Although the ancient philosopher Mojo Nixon maintained that “Don Henley must die,” I for one am glad that the once but not necessarily future Eagle will turn 53 next month and will also be performing at Universal Amphitheater on July 15th and 16th. Perhaps it’s because the Eagles‘ Their Greatest Hits was the first album I ever got for Christmas, or maybe it’s because my eighth-grade English teacher had us listen to and then discuss the song “Hotel California,” but whatever the reason, I‘ve always loved the Eagles and thought anybody who didn’t was, as Henley says, “just jealous ‘cause we got all the girls.” In 1980, in fact, when I was 16 years old, I wanted to be like Don Henley so badly (and separate myself from both the punk nerds and metal stoners so desperately) that I — I can’t believe I‘m admitting this — I got a perm. Actually, I didn’t get the perm until the end of summer in 1981, the day I left for college — that way nobody I knew would ever see it and everybody I was about to meet would never know.
But either way, it was Henley‘s fault. I wasn’t a drummer or a singer, let alone a drummer-slash-singer, I just thought Henley and his curly locks looked cool in a simple, neither new-wave nor hippie kind of way in the gatefold photo of The Long Run LP — an LP that was doomed to be overshadowed by its predecessor, Hotel California, and dismissed by fan and foe alike. But it was an album nonetheless that spoke to me as few have before or since, a ideal record for this loner teen that coupled typical Eagles soft-pop tunes (“Heartache Tonight,” “I Can‘t Tell You Why,” “Sad Cafe” and the title track) with atypical evil hard-rock ones, truly dark and messed-up shit like the talkbox-guitar tour de force “Those Shoes” (which Beastie Boys sampled to great effect), the zap-on-Zep “Teenage Jail” (with its great Glenn Frey synth solo), the sexy not sexist “King of Hollywood” (which, just so you know, did not make me want to grow up and be like the song’s casting-couch cretin protagonist) and, my personal favorite, the combination anti–Bee Geesanti–Richard Ramirez rant “The Disco Strangler.” That Charles Young‘s Rolling Stone cover story at the time wasn’t entirely sympathetic and Robert Hilburn‘s L.A. Times review of The Long Run not entirely positive only confused and enthused me that much more. Plus, at the time I was being cuckolded by our high school’s homecoming queen (talk about “heartache tonight”), who of course I idiotically took to an Eagles concert at the Forum, where some weirdo (later I realized it was Roy Orbison) was the opening act and for some reason began and ended his set by piping the theme from Star Trek over the PA. The Eagles, meanwhile, opened their set with “Hotel California,” Henley providing the two telltale rasta tomtom knocks after the Tex Mex acoustic guitar intro and commencing to sing from behind his kit — probably the single ballsiest thing I‘ve ever seen any band do (start their concert with what for any other outfit would be a no-brainer encore).
By 1990 I was in a position to try and get back at Young and Hilburn by praising Henley’s last solo LP, The End of the Innocence, in, of all places, The Village Voice. Young wrote a testy letter to the editor, Rolling Stone stopped returning my phone calls (Anthony DeCurtis, you schmuck!), but Henley had the review framed — or so he said when I snuck backstage with my friend Jake at Saturday Night Live and we bum-rushed the startled artist.
But now it‘s 2000 and my friend Jake is dead of an overdose and I feel as if I’m even older and more in the way than Henley, who boasts that he‘s in the best shape of his life as a result of lifting weights and doing 30 minutes of aerobics each day (on the current tour he jokingly assures the audience that “I could kick your ass”). Anyway, the reason I know this last is because the other day I finally, after all these years, got to speak with my hero at a length, albeit over the phone, and came away with renewed respect for a superduper star who bummed me out a bit with the Eagles reunion shows in 1994, which led to the half-assed Hell Freezes Over record . . . which is another way of saying I feared Henley’d become a turkey — and not just because the last song on his remarkably adult new album is a reassuringly adolescent swipe at Glenn Frey called “My Thanksgiving.”
And as for that new record, Inside Job, I was afraid that I wouldn‘t like it either, that I’ve become too jaded to enjoy Henley‘s excruciating sincerity. So I felt obligated to tell him upfront that I was hoping it would sound like Sweetheart of the Rodeo (to which he replied, “Oh, brother, this is 2000, you know!”). I also told him I was upset that he only drums on a couple of tracks and that the embarrassingly ’80s (or is it ‘90s?) slap-snare sounds ruin, for example, the righteous Stevie Wonder clavinet in “Nobody Else in the World but You” (to which he replied, ever so politely, “Personally, I think a lot of the drum sounds on those Eagles records were shitty, but you’re entitled to your opinion”). Nevertheless, after listening to Inside Job some more, I‘ve fallen back in love. In particular, the subtler, softer numbers are all better than the ballads from the last record, especially “Damn It, Rose,” which tempers its jabs at Generation Y with humility and candor: “We’re being treated to the wisdomof some puffed-up little fartdoing exactly what I used to dopretensions to anarchy and to art.”
