter her realm. She will first oppress us long before she soothes us. She takes her whip of servitude to our naked backs and punishes us before she rewards us: (“mihi quoque niteris; / nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum / fero tui sceleris”).

When Fortuna grants what we have sought, we discover the additional monstrous price we must pay. And we also discover that fame and fortune are empty achievements, material but not wonderful, a “monkey’s paw” of evil wrapped around good. As Orff writes, life becomes “immanis / et inanis”.

Here is the conductor Andre Rieu’s presentation of “O Fortuna”:

Lyrics with translation are found here.

The lyrics for “Hotel California” are here. You might want to print both of these song lyrics out so you can see how closely they compare.

Let’s play 20 Questions / Answers will Follow

1st Stanza & Chorus introduces the pursuit of fame.

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.

People in pursuit of their dreams believe that their lives are deserts that they must drive through before they find where they want to be.

  1. Pick three words in the first stanza that represent the persona’s blindness about where he is heading in his pursuit of fame.
  2. What does the “shimmering light” represent?

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

  1. “She” is Lady Fortuna. Why is she so attractive to people pursuing their dreams?
  2. The “mission bell” tolls a warning. In which line does the persona admit to hearing the warning?
  3. How is the line for #4 a paradox?

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

  1. How does the famous Californian city that lures people seeking fame and fortune always have “plenty of room”?

Stanza 2 with Chorus

  • Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
  • She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends.
  • How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
  • Some dance to remember, some dance to forget
  1. What does Tiffany refer to?
  2. Mercedes-Benz is the best engineered, mass-produced vehicle on the roads. What is the point of the pun “Mercedes bends”?
  3. From these two brand references, we know the persona is achieving success, enough that he can waste money. Why are material possessions a waste?
  4. What does the line “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget” mean? (Assuming that ‘dance’ is related to performing the job that is winning fame and fortune)
  • So I called up the captain, “please bring me my wine”
  • He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”
  • And still those voices are calling from far away
  • Wake you up in the middle of the night
  • Just to hear them say . . .
  1. The wine represents the sweetness of the dream still before the persona. Why has that “sweetness” left him?

To understand the reason that the sweetness is implied to have left music and culture in 1969, you need to know about Woodstock, the Summer of Love, and the change in the music industry:  basically, the music corporations required musicians to “sell out” their purpose in order to make $$ while making music. Musicians who didn’t buy into the industry’s model of success were shut out. The persona feels that he had to abandon his simple dreams for something much more complicated and which twisted his original purpose.

  1. “The voices [that] are calling from far away” have to do with the persona’s original dream. Which line relates that he is stressed about the loss of that dream?

Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place / Such a lovely face.
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise / Bring your alibis

  1. Notice the two changes in the Chorus. How is “living it up” a “nice surprise”?
  2. Why does he warn people to “bring your alibis”?

3rd Stanza

  • 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.
  1. Lady Fortuna tells them they are “prisoners . . . of [their] own device”, or as Orff says, “Sors salutis” and “semper in angaria” :: “Fate is against me” and I am “always enslaved” to her. How is this devastating?
  2. “The beast” is the juggernaut of the now-rolling success. The master is what controls the success: the audience. How does an audience start controlling successful people?
  3. Who has the “steely knives” to kill the “beast”?

4th Stanza

  • 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 check out any time you like,
  • But you can never leave.”
  1. Why is the persona “running for the door” to find the “place [he] was before”?
  2. The night man says that “we are programmed to receive . . . you can never leave”?
  3. What does this line means: “You can check-out any time you like”?


  1. Dark, colitis, dim (sight), distance, night
  2. The lights from an arcade promoting a performance. The shimmering would be the action of the neon in the lights.
  3. Lady Fortuna is attractive because people believe that once they are rich / famous, they will have no worries.
  4. “This could be heaven or this could be hell”
  5. #4 contains a paradox because life can be both a heaven and a hell at the same time.
  6. People keep coming, expecting to succeed, only to fail and return, making room for more seekers.
  7. Tiffany is an extremely famous NYC jewelry store. Highly successful, highly branded, over-priced: you pay for the name. Should we want to buy brands? No. We should go for quality that meets the $$ we pay. However, materialism “twists” us to prefer the brand.
  8. The “bends” could refer to driving on a crooked road. The persona does start out on a “dark desert highway”. And the pursuit of fame and fortune requires some bend-y actions that we might abhor in honorable daylight. Or it could be the “bends”, decompression sickness when deep divers come too quickly to the surface. Rising fame could be making the persona sick as he considers everything he’s giving up and everything he’s hurting. Nyah, I’ll sticking with the highway.
  9. Material possessions only temporarily feed our greed and gluttony. They do not help the persona or others. Without giving to others, the persona will never fill satisfied and will always seek more and more to fill his emptiness. This is classic Platonism: attempting to balance the mind, the body, and the soul through equally fulfilling events.
  10. This is the treadmill that the persona is on: the beauty of the work he loves keeps him still performing but the grind of the work wears him down.
  11. The joy of his work has left.
  12. “Wake you up in the middle of the night”
  13. The persona has paid so much sweat and pain that he is surprised when he finally has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits that fame and fortune have finally brought to him.
  14. Alibis are only necessary when criminal activity has occurred and penalties will be adjudicated. Has Fortuna led the persona into evil misbehavior? Obviously.
  15. The evil and the pain are what the persona has brought upon himself in his selfish pursuit of the lady of fortune. He is appalled at his choices, but he still cannot give up fame and fortune.
  16. For musicians, they are controlled because they must keep producing the same things that brought the original success. For painters and writers and performers, they are also trapped, their creativity cast aside so that their work can continue to keep the audience happy. If they do not produce what the audience wants—with just a tiny bit of change to seem “new”, the fickle audience will abandon them.
  17. It’s not the audience. It is the trapped performers, who have come to hate the juggernaut wheel grinding them down and down.
  18. He can no longer accept everything he has sacrificed, all the pain and evil he has endured; he wants to return to the time before fame and fortune.
  19. Success can never be abandoned. Lady Fortuna’s hotel accepts people in, a small funnel that can endure the pain, laps up the evil in a blind acquiescence to the dream, and willingly abandons everything good about the dream in order to achieve wealth and fame.
  20. The only way to “check out” of Lady Fortuna’s hotel is death.

Summing Up & Coming Up

I enjoy the guitar solo and then the guitar duet at the end of “Hotel California”.

a screenshot of the 1977 performance, linked above.

Most people with their “imp of the perverse” (as EAPoe calls it) get focused on the colitas and the lady and the wine and the beast and go no farther.

Understanding the darker elements of HCa doesn’t destroy my enjoyment of the song; I just have to turn off the intellect and dance around to the guitars. Hotel California is not a happy place to visit.

And you don’t get to leave.

In my own blindness on dark desert highways, I have often wanted fame and fortune for myself.

Next up, a lighter work, thank goodness, than “Hotel California”. I promise.

Well, it might be a little dark and a little snide. 😉 grn

Join us on the 15th.