How the kings of Seventies California rock stopped feuding, recorded their first album in 30 years and landed at the top of the charts
TWO HOURS BEFORE SHOWTIME AT THE O2, 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 antiwar 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?
"I'm still accused of perfectionism. There's no such thing as perfection. But I do think it's a good idea to strive for excellence and have a vision and go for it. This album is very good, but it could have been better. But that thing called democracy reared its head again. And here we are. But that's OK. I stewed about it for a while. But I'm over it now."
IN AN ERA WHEN ALMOST NOBODY SELLS more than a few hundred thousand copies, Long Road Out of Eden has sold 3.1 million in the United States and another 3 million elsewhere. Irving Azoff, the Eagles' manager for four decades, figured out that the band was an established brand with an established audience with a habit of buying albums, not downloading. The Eagles therefore had no need of a record label's starmaking machinery. He cut a deal directly with Wal-Mart to sell the double album for $11.88 – less than a normal first-run single CD – while the Eagles collected twice the normal royalty (four dollars). Other chain stores simply bought their albums at Wal-Mart and marked them up a few bucks. Everyone made more money, except the record companies, who were cut out. Long Road came out the first week in November 2007, by coincidence, the same week as Blackout by Britney Spears, and outsold Spears by sevenfold.
"Whatever you might think, the money is secondary to the Eagles," says Azoff. "They're going to cash the checks, but they don't sit around at night plotting to go with Wal-Mart because we're getting more money. It's great to see the record business relegated to the back seat. We make more money for 45 minutes of one show in Kansas City than our entire iTunes royalty."
Thus are the Eagles, the biggest band in the world when the record business was at its pinnacle in the Seventies, risen again as one of the biggest-selling bands in the world right now with the record business at its nadir. As a colossus, they bestride the land, playing in the biggest halls, selling $175 tickets to hordes of Middle Americans who would never pay that kind of moola in the age of foreclosure to hear rhythmic declamations over a drum machine, orgasmic melisma, morbid snarling or other forms of contemporary vocalization.
"They had such amazing harmonies that I always saw them as taking over from the Beach Boys as the great California band," says Billy Joel. "You could even argue that they were the American Beatles, with that dual songwriting team of Frey and Henley, and all those state-of-the-art hit records. I have to say, though, I've always thought that singing drummers look weird."
The Eagles have addressed that drawback with an elaborate new stage, humongous video screens with outer rings that connote the Hollywood Bowl and the planet Saturn, and nine backup musicians, all of which provide considerable visual distraction if you don't want to look at the singing drummer twist his neck to the microphone while pounding out his fills.
The Eagles have had many detractors, of course. Gram Parsons, the martyred god of country rock, called their music "a plastic dry-fuck," and the punks of the late Seventies viewed them as the anti-Rotten. Given their natural pugnacity, Frey and Henley probably would have been punks themselves if they had been born half a generation later. As it was, the four original Eagles (Frey on rhythm guitar, Henley on drums, Bernie Leadon on lead guitar, Randy Meisner on bass) would walk onstage wearing jeans and T-shirts, reproduce their records with note-for-note perfection, and that was it. They were defiantly nontheatrical, barely even speaking except for Frey announcing, "Hello, we're the Eagles from Los Angeles, California." And their audience defiantly didn't care. They wanted to listen, and then they bought albums by the boatload.
The Eagles thrashed around some in search of identity, so it wasn't all perfection all the time in their recorded work. But their first four albums (Eagles, Desperado, On the Border, One of These Nights) included two or three miracle tracks apiece that told precisely worded short stories with precisely harmonized hooks – it was as if the Everly Brothers had gone back to school for their Ph.D. When the Eagles took a bit longer recording their fifth album than quarterly profit reports demanded, Elektra/Asylum Records released Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 in February 1976 with all the miracle tracks. It sold 29 million copies in the United States and more than 40 million worldwide.
In December 1976, the Eagles finally released Hotel California, which showed the band furthering its shift from Glenn Frey-as-Jack Kerouac (celebrating freedom and mobility) to Don Henley-as-the-prophet-Jeremiah (deploring the transmogrification of the American Dream into something monstrous and diseased). It was their masterpiece, selling 16 million copies.
