I've heard a variety of interpretations of Hotel California by The Eagles: the "high life" in Los Angeles, a journey from innocence to experience, greed in the music industry, drug addiction. (Confusingly enough, the band seems to have confirmed several of these interpretations). Regardless of which of these interpretations is "correct," though, I'm particularly interested in the final verse:

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!

I don't think that this verse is implying that there's some kind of external coercion keeping you in the Hotel California. With that said, why would the narrator be "running for the door" and trying to check out, but suddenly find himself unable to leave? Does this imply that people are unable to change, or merely that they tend to go back to their behavior in spite of their best intentions? Or am I missing the point entirely here?

What would it even mean to check out but not leave?

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    It would be nice if downvoters could leave some suggestions about how to improve this post.
    – user111
    Aug 31, 2017 at 23:44
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    Hi EJoshuaS, I've noticed that you've asked some excellent questions that have been deleted because they got one or two downvotes. I wish you would undelete them so I could upvote them. And like I mentioned, I do find it disappointing that your questions have been downvoted without even an explanatory comment. In my opinion they're good; you can tell that they are good because the ones you haven't deleted have sparked some interesting conversations :)
    – user111
    Aug 31, 2017 at 23:47
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    @Hamlet Thanks :) Yeah, I'm slightly baffled by the downvotes, too - it would be helpful if people would explain them so I can improve the question if necessary. Sep 1, 2017 at 14:01
  • This question is arguably a better fit for musicfans.stackexchange.com . However, on a side note, I wrote an entire essay about this topic : popculturephilosopher.com/… Sep 1, 2017 at 16:27
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    @ChrisSunami The current community consensus is that questions about song lyrics are on topic as long as they're literary questions. Sep 1, 2017 at 16:30

1 Answer 1


Try asking the question this way: "How does this line affect the reader?" Taken in itself, it's a very disconcerting image: some kind of illusory freedom. The phrase "check out" hints at death, suggesting that your freedom is so compromised that not even death can release you.

It's important to note that this in the context of "night man", a late-night hotel clerk. He cannot necessarily be trusted to be providing correct information, especially in the light of his confusing and ambiguous "we are programmed to receive". I'm not sure how the word "programmed" would have been received at the time the song was written, but today it alludes to a computer without free will. (I suspect it was that way at the time, too, but there might have been subtle differences since computers weren't ubiquitous.)

It's very easy to think of this solely in terms of drug addiction, which includes by definition a loss of free will. That's certainly a valid understanding of it, though it still doesn't admit an image-by-image allegorical reading; some images resist that interpretation.

So I'd say the best way to understand that line is to think of it in terms of the emotions it invokes in you, in whatever way you connect to it. That's why the band's seemingly contradictory statements about its "interpretation" are all simultaneously valid. Rather than telling you a coded story, it's creating a set of emotions that are common to many states of humanity.


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