Joe Kmetz and I were on our way to Krista’s house over Turkey Break and I had designated Joe as the DJ for the trip. At some point during the drive we ended up listening to “Hotel California,” probably the best song the Eagles ever wrote and performed. This spawned a discussion as to the meaning of the song. Unfortunately, neither of us knew for sure, but I promised Joe I would investigate the song as soon as I had time.
Though you can play “Hotel California” on Guitar Hero by yourself and sound surprisingly similar to the original track, there’s nothing realistic about that. On the Hell Freezes Over album, the Eagles used eight guitars to perform this song. In the original studio mix, only five were used. Still, this should give you some measure of the caliber of this song. It is an amazing piece for guitar, and I never tire of listening to it.
Musical melodies aside, the lyrics of the song span quite a bit of controversies. The interpretations of this song range from the drug use, cannibalism, Hotel California being another name for the Camarillo State Hospital (a psychiatric hospital), to devil worship and the Church of Satan.
I’m going to have to go ahead and debunk all the most popular rumors, as none of them are even remotely close to being true (except possibly the drug use one, though indirectly). Let’s lay out the most popular rumors and look at why they aren’t true. For your convenience, you can find the lyrics to the song here and you can listen to the song here.
Background on the Eagles
The Eagles are one of the most successful American rock bands of the 1970s. The Eagles were founded in the early 70s in Los Angeles, California, by Glenn Frey (singer, guitarist, songwriter), Don Henley (singer, guitarist, drummer, songwriter), Randy Meisner (singer, bassist, songwriter), and Bernie Leadon (singer, guitarist). It’s also worth mentioning the former member Don Felder (singer, guitarist, songwriter), as he helped write “Hotel California” and performed part of the guitar solo. The band has five number-one singles and six number-one albums so far. Their fifth album was Hotel California.
“Hotel California” is a song by the Eagles on the rock album of the same name, Hotel California, released in 1976. The theme of the whole album is essentially that of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream and the rise and falls in-thereof. The album isn’t exactly a rock opera, but it does seem to follow a common theme: it starts with “Hotel California” and comes to a culmination with “The Last Resort,” a song that narrates the demise of society as the conclusive warning to the theme of the album.
After its release, Hotel California received a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1978, the song has been considered by Rolling Stone to be the 49th greatest song of all time, and Guitar World Magazine ranked the guitar solo as the 8th greatest of all time. “Hotel California” reached 20th on the Billboard Top 100 in 1977.
It’s a Real Hotel
It turns out there’s a real hotel in California! A few of them, actually. Unfortunately, there is no hotel in California that goes under the name of Hotel California. There is, however, a hotel in Todos Santos, Mexico, just across the border, that goes by the name of Hotel California. The hotel also went under the name of The Hotel Mission (“I heard the Mission bell”). The name of the hotel changed several times after the popularity of the song grew so as to attract tourists. The problem is the Eagles never actually stayed there, and that location is not what the song is referring to.
It’s an Insane Asylum
“Next 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.”
People who believe this rumor may simply be getting confused by the fact that the Eagles’s record company for the album before Hotel California was Asylum Records. The song isn’t actually about an insane asylum; there is no asylum anywhere in California or even the entire United States by the name of Hotel California.
Some still insist that the Hotel California is a nickname for the Camarillo State Hospital in Camarillo, California. But since the Eagles said in an interview in 1995 that it wasn’t in reference to a particular location, and since it wouldn’t really make much sense to take the pictures for the album artwork at the Beverly Hills Hotel if the song were really about the Camarillo State Hospital, the song probably isn’t in reference to an insane asylum. Though the imagery in the song does seem to describe states of insanity at times.
It’s a Hospital
Still, people insist that the Hotel California must be a real building somewhere, so they conjecture that perhaps it is a hospital somewhere. The rumor further claims that the song is actually about cancer.
“My head grew heavy and my site grew dim.” It could be a reference to the pains of the cancer that is evidently killing the body. “There she stood in the doorway” is alleged to be a reference to a nurse, and “And she showed me the way / There were voices down the corridor” is the nurse leading him down the hallways of the hospital, other cancer patients calling out to the narrator as he walks by. “They stab it with their Steely knives / But they just can’t kill the beast” could be a reference to repeated attempts to kill the cancer.
The song could be a metaphor for cancer, if you chose to interpret that way, but that wasn’t the intention when it was written.
It’s About Steely Dan
The line “They stab it with their Steely knives / But they just can’t kill the beast” is a reference to Steely Dan, an American rock band that had a healthy competition with the Eagles around the time Hotel California came out.
The Eagles were apparently impressed by the fact that Steely Dan didn’t require any rhyme or reason to the meaning in the lyrics of their song. The Eagles decided it would be pretty sweet to mention Steely Dan in their song, even though the rest of the song has absolutely nothing to do with them. Steely Dan had previously mention the Eagles in their song Everything You Did with the line “Turn up the Eagles the neighbors are listening” in 1976.
It’s About Cannibalism
Apparently the references to a secluded hotel with corridors and hallways that were an endless maze that entrapped anyone who entered reminded too many people of H. H. Holmes and the Murder Castle. I guess he didn’t eat his guests, but his story probably set people up for paranoia.
One theory that got spread around via chain mail muses that the reason “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave” is because the only way to truly leave is to be stabbed by those “Steely knives!” Apparently the hotel in the distance enticed you only to serve you up for dinner the following day. There’s really not much evidence of this in the song, and the band members have denied it.
