Eagles' Complete Discography: Don Henley Looks Back - Rolling Stone
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Eagles’ Complete Discography: Don Henley Looks Back

Triumph, heartache and a little bit of peyote: The stories behind every studio album, in his own words

Don Henley, Don Henley Eagles, Eagles Discography, Don Henley interview

CIRCA 1976: (L-R) Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner of the rock band "Eagles" pose for a portrait in circa 1976. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Don Henley has always had a life outside of the Eagles. During his youth in Texas, where he also currently lives, he drummed and sang in the country-rock band Shiloh. During the Eagles' 1980-1994 sabbatical, he carved out his own career with forward-thinking hits like "The Boys of Summer" and "The End of the Innocence," and he connected with his roots on last year's Cass County, which mixed originals with covers of songs by the Louvin Brothers and more. His interests outside the band include his championing of the Walden Woods Project, dedicated to preserving the legendary Massachusetts piece of nature made famous by Henry David Thoreau. Yet Henley's work with the Eagles will remain his most well-known contribution to popular culture. The songs that he and Glenn Frey co-wrote have become part of the rock & roll canon, and the sandpaper intensity of Henley's voice injected drama and grit into even the band's most mellow moments. More than perhaps any other member of the Eagles, Henley made it clear that they were no mere "laid-back" Seventies act.

From the band's first rehearsals in 1971 to its recent History of the Eagles Tour, only two men – Henley and Frey – were along for the entire ride. For all the ups and downs, the blend of Frey's rock & roll friskiness and Henley's creative deliberation (and their shared drive, and love of R&B) proved to be the perfect balance. Early in 2016, Frey died at 67 of complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia, making Henley, now 68, the lone survivor of the band's start-to-probable-finish saga. Set against a backdrop of Frey's passing and the likely end of the band that he and Henley co-steered for decades, Henley typed out lengthy answers to questions about every Eagles studio album. Not surprisingly for someone who has long been considered one of rock's most pensive frontmen, Henley's responses were articulate, thoughtful and uncompromising.

Hotel California, 1975

‘Hotel California,’ 1976

Hotel California was a searing examination of the American dream that still managed to become one of the Seventies' biggest successes, selling over 16 million albums, thanks largely to its dreamlike title hit.

In terms of any song you wrote with the Eagles, which lyric are you most proud of and why?
I guess I'd have to say "Hotel California," although I feel it important to point out that Glenn contributed some very important lines to that set of lyrics. Those lyrics employ what Glenn used to call "the perfect ambiguity," and are open to a wide array of interpretations – and we've seen some doozies. But the song has somehow resonated all around the globe, even with people who live in countries with which our government does not have the best of relations; people whose first language is not English. On April 1st, 2001, a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. The pilot and his crew survived a crash landing at a military base in China and were taken into custody. While in captivity, some of the crew were reportedly questioned about "Hotel California." The song has traveled into space with astronauts. I was once visiting a remote village in a mountaintop jungle in Honduras – and when I say remote, I mean these people were living in the most primitive of conditions – no electricity, no plumbing; crude, makeshift shelters – when one of the villagers disappeared into a little hut and came out holding a beat-up old cassette player. He pointed to the cassette player, then pointed at me and said, "You." I later found out that the cassette in the player was "Hotel California." The song got around.

To clarify the timeline, was the title song the first track written for this album, and then everything followed after that, in terms of the theme?
As best I recall, that's more or less the way it went down.

What was your reaction when you heard that snippet of music on Felder's tape that became the basis for the melody? What did it conjure for you, musically or lyrically?
Felder had submitted a cassette tape containing about half a dozen different pieces of music. None of them moved me until I got to that one. It was a simple demo – a progression of arpeggiated guitar chords, along with some hornlike sustained note lines, all over a simple 4/4 drum-machine pattern. There may have been some Latin-style percussion in there, too. I think I was driving down Benedict Canyon Drive at night, or maybe even North Crescent Drive (adjacent to the Beverly Hills Hotel) the first time I heard the piece, and I remember thinking, "This has potential; I think we can make something interesting out of this."

