I KNOW THE ANSWER re: Hotel California Lyrics

This is a rather long post, but it will, without a doubt, settle once and for all the classic Straight Dope debate regarding the subject of the Eagles’s classic song “Hotel California.”

The United States’ first in-patient narcotics treatment facility, which was called Synanon, was started in the late 1950s by a man named Chuck Dederich. It was located in southern California.

The facility, which was completely free and more like a commune than a treatment center, enjoyed great initial success in helping drug abusers (mainly heroin, cocaine and prescription drug addicts). Thus Synanon became the junkies’ version of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dederich became widely known among the relatively small (by today’s standards) network of southern California hard-drug abusers in the 1960s. It was not unusal for an addict to know soemone or even several people who had attempted or achieved recovery at Synanon.

As time went on, however, Synanon turned from a commune into a cult. Newcomers were welcomed, but were also gradually frightened into the belief that they would be unable to overcome their addictions and survive “on the outside.” Members felt as though their lives depended on staying at Synanon. Discipline became abusively harsh–even minor trangressions were met with severe punishements, such as complete immersion in the communal cess pit. Vocal opponents of the cult were few after a Los Angeles lawyer who sued Synanon was bitten by a rattlesnake which the group had placed in his mailbox. Above all, it was understood that if a member left, it spelled doom. As with most cult leaders, Dederich’s power to deter followers from leaving lay mainly in his ability to make them fear life without him, outside the cult.

The song “Hotel California” is about Synanon. I’m quite sure that anyone who simply types “synanon” or “charles dederich” into his search engine and reads just a little will come away as convinced as I was when I first realized the connection.

He will see, for instance, that in 1969, after over 11 years of allowing the recovering hard-drug addicts to drink beer and wine, Dederich banned alcohol altogether at Synanon: thus the Hotel California passage “So I called up the Captain; Please bring me my wine; He said ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969’.”

He will also learn about “encounter group” or “fishbowl group” therapy (which is still very widely used in drug treatment today, although usually only for one or two hours at a time). This form of “treatment” calls for one person at a time to be the “subject” of the group. The others in the group take turns “confronting” or “indicting” the individual with what the group perceives as “negative behavior.” Yelling and cursing at the individual like a drill sergeant is not only encouraged, but is considered to be the whole point of the therapy and is actually required in most treatment centers. The individual being “confronted” is required to maintain complete silence and eye contact with his accuser, and may not respond afterward. After everybody in the group has finished with him, they move on, putting another individual in the “hot seat”. Thus the process, which is intended to chip away at “the beast” that is addiction, can closely resemble a pirahna feeding frenzy, especially to newcomers.

Dederich insisted on marathon encounter groups such as this(some lasting 72 hours or more) at Synanon: hence the Hotel California passage “And in the master’s chambers; They gathered for the feast; They stab it with their steely knives; But they just can’t kill the beast.”

The Eagles’ references to brainwashing are thinly veiled in lines such as “We are all just prisoners here of our own device” and “We are programmed to receive.” “Colitas” are the extreme tips of marijuana plants (the part from which hashish is made), just as Cecil Adams first brought to light.

So there it is. As I said before, I challenge anyone to find a more likely or fitting explanation for the song’s lyrics, about which I have been entertaining theories since I was a little kid. I apologize for the length of this post, but after all, it does put a Staight Dope Classic to rest.

I plan to take on something by Pearl Jam (Yellow Ledbetter?) next, if I can ever figure out what he’s saying. E-mail ben901@yahoo.com with ideas.

Just stopping by ben901 to provide a link to the column: In the song “Hotel California,” what does “colitas” mean? Welcome to the Boards, hope you find stuff here that will interst you.

Welcome to the SDMB, and thank you for posting your comment.
Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the straight dope web site.
To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in your post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil’s column can be found on-line at this link:
What does “colitas” mean in “Hotel California”? (Week of: 15-Aug-97 )

The column can also be found on pages 1-3 of Cecil Adams’ book «Triumph of the Straight Dope».

moderator, «Comments on Cecil’s Columns»

Thanks picmr for providing the link. There are two versions of the article at the Straight Dope website. The second link provided also shows the Slug Signorino illustration.

