Written by Don Felder, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, this song is about materialism and excess. California is used as the setting, but it could relate to anywhere in America. Don Henley in the London Daily Mail November 9, 2007 said: "Some of the wilder interpretations of that song have been amazing. It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew. But it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce."
On November 25, 2007 Henley appeared on the TV news show 60 Minutes, where he was told, "everyone wants to know what this song means." Henley replied: "I know, it's so boring. It's a song about the dark underbelly of the American Dream, and about excess in America which was something we knew about."
He offered yet another interpretation in the 2013 History of the Eagles documentary: "It's a song about a journey from innocence to experience."
Don Felder came up with the musical idea for this song. According to his book Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles, he came up with the idea while playing on the beach. He had the chord progressions and basic guitar tracks, which he played for Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who helped finish the song, with Henley adding the lyrics.
Felder says they recorded the song about a year after he did the original demo, and in the session, he started to improvise the guitar part at the end. Henley stopped him and demanded that he do it exactly like the demo, so he had to call his wife and have her play the cassette demo over the phone so Felder could remember what he played.
The lyric, "Warm smell of colitas," is often interpreted as sexual slang or a reference to marijuana. When we asked Don Felder about the term, he said: "The colitas is a plant that grows in the desert that blooms at night, and it has this kind of pungent, almost funky smell. Don Henley came up with a lot of the lyrics for that song, and he came up with colitas."
The Eagles aimed for a full sensory experience in their songwriting. Felder adds, "When we try to write lyrics, we try to write lyrics that touch multiple senses, things you can see, smell, taste, hear. 'I heard the mission bell,' you know, or 'the warm smell of colitas,' talking about being able to relate something through your sense of smell. Just those sort of things. So that's kind of where 'colitas' came from."