I know there are a million theories about the lyrics for "Hotel California," but one I'd heard is that it refers to some degree to the Record Plant itself, with mirrors on the ceiling and so forth. Can you comment on that?
First time I've heard that one. The song has absolutely nothing to do with the Record Plant, except that portions of it were recorded there.

In the History of the Eagles doc, Glenn talked about the car ride that resulted in the phrase "life in the fast lane." What do you recall of Glenn telling you about that line, and how fast did the song come together after that? Whose line was "lines on the mirror/Lines on her face"?
That song actually sprang from the opening guitar riff. One day, at a rehearsal, Joe just busted out that crazy riff and I said, "What in the hell is that? We've got to figure out some way to make a song out of that!" But we really couldn't sing over that riff, so Glenn came up with the idea of what is a traditional blues or R&B staple – the "one chord" song (although there are obviously other chords in there, too). But primarily we just sang the verse parts over an E chord, and then, in the "prechorus," we went into the basic blues changes that led into the chorus, and Joe played his riff underneath the chorus lines. The bass guitar and bass-drum foot pedal, along with the rhythm guitar, provide the syncopation that underlies Joe's riff in the choruses. It was a real bitch for me to learn how to do that syncopated bass-drum part and sing the melody at the same time.

As far as who came up with the lyric lines you've asked about, I really don't recall, but I think that Glenn came up with one half of it and I came up with the other. I just can't remember which half each of us wrote. Back then, we were always finishing each other's sentences; we had a kind of telepathy going on.

In what ways do the other songs on the album tie in with the themes in "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane"?
They're the same themes that run through all of our work: loss of innocence, the cost of naiveté, the perils of fame, of excess; exploration of the dark underbelly of the American dream, idealism realized and idealism thwarted, illusion versus reality, the difficulties of balancing loving relationships and work, trying to square the conflicting relationship between business and art; the corruption in politics, the fading away of the Sixties dream of "peace, love and understanding." But it's also important to remember that during the making of the Hotel California album, we were ecstatic much of the time. We knew we were onto something. So, you have the interesting juxtaposition of dark themes being developed and constructed in an atmosphere of excitement and productivity. (And OK, a little debauchery, here and there. You know what they say about all work and no play.)

What inspired "Wasted Time," one of your greatest Eagles ballads?
Failed relationships. Nothing inspires or catalyzes a great ballad like a failed relationship. Still, it's a very empathetic song, I think.

What did that album say about you and the band at that point in your careers?
I think that we were at the height of our powers. Every band has a peak, and that was ours. And because of various factors – pressure to perform at peak level, pressure to deliver more of the same, the changing nature of the band dynamic, the constantly changing public tastes, etc. – it was impossible for us to take the time off that we needed in order to get our heads together, to regain a sense of perspective that we had lost.

The Eagles were known to be perfectionists in the studio. How would you know when a song was done?
We got saddled with that perfectionist label because we were always paying attention to detail, always trying to up our game. There is no such thing as "perfection" in rock & roll, although we did strive to be tight, musically, and to sing and play in tune. No apologies to be made for that. There has always been the opposing school of thought, especially after punk came in, but I always saw that as a cover-up for lack of ability. But obsessive perfectionism can be oppressive, stifling, paralyzing. Never let the great be the enemy of the good. We understood that. There should always be – and will be – a wart or a little clutter here and there. Life is messy, and rock & roll is part of life.

We knew a song was done when we had made our very best efforts, given the circumstances, the parameters. When you're working within a group, some compromise is necessary. We weren't always ready to let a song go, but after a while, you have to just let go, especially if you're working within the constraints of a budget and a time frame. There are some real mediocre pieces of work on our early and mid-Seventies albums – songs that aren't well-written, not fully realized from a production standpoint, but that's the price of democracy and time limits – and we were all still learning.

In the History doc, you talk about some of the trepidation you had about Joe joining the band. But once you started making this album, the first with him, how did those feelings change, and what did he bring to the studio/record-making process that wasn't there before?
Well, Joe was and is his own man; he's always been an independent entity, even as a member of the group. He had a fine solo career going before our manager suggested bringing him into the Eagles. We in the band had some trepidation because, although we liked him personally and we liked his music, we weren't sure that he'd be able to fit into an already established group. But somehow it worked, and Joe has always been able to live in both worlds. In the studio, he brought his distinctive guitar sounds and his versatile chops. He's a helluva slide player. He can handle many different styles of guitar playing, and he can play keyboards, too. All that, plus he added another singing voice to the assemblage.

