Don Henley talks about the Eagles' latest album, changes in the industry and more

by Preston Jones

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

19 September 2008


If most bands were to go nearly 30 years between albums, they might agonize over the direction and tenor their new music should take, how time has changed them individually and collectively, and whether they will still be considered relevant.

For “Long Road Out of Eden,” the Eagles’ first studio effort since “The Long Run” in 1979, the reverse held true. All it took was a chance encounter on YouTube to inspire the group and guide it in the right direction.

“There was some brief discussion about returning to our early style, but not for the entire album,” writes co-founder Don Henley via e-mail. “‘How Long,’ the first single from the album, was definitely a nod to our beginnings, but even that came about somewhat by accident.

“Glenn (Frey)‘s kids were surfing around on YouTube and found an old clip of us doing ‘How Long’ on a Dutch TV show in 1973. ... We’d forgotten that we used to sometimes include it in our set. Glenn thought it would be a good idea to record it for the ‘Long Road Out of Eden’ album, so we did.”

This was a surprisingly spontaneous decision on which to begin a new body of work, especially given that Henley told interviewer Charlie Rose in 2001 that “rock bands work best as a benevolent dictatorship,” and that most, if not all, of the Eagles’ catalog stands as a testament to carefully and precisely blending ramshackle country colors with edgy rock flash.

Perhaps the Eagles are softening in their advancing years and letting some aspects of their music fall to chance. But then again, given the spiky nature of “Long Road Out of Eden,” perhaps the inspiration is not as random as it seems.

“Eden,” a double-disc that neatly splits the difference between the Eagles’ country and rock impulses, manages to update the quartet’s signature sound (Henley and Frey, guitarist Joe Walsh and bassist Timothy B. Schmit remain on board) while subtly pushing it into the 21st century.

The second disc, in particular, where you’ll find the blistering title track alongside pointed tunes like “I Dreamed There Was No War” and “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture,” unveils a more spirited side of the famously laconic group, although long-time fans will recognize Henley’s fingerprints. The native of Linden, Texas, long known for championing a variety of causes, including music artists’ rights and the environment, is in exceptionally acidic form throughout these nine tracks.

Henley’s songwriting, particularly later in the ‘70s and during his very successful solo career in the ‘80s and ‘90s - “Dirty Laundry” remains a prescient swipe at tabloid TV - does not shy away from uncomfortable narratives but embraces them with a passion typically reserved for artists far removed from the glare of the mainstream spotlight.

Nor is this politically charged brand of songwriting anything new: On 1976’s landmark “Hotel California,” Henley penned “The Last Resort,” a scathing, seven-minute condemnation of westward expansion, Manifest Destiny and urban sprawl that still has tremendous emotional resonance more than three decades later.

Yet Henley’s reputation as a plain-spoken and politically inclined provocateur does not mean that the potentially divisive subject matter, be it social or political, is entirely antagonistic or that his bandmates plead with him to tamp down his opinions.

“I think the other guys expect me to make occasional forays into territory that might be controversial,” Henley writes. “They’re fine with it as long as it doesn’t get too polemical. It adds another color to the work.”

Indeed, the 61-year-old singer/songwriter speaks of a “longing for community,” another impulse fueling his creative drive.

“That may sound sentimental or mawkishly idealistic, but I believe that a great many artists come from that same place, whether consciously or subconsciously,” Henley writes. “Creating, for me, is therapeutic. It’s a way of trying to make sense of a world that often doesn’t make any sense at all. ... It keeps me off the shrink’s couch, keeps me from climbing a tower with a rifle. Creating is a spiritual act, as well a kind of meditation.”

Aside from indulging in more political songwriting, the Eagles charted an unconventional (although increasingly familiar) course in releasing “Eden.” Having fulfilled their major label contract with 1980’s “Eagles Live,” the group and its longtime manager Irving Azoff bypassed the big-name labels and released “Eden” themselves, through an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart, which, improbably, anticipated the paradigm-shifting, Internet-embracing likes of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails.

“The music industry as we have known it is almost extinct,” Henley writes. “The digital revolution changed everything and not all for the better. Of course, some parts of the business needed to change. I don’t think too many of us mourn the collapse of the major record labels. They did help to build the careers of many artists, including us, but they also took advantage of us in the process. ...

“The music business is complex, and it takes a number of years to figure it out,” Henley continued. “... You can’t really call the shots until you’ve had a significant degree of success, and to obtain that success, you usually have to give away the store to a major label.”

Other things have changed in the industry as well. Music videos, gossip-driven entertainment TV shows and Web sites, and YouTube have made this an era of overexposure.

“We came up in an era when bands actually tried to avoid publicity except for what was absolutely necessary,” Henley writes. “Our generation of musicians also considered the visual media as something to be avoided in most instances. We tried to maintain an air of mystery, a little aloofness. ... Back in the day, there was no MTV or VH1. That was the beginning of the end, I think - MTV. It forcibly turned an aural medium into a visual medium and in doing so, killed the opportunity for the listener to use his imagination.”

With the new album on store shelves and the tour to support it under way, what’s next? It’s hardly hyperbole to suggest that many, if not all, of the Eagles’ die-hard fans eagerly anticipate more music from this foursome, but while many classic rockers tour ‘til the wheels fall off, Henley doesn’t seem so inclined. In fact, there’s the matter of his solo career, which has more or less been on hiatus since 2000 to focus on the group.

“I have several diverse album projects that have been simmering in my head for a few years now,” writes Henley of his solo career. “The trick is finding the time to do them without shortchanging my family. Soon, I’ll be setting up a recording studio in or near my home in Texas, so I’ll be able to go home after work.”

But toss out the big kahuna - will the Eagles ever make another album? - and the response is simultaneously blunt and sentimental.

“I really don’t know what will happen after this touring cycle ends. I think it will probably take us another year or more to cover the remainder of the globe, and there is nothing planned after that,” Henley writes. “There has been no discussion about making another album. I’m not ruling that out, but it’s not something that I contemplate with any degree of enthusiasm, at least at this point. I would, in fact, be perfectly happy to stay home, take care of my wife and kids, and work on solo projects in my spare time.

“These past 37 years have been amazing and wonderful beyond my wildest dreams, and I am as thankful as I can be,” he writes. “But I’m tired of packing and unpacking. I’m tired of airplanes and hotel rooms. ... I’m ready for a quieter, simpler life.

“Of course, I’ve been saying that for 30 years.”

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