A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In the song "Hotel California," what does "colitas" mean?

August 15, 1997

Dear Cecil:

Just what does "colitis" mean? In the song "Hotel California" by the Eagles the first lines are, "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitis rising up through the air." I remember I tried looking it up at a university library years ago and couldn't find the answer. I know songwriters sometimes make up words, but I didn't see a Dr. Seuss credit on the album.

Cecil replies:

Uh, Wendy. It's colitas, not colitis. Colitis (pronounced koe-LIE-tis) is an inflammation of the large intestine. You're probably thinking of that famous Beatles lyric, "the girl with colitis goes by."

As for "Hotel California," you realize a lot of people aren't troubled so much by colitas as by the meaning of the whole damn song. Figuring that we should start with the general and move to the particular, I provide the following commonly heard theories:

(1) The Hotel California is a real hotel located in (pick one) Baja California on the coastal highway between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz or else near Santa Barbara. In other words, the song is a hard look at the modern hospitality industry, which is plagued by guests who "check out any time [they] like" but then "never leave."

(2) The Hotel California is a mental hospital. I see one guy on the Web has identified it as "Camarillo State Hospital in Ventura County between LA and Santa Barbara."

(3) It's about satanism. Isn't everything?

(4) Hotel California is a metaphor for cocaine addiction. See "You can check out any time you like but you can never leave." This comes from the published comments of Glenn Frey, one of the coauthors.

(5) It's about the pitfalls of living in southern California in the 1970s, my interpretation since first listen. Makes perfect sense, and goddammit, who you going to believe, some ignorant rock star or me?

(6) My fave, posted to the Usenet by Thomas Dzubin of Vancouver, British Columbia: "There was this fireworks factory just three blocks from the Hotel California … and it blew up! Big tragedy. One of the workers was named Wurn Snell and he was from the town of Colitas in Greece. One of the workers who escaped the explosion talked to another guy … I think it was probably Don Henley … and Don asked what the guy saw. The worker said, "Wurn Snell of Colitas … rising up through the air."

He's also got this bit about "on a dark dessert highway, Cool Whip in my hair." Well, I thought it was funny.

OK, back to colitas. Personally I had the idea colitas was a type of desert flower. Apparently not. Type "colitas" into a Web search engine and you get about 50 song-lyric hits plus, curiously, a bunch of citations from Mexican and Spanish restaurant menus. Hmm, one thinks, were the Eagles rhapsodizing about the smell of some good carryout? We asked some native Spanish speakers and learned that colitas is the diminutive feminine plural of the Spanish cola, tail. Little tail. Looking for a little … we suddenly recalled a (male) friend's guess that colitas referred to a certain feature of the female anatomy. We paused. Naah. Back to those menus. "Colitas de langosta enchiladas" was baby lobster tails simmered in hot sauce with Spanish rice. One thinks: you know, I could write a love song around a phrase like that.

Enough of these distractions. By and by a denizen of soc.culture.spain wrote: "Colitas is little tails, but here the author is referring to 'colas,' the tip of a marijuana branch, where it is more potent and with more sap (said to be the best part of the leaves)." We knew with an instant shock of certainty that this was the correct interpretation. The Eagles, with the prescience given only to true artists, were touting the virtues of high-quality industrial hemp! And to think some people thought this song was about drugs.

Our suspicions confirmed

This E-mail just in from Eagles management honcho Irving Azoff: "In response to your [recent] memo, in 1976, during the writing of the song 'Hotel California' by Messrs. Henley and Frey, the word `colitas' was translated for them by their Mexican-American road manager as 'little buds.' You have obviously already done the necessary extrapolation. Thank you for your inquiry."

I knew it.

A clarification

Dear Cecil:

Please tell me you were joking when you mentioned the Beatles lyric "the girl with colitis goes by." You were joking, right? You know it's "kaleidoscope eyes."

Cecil replies:

Nothing gets by you, Nan.

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