Leaving the Eagles is like leaving the Mob: once you're gone, that's it. There's no coming back. There are no second chances. There's no reunion concert. There's not even a guest appearance at a single gig. "They came to Los Angeles for a show a few years ago and I asked if I could sit in," former bassist Randy Meisner told Rolling Stone in 2008. "I didn't get much response. I thought it would be nice to sit in with [current bassist] Timothy B. Schmit and sing 'Take It to the Limit,' but they pretty much gave me a 'no' in a round-about way. I can't blame them. They have to keep their band the way it is."
The Eagles broke their "no former members" policy for a single night when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in early 1998. For the only time in history, all seven Eagles took the stage. They performed "Take It Easy" and "Hotel California." "We said, 'We used to do this with four people, so surely we can do this with seven,'" says founding guitarist Bernie Leadon. "It just meant that someone was doubling someone else's part."
Leadon was the first Eagle to quit. He lasted four-and-a-half years, but by 1975, he was burned out. "I just wanted some time to regroup," Leadon told Rolling Stone in 2008. "I suggested we take some time off. They weren't excited about that idea." Things came to a boil during a backstage argument when Leadon poured a beer over Glenn Frey's head. Soon afterward, he went packing and Joe Walsh took his place. "I don't regret any of it," he says. "It was a great time in my life, but everything since then has been great, too. What's funny is that a year after I left they did wind up taking a long break."
Eagles books often say that Leadon was unhappy that the band was moving away from their country-rock sound, but he disputes that notion. "That's an oversimplification," he says. "It implies that I had no interest in rock or blues or anything but country-rock. That's just not the case. I didn't just play Fender Telecaster. I played a Gibson Les Paul and I enjoyed rock & roll. That's evident from the early albums."
Next out was bassist Randy Meisner. His high vocals were a huge part of the group's signature sound, and he sang lead on their 1975 hit "Take It to the Limit," but the pressure proved to be too much. "I was always kind of shy," he said. "They wanted me to stand in the middle of the stage to sing 'Take It to the Limit,' but I liked to be out of the spotlight. One night in Knoxville, I stayed up late and got the flu. We did two or three encores and Glenn wanted another one. I told them I couldn't do it, and we got into a spat. That was the end. . . I really felt like I was a member of the group, not a part of it. The whole thing started to end when we started taking separate limos."
The group's lineup stayed steady from 1978 through 2001, when they fired guitarist Don Felder. He grew weary of being treated like an employee, and the fact that Don Henley and Glenn Frey made more money from the tours than he did made him insane. "I withstood the abuse until I could no longer tolerate it, and stood up for myself," Felder told Rolling Stone in 2008. "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. . . I find it ironic that a band with a name that stands for freedom in America is ruled with iron fists. 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."
Randy Meisner doesn't share Felder's bitterness. "You're wasting your time thinking about that stuff," he said. "I got a great business manager. When he invests, you make money. I got my house paid off, my wife, two little chihuahuas and tomato plants that are five feet high right now. I'm happy as a clam."
Bernie Leadon has a similar attitude. "When my son was around 12, he asked me if I regretted leaving the band," he says. "I told him if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have met his mother, and he wouldn't exist. And I wouldn't trade him for anything. I have a lot to be grateful for. Also, when those early albums sell, I still make money. The first Greatest Hits album goes platinum every single year. I get royalties just like it was a new album. In a way, I'm still part of a band that goes platinum every year."
The Eagles are plotting a 40th anniversary tour for sometime in the near future. Rolling Stone spoke with Glenn Frey last year and asked about the possibility of letting the former members join them for any part of the tour. "I don't know," he said. "I don't want to say; that's hard for me to envision right now. I don't know yet." To put it another way, don't hold your breath.