The last things you’d expect to learn from a Billy Joel/Don Henley chat summit include the search for meaning in washing dishes to the secret life of Lawrence Welk. Yet these were only a few of the surprises that came up in their conversation, aired live online from New York City’s 92nd Street Y on Sunday night, September 20th.
Their meeting kicked off a monumental week for Henley, who will release his first-ever solo country album, Cass County, on Friday, September 25th. The project brings the legend’s career full circle, as he revisits his Texas roots and the music that he insists represents “who I am.”
Each iconic artist had plenty to share in their two-hour dialogue, including revelations even their biggest fans likely didn’t know. Here are 10 things we learned while listening to the Eagle in the Piano Man’s hotseat.
1. Billy Joel is not Howard Stern.
He’s played stadium concerts, won countless awards, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. . . but one thing Joel had never done before, he told the audience right at the top of the show, was conduct an interview. In fact, he reminded viewers repeatedly that he was walking on unfamiliar ground by sitting on the other side of the microphone. Still, he assured Henley this was probably a good thing because, “I’m not Howard Stern,” meaning questions about losing his virginity were unlikely.
2. Don Henley started off as a Dixieland drummer.
If history had had its way, Henley might have spent his career laying down traditional jazz beats for a bunch of horn players in straw boaters and striped shirts. Back in middle school, he played his first gigs with a Dixieland band, not singing a note but rather playing drums. “We had a kid who was all-stage champion trumpet player,” he recalled. “So we also did Bert Kaempfert and Herb Alpert songs.” This went on for seven or eight years, until the British invasion derailed the group: “It took the Beatles to make us say, ‘Gosh, we should start singing.'”
3. An attractive sales clerk can take some of the credit for the Eagles’ success.
It’s no secret that Kenny Rogers brought Henley’s band, Shiloh, from Texas to Los Angeles, where one thing led to another and the Eagles eventually took flight. But how did Rogers and Henley cross paths in the first place? It was fate and maybe a dash of testosterone. “We were at a clothing boutique in Dallas, buying bell-bottoms and Nehru jackets,” Henley explained. “Then Kenny came in because he was interested in this gorgeous girl who was working there. One of the bolder members of my band went over, introduced himself and invited him to come and hear us play that night. And he did.”
4. Lawrence Welk had a thing for nuns.
Henley insists it’s true, having seen the “Champagne Music” maestro behind the scenes one unforgettable night. “My parents took me to a Lawrence Welk concert in Shreveport when I was seven or eight years old,” he said. “Somehow I snuck backstage. I looked around, and there was Lawrence Welk — and he had groupies! They were nuns in full habit. He was walking around with one on each arm. So I went, ‘Wow. OK, so that’s what it’s all about.'”
5. Joel harbors a secret passion for steel guitars.
When the conversation turned to steel guitars, Joel and Henley agreed that it is likely the most difficult instrument one could possibly play. “Everything is bending all the time when you play it,” Henley noted, illustrating how the instrument’s pedals and knee levers constantly alter the pitch of its 10 strings. Then Joel admitted that he had snuck a little steel into “Piano Man” and “Streetlife Serenade,” both parts played by Tom Whitehorse. Listen carefully — it’s there, just enough to sweeten the sound without going all Grand Ole Opry.
6. Boxes can be bad.
In comparing the era of free-form FM radio with today’s micro-formatted online and terrestrial channels, Henley lamented that “we tend in this country to put music into little boxes,” which created “a great quandary when I presented this album to the record company. Their concern was that iTunes didn’t have an Americana category.”
7. Boxes can be good.
A while later, Henley revealed that boxes are a critical element in his creative process. “I wrote things down on random bits of paper and put them in a cardboard box,” he revealed. “When the time comes to write the album, I go and get the box.”
8. Henley would redo “Desperado” if he could.
A good portion of the 92Y audience gasped when Henley said that his greatest regret was the lead vocal he laid down on “Desperado.” “We recorded that in London with the London Symphony Orchestra in a cavernous studio,” he explained. “I was terrified. The musicians in the orchestra were bored shitless. They had brought chess boards with them. Each pair of players would set up a chessboard between them, and when we weren’t doing any takes, they would play. Once in a while I would hear a remark from the back [faking a British accent], ‘You know, I don’t feel like a desperado.'” He also recounted how producer Glyn Johns limited the Eagles to just four or five takes and then refused their pleas to allow any more. “Glyn Johns is still a friend of mine. . . I think,” Henley concluded.
9. Doing dishes can trigger epiphanies.
Henley and Joel agreed that everyday distractions can subvert the creative process. But Henley has found a way to set all that aside. “You do a simple task,” he said. “I’ve written some of my best stuff while unloading the dishwasher because you’re distracted — and yet you’re not. I’ve read Zen masters talking about the same thing.” Plus, of course, you get brownie points with your wife.
10. For a good time, call Don Henley.
Henley spent ample time thanking Joel for the support he has shown to Walden Woods Project, the charitable organization that the Eagle launched in 1990 to preserve the land and spirit that inspired Henry David Thoreau’s musings nearly 200 years ago. Joel replied with his own appreciation, noting, “The last time you asked me to play the benefit, I met this girl at the show. . . and I really had a nice six months after that.” Quid pro quo.