It may be hard to believe, but Henley, who was born in Linden, Texas, three hours down the road from Dallas, was once a young, struggling musician. Before he lived on Easy Street, his life was more like Easy Rider. “My original band, Shiloh, did the whole bar band circuit in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma for seven years. A lot of times the audiences were drunk and violent — I am reminded of the chicken-wire scene in the Blues Brothers movie! And then we struggled in California for a year, playing clubs in the Valley and Hermosa Beach and not really getting anywhere.”
After Shiloh cut a record with Kenny Rogers that didn‘t exactly hit the top of the pops, Henley found himself in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, playing anywhere from Disneyland to Terminal Island. Out of that experience the Eagles were formed, as Glenn Frey and the two other original band members, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, had all played with Ronstadt. And even though the Eagles sold records from the get-go, they too paid their dues on the road, opening in frayed jeans for costumed headliners like Jethro Tull. Nor did they make matters any easier for themselves when they opened for Tull at Madison Square Garden and riled up the already not-very-amused fans by using the occasion to talk shit about the New York Dolls, thus earning them the everlasting enmity of the (real or imagined) East Coast rock critic establishment.
By the time the Eagles broke up they were so successful and yet so out of style that even — or rather especially — their own label didn‘t feel sorry for them.
“I had to prove myself again,” Henley says. “The only place I could get a record deal was where I was already signed. And they had serious doubts. It was like, ’Oh no, another supergroup breaking up, and all the individual members think they‘re going to be rock stars.’ So they marketed my record accordingly. It was tough.”
Luckily for Henley, he was and still is — if nothing else — old-school. “That‘s what people, and journalists in particular, tend to pass over: that we worked like hell to get where we got. Perseverence has a great deal to do with it.”
And still does. After all, it’s been 11 years since his last solo record, so Henley is in some ways back at square one. While the rest of the Eagles seem only capable of cashing in, Henley is, as he puts it, “clawing my way back up the ladder, particularly in terms of concert performances. We‘re playing modest-size venues, but that’s all right. The smaller the audience, the harder I try.”
Of course, this is still Don Henley I‘m asking you to shed a tear for — you know, the legendary lothario who, as he admits, “used to do so much fuckin’ blow that my heart was about to come out of my chest, I couldn‘t breathe and my hands would get numb,” not just a guy who calls cocaine “blow,” but a guy who has money to burn and yet has the gall to write diatribes about guys with money to burn.
Well, yes and no. He’s still Henley, all right (the best rocker on his new LP is the welcome-back-to-the–Hotel Californication sequel about his bouts with temptation, “Miss Ghost”). Then again, it‘s not as if the title of another new song, “Everything Is Different Now,” is simply all talk that he fails to walk. For one thing, he’s been married for five years, has moved away from L.A. back to Dallas and has three kids. In addition, he‘s given up drinking and smoking, not to mention drugs. “There’s always been a certain amount of swagger connected with rock & roll,” he says. “You‘re supposed to be a badass, a rebel living on the edge, and some people believe in that so fervently it kills them. I get scared when I think how easily I could’ve died. So, when I turned 50, I decided it was time to just stop. A lot of this album deals with my struggle to, uh, become a man.”
Most surprising of all, however, Henley grapples with the contradiction of a socialite singing social protests by putting his money, time and effort where his big mouth is (sources close to the artist insist that he‘s given away more than half of everything he’s ever earned to charitable causes, primarily land conservation). His crusade to save Walden Woods, the idyllic wilderness that inspired Thoreau, is a truly commendable feat that involved hitting up music-biz acquaintances, staging benefit concerts and walkathons and, for goodness‘ sake, even editing a book with former nemesis Dave Marsh — all in an eventually successful effort to buffalo real estate satan Mort Zuckerman out of erecting an office park on the hallowed grounds.
“Mort Zuckerman was just a bump in the road,” Henley deadpans. “I still have to raise $15 million to endow the Walden Institute so that it can be self-sustaining after I’m gone.”
And while it might seem safe to assume that Henley could come up with an (un)cool 15 million by agreeing to make another Eagles LP, complete with tour receipts and T-shirt sales, don‘t hold your breath. “I can’t tell you everything I really know and really think, ‘cause whatever chance there is would be dashed if I spoke my mind. I’m sure that may be disappointing to some — and cause for jubilance in others! Either way, I don‘t care.”