I went on the road with the Eagles to report a feature for this magazine in the summer of 1978. They were playing stadiums, and the first three notes of every song inspired recognition ecstasy in the crowd. The Third Encore – the Eagles' term for the hotel suite where they held their post-concert party – was in overdrive, and Frey seemed to take particular pride in orchestrating "the decadence festival," as he termed it. Eating antacids like popcorn to calm his ulcerated digestive tract, Henley vibrated with existential dread over the band's success, his father's death from a stress-related heart attack, and massive unrelenting deadline pressure: "Every minute I'm awake, even when I'm asleep, I'm worried about the next album and what's going to be written on it and how it's going to do and how it's going to be accepted and how my peers are going to react and how we're going to make it better than the last one," Henley told me.
Record companies at that time believed that any successful act had a run of three to seven years, after which came the inevitable fast lane to zilch. Elektra/Asylum had a contract and were squeezing their supposedly aged goose hard for more multiplatinum eggs, even though the Eagles were exhausted from touring. At Bayshore Recording Studio in Miami, the band was constantly brain-tweaking – a little of this to get the energy up, a little of that to take the edge off – and heroically hellbent on sacrificing everything for one more good album.
One day, the Eagles rented a gigantic bass drum, maybe seven or eight feet in diameter, so that Henley could reinforce the shuffle rhythm of "Heartache Tonight," which needed to rollick more in its anomalous celebration of romantic disaster. Henley's back had gone out, and he was lying flat on the floor under the drum, which was propped on two chairs in a side room to the studio. For days he whacked that thing with a mallet from early afternoon until after midnight. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Then he'd play it back. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Then he'd do it again. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! I remember thinking he was going to whack that drum until he felt justified in his success and the guilt dispersed.
"Oh, yeah, it was like getting hit by Lennox Lewis all day long," recalls Frey, sitting on the couch with his feet propped on a coffee table in his hotel suite. "That will just beat you up. That's just the way we were back then. Digital editing saved us from a lot of the microscopic insanity on the new album. And we worked at different studios, one at Don's house in Malibu, and I have one in West L.A. We'd just e-mail each other our files at the end of the day, so everybody didn't have to endure it when somebody needed to add a tambourine track. We absolutely would not have finished this album if we hadn't worked in different studios. But we're not that different from 1979. The core of everyone's personality is the same. What we figured out is how to accept each other for who we are and work from there. And we have a certain clarity now. Nobody's mind is muddled by drugs and alcohol. We don't internalize our disagreements anymore. We can talk. In the late Seventies, when some outrage occurred, the tendency was to take your road manager and two best friends outside the band, go someplace and get high and talk about 'Jesus! Can you believe what that guy just said!??!' "
Frey laughs his explosive, contagious Glenn Frey laugh. I remember him doing hilarious Henley imitations 30 years ago, almost strangling himself in character as Don trying to tell someone else his song didn't work.
"I can still do a good Henley imitation if called upon," says Frey. "It starts with the raising of one eyebrow."
Frey indeed raises one eyebrow, tilts his head forward and glares with steel-eyed skepticism, nailing the Henley-est of all facial expressions.
"It's one thing to be on tour," Frey continues. "You just have to show up on time for the gig, and then you can go your separate ways. But making a record is different. It's never easy telling someone you don't like a song they're writing. It requires trust. We did a pretty good job of hanging in there on this album."
There is something coiled about Frey's energy, and people in his vicinity are always grateful when he doesn't uncoil in their direction. It's anomalous, because he's the guy with the smooth Motown croon, while Henley rips the skin off clichés and renders righteous judgment with his gritty Stax tenor.
"Glenn was always on the move," recalls Bob Seger, his friend since they were teenagers in Detroit. "We were good friends, but we were in a band together only about two weeks. Glenn was like that, jumping from band to band, always looking for the right combination."