What about this album captured the public's imagination in ways even the previous Eagles albums hadn't?
I've learned over the years that one word, "California," carries with it all kinds of connotations, powerful imagery, mystique, etc., that fires the imaginations of people in all corners of the globe. There's a built-in mythology that comes with that word, an American cultural mythology that has been created by both the film and the music industry. But I think the success of the album was due to a combination of things that all coalesced at that point in time. Hotel California was our fifth studio album of original material, so the momentum had slowly, steadily been building since 1972. And during those years, we had become a viable touring act. Then, there was the enormous and somewhat unexpected success of the Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) album. We didn't really want that album to be released, but had allowed the label to do it in order to buy ourselves more time to work on the Hotel California album. So, when the Greatest Hits album literally exploded on the charts that really kicked the momentum into high gear. By the time Hotel California was released in December 1976, the circumstances couldn't have been better; the world was ready and waiting.

The Long Run, 1979

‘The Long Run,’ 1979

The band spent 18 months on the follow-up to Hotel California and came out with a dark-hued album that would be their last studio LP for nearly 30 years. Despite the resilience in its soulful title track, the album's biting, funky feel was the sound of a band coming undone.

When you started working on this album, the band had very few songs. How unusual was this, and why was this – from all the touring behind Hotel California?
When we began the process of recording that album, we were completely burned out. We were physically, emotionally, spiritually and creatively exhausted. Our collective tank was empty. We'd been touring relentlessly, even in between recording sessions. We should have taken a one-year hiatus, but the Big Machine demanded to be fed. Momentum had to be maintained. There were big bucks at stake, the corporate stockholders had expectations, jobs were on the line.

In what ways did the pressure to top the success of Hotel California impact the lyrics and the music of this album? I'm thinking of some of the darker lyrics ("King of Hollywood," "The Disco Strangler") and the often more-pared-down arrangements.
Despite the extraordinary success of Hotel California, we were collectively in a pretty dark place during the making of The Long Run. Disco had exploded, and punk was on the rise. We were beginning to see press articles about how we were passé. Those kinds of jabs were part of the inspiration for the song "The Long Run": "Who is gonna make it/ We'll find out in the long run."

Along those lines, how did "The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks" come about? It's very garage rock for the Eagles.
We looked at it as an homage to (or maybe a sendup of) Sixties "frat rock," in the vein of "96 Tears" by a group called Question Mark and the Mysterians, who, like Glenn, happened to be from Michigan. "96 Tears," released in 1966, was a huge hit and a big favorite on the college fraternity-party circuit in Austin, where my band, Felicity (later Shiloh), played almost every weekend. It had the cheesy Farfisa organ and garbled, partially incoherent lyrics in the mode of "Louie Louie," the 1963 hit by the Kingsmen, another frat favorite. Playing those frat parties was another dues-paying experience. We witnessed a little bit of everything.

How would you describe the state of the Eagles while making this album?
Exhausted, burned-out mentally, physically, spiritually. Homesick. We were not happy campers. But the Beast needed feeding. Momentum had to be maintained, or so we were fooled into thinking.

Punk and New Wave were exploding all around the band as this album was being made. Did that place any additional pressure on the band in terms of changing musical times?
It felt a bit like that scene at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis. In retrospect, we need not have been concerned.

What inspired the lyric for the title song?
Irony. The group was breaking apart, imploding under the pressure of trying to deliver a worthy follow-up to Hotel California, and yet we were writing about longevity, posterity. Turns out we were right. Irony upon irony.

Was "The Sad Cafe" inspired by the Troubadour? What were you trying to say about the club and/or the state of rock (or the band) at that point? It's so elegiac.
"The Sad Cafe" was inspired by the Troubadour and Dan Tana's restaurant. We could feel an era passing. The crowd that hung out in the Troubadour and the bands that were performing there were changing. The train tracks that had run down the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard had been ripped out. The train no longer came through – the same train that Steve Martin had once led an entire Troubadour audience to hop aboard and ride up to La Cienega Boulevard, then walk back to the club. Those remarkable freewheeling times were receding into the distance.

