Meaning of “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley

“The Boys of Summer” is a song performed by the iconic American singer and songwriter Don Henley of the Eagles fame. While the song’s lyrics basically talk about the demise of a relationship and wanting your ex back, in a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Henley said the theme of the song has more to do with the issue of aging and questioning the events of the past.

In a prior interview he had in 1985 with NME, he said of the famous line in which he sings about a “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” being words based on a real event. According to him, one day, while driving down the famous San Diego Freeway, he was suddenly overtaken by an expensive Cadillac Seville that had a Deadhead (Grateful Dead) sticker placed on the bumper of the car. Henley said what he saw was a classic example of how his generation had sold out.

If you are wondering what the meaning of “Deadhead” from the lyrics refers to, it is simply another name given to a fan/follower of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead is the name of one of America’s most renowned rock bands.

But what exactly is the meaning of the phrase “Boys of Summer”?

Up until today, Henley is yet to explain to his fans and the world alike exactly what he means by the phrase “Boys of Summer”. Based on the lyrics in which Henley sings about his love for his ex going to remain strong long after the “boys of summer” have gone, we get this idea that the “summer boys” are probably the boys who have come to town for the summer, and that his ex is currently seeing one or more of them.

The Boys of Summer

Interpretation of “The Boys of Summer”: By Another Hand

This song actually features a couple of different narratives.

First Storyline

The first storyline, which actually dominates the track, features the singer – for lack of a better word – stalking an ex-girlfriend. For instance, he ‘drives by her house’ despite already knowing she is not there.  But he does not come off as a creep, despite the implication being that she is perhaps out with other dudes, who are referred to as “the boys of summer”. Indeed Don is convinced that these interactions will be fleeting and that he will eventually win her back. And he seems unable or unwilling to get over her as he reminisces on their past romantic experiences.

Second Storyline

Meanwhile the third verse veers the song in completely-different directions. It features the singer beholding “a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” and lamenting the fact that he has held on to aspects of the past. A “Deadhead” is actually a reference to a die-hard fan of the famed American rock band Grateful Dead. And in this context the Cadillac symbolizes wealth and snobbishness. This was a vehicle Henley saw in real-life which intrigued him as he thought it was unorthodox for “upper-middle class American bourgeoisie” to be fans of the rowdy Grateful Dead. And he seems to have included it in the song primarily because he found interesting.

Meanwhile the part about holding on to the past, which takes up the latter half of the verse, actually reflects his sentiments concerning the 1960s. He recounts that era as being one where people thought they had affected changed. But afterwards he realized their efforts were not enough, and in actuality no progress was made. Thus the overall sentiment being expressed in this section is that he must not dwell on the past, as in reality it was not as good as he thought it was in the first place.

What “The Boys of Summer” is all about

So all things considered, “The Boys of Summer” is quite an interesting narrative. On one hand we have Don Henley stressing a certain female because he cannot get over their past relationship. And on the other we have him stating he needs to let go of the past, though concerning a completely-different subject matter.

Facts about “The Boys of Summer”

  • Henley only wrote the lyrics of The Boys of Summer. The song’s music was written by American guitarist and songwriter Mike Campbell best known for his association with the band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
  • The song came out on 26th October, 1984 as the first of the 5 singles of Henley’s second solo studio album titled Building the Perfect Beast.
  • The song’s title was inspired by the famous 1972 baseball book The Boys of Summer by American author Roger Kahn.
  • On the US Billboard Hot 100, the song peaked at No. 5 whereas on the UK Singles Chart, it reached No. 12, making it one of the most successful songs of Henley’s solo career.
  • In Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, “The Boys of Summer” was placed at number 416th position.
  • The black and white music video of the song, which was directed by French music video director Jean-Baptiste Mondino won 4 awards at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards, including the award for MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year.
  • Despite the Eagles being one of the most successful bands in the United States as of that time, Henley wasn’t very popular since he chose to live a very private life. However, with the massive success of The Boys of Summer, Henley instantly became a household name across the globe – a happening he found very uncomfortable.
  • Since its release in 1984, the song has been covered multiple times. Some of the most notable covers of the song include American melodic hardcore band Codeseven’s cover in 1998, Spanish DJ Sammy’s cover in 2002, and the American rock band The Ataris’ cover in 2003.

Did “The Boys of Summer” win a Grammy Award?

In 1986, this classic was nominated for the Grammy Awards for Record of the Year as well as Song of the Year. It however, lost both nominations to the smash hit song “We Are the World” by USA for Africa. “Boys of Summer” however, won Henley the Grammy for the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

34 Responses

  1. Rick says:

    I always thought it was about a girl he met in summer when she came to town on vacation. They had a summer fling and then she went back home and he is pining for her. It always makes me feel nostalgic and a little sad about a girl I dated in high school and then lost cuz I was young and stupid.