Frey had to move to Los Angeles to find that perfect combination, assembling the original Eagles by hijacking Linda Ronstadt's backup band and drafting Henley as co-conspirator in all political and artistic maneuvers. They also fought a lot but shared a monomaniacal dedication to their music, with Henley emerging as the lyricist and Frey (nicknamed the Lone Arranger) as the guy who put all the chords where they belonged. What makes Frey rare among alpha musicians is that he was able to give his bandmate the space to grow. Henley the alpha introvert complemented Frey the alpha extrovert. A lot of bandleaders in Frey's position would have just said, "I write the good songs. You shut up."
"I'm proud to work with the guy," Frey says. "We don't see eye to eye on everything, but that's OK. He's the one who had to sacrifice for us to finish the album, spending a lot of time away from his family in Dallas. It was when he really decided to commit to the album that the rest of us got excited about it too. Don has an incredible ability to get a message across and be entertaining at the same time. That's such an important component of the band. You can't just go tadummm – 'We're all going to hell in a Hummer' – tadummm. Not being contrived like that is what sets us apart. Without Don, we'd just be love songs and harmonies. We'd be Air Supply."
Frey again uncoils with his explosive laugh. "I'll tell you what's changed. Don and I joke all the time now that the Eagles are recreation. Our real job is being husbands and fathers [three kids apiece], and that's the job that's most demanding and most rewarding. I said to the guys a couple of weeks ago, 'I used to really loathe rehearsing. I just wanted to be elsewhere. But now elsewhere is so tough sometimes that coming to rehearsal is a joy. I'm so glad to see you guys. How about a Diet Coke? Is life great or what? I think I'll buy a new guitar today.' So here we are. Still the same. And completely different."
TOWARD THE END OF AUGUST 1979, THE Eagles told me that The Long Run was complete, so I flew to Miami for a listening party at the studio. Then I sat there for a week while the Eagles completed it some more. Henley, Frey and producer Bill Szymczyk hassled all night about the length of silence between songs while their friends in the lounge went mad with boredom. When they finally played the album at 5:46 a.m. the next day, I so wanted it to be a masterpiece that I couldn't hear that it wasn't. In retrospect, it was only pretty good. It wasn't inspired, and there was no amount of hard work that could make it inspired. The Long Run was the least of their six original albums. The Eagles were burned out.
I went back to New York and wrote a long cover story that appeared in ROLLING STONE's November 29th, 1979, issue. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from Henley questioning my editorial judgment on the theory that I had written too much about stress-related indigestion. I don't know. Maybe I did. We didn't talk for 28 years. In any case, I wasn't surprised that the Eagles broke up in the summer of 1980, almost coming to blows after a benefit concert for Sen. Alan Cranston. Henley vowed that they would reunite when hell froze over. And Frey was quoted saying things like "No one can suck the fun out of a room faster than Don Henley."
During the 14 years the Eagles were broken up, Henley had three solo albums all of which sold almost at Eagles levels, and he contributed one of the great songs of the Eighties, "The Boys of Summer." Frey divided his time between acting and four solo albums of original music that were insistently about having a good time. Both Henley and Frey got into contract disputes with their record companies. In the meantime, the other Eagles twiddled their thumbs.
WHEN MY SON BEN WAS 13, HE would complain to me about the musicians in his first band," says Timothy B. Schmit, who plays bass and usually sings the fifth over Henley's third when Frey is singing lead. "I said, 'Welcome to the club. This is what it's always going to be like.' " He replaced Randy Meisner in Poco in 1970 and replaced him again in 1977 when Meisner quit the Eagles. "I've been in two bands since I was 21, and both of them were always on the verge of breaking up," says Schmit. "All groups have people who run the show. My strategy was not to create any waves. I just did what I was supposed to do and had a good time doing it."
The first Eagle to discover the joy of monogamy (he's been with his wife, Jean, for 30 years), Schmit looks about two-thirds of his 60 years. "What we used to do in this band is inconceivable to me now," he says. Nicknamed "Woodstock" by Frey when he joined the band, Schmit is now half-hippie, half-U.N. ambassador in his laid-back demeanor and judicious choice of words.
