What the Eagles’ “Hotel California” Really Means

Dur­ing the Satan­ic pan­ic of the 1980s, a new breed of witchfind­er cast a drag­net through pop cul­ture, scoop­ing up songs, artists, and albums that were alleged­ly part of a demon­ic con­spir­a­cy to cor­rupt America’s youth. One song rou­tine­ly appear­ing on such lists — “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” by the Eagles. Real­ly? The Eagles? Biggest-sell­ing rock band in the U.S.? Soft-rock super­stars who paved the cocaine-col­ored way for even soft­er yacht rock super­stars?

They were hard­ly Black Sab­bath, but the band’s “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” was real­ly about Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, it was said (just lis­ten to it back­wards). Depend­ing on your feel­ings about Satanism and/or the Eagles, “the truth proves far less sat­is­fy­ing than the myr­i­ad rumors that have sprung up,” writes David Mikkel­son at Snopes. “The song is usu­al­ly inter­pret­ed as an alle­go­ry about hedo­nism and greed in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the 1970s.” It turned out to be a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy.

Hotel Cal­i­for­nia, the album, rock­et­ed the Eagles beyond “suc­cess on a fright­en­ing lev­el” and into total burnout. By the time they made their last album of the 70s, The Long Run, they felt trapped in a celebri­ty hell, one that would have to freeze over before they reunit­ed, as Don Hen­ley remarked (hence the title of 1994’s Hell Freezes Over). For the Eagles, hell was the oth­er peo­ple in the band, the con­stant tour­ing, and the incred­i­ble amounts of mon­ey thrown their way, more curse than bless­ing, appar­ent­ly.

Despite these inter­nal ten­sions, the Eagles pro­duced a per­fect sound­track for the 70s. “They reflect­ed the emerg­ing musi­cal style of a 70s post-war Amer­i­ca, and the first tru­ly sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed gen­er­a­tion…. had no trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing with a band that sang like angels and par­tied like dev­ils,” writes Marc Eliot. “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” has been so close­ly iden­ti­fied with Amer­i­can cul­ture that “when a US spy plane made an emer­gency land­ing in Chi­na in 2001,” Mark Sav­age notes at the BBC, “the crew mem­bers were asked to recite the lyrics to prove their nation­al­i­ty.”

In truth, “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” is nei­ther writ­ten in praise of Satan nor Amer­i­ca. Its work­ing title was “Mex­i­can Reg­gae,” a nod to the unusu­al strum­ming pat­tern, which “fol­lowed a pat­tern clos­er to fla­men­co than to rock,” Sav­age writes, “but played on the off-beat.” The for­bid­ding land­scape in the song’s lyrics, an “atmos­phere of a man in an unfa­mil­iar rur­al set­ting, unsure about what he’s wit­ness­ing,” came from the 1965 nov­el The Magus by Eng­lish author John Fowles, a coun­ter­cul­tur­al favorite, says Glen Frey: “We decid­ed to cre­ate some­thing strange, just to see if we could do it.”

There was, of course, more to the song — the stan­dard inter­pre­ta­tion of “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” as a cri­tique of 1970s excess­es has been affirmed by Don Hen­ley and Frey, who wrote most of the lyrics. The song, Hen­ley said in a 1995 inter­view, “sort of cap­tured the zeit­geist of the time, which was a time of great excess in this coun­try and in the music busi­ness in par­tic­u­lar…. Lyri­cal­ly, the song deals with tra­di­tion­al or clas­si­cal themes of con­flict: dark­ness and light, good and evil, youth and age, the spir­i­tu­al ver­sus the sec­u­lar. I guess you could say it’s a song about loss of inno­cence”  — a feel­ing, as Joe Walsh says in the inter­view clip above, that came out of the expe­ri­ence of arriv­ing and try­ing to make it in L.A. “Nobody was from Cal­i­for­nia,” Walsh says. “Every­body was from Ohio.”

“Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” also “hides” a dig at Eagles rivals Steely Dan in the lyrics, “they stab it with their steely knives” and bare­ly con­ceals Henley’s con­tempt for his ex-girl­friend, L.A. jew­el­ry design­er Loree Rod­kin, as he lat­er admit­ted: “There’s some of every girl I’ve ever been with in all my songs; they’re com­bi­na­tions of char­ac­ters, like fic­tion. Some of the more deroga­to­ry parts of ‘Hotel Cal­i­for­nia,’ how­ev­er, are def­i­nite­ly about Loree Rod­kin – ‘Her mind is Tiffany twist­ed, she got the Mer­cedes bends/She got a lot of pret­ty boys that she calls friends’ – that’s about her, and I wouldn’t be crow­ing if I were Ms. Rod­kin. As far as I’m con­cerned, she’s the Nor­ma Desmond of her gen­er­a­tion.”

