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.
After getting together in 1971, the Eagles needed to find an identity and prove themselves as songwriters. They did both on their debut, which they cut in London with Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin producer Glyn Johns.
Legend has it that before this album was recorded, the band rehearsed in the Hollywood bungalow where Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther were living.
Honestly, I don’t remember rehearsing in that bungalow. I vaguely remember the little enclave of bungalows, there at the corner of Highland Avenue and Camrose Drive, and I recall that J.D. and Linda shared one bungalow and Jackson Browne was living in one of the others. But I don’t remember rehearsing in any of them. I’m not disputing what J.D. said; I’m just saying that I don’t have that recollection. I do remember rehearsing in a little wooden shack called Bud’s (after its owner), just off Ventura Boulevard, near Barham Boulevard. Bud’s place was tucked into a parking lot behind a liquor store called the Spirit Locker, which has been renamed, now. I also remember rehearsing, later on, in a building that was located near the intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Vineland Avenue. This is the place where Glyn Johns came and heard us for the second time and finally decided that he would produce us. So you could say that the Eagles band really coalesced, really began, in the San Fernando Valley.
In what ways did you want the Eagles to stand apart from other bands?
We had four singers, and though we weren’t the first band to feature a lineup like that, we wanted to make use of it in unique ways. We wanted to create material that would showcase each of the band members’ strengths. Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner had already been members of two pioneering country-rock groups. Bernie was in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Dillard and Clark. Randy was the original bassist in Poco and then joined Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. Primarily though, it was the material we were concerned about. Our main goal, at the beginning and throughout our career, was to write good, memorable songs, make albums that had little or no filler, that were consistent from beginning to end in terms of songwriting and production. We also wanted to be a good live act. We wanted to be the whole package. We didn’t always meet our goals, but we tried.
Your best-known lead vocal on that LP is “Witchy Woman.” Can you talk about how that song was written and recorded, and what inspired the song?
That song grew out of a piece of guitar music that Bernie had submitted to the band. I took the piece and began working on lyrics and melody. The female character in the song is a composite. I had been reading a book about the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife, Zelda, who, in her thirties and forties, drifted in and out of psychiatric hospitals suffering from schizophrenia (or more likely, bipolar disorder), while her husband’s health and career spiraled downward, due to his abuse of alcohol. Another inspiration for the song was the roommate of a girl I was seeing in the early 1970s. All things occult were popular in those days. Ouija boards, séances, palm reading, etc. A lot of the girls were into what was called “white witchcraft,” that is, they were practitioners of folk magic for benevolent purposes, as distinguished from malevolent witchcraft or black magic. I think some of them practiced a little of both. I thought it was charming and seductive, but I never took any of it seriously. For the most part, it was just a phase people were passing through, part of the overall youth movement and the quest for spirituality, which included a re-enchantment with the “old ways.” It was harmless fun.
Another inspiration for that song may have been the shamanistic aspects of the Carlos Castaneda books we were intrigued with at the time. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Peruvian-born Castaneda became a popular American author while earning his Ph.D. at UCLA.
What do you recall of the first time you heard “Take It Easy”?
I don’t recall the first time I heard it in its basic form, but I will always remember the first time I heard those shimmering guitar chords in the intro pulsing through the big playback speakers at Olympic Studios in Barnes, a suburban district in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, where the first Eagles album was recorded. The song’s primary appeal, I think, is that it evokes a sense of motion, both musically and lyrically. The romance of the open road. The lure of adventure and possibility – Route 66, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pacific Coast Highway. Great American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Jack Kerouac to Wallace Stegner have addressed this theme of the restlessness of the American spirit, of our need to keep moving, especially from east to west, in search of freedom, identity, fortune and this illusive thing we call “home.” There’s a thought-provoking quotation from Thomas Wolfe’s famous novel You Can’t Go Home Again: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America – that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.”
When the album was finished, what did you learn about this still-new band and the way it could work in a studio?