  2. NoUseToU says:

    I always felt it was baseball related, for they play during the summer months, thus after the boys of summer have gone…

    • Richard Crompton says:

      You’re right. The “Boys of Summer” was a descriptive applied to the heroes of the baseball diamond, most notably,
      the Brooklyn Dodgers, multiple pennant winners from the late 1940’s to the mid- ’50’s.

  3. rob says:

    The song is about a cuck…that wants the ex back after she was riding the richard carousell…
    Betas always gonna be betas
    Wake up men!!

    • Anonymous says:

      Let me guess, you see yourself as a Sigma male.

    • Barry says:

      Rob gets it! Finally someone who understands this pathetic song!

    • Alpha Male says:

      Rob, the incel wanna be alpha male, demands his women be virgin, just like jesus’s mommy. Thankfully he won’t reproduce (no women want a rob type) so we won’t have to explain metaphor to his nonexistent progeny.

    • Lost Youth says:

      This is not remotely what this song is about. It’s about lost youth, getting older; looking backward. Suspect that you are not old enough to get it.

  4. tim says:

    This song is about the “Eagles.”

  5. Greg says:

    Agree with Rob. Massive [expletive] song. He will have his GF back after she spends the summer riding the [expletive] carousel.

  6. Patti Lefils says:

    Ironically while visiting in Philadelphia, the news guys come on and say, ‘the boys of summer” are heading down to Clearwater Fl for spring training. Referring of course, to baseball. I always thought that’s what Don Henley had in mind in the song. All the scenes ( in the video) and the lyrics seem to refer sentimentally to experiences of a summer that he’ll always remember. Perhaps a good baseball season being one of them.

  7. FM says:

    It’s a freakin metaphor, folks. The title is a direct, obvious baseball reference regarding how the season always comes to and end after the summer. The story itself is about the fleeting and ephemeral nature of romance, as well as the contradictions that accompany it. (At the time, a Deadhead sticker on an expensive car would definitely have been an anomaly. Now, not so much) Anybody who doesn’t get all that has never experienced romance or learned the term “irony”.

  8. Dave Jones says:

    I agree with Tim, its about the Eagles.. I always believed the ‘Deadhead’ sticker was the album cover from ‘The Greatest Hit’s’ album.

    • Anonymous says:

      Who cares it’s a great song lol

    • Dzikowski Sandwich says:

      My sister and I used to laugh about the Deadhead sticker on a (Seville) Cadillac…because we DID put a Deadhead sticker (the dancing bears, in fact) on our Dad’s Seville long before we heard this song, so we told everyone Henley must have seen Papa Bear’s car. He was a little annoyed, because he was more of a Pink Floydian. hahaha

  9. MB says:

    FM you are exactly correct. It doesn’t have a thing to do with baseball or the Eagles.

  10. Stefan Rammler says:

    I think that “the boys of summer” are about aging, the youth that is gone and a love from the past wich is still in the singer’s heart.
    He sings about the summer that is over and that there is an emptyness now – that’s the loss of youth.
    He still sees his old love in his mind, she was young too and pretty and they were happy.
    “The boys of summer” are lovers and relations of her that came after him and he is sure that his love is stronger than theirs.
    He knows that it would be better to let that thoughts go, but he still can’t get his old love out of his mind.

    A very emotional song in my opinion and not about tourism, football teams or bands.

  11. Mitch says:

    makes me cry nearly every time; makes me think about this girl I used to see who was kinda a sl*t so I always worried about where she was. The line ‘I’m driving by your house, though I know you’re not home’ feels so real, not that I stalk her. I still want her though, badly, even though I have my head on straighter than her + I’m very attractive

  12. Coco says:

    It’ s a metaphor for good old days of farting in the bathtub with your GF and watching bubbles rise, lyao, great times shared, but having to let it go now, probably wasnt as good as nostalgic memories would have, so letting go but that is hard to do.

  13. Chris says:

    The song is a metaphor for Don’s time with the Eagles (aka “The Boys of Summer”) – about the memories of the great times … as well as the bad times. But, while he has fond memories those days, in then end, he has to move on with his solo career. The “Dead Head” bumper sticker could easily be replaced by an “Eagles” bumper sticker.

  14. Mack says:

    I thought it was about returning to the US, after a tour in Vietnam, losing one’s love, suffering PSTD, and living the rest of one’s life in the rear view mirror.