"I would scratch my head and ask, 'Why can't everyone just see the light? Look at the Stones. Mick and Keith don't get along, but they work together. Why can't we do that?' " says Schmit of his time in exile. "I was humbled in my lifestyle. I lost my house in the Hollywood Hills. I sang backup on everyone's record, bands like Poison and Twisted Sister. I went on the road with Toto and Jimmy Buffett. I just whored myself out. To call it hard times would be an overstatement, but I was living like a normal person, and I wasn't happy about it. Then I thought, 'You know what? You have a beautiful family. You love being a parent. You have a roof over your head. Knock it off.' And as soon as I made peace with my situation, the Eagles got back together. And as soon as I could after that, I got out of that horrible rented house."
Don Felder, by contrast, chose not to keep his head down. Joining the Eagles in 1974, he always wanted more of a say and more influence. By all accounts, he was an ace guitarist, and wrote the music for "Hotel California." When they fired him in 2001, he decided to write a book about his experience – Heaven and Hell: My Life as an Eagle (1974-2001).
"I find it ironic that a band with a name that stands for freedom in America is ruled with iron fists," Felder says. "When you can't even have fun onstage without being accused of pulling focus, it's time to question why you're there. I wasn't willing to do it for the money."
Felder's book fills in a lot of detail about a band that has never courted celebrity. At the same time, it is a revenge book, and it's hard to tell what his beef is. He made a fortune in the band, he made another undisclosed but undoubtedly huge amount of money when he sued them after getting fired and he partook fully in the "barrage of pussy" that was life on the road. He says he was shocked when the band broke up after six years of horrendous squabbles between him and "the Gods," as he called Henley and Frey.
"I withstood the abuse until I could no longer tolerate it, and stood up for myself," says Felder. "Now I feel a huge weight off my shoulders. You know, I admire a band like U2 who share a brotherly love and, despite the money, still care about the music. That was never the case, and never will be, with the Eagles."
SAM MOORE, ONE HALF OF THE IMMORTAL Sam and Dave, and proud member of the Recording Artists' Coalition, first sang with Henley in 1982 on "You're Not Drinking Enough," from Henley's second solo album, Building the Perfect Beast. They sang together again in 1995, reprising "Hold On! I'm A Comin' " in Newport, Rhode Island, at a benefit for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which gives financial aid to old R&B musicians.
"Don come up onstage, and he's singin', and I'm lookin' down, and he's lookin' at me lookin' down," Moore says. "And I wanna say to him, 'YOU GOT BIRD SHIT ON YO' SHOES! YOU ONSTAGE! AND YOU WEARIN' THESE STINKIN' WORKMAN BOOTS!!!' That man got soul, though, walkin' around in them bird-shit boots. I'll tell you who my favorite people are to sing with in the whole world: Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen. Don is not only a great talent and a great friend, he believes in doing the right thing for artists."
"It wasn't bird shit, it was white paint," says Henley, wearing sneakers for a ride on the stationary bike in his dressing room. "I was wearing those boots when I painted the fence at my place in Colorado in 1982. I've been playing music in those boots for 30 years. They're indestructible Red Wing work boots, and they've been around the world several times. The white paint is still on them. I bought them on July 7th of 1977, on the fifth anniversary of my dad's passing. He had a similar pair, and he used to plow in them behind a mule. I wear them in honor of him and to remember where I came from."
Originally from Linden, Texas, where his father owned an auto-parts store, Henley now divides his time between Malibu and Dallas. He spends most of his days in Dallas, where he likes to fix breakfast and drive his kids to school. His least favorite activity is giving depositions whenever Felder wants to sue the Eagles.
"At some point, Mr. Felder decided that Glenn and I shouldn't be the ones running the band," says Henley. "Mr. Felder was agitated about financial matters, and rather than talking to me or Glenn, he would try the divide-and-conquer ploy, calling Timothy and Joe and trying to enlist them against Glenn and me. The daily business of touring and recording is hard enough without all the personal drama. We got tired of it. It was killing the creativity. Glenn decided that we had to make a change, and I agreed. Let's be honest: A band cannot be a democracy. It doesn't work. Just like the United States is not really a democracy. It's a facade. All the great bands in history had one or two people at the helm."