I knew that it wasn’t all going to be smooth sailing, that the various members had certain strengths and weaknesses and that they weren’t always objective about what those strengths and weaknesses were. There was some difference of opinion on the musical direction we would be going in. Variety and contrast are good things if they can be harnessed into a coherent whole. I could see that there were going to be real problems with “division of labor.” Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.
What do you recall of the photo shoot in the desert?
There was a lot of laughter and a sense of camaraderie. The Joshua Tree National Monument, in 1971, was more wild and untouched than it is today. It was a magical place. There was a pervasive feeling that we were embarking on a momentous journey; there was an air of portent in the positive sense. It was simultaneously a sensory and a spiritual experience. That’s the effect that the peyote cactus has on most people, but not all. Under the effects of peyote, in the glowing dusk, we saw the Joshua trees as sentient beings. The Mormons, who were also given to hallucinations, were obviously on a different kind of high when they stumbled into the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s and envisioned the native Yucca brevifolia as the Biblical warrior Joshua, arms stretched skyward in prayer.
Peyote is a small cactus that grows wildly in the Chihuahuan Desert and contains a psychoactive alkaloid (mescaline). The cactus can be found in areas of Texas and Mexico and is common among scrub where there is limestone settlement. This plant, particularly the mescaline within the plant, can produce a wide range of effects including deep insight into one’s spiritual side. Auditory and visual hallucinations are also common with the use of peyote.
Common use of peyote consists of chewing on the plant or boiling it to create a reduction that can be drank as a tea. The consumption of 10 to 20 grams of dried peyote buttons will produce a wide range of effects including hallucinations, metaphysical insight or spiritual introspection. Since ancient times, tribes in the Mexico region have been chewing on peyote buttons to produce an anesthetic effect or pain relief. Native American tribes continue to use peyote as a curative drug for a wide array of ailments. However, various unpredictable effects can arise when a person takes peyote. The major downfall to this drug, like other hallucinogens, is that there is no surefire way to know how the drug will affect the user or what types of side effects may arise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some feel only deep meditation-like symptoms while others may suffer intense anxiety or hallucinations that could pose serious risks in terms of the behavioral outcomes of the user. So, I’m not recommending what we did, back then, to anybody. A couple of guys in our party did get nauseous and throw up, but they were fine after that and it was the only negative thing we experienced at that photo shoot. You have to munch on trail mix to keep yourself from getting nauseous, and I think maybe they had forgotten to do that.
Photographer Henry Diltz and our art director, Gary Burden, were participating as well. Gary, an award-winning album-cover designer, is a former Marine who grew up on his father’s citrus farm in Laguna, and Henry, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet, is a noted, award-winning photographer. Also along on these trips was our former road manager/spiritual/philosophical adviser, John Barrick, who had once tended bar at the Troubadour. It was a colorful, adventurous circus troupe we had assembled. Everybody was into the spirit of the thing. Again, I want to emphasize that ingesting mescaline or any psychoactive alkaloid does not result in permanently transforming an individual into a more insightful, enlightened, spiritual being, but it does temporarily facilitate a different way of seeing the world. In the early going, we went out to Joshua Tree and did that peyote ritual a couple of times. I think that J.D. Souther and Ned Doheny were along on one of the camp outs. It was on one of those trips that Glenn saw a huge eagle fly right over him at a relatively low altitude. Naturally, we took this as a sign.
Trivia question: What are those whistle-y sounds on “Earlybird”?
Those are the sounds of actual birds chirping. They were taken from a sound-effects library. I thought – and still think – it was corny, but it wasn’t my song. Adding the chirping sounds was the decision of both the song’s author and our producer. Forty-four years later, it really doesn’t matter, does it?
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.
‘On the Border,’ 1974
The Eagles began work on their third album in London, but soon broke with producer Glyn Johns and returned to Los Angeles, going for a more commercial sound that balanced hard-driving hits like “Already Gone” and the classic ballad “Best of My Love.”
When “Desperado” wasn’t a huge hit, how did that impact your creative process when time came to make a third album? Did you feel you had to make a more straightforward rock & roll record?