Legend has it there's a song called "You're Really High, Aren't You?" that was never completed for this album. What do you recall of it?
That was just another one of the many joke titles we came up with. I don't think it ever became an actual song. If it did, it's just an instrumental.

Of all the Eagles studio albums up to this point, which was your favorite to record, and which was your least favorite?
The recording of every one of our albums had moments of ecstasy and agony. That's just the way the process works. But if I had to choose an overall favorite studio experience, it would be the Hotel California album. My least favorite time was the recording of The Long Run, for reasons already explained.

Long Road Out of Eden, 2007

‘Long Road Out of Eden,’ 2007

After their acrimonious breakup and hugely successful Nineties reunions, the Eagles finally got down to making their long-awaited comeback LP. With complete artistic control, it ended up being a double album full of politics and introspection.

What was your vision of how you wanted the Eagles to sound in the new century? What did you want people to take away from an Eagles album that they hadn't before?
We agonized for a while about whether we should make a deliberate effort to "modernize" our sound, but ultimately decided that we should just make music that reflected who and where we were at that particular point in time. That's what we'd always done, so there was no reason to do anything that might seem forced or contrived. We had grown some, both as musicians and as people – we'd made solo records, started families. So rather than try to go back in time or try to be flagrantly "progressive," we just wanted to be ourselves. I think there is some really good material on that album, some songwriting and playing that rivaled anything we'd done previously.

Did you meet with any producers before you began, or did you decide to do it yourself from the start?
We actually began the recording of the Long Road Out of Eden album with our former producer Bill Szymczyk at the helm. I saw his function as more of a mediator, a consigliere, a ringmaster, if you will. Glenn and I, by that time, had learned how to produce records. In fact, everybody in the band knew what to do, and once we got into the process, it turned out that we didn't really need an overseer. We worked in rotating teams in two different studios, mine and Glenn's. That enabled us to work on more than one song at a time, and it expedited the process.

When you and Glenn started writing songs for this album, what did you discover that you still shared, in terms of approaches to melody or lyrics?
We had both become more adept at the process of songwriting, more comfortable and confident as writers. Melody and lyrics were just as important – maybe more so – than ever. But there wasn't as much flailing around, trying to find a direction, not as much doubt. Again, we had the luxury of time; we did a lot of touring during the making of that album. To this day, I still think it should have been a single album, but in order to give every member the space he needed and still maintain sound quality (fidelity), it became necessary to make it a double-disc package.

What inspired a biting song like "Business as Usual"?
The collective unconsciousness of the general populace; how we scurry along, ant-like, in our little ruts, day after day, completely oblivious to – or apathetic about – the bigger picture. How naive we are about the inner workings and the destructive forces of big business and politics, the irreversible damage that's being done to the planet and so many of its voiceless inhabitants. The middle class is disappearing and with it the "middle ground" – the little island of reason and moderation that bobs between the monoliths of extremist ideologies that are rampant in our country today.

A portion of the song is also a reference to the legal profession, the utter ruthlessness of it. It seems that some of the biggest pricks in the profession, the most contemptible, soulless scumbags to ever "practice" law have offices in Century City. They will, I'm sure, take that as a compliment.

In which ways was the record-making process different than it was in the past?
It was certainly different in terms of technology, although with each member having made solo albums during the 14-year hiatus, we were all fairly familiar with all the new electronics. The difference was that we had never used that technology in the context of the Eagles. But it worked out fine. Other elements of the process, including some of the negative aspects, remained exactly the same as ever.

Looking back on Long Road Out of Eden, almost a decade later, what does it add to the group's legacy now that it is, unfortunately, the group's last studio album?
Well, it adds a certain poignancy, doesn't it? In looking back at it now, that album contains several songs of foreboding and farewell: "No More Walks in the Wood," "I Don't Want to Hear Any More," "You Are Not Alone," "Long Road Out of Eden," "Last Good Time in Town," "Center of the Universe," and the eerily prescient "It's Your World Now," Glenn's beautiful philosophical valediction to his wife and kids. It's almost as if we knew that record would be our last. But our fans have been wonderful. They've been loyal to the end, and sadly, this is the end. But what a ride. … what a crazy, wonderful ride.

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