No offense intended, ben901, but while it’s a nice theory and all, have any of the band members supported it in any way? The thing about obscure song lyrics is that lots of explanations can be found to fit them. Just because one explanation fits really well doesn’t mean it was what the author(s) intended. Now, if Walsh, or Henley, or Schmit (or hell, even Linda Ronstadt) had ever been in Synanon, I’d think there’d be much more to support your theory. . .

It’s a great idea, don’t get me wrong. But until and unless the band comments on what they actually intended for the song, I think no one will “KNOW THE ANSWER.”

I’m with andros on this one. While the explanation in the OP is certainly ingenious and seems to fit the quoted sections of the song, one could probably find verses of the song that don’t fit the theory.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced that a Straight Dope classic has been “laid to rest”. Also note that the Straight Dope column refers to published comments by Glenn Frey (published where? inquiring minds want to know) that the song refers to cocaine addiction, but it doesn’t say that Glenn Frey refers to Synanon.

Well, it is just a theory.

As for the members’ membership (or lack thereof) in Synanon, only other Synanon members would know for sure, as strict anonymity is the first principle of the organization (hence the ‘anon’). As I said in the orignal post, however, it would not be necessary for either songwriter to have been a member himself, any more than it would have been necessary for Ken Kesey to be institutionalized before writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The facility was very well known in that area at that time, and was even the subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative series conducted by the Point Reyes Light the year after the song was written.

My feeling is that every line of the song fits perfectly with the Synanon of the mid 1970s, which found itself taking in more and more wealthy cocaine and presecription drug abusers. As Cecil Adams said in his article about the meaning of colitas, “[I knew] with an instant shock of certainty that this is the correct interpretation.”

If you’re still not satisfied, here are a few more Synanon/song connections:
[ul][li]Synanon was located in a huge Santa Monica hotel off of highway 405, which winds through the desert directly north of Santa Monica.[/li]
[li]A Spanish mission (presumably with a bell) built in the 18th century stood adjacent to the facility.[/li]
According to Deborah Swisher (who does a 90 minute off-broadway solo play about her experience growing up in the Synanon cult), members were only permitted to listen to music and dance while in the hotel’s courtyard.[/ul]Thanks for your replies.

While I haven’t been to Los Angeles in a couple years, I’m pretty sure that 1) The 405 freeway doesn’t come all that close to Santa Monica - you have to go west on the 10 to get there; and B) 405 North of LA heads into the San Fernando valley, I’d hardly call it a “dark desert highway.”

Synanon House was actually in an old armory building in Santa Monica when established in 1958. What this song theory would have to be targetting is that they moved into the Hotel Casa Del Mar, a Ritzy Santa Monica beach hotel from the 1920’s, which had fallen on hard times, and passed to the Pritikin Longevity Center after Synanon. It has currently been renovated as a luxury hotel:


It is located at the end of Pico Boulevard according to that article. This is an intruiging theory at any rate

A little searching (say Synanon + Eagles or “Hotel California”) will also show that a couple of other people have thought of this theory as well.

I tend to look at the song in the context of the album, and in context with other work by Henley…

I’ve always felt that Hotel California is about how the left in Hollywood had become self-satisfied and self-absorbed by the mid-70’s. “We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen-sixty-nine” doesn’t refer literally to alcohol.


As an ex-Synanon member, I can personally attest that the song is NOT about Synanon. There are many, many, many half-truths, and flat out inaccuracies posted on here about Synanon. In fact, too many for me to even begin to give a reply to, but if you (or anyone else) has a question as to what Synanon was up to, or what happened at Synanon, or if you want to test your theory out with me, step by step, I would be more than happy to respond. By the way, Henley, nor any other Eagle was ever a Synanon resident.


Wow. This Synanon place sounds pretty scary. It reminds me a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous

I’ll tell you one thing, I have been to Hotel California in Baja and it is nothing worth writing a song about. They do have lots of t-shirts and other pariphenalia making a buck (peso) off the song.

Hence? I dunno Ben901, that’s a little shaky. And even I, when I first heard the song many years ago, thought of Synanon–but others have pointed out that it is probably more of a pastiche of a lot of california experiences.

I was intrigued by this coincidence though, enough to type synanon and charles dederich and alcohol and even 1969 into my favorite search engine. I didn’t find that info, though. Can you give us a quick link?