I honestly don’t recall exactly what we were thinking, but we did decide, at some point, that we wanted to go for a little harder edge. So, there were a few more uptempo songs on that album, more electric guitar. “Already Gone” and “James Dean” got some airplay, but interestingly enough, it was the mellow ballad, “Best of My Love,” that became a hit – our first Number One hit. That was both good and bad.
Once you switched from working with Glyn Johns to producer Bill Szymczyk and relocated to Los Angeles, what impact did that have on the band’s confidence? What was the effect artistically of working in your proverbial backyard?
We loved London – still do – but being able to sleep in your own bed, being able to eat the foods you love and see people who are dear to you in the locales you are familiar with brings a comfort that aids in the creative process. Glyn Johns and our managers thought it wise to get us out of L.A., and away from what they considered to be the inherent “distractions” of the place. But what they failed to understand is that Los Angeles and its environs have always been a big part of our inspiration, our imaginative touchstones: the ocean, the mountains, the desert – and to quote our old friend Randy Newman, “Look at these women; ain’t nothin’ like ’em nowhere.”
What’s the story behind the lyrics to the title song? And of “Good Day in Hell”?
The song “On the Border” had something to do with politics, more specifically with the Watergate scandal. But it was a pretty clumsy, incoherent attempt. It was supposed to be an R&B-type song, but we missed the mark (although Glenn came up with that great, funky guitar riff that underpins the tag). We were still learning the ropes in terms of songwriting. Our producer didn’t really know what to do with it, either. I remember it was one of the last things to be recorded and I had come up against an unmovable deadline. So, I somehow got my hands on a truckdriver pill called a Black Molly (a.k.a. Black Beauty) and stayed up all night completing the song. That’s how badly I wanted to go home.
“Good Day in Hell” was Glenn’s little tribute to Danny Whitten and Gram Parsons. It’s also another one of our running commentaries on the perils of the music business and the lifestyle that often comes with it.
On songs like “Already Gone,” “James Dean” and “Good Day in Hell,” the Eagles had a sharper rock & roll sound. What did that indicate about the changing direction of the band?
Although Glenn was fascinated by the new “country rock” movement, and though he never forgot his Motown roots, his first love was rock & roll. Possibly through the influence of his friend and mentor, Bob Seger.
Glenn became an avid student of the rhythm-guitar style of Chuck Berry and, with the possible exception of Keith Richards (also a Berry disciple) and a couple of others, Glenn was one of the best rhythm guitarists I ever heard. His electric guitar was a black 1957 Gibson Les Paul Jr., which he dubbed “Old Black.” This battered instrument had been given to him by Jackson Browne. It had two pickups, the front one being defective, but Glenn, loving the guitar’s sound exactly as it was, would not allow the pickup to be repaired for fear that something would change. As the decades passed and other electric guitarists began to use a different guitar for almost every song, along with elaborate pedal assemblies on the floor, Glenn stuck with Old Black, getting great rhythm and lead sounds out of that one guitar, that single operational pickup and, usually, one small amp. His rhythm playing was chunky and funky; his leads, if not the most technically proficient, were always imaginative, melodic. They were soulful and memorable.
He was something of a freak of nature: He played guitar right-handed, but played golf left-handed, at least when he was driving the ball. But he putted right-handed. When we played baseball or softball, he would bat and throw left-handed.
What did Szymczyk immediately bring to the table for the band?
Freedom and fun. Bill was much less rigid than Glyn Johns in his approach to recording and producing. We in the band had much more of a say in how things were done.
“Best of My Love” became a hit after a DJ in the Midwest started playing it and the song took off. How surprised were you that it took that route to success?
We had more or less given up hope for the success of the On the Border album, and we’d begun work on the next album. So, when “The Best of My Love” took off, it was like a resurrection, a miracle. Totally unexpected. On our last tour – the History of the Eagles Tour – we tracked down that DJ, Jim Higgs (who had broken the song at station WKMI in Kalamazoo, Michigan), and we invited him to our show in Grand Rapids. His daughter brought him, and we had a nice visit backstage, thanked him for his early support and took some photographs. It was a sweet moment, and I’m glad we got the chance to acknowledge him in person. He wasn’t expecting it, and I think it madme him very happy.
