The Eagles' second album was ambitiously thematic – an imagined Western that compared the rock & roll lifestyle of Seventies L.A. to the Wild West. Henley and Frey emerged as complex songwriters and gave the band's music a sense of epic possibility.
How did the idea for a concept album about outlaws develop?
As a 21st birthday present, our friend and fellow musician Ned Doheny had given Jackson Browne a big coffee-table-type book of photos of the famous outlaws of the Old West. Jackson showed the book to J.D. and Glenn and suggested that they all collaborate on a song about some of these outlaws. That first song was "Doolin-Dalton," about the famous outlaw gang comprised of Bill Doolin, Bill Dalton, Bob Dalton, Emmett Dalton, Bill Power, Dick Broadwell, George "Bittercreek" Newcomb and others. I think that Jackson came up with it, initially.
It's a somewhat complicated history. There were various gangs and the members were a rotating cast of characters.
What was the connection between the outlaws of the previous century and rock bands of that era?
Glenn always said that there were a number of connections, although in retrospect, I think that some of them were tenuous at best. The basic premise was that, like the outlaws, rock & roll bands lived outside the "laws of normality," we were not part of "conventional society." We all went from town to town, collecting money and women, the critical difference being that we didn't rob or kill anybody for what we got; we worked for it. Like the outlaws of old, we fought with one another, and occasionally with the law. But I think the overriding premise was that fame – or notoriety – is a fleeting thing. We were commenting on the ephemeral nature of success in the music business (and the outlaw business). We were attempting to presage our own demise. Problem is, we – or at least our body of work – lasted much, much longer than we would ever have suspected.
J.D. Souther told me that, in light of the first album producing three hits, Glenn wanted the second album to show the Eagles were a "serious" band. Did you feel the same way?
Having three hit singles on our very first album scared us a little bit. It's not as if we weren't grateful or excited about it. We were amazed, actually. But at the same time, we didn't want to become just another Top 40 hit machine. The second album from any artist is always a tricky proposition. It's a catch-22 – that is, it created a critical situation if you had hits on your first album, and it was also critical if you didn't. At that point, we experienced what is sometimes called the "sophomore freakout." So we did the counterintuitive thing – a concept album – or, as Glenn saw it, a "serious" album; art that came dangerously close to artifice. On the other hand, here in the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, the Desperado album yielded two of our most beloved staples: "Tequila Sunrise," which was Glenn's baby, and, of course, the title song, "Desperado," although that song didn't get much attention until Linda Ronstadt recorded it.
How much of the album was sketched out when the band and Glyn Johns began recording? Were the songs written and sequenced already to tell the story?
Very little. I think we may have had the title song completed and we had "Outlaw Man," which was a David Blue composition, but we made a lot of the album up as we went along. There was tremendous pressure on us, but I think we got the whole thing done in about three or four weeks. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that we were in London in February. I remember going out into the street to get some fresh air and calm my nerves, but it was freezing out there. I sang the lead vocal to "Desperado" live in a huge studio (Island Studios) with the London Philharmonic, several of them being crotchety old farts who were pissed off because they were required to play some whole notes. Some of the violinists had actually brought chessboards with them, set them up between their chairs, and were playing chess between takes. Let's just say that they were not enamored with the lore of the American West, at least not in the form of pop balladry. They were bored shitless, and I was scared stiff. I had never sung in front of a large orchestra before, and I was only given about four or five takes to get it right. (I still wince whenever I hear that 1973 vocal on the radio.) My friend and former bandmate, Jim Ed Norman, who had written the string charts, was conducting the orchestra. He was nervous, too, I think, but he didn't let it show. He somehow conjured up an air of authority, and the players responded to him. They were, after all, getting paid.
What instructions did you give to Bernie and Randy in terms of their writing contributions to the album and the story?
I don't recall, exactly, but I think that Glenn showed them the book of outlaw photos and explained the general premise of what we were going for. We already had a good chunk of "Doolin-Dalton" written and also, I think, we had the song "Desperado," so those were the centerpieces, the anchors around which the rest of the album was built. Everybody in the band understood it and got into it. Randy came up with "Certain Kind of Fool," which captures the boredom, the longing and restlessness of young men in the waning days of the western frontier (and in subsequent times). Bernie came up with the song "Twenty-One," which was the age of Emmett Dalton, the baby of the lot, when the gang raided the town of Coffeyville, Kansas, in October of 1892. Emmett received 23 gunshot wounds and survived. Bullets hit his right arm, below the shoulder, his left – right, in some accounts – hip and groin, and he took 18 to 23 buckshot in his back. He was given a life sentence in the Kansas penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, of which he served 14 years before being pardoned. He moved to California and became a real estate agent, author and actor, and died in 1937 at age 66.