Whatever the truth about internal dynamics – every band and every marriage is ultimately a mystery – it is clear that the Eagles recorded very little between 1979 and 2007. Getting rid of Felder seems to have been the key. "The guy wasn't bringing anything to the party," says Henley. "He showed up on time, and he played his instrument well, but in terms of creativity, nothing was happening. He was making a lot of money, and he couldn't leave it alone. He was obsessed with power."
Whereas Henley and Frey have made their conflicts work. "We can use it to propel ourselves forward, although we can't do it that way all the time," Henley says. "It'll consume you. But at the end of the day we're brothers in arms. And I have lots of songs and projects I want to finish before this ride is over."
HAIR ASKEW, AS IT IS ALWAYS ASKEW, but otherwise resplendent in a dark suit and tie, Joe Walsh settles down over a plate of waffles back at the hotel in London. "I'm a Buddhist, really," he says. "But Westminster Abbey is the Vatican of the Churchof England. I figure, I'm here, shit, it's Easter Sunday, that's the big party, I should just go there. I sat on top of Sir Isaac Newton. It's amazing who you can sit on there."
Walsh joined the Eagles in 1976, a shocking development for fans of his work with the James Gang and as a solo artist, where he came up with many of the most enduring riffs in hard rock. The idea was that he would turn the Eagles into an American Led Zeppelin. He delivered the killer riff in "Life in the Fast Lane," and then blended in with the Eagles' country-soul-rock amalgam.
"I'm an Eagles guy first," says Walsh. "I was just glad Don and Glenn could create together again. Not having recorded for such a long time, we discovered that the world had changed. Much to our amazement, the huge record-company moguls went away. Whoever thought that would happen? When all those record companies monopolized everything, you couldn't release a record without signing your life away to those crooks. Now the moguls are history. A whole new generation took over, and we asked ourselves, 'Should we change with the times?'We wrote accordingly, and it didn't work. 'Cause it wasn't us. And we all had grown-up responsibilities and shit I don't like very much. Very distracting, all this reality. So we came back to the idea that our only chance is to make an Eagles record like we know how, and it'll float or it won't, but we can't change with the times."
What's the difference between Don and Glenn? "Glenn is ultimately a guy from Detroit. He and I bond there, going back to the old Grande Ballroom days. Don is very methodical. It can be maddening to work with him, but that's an observation, not a judgment. You have to have a lot of patience. I love him like a brother, but a really bad thing happened to the Eagles: Somebody went and invented Pro Tools. Digital editing. So now we can REPLACE EVERY NOTE! And so WE DO! We can replace the space in between notes where there's NO MUSIC! And so WE DO! We can replace the commas BETWEEN THE WORDS! And so WE DO! Why? Because WE CAN!"
Walsh drops his forehead into his waffles. I ask about Henley's wish to have had another six months to record and then to have released a one-CD album. "No, we would have had a triple album," Walsh moans. "At least when we had a record company, there was always somebody saying, 'You're done! We're going to put it out! You spent your advance!' When you signed a contract back then, you gave away your power to say no. But now we don't have mean guys telling us we're done, and this band works best with tension among ourselves. That makes us all show up artistically. So when Wal-Mart said, 'You have to deliver now,' that was the best thing that could have happened. Songs started to get done. Words that were taking six months, suddenly, 'Words! I got words! Let's sing it!' Glenn and Don went at it like the old days, pacing around with legal pads. One more Eagles album with the Henley and Frey team – they pulled it off. If we don't do anything more, that's a good final paragraph to the story."
"You know what? It's Glenn's band. He decides shit with Don. I joined their band. They call the shots, that was the agreement when I came in, and it's the way it always will be. It's best when the four of us are all nodding yeah, or it's three against one, and the one guy is saying, 'Well, ya know.' But ultimately it's Glenn and Don's band. It's a democracy with two dictators."