Two months ago, defective yeti announced a bold new initiative, a monthly feature entitled Research Day where I would Google all the troublesome little questions that had recently occured to me and post my findings.
And then, one month ago, defective yeti boldly forgot all about it.
Anyhow, The Queen and I were tooling around in the car the other day, when Hotel California came on the radio. I immediately adopted my patented Way Too Inebriated College Guy voice and bellowed “Duuude, you know this song? It’s totally about Satanism. Seer-iously!”
The Queen said “What?”
“Listen,” I continued. “Did’jou hear that? ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969’? That’s, like, the Holy Spirit, and they don’t have it any more. And ‘you cannot kill the beast’? The beast is Satan, man! It’s true!”
To which The Queen replied “What in the hell are you talking about?”
I get that a lot.
I assumed — erroneously, I guess — that everyone (including The Queen) had, while in college, attended a party where Hotel California was playing, and been cornered by a Way Too Inebriated College Guy, who insisted, with slurred earnestness, that the song was a thinly veiled paean (or perhaps “pagan”) to Satanism.* I mean, when I was in college this happened to me, like, twice a month.
But The Queen had apparently missed out on this element of campus life, leaving me to explain my cryptic remarks. When I finished, she asked “So is the song about Satanism?” I shrugged. “I dunno. I never bothered to find out. I should look it up on Google or something.”
And that’s how I remembered Research Day. So let’s get to it.
On the face of it, Way Too Inebriated College Guy has a pretty good case. First, check out the complete lyrics over here. As Hotel California opens, it seems the Hotel in question is nothing more than an illusion (“Up ahead in the distance / I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy, and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night”), some sort of spectral edifice for the damned. The narrator himself speculates that “this could be Hell.” Then, in rapid succession, we get candle lighting (Satan!), dancing in the courtyard (naked dancing? Satan!), and the aforementioned lack of “spirit”. Then comes the smoking gun:
Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
The stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast.
The song concludes with the protagonist trying to escape, and being told “You can checkout any time you like / but you can never leave.”
If the lyrics aren’t enough, there are also rumors that The Church of Satan was founded in California, and that its leader was somehow affiliated with The Eagles. A typical assertion: “One of the top songs of the 70’s was Hotel California by the Eagles. Most people have no idea the song refers to the Church of Satan, which happens to be located in a converted HOTEL on CALIFORNIA street! On the inside of the album cover, looking down on the festivities, is Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible!” (That quotation, by the way, was taken from this page. “When Way Too Inebreated College Guys Get Websites, next on FOX!”)
Some even say that there are backwards Satanic message hidden in the song. This site spells it out both ways: “Forwards: ‘There were voices down the corridor, thought I heard them say, welcome to the Hotel California.’ Backwards: ‘Yeah Satan, he organized, oh, he organized his own religion. Yeah, when he knows he should, how nice it was delicious, he puts it in a vet he fixes it for his son which he gives away.'” That’s pretty incriminating, because, as we all know, the most effective way to convert an unsuspecting music aficionado to The Dark Side is to take sinister phrases like “he puts it in a vet” and reverse them.
Anyhow, I figured I’d get to the bottom of this in about five seconds by heading over to The Straight Dope, as this is exactly the sort of question Cecil Adams likes to tackle. To my surprise, S.D. only mentions the Hotel California = Satanism question in passing while addressing a different query about the song. Then I checked Snopes and was let down again. What the hell? When I launched Research Day I never envisioned that I’d actually have to do, you know, research and stuff. Lame.
Still, it didn’t take me long to find refutations from the band members. In this interview, Joe Walsh was asked it it was true that Anton Lavey, the founder of The Church of Satan, could really be seen on the cover of the album. Walsh’s reply:
Absolutely not. Any reference to Satan or anything like that is completely in the eyes of whoever is thinking that. That’s a reflection of how sick they are. The guy in the window is one of the Elektra/Asylum publicity guys. The lighting just happened to be bad and he was really shy, so he was just peeking around the corner.
As for the meaning of the song itself, Don Henley has always maintained that the seductive influence alluded to in Hotel California is not Satanism, but rather the excesses of band life that The Eagles grappled with in the late 70’s. Here’s what he said during a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
Q: ‘Hotel California’ was widely received as a sharp commentary on Southern California’s penchant for superficiality and decadence. Was that your intention?
Henley: Actually, I was a little disappointed with how the record was taken, because I meant it in a much broader sense than a commentary about California. I was looking at American culture, and when I called that one song “Hotel California,” I was simply using California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture.
It was, to a certain extent, about California, about the excesses out here. But in many instances, as California goes, so goes the nation. Things simply happen out here or in New York first — whether it’s with drugs or fashion or artistic movements or economic trends — and then work their way toward the middle of America. And that’s what I was trying to get at.
(But isn’t that just what you’d expect a Satanist to say?)
As for the charge that the phrase “Yeah satan, oh he came, and organized his own religion” is hidden in the song — well, listen for yourself (mp3 link).
So there you go. The next time I’m drunk at a party where Hotel California is playing, I’m going to throw my arm around some hapless kid and bellow “Duuude, you know this song? It’s totally about California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture. Seriously!” I’m sure that will go over swimmingly.
* This sentence was brought to you by the Comma Advisory Board.
Update: In the comments, Mike of Curious Frog remarks “Glenn Frey confirmed the line They stab it with their steely knives, But they just can’t kill the beast was actually a nod to Steely Dan …” In following this up, I found an interview in which Glenn Frey says:
One of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs and it did not have to necessarily make sense … we thought of this Hotel California, we started thinking of there would be very cinematic to do it, sort of like the Twilight Zone …, one line says there is a guy on the highway, you know, the next line says there is a hotel in the distance, then there is a woman in there and she walks in … just sort of strung together and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it.
Frankly, I find that to be the most credible explanation of the song’s origin I’ve yet heard, especially when you add in the reference to “Steely” that Mike pointed out. My hunch is that the secret meaning of Hotel California is that it doesn’t really have any.