  15. Mike says:

    I actually think the song is more autobiographical. I always took it that the Boys of Summer are the Eagles themselves. And when this song was written Don was a solo act. So when he sings “I am going to get you back” he is actually referring to the audience. Driving by your house… he felt that the audience had moved on.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I always thought the lyric “ out on the road today, I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac “ perfectly described the Reagan 80’s.

  17. Ray Gordon says:

    I figured that the deadhead line was a reference to selling out or more likely aging out, and “boys of summer” a metaphor for men who aren’t serious.

    As a man whose two true loves of his life were met in 1984-85, this song hit home, as I felt my feelings weren’t taken seriously by young women who wanted “fun.” The first, I actually tried suicide over, and when recovering I’d skate around the UES of Manhattan every night to blow off energy, and I’d let my route take me by her apartment building. The second one I moved to be near (so I could ignore her actually and that worked), not knowing another woman had moved next door to my old dorm to be near ME (we wound up having sex).

    Henley’s behavior was NOT stalking in 1984, or at least it wasn’t illegal. Under my “tie goes to the first amendment” rule, his behavior (like mine) was merely creepy.

  18. Anonymous says:

    The first part is the sad end of the wild fun of the summer season. nobody on the road, nobody on the lake – the summer resort town is empty now, but Don’s filled with memories of how great it was at high season. That’s a wider metaphor for the best days of his youth haunting him as he roams.
    It’s possible Summer is the woman’s name, and what a metaphor that would be. Summer’s out of reach. The Boys of Summer are the other guys vying for her affection.

  19. Graham Strong says:

    “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” – people grow up; people move on. Possibly a reference to Hippies (The Grateful Dead grew out of the Hippie movement, particularly the acid rock movement in 1967 San Francisco) selling out — you have all these grand illusions when you’re younger, but then you get a career, a family, a Cadillac in the driveway. Sometimes you don’t even realize the irony. Or, maybe the guy with the sticker *does* realize the irony. Either way, looking back can get depressing… It could be Don Henley himself is reflecting on his own life after seeing someone *else’s* sticker.

    “After the Boys of Summer are gone…” – baseball reference, but don’t read too much into it. Just a creative way of saying, after the summer’s done.

  20. Lou T says:

    “Dead Head Sticker on a caddy” means when he was driving he saw a nice car probably driven by someone his age and the sticker brought him back to the 60’s or 70’s when he was with the girl. So he can’t look back he should never look back because of the pain it caused him. Seems unreal like it was a dream to him. It is like so many of us that look back to the days of our youth and the innocence of the times. Many of Henleys songs like “End of the innocence” look back on perceived better times in our lives when things were simpler and we didn’t realize how adulthood breaks that facade and we see the true, sometimes corrupt/evil mechanisms of politics and society as a whole. If only we could keep that childhood mentality in our adult years.

  21. bob says:

    Seeing the video with a boy playing drums and an older man working in an office combined with Don Henley appearing in the video along with the attractive woman is a metaphor. I theorize it’s about regretting a past relationship that didn’t work out as a metaphor to an older adult having regrets about their life and what they did or didn’t do. Especially with Don Henley looking back.

  22. Atomhead says:

    I always think of this song as the ultimate “end of season” song – anyone who has done seasonal summer work by the beach or at a lake and had a great time will understand the lament. The narrator is one of the boys of summer, but he’s still there while everyone has moved on, including his summer fling. He’s pining for her but also the rest of the gang the “boys of summer”, but now there’s “nobody on the street, nobody on the beach” he feels it in the sir – summers out of reach… its a lament to the end of good times and made more painful by the fling he had with his summer girl. The “driving past your house but your not home” is a reference to the sort of way you cement your pain and sense of loss – he knew she wasn’t home but wanted to revisit the times he would drive up there and see her… Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but the sentiments really resonate with me as a ode to the end of summer and the good times that were had.

  23. Pat Kyle. says:

    The third verse of this song is so powerful for one who’s spent most of his adult life trying to “recapture” feeling from the past.

  24. M. says:

    When I originally heard the song back in the 80s, I always thought that *she* had a deadhead sticker on her Cadillac (which I imagined as a rusty wreck any way), and seeing one on a different car just made the memory come back yet again…

    Being European, I didn’t know about the contradiction between driving a Cadillac and being a hippie fan of the grateful dead. So as I saw the song, there was only one single story line, the one about the girl he lost or couldn’t have. The song always makes me nostalgic about something that never happened. Still works after so many summers.

  25. Will says:

    heard this was written after his break up with Stevie Nicks & she wrote ‘Stop Dragging My heart Around’ as a rebuttal to this song.

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