Henley’s most tren­chant com­men­tary on the song comes from the 2013 doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry of the Eagles, in which he talks frankly about the band’s crit­i­cal take on their suc­cess and the cul­ture that pro­duced and embraced “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia”:

On just about every album we made, there was some kind of com­men­tary on the music busi­ness, and on Amer­i­can cul­ture in gen­er­al. The hotel itself could be tak­en as a metaphor not only for the myth-mak­ing of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but for the myth-mak­ing that is the Amer­i­can Dream, because it is a fine line between the Amer­i­can Dream, and the Amer­i­can night­mare.

As for those baroque gui­tar arrange­ments? For that part of the sto­ry, we must turn to Don Felder, who com­posed the song — after Walsh joined the band to replace Bernie Lead­on — in order to show­case the tal­ents of two lead play­ers. See Felder talk about his major con­tri­bu­tion at the top and see him play the “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” solo at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in a clip from CBS’s Sun­day Morn­ing.

Just above, see an inter­view with Felder back­stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in which he dis­cuss­es the role of impro­vi­sa­tion in his process, and how his back­ground in jazz led him to write the “Mex­i­can reg­gae” that would even­tu­al­ly play on Amer­i­can radio every 11 min­utes, their most refined state­ment of the “themes that run through all our work,” Hen­ley says: “loss of inno­cence, the cost of naiveté, the per­ils of fame, of excess; explo­ration of the dark under­bel­ly of the Amer­i­can dream, ide­al­ism real­ized and ide­al­ism thwart­ed, illu­sion ver­sus real­i­ty, the dif­fi­cul­ties of bal­anc­ing lov­ing rela­tion­ships and work, try­ing to square the con­flict­ing rela­tion­ship between busi­ness and art; the cor­rup­tion in pol­i­tics, the fad­ing away of the Six­ties dream of ‘peace, love and under­stand­ing.’”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Wood­stock,” the Song that Defined the Leg­endary Music Fes­ti­val, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)

David Bowie Dreamed of Turn­ing George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musi­cal: Hear the Songs That Sur­vived the Aban­doned Project

What Makes This Song Great?: Pro­duc­er Rick Beato Breaks Down the Great­ness of Clas­sic Rock Songs in His New Video Series

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Fred says:

    All I know is that they played this song to death on the radio.

  • Tim says:

    So inter­est­ing and I always remem­bered the song depict­ing an insane asy­lum.

  • Lori Powell says:

    Many of us who are home­less, it reminds us of the streets.

  • Roxann says:

    I always thought it was about a strug­gle to escape some­thing. Like maybe drug addic­tion or some­thing like that.

  • JAE1965 says:

    This is the only song I’ve ever played ▶️ on loop in my car 🚗 in 2022 when I tried com­mit­ting SUICIDE…it helped me to over­come the fear 😨 of death or dying and bring­ing my jour­ney to a end. I still don’t know if life is worth liv­ing or to bring it to an end, but the “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” song is my all time favorite to over­come my fears 😨. I have only One fear, and that’s God. I feel that God has sent me this song to help me 👀 noth­ing on this plan­et is to be feared except Him. Bless­ing 🙌 to our Lord and the Eagles… JAE1965.

  • Nicky says:

    God gave you this life to LIVE it. You don’t have to live in fear. 🤗

  • JJ Miller says:

    The lyrics might sound, to some, like a stay at a state run men­tal insti­tu­tion, don’t you think? So I’m curi­ous. Have you ever looked at the album cov­er??
    “The hos­pi­tal (CAM) is rumored to be the Eagles’ inspi­ra­tion for the clas­sic rock song “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia.” How­ev­er, Glen Frey and Don Hen­ley denied that sto­ry in the doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry of the Eagles.
    It’s pos­si­ble that the site did inspire the Eagles, but con­cerns over retain­ing the “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia” trade­mark led their *lawyers to rec­om­mend to band mem­bers that they deny it.*

  • Chris stogsdill says:

    Did they take a pic­ture on the begin­ning of the first print album ov hotel Cal­i­for­nia with anton lavey

  • Paul Norton says:

    Don Hen­ley and Don Felder both agree that the Antichrist helped to write “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia”. Where they dif­fer is that Don Hen­ley thinks that the Antichrist wrote the music to the song, where­as Don Felder thinks that the Antichrist wrote the lyrics.

  • Rudy says:

    Sounds very much like one of those drug rehabs that celebs check into when they have addic­tion issues.Only one part of lyrics which is about stab­bing the beast with knives,never real­ly under­stood this.Is it a blood sac­ri­fice?

  • MARK DEEGAN says:

    A song about being trapped and nev­er being able to escape.
    A sad but true song,
    My life
    My wrong.
    Once you step over,there’s no turn­ing back.
    You tru­ly can’t escape hotel Cal­i­for­nia

  • Sophie Oppie says:

    It’s 100% about the birth of Satanism. Go watch the doc­u­men­tary Flash Dance Demons.

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