Here’s another trivia question: Who was “Guido,” thanked in “Best of My Love”? And “TNTS” in “On the Border”?
Guido was the maître d’ at Dan Tana’s restaurant during the Seventies and part of the Eighties. We conjured up part of that song in that restaurant. The TNTS refers to our producer, Bill Szymczyk’s, drink of choice at that time, Tanqueray ‘n’ tonic. He recalls that the reason we “thanked” those drinks is that they “helped out” on the hand-clap overdub and the Temptations-like background vocals on the title track. Sometimes, lubricants were beneficial – they add a nice element of spontaneity or “anti-perfection.”
‘One of These Nights,’ 1975
Coming on the heels of their first Number One single, “Best of My Love,” the Eagles scored their first chart-topping album with an often lushly produced collection that had it all: country balladry, R&B grooves, an orchestrated instrumental, plenty of falsetto voices and a six-minute story-song by Frey and Henley that seemed to sum up the jaded isolation the band found all around them in Southern California. It would also prove to be their last album with guitarist Bernie Leadon, who left the band soon after and was replaced with Joe Walsh.
From the title song to “Journey of the Sorcerer,” to the layers of guitars on “Too Many Hands” and other tracks, this album felt at the time like the band’s most richly produced record. What were the goals going into it, especially considering you’d had a huge hit with “The Best of My Love”?
Well, obviously our confidence had grown; Glenn and I were really beginning to come into our own as songwriters. Although, there were still disparities within the band in terms of songwriting, direction, etc. Glenn and I now wanted to take advantage of the momentum we had going; we wanted to write more songs that would be played on the radio.
How did the title song come about, both lyrically and with the R&B feel of the music?
Glenn and I had always been fans of the records that were produced in Memphis by Willie Mitchell, especially the Al Green records where the drummer, Al Jackson Jr., would hit the snare and the ride tom-tom at the same time on the backbeat. So, that was a big influence on the title track, but there was also a little nod to disco (we had shared a studio in Miami with the Bee Gees) with the “four-on-the-floor” bass-drum pattern.
Stylistically, the One of These Nights album is all over the map, but somehow it worked as a coherent whole. In those days, you could do things like that – you could mix different styles on the same album. The Beatles had made it acceptable.
We’ve heard many stories about the origins of the phrase “Lyin’ Eyes.” Were you there when Glenn made that comment after seeing a younger woman with an older man at a bar or restaurant?
I don’t recall being there on the specific night that Glenn came up with that phrase or title, but I know that his observations were made at Dan Tana’s restaurant. It was a great place to people watch, especially the bar area. There was always some kind of intrigue going on in that place.
I had read that “After the Thrill Is Gone,” at least in its title, was inspired by B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Is that true? And what did its lyrics address?
We were, of course, aware of B.B. King’s song “The Thrill Is Gone,” which was a straightforward statement. But we wanted to explore the aftermath. We know that the thrill is gone – so, now what?
Is there a moment – on this album or the ones before – when you felt you had come into your own as a singer?
Singing the title track was a pretty big moment for me – particularly the falsetto parts. But I’d been singing in basically the same way since I was 17 or 18. The fact that I was singing original material was the big difference.
By this time, what was your and Glenn’s process for writing songs? I assume you both contributed music and lyrics, but did either of you lead the way in those areas?
A quiet private space, usually a room with a coffee table, a couple of acoustic guitars and a piano. Maybe some beer or maybe just soft drinks or water. Lots of legal pads and pens. We both contributed music and lyrics. Sometimes Glenn would lead the way; other times I would, depending on who had come up with an idea – a chord progression, a title or a theme. But Glenn described the process beautifully in the documentary: time, thought, perseverance, elbow grease; revisions, rewrites.
‘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 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.
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.