What are the origins of the song "Desperado," and do you have any memories of writing it with Glenn?
In 1973, I'd moved into a little house way up at the top of Laurel Canyon –you had to go all the way up Kirkwood Drive, past John Boylan's house, make a hard left on Grand View Drive, then a hard right on Cole Crest Drive. It was one of those little houses that hung suspended off a steep hillside and was held up by stilts (vertical posts). When the Santa Ana winds would whip through the canyon, that house would sway, and it could be very unsettling. I was told that it was built to do that (but even then it remained spooky). I was also told by the owner of that house that Roger McGuinn, the leader of the Byrds, had formerly lived there, so the place had good vibes, even if it did have hideous orange shag carpet. Somewhere, somehow, I had found an old upright piano and moved it into that house. I had that piano and a bed and that was about all I had in there.
This is where Glenn and I had our first real writing session with just the two of us. He came over one afternoon, and although I was hesitant, I showed him a partially formed chord progression and a melody that I'd been carrying around with me since the late 1960s. Its style was largely based on the old songs of Stephen Foster, sometimes known as the Father of American Music, who wrote over 200 songs and was the subject of much controversy. Foster, who was born on July 4th, 1826, has been identified as "the most famous songwriter of the 19th century." His compositions are sometimes referred to as "childhood songs" because in the last century, they were often used in childhood education. I was introduced to these sentimental songs as a little boy by my grandmother, who lived with us. Born in 1875, she would sit in her rocking chair and sing them, day in and day out – such classics as "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home" (the official state song of Kentucky), "Old Folks at Home" (a.k.a. "Swanee River," the official state song of Florida) and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" – sappy stuff for sure, created by a man who ultimately led a tragic life. Stephen Foster died on January 13th, 1864, at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. He was 37 years old; he had 38 cents in his pocket.
But what blew my mind was that Glenn knew who Stephen Foster was. He immediately got it, understood intuitively what I was going for and proceeded to add structure, including some additional chords and lyrics, to a song fragment that had been lying dormant for years (much the same as he did with Jackson and "Take It Easy"). In the following years, I would learn that Glenn had an encyclopedic knowledge of the canon of American popular music – everything from the Great American Songbook through the Delta bluesmen, through jazz and folk and rockabilly, early rhythm and blues, Sixties soul, folk rock, country rock, modern R&B. He was, of course, a student of the music of Motown, but also the sounds of Memphis, Philadelphia and Muscle Shoals, Alabama (Glenn detoured there on the Ronstadt tour to record). He also knew the Nashville Sound and the Bakersfield Sound. I learned a lot from him and, I think, he from me.
Was there a moral to the story of the album, in your eyes?
If there was a moral to the story at all, it is that time and the law of averages – "the odds" – eventually catch up with everybody, especially if they're overreaching. What goes up must come down. The album was a commentary on consequences, on the thing that some call "karma." It's also a meditation on the repercussions of living an isolated existence that rejects the idea of community, a life devoid of love and compassion, hence the final lines of the song "Desperado."
Your label wasn't too thrilled when you turned in what they called a "cowboy album." What do you recall of that reaction, and how did the band feel about it?
A guy named Jerry Greenberg was, at that time, the president of Atlantic Records, which was the distributor of the label we were on (Asylum). When he heard the album, he reportedly put his head in his hands and exclaimed, "Jeez, they've made a fucking cowboy album!" The company was expecting us to give them more "hits" like "Take It Easy," "Witchy Woman" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling." In fact, the Desperado album was not a commercial or even a critical success, but it served its purpose by establishing us as a band that was willing to roll the dice, to take chances artistically, and not just play it safe and do the expected thing. I think that Neil Young had a lot of influence on us in that way, and Bob Dylan, too, because they were always doing the counterintuitive thing, taking the road less traveled.
What's your favorite memory of shooting that short film tied in with the album?
Just getting the chance to dress up in those period costumes and play cowboy – which was every Boomer boy's dream. We got to ride horses, shoot pistols (blanks, of course) and hang out on a historic old movie set, a stereotypical little Western town out in a canyon, west of L.A., where several famous Westerns were made. But, like the album, the film was also a metaphor for the transitory nature of fame (or notoriety): the ephemerality of success, callow youth, life. It was a commentary on our loss of innocence with regard to how the music business really worked. The harsh realities of "the Biz" had already made us cynical.