Eagles: Peaceful, Uneasy Feeling

How the Eagles, the kinds of Seventies California rock, stopped feuding, recorded their first album in 30 years and landed at the top of the charts

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1053 from May 29, 2008. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Two hours before showtime at the 02, London's state-of-the-art big venue for music, Don Henley is answering e-mail in his dressing room on a laptop and watching political talk shows from America on his other computer, which is hooked up to a large HD television screen. Sweating off an attack of bronchitis, he is wearing a fat woolen hat pulled down to his eyebrows, a long woolen trench coat, sweatpants and battered work boots. His face is pink. His steel-blue eyes pierce all surrounding objects with consternation. And he works his jaw while he thinks, as if checking the words for taste and texture before his tongue is permitted to present them to other humans.

"When you hear a song on the radio, the singer doesn't get a performance royalty unless the singer also wrote it or owns the publishing," Henley says between spoonfuls of tomato soup. Encyclopedic on everything from global warming to high school textbooks, he can deliver opinions like a volcano delivers lava. "The United States is the only country in the free world where the performer gets nothing. And consequently, other countries don't pay American artists a performance royalty for radio either. They say, 'We're paying our citizens who are artists but not you. Why should we treat you fairly when your own country won't?' Which they get away with because the National Association of Broadcasters is so powerful in Washington. The NAB says, 'We're making you famous.' What they forget to mention is that multibillion-dollar empires have been built on the content that artists provide free so those stations can sell advertising."

In 1979, I had a discussion with Don Henley and Glenn Frey, the alpha Eagles, about reforming the music business. Launched with certain propellants that were popular in that era, our opinions flew from 11:00 one night until 3:00 the next afternoon, and we swore an oath to force the record companies to stop pressing albums with crappy vinyl. What was the point of working so hard recording songs when the consumer was getting blasts of surface noise for his money?

"Well," Henley says now, wincing at the memory, "every man has his dream." I still have my notes from the predigital mists of yesteryear: at first on a legal pad and then on pages ripped from the Miami phone book. There are a lot of quotes floating around with no context (Frey: "I don't blame anyone! Success should be suspect in America!") and long lists of artists that the three of us vowed to contact. I even made a few phone calls after the propellants wore off, but my organizing went nowhere.

"You see?" Henley says. "People just don't wanna."

For Henley, though, the dream never died. In 2000, furious that the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for record companies, tried to sneak language into a congressional bill that would have prevented musicians from ever reclaiming their master recordings, he co-organized the Recording Artists' Coalition to lobby for the rights of musicians.

"All these laws get passed that affect how musicians get paid," he says. "But musicians for the most part don't want to deal with it. They're so independent that they don't want to join anything. Frank Sinatra tried to organize musicians into a trade group back in the Sixties, but he finally threw up his hands and said the hell with it. Now I understand why. It's like herding cats."

Having raised vast sums for progressive candidates and causes over the decades, Henley despairs over current politics, but he has managed to find at least one strange bedfellow: "I have a lot of respect for John McCain. I've met with him on various issues and testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that he chaired. He was very fair. I like the fact that he doesn't always go along with the extreme right wing of his party."

Which does sound strange, coming from the guy who co-wrote "Long Road Out of Eden," a 10-minute excoriation of imperialism from Julius Caesar to George W. Bush that is also highly listenable, a rare feat in the body of anti-war music inspired by Iraq.

"I didn't say I was going to vote for him," says Henley. "I just respect him as a human being."

Another rare feat of the Eagles' is that the four of them — Henley, Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit — are all around 60, and they're still making vital, culturally resonant, new music that sounds just like the Eagles. Yes, the Eagles. One of rock's most contentiously dysfunctional families — who had been on and off the road playing their old hits since reuniting in 1994 — finally sat down and recorded new stuff. Their latest album, Long Road Out of Eden, includes 20 tracks of closely observed love songs (Frey and Schmit), mocking introspection (Walsh) and biting political and social commentaries (Henley), all delivered with the Eagles' unmistakable harmonies amid widely varying instrumental textures and haunting melodies. It's their first album of original music since 1979, and they're touring for as long as they feel like it with a three-hour show that highlights almost half the new album. Maybe they're a "heritage" act by sheer force of chronology, but there aren't many other heritage acts who can so flagrantly defy the actuarial tables for creativity.

"The album would have been better if we'd taken another six months," says Henley. "There are some weak spots. I still think it should have been a single album. But I lost that one. There were four or five more songs that were good but not finished. But we wanted to get it out for Christmas. Again, the dictates of business. Either Christmas, or they'd have to wait for the summer or even next fall to put it out. We're not getting any younger, so we decided to let it go. But I wasn't done."

Twenty songs, and he wasn't done?

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From The Archives Issue 1053: May 29, 2008
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