By Chris Henley
If you are of a certain age, you’ve no doubt heard the Eagles’ 1977 Grammy-winning single, Hotel California — most likely, many times. The exact meaning behind the surreal lyrics has often been the subject of inquiry in various interviews with Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who are the song’s principal writers. Unfortunately, the answers they have given over the years have varied, only adding further to the mystery. To serve the purposes of this article, however, the following explanation given by Henley in an interview with Rolling Stone is as close to the true meaning as we’re likely to get:
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.
Kind of vague, isn’t it? With that in mind, it is this writer’s intent to part the veil of ambiguity, and to (hopefully) reveal some of the esoteric secrets hidden in Hotel California.
Before we delve too deeply, it is important to realize what Hotel California really is: an allegory. Therefore, the characters, places, and events in the song are metaphorical and symbolic in nature. It is a parable, as well. In other words, it contains a literal meaning on the “surface”, and some sort of associated lesson or message. But concealed underneath is a much deeper story. Sometimes, there are even multiple layers. Once this is understood, all one needs is a solid grasp of what these universal symbols and metaphors stand for. Fortunately, I’ve already done that particular bit of footwork for you. All you need to do is read on. By the time you get to the end, if I’ve done my job right, the insights hiding in the shadowy corridors of Hotel California will have been dragged out into the light, and thoroughly scrutinized.
What is it really about?
What exactly is the real story, and why is it so dark and strange? Well, as Henley explains above, it’s about good and evil, dark and light, and of course, loss of innocence. It is also serves as a cautionary tale–for those few who might hear and understand its urgency. As for the seemingly inherent strangeness of the song’s lyrics, and my interpretations thereof, let me first be clear on what I am— and am not —claiming. I am not claiming that every detail I see is necessarily what Henley and Frey saw when they wrote the words. Fortunately, that’s the beauty of myth; it can often be perceived from several different angles without losing its potency.
I am claiming that the story behind Hotel California is not new. In fact, it is one of the oldest myths ever told; it’s the tale of the once-innocent soul, fallen from grace and subsequently caught in the endless karmic cycle of attachment and suffering in the physical world. This is what Buddhists refer to as the wheel of samsara:
Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means ‘wandering’ or ‘world’, with the connotation of cyclic, circuitous change… Samsara… states Jeff Wilson, is the ‘suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end’
For those with “the eyes to see and the ears to hear”, this theme may be found in many forms. E.g., there are the stories of the fallen Sophia in Gnosticism, the biblical temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from paradise*, the ancient Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, and many others. These are just a few examples. In fact, the story of the soul in exile has showed up in many cultures throughout history–time and time again. Indeed, it is a “living thing” that is a part of the collective human consciousness, which means it is an undying truth that will remain as long as we do, in forms that change to fit the era and culture. It is adaptable, and readily accepts new labels as needed. Yet, at its core, it somehow remains pure and true. And it always manages to spring up again, no matter how often attempts are made to suppress it or stomp it out entirely.
*If you listen carefully, you may notice what sounds like a rattlesnake, just before Henley begins to sing the first lines. This is not an accident, as the snake symbolizes worldly wisdom as opposed to purity and innocence. The same symbol is found in many cultures and religions worldwide, including the serpent found in the Eden myth. In the case of Hotel California, the rattling serves as a kind of warning to the wandering spirit, which goes unheeded.
The Stevie Nicks Connection
Clearly, a lot of the concepts and imagery in the song are mystical in nature. It makes one wonder what the writers’— more specifically, what Henley’s — source of inspiration may have been. To that point, (although I can’t speak for every single line and verse), there are certain parts of the lyrics that contain definite references to the mystical system of Kabbalah, in addition to hints of other occult systems and religions, as well, of which I will go into greater detail later in the article. In any case, one can never be 100% positive as to when or where Henley might have learned these things. After all, he was a rock star living in California in the wild and crazy seventies.
However, I do have an educated hunch that Henley’s former lover, Stevie Nicks (of Fleetwood Mac fame), may have had some influence on the lyrics, albeit indirectly. I stumbled onto this connection unexpectedly, after Googling the words “Don Henley Kabbalah“, thinking that I might come up with some interview or quote I could use that indicated Henley’s interest in the Kabbalah and related subjects. Instead, the results included a link to a 2007 article in The Telegraph, which features a Mick Brown interview with Stevie Nicks.
Stevie Nicks and Don Henley met in the late seventies, around the time Hotel California was recorded. Sadly, I was unable to track down the exact date and circumstances surrounding their initial meeting, so it is possible this hunch is incorrect. However, as Brown writes:
…Rumours, released in 1977, became a phenomenon. By then, Nicks and (Lindsey) Buckingham were breaking up after five years together.… (Mick) Fleetwood and Nicks began a surreptitious affair that ended when Fleetwood switched his affections to Nicks’ friend Sara Recor… Nicks, meanwhile, embarked on an affair with Don Henley of the Eagles.
Assuming then, that the time of Nicks’ and Henley’s meeting is about right, other assumptions may be made; in the same article, Brown describes a few of the titles he sees in Nicks’ home library (emphasis added):
On the bookshelves are volumes about the Kabbalah, Madame Blavatsky and Arthurian legend…
Bingo! There’s the Kabbalah connection. And for those who don’t know, “Madame Blavatsky” refers to the famous Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who was an influential Russian occultist and co-founder of the Theosophical Society. It is interesting that Nicks had titles on King Arthur, as well; the legendary quest for the Holy Grail is yet another variant of the same myth.
Maybe all of this is just random chance. On the other hand, could this be where Don Henley first learned some of the mystical elements described in the song? As anyone familiar with Nicks’ stage persona knows, she likens herself to a witch, and dresses in flowing, diaphanous clothes like a gypsy. At the least, she implies/invokes such notions, through the use of those things. Her ethereal voice and lyrical content only build on that mystique further.
And here is another surprising clue:
Nicks moves among the collection of colourful Art Deco lamps that stand on every surface, carefully orchestrating the ambient light. ‘That’s the famous blue lamp that’s been in lots of photos; that’s a Tiffany,’ she says. ‘And so is that one. I don’t know about the others.’
Is Stevie Nicks’ apparent love of Tiffany décor another coincidence, or is it possible that she was the inspiration for the line, “Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends”? Again, it’s difficult to say, but the following is a quote from another article that describes a 2005 performance, in which Nicks joins Henley in singing a duet of Hotel California:
At around 1:30, you hear the crowd go absolutely wild as the Fleetwood Mac singer enters the stage and takes her spot next to Don, and from the moment she breathes, ‘Her mind is Tiffany twisted/she’s got the Mercedes Benz’ (sic: bends), it’s all over…
You read that right. Nicks joined Henley and began to sing, precisely at the start of the second verse (which begins with the line in question), as if they were sharing a little inside joke.
So, there are seemingly multiple connections to Nicks. Of course, it is highly likely that this theory of mine will remain just that–barring official confirmation from the parties involved, of course. Regardless, when the bits of evidence are taken as a whole, it certainly seems as if Hotel California might never have existed — at least, not in the same form — without Stevie Nicks’ timely presence in Don Henley’s life.
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