It’s About the Church of Satan
Probably the most well known (and most misunderstood) meaning for the song says that it is a reference to devil worship and the Church of Satan. Such lines as “I was thinking to myself / This could be Heaven or this could be Hell,” “We haven’t had that spirit here / Since nineteen sixty-nine,” “… they just can’t kill the beast,” and “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave” apparently solidify this claim. Additionally, the album artwork has a bit of an eerie feel, and people claim that the photographs were taken at the same place where the Satanic Bible was written. “The Beast” referred to in the song is alleged to be Satan.
Anton LeVay finished the Satanic Bible in 1969, three years after founding his church. Supposedly ever since the bible was finished the Holy Spirit hasn’t been present at the Satanic Church (as if he was before?) and that’s what the line in the song is referencing. This claim falls short when you recognize that the line directly before this clarifies a reference to the spirit of wine, not the Holy Spirit. Additionally, once you join the occult you are apparently unable to get out. Considering the previous claims fall short, I’m going to entertain the thought that “the beast” must be a metaphorical character referring to something other than Satan.
The artwork for the album was actually shot at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills. The Eagles say that the reason for the shadowy figures is due to poor lighting and a poor camera. The ghostly figure in the window who many claim is supposed to be either Satan himself or Anton LaVey is actually a publicity guy from Asylum Records. Any physical similarities to LaVey or the Devil himself are purely coincidental.
Further claims state that the Hotel California is a reference to a hotel on California St. in San Francisco which the Church of Satan purchased and converted into their headquarters. The building in question was called The Black House and was actually an old Victorian mansion, not a hotel. It was the headquarters for the Church of Satan used by Anton LaVey in 1966 until his death in 1997. The Satanic Church lost custody of the house after LaVey’s death, and it was torn down in 2001.
It is also rumored that the Eagles were members of the Church of Satan and that they were disciples of LeVay. While a very unreliable source claims that the Waco Tribune-Herald interview Larry Salter, the Eagle’s manager, and he admitted that the Eagle’s were involved with the Church of Satan, the interview was apparently back in 1982 and the original can’t be found …
Then there’s that whole bit about playing the song backward to hear a satanic message. That’s a bit of a stretch. Especially considering sites like that try to say the same thing about Metallica, Megadeath, and Kiss songs and, let’s be honest, you don’t need to play those songs backward to hear a Satanic message. Anyway, if you listen to the entire song backward yourself, you’ll find that it’s quite bogus.
Some have said that the Church of Satan is registered in California under the name “Hotel California,” but there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim.
It’s about Sex and Drugs
“Warm smell of Colitas / Rising up through the air”
“I saw a shimmering light”
“There she stood in the doorway / I heard the mission bell / 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”
“She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys / That she calls friends / How they dance in the courtyard / Sweet summer sweat / Some dance to remember / Some dance to forget”
“And still the voices are calling from far away / Wake you up in the middle of the night”
“Mirrors on the ceiling / Pink champagne on ice / And she said, ‘We are all just prisoners here / Of our own device’”
“You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave”
This theory has the most overwhelming amount of evidence straight out of the song, and it’s also closest to the true meaning.
Probably the most explicit reference in the song is that of Colitas, a Spanish term meaning “little tails,” which could be a reference to the Cannabis plant (marijuana). The rest of the imagery in the song is a very strong implication that the narrator may not be entirely sane (or lucid) while he’s telling us his tale. A shimmering light and a vision of a hotel? Voices echoing down the hallways? Mirrors on the ceiling (seeing many things from many angles, which would happen when you hallucinate)?
It’s usually said that the song is warning against the use of drugs, given it’s generally negative view towards the subject, especially considering the narrators regret that he can’t seem to get out of the lifestyle he has become trapped in.
So What’s it Really About?
And now we come to the true meaning of this song, which is only slightly disappointing after reading all the wild previous possibilities!
Well, Henley and Frey claim that Colitas is a desert flower that smells good. Well, it may very well be a desert flower, but it’s still most likely slang for Cannabis. In their defense, I did read somewhere that a Mexican translated the words “little bud” to “Colitas” for them, neglecting to mention the marijuana reference, so they may not have completely understood what they were saying.
That being said, they explained in an interview in 1995 that the song is about the dangers of hedonism and greed, specifically as it applies to the American Dream and their own achieving fame and fortune in the worlds eyes. They wanted to warn not only California of this, but the entire nation. Unfortunately, due to a poor choice in the title of both the song and the album, it’s most commonly only associated with the Californian mindset.
It’s not a reference to any type of building, it’s not about cannibalism, and it’s not about the Church of Satan. The Steely Dan reference was, in fact, true. The song was the Eagles’ look back at their own lives, realizing how they had become caught up in the famous lifestyle (“Her mind is Tiffany-twisted / She got a Mercedes-Benz”), a lifestyle which has trapped them and isn’t turning out to be everything they had wanted (“We are all just prisoners here / Of our own device,” “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave”).
It makes sense if you consider that the song is the first on the album that addresses the issues of drugs, temptation, fame, relationships, and the American Dream.
There you have it! That’s the true meaning of the song Hotel California. I’m glad we had this discussion. I was sick of hearing comparisons to the Church of Satan.