Don Henley

Inside Job

by Ben Varkentine


Dear Don:

On your new album, Inside Job, on a song called “Annabel,” which I assume is named after your daughter, you sing:

cover art

Don Henley

Inside Job

(Warner Bros.)

In this cold world,
folks will judge you
Though they don’t know you at all.

No doubt because I knew while listening to it that I would be writing a review, that line hit home. It’s true I don’t know you, but in that strange artist/audience way, you have been a part of my life. And since you’ve been a thoughtful, eloquent interviewee in a number of publications over the years, I do know some things about you that inform the way I think about you and your music.

I read another review of your new album, before I knew I was going to be writing one (I try to avoid reading others reviews of material I’ll be covering). I remember it criticized your early work as being cynical. I didn’t understand that—to me, criticizing Don Henley for being cynical is like criticizing Britney Spears for shaking her tits. It’s what you do, or at least it’s what you did, it’s what I went to you for. I even had a little saying: “Don Henley is the cynical man’s cynical man.” I imagine that on Inside Job‘s “Everything’s Different Now,” you’re talking to people like me when you sing:

I hate to tell you this
but I’m very, very happy
And I know that’s not what you’d expect from me at all.

And you’re right. But I’m not so petty that I can’t be glad you’ve found satisfaction in your life. The question is, can the satisfied say anything to the unsatisfied? To people who have not yet found their rightful place in life, there’s a chance that people who have, not necessarily through any fault of their own, can come off as smug and bland.

I gotta say, some of your lyrics seem to me to have lost the understated cleverness of “You Can’t Make Love,” from Building the Perfect Beast. And though you’re no doubt being as honest as you were on “The Heart Of The Matter,” from End of the Innocence, the final result is not as affecting. Musically you’re still doing fine, but on “Taking You Home,” for example, your wordless vocals say a lot more than your lyrics. And it seems to me there was a time when you did better than:

We’re so busy covering our asses
We just can’t commit

as in “Workin’ It.”

I mean, you do know that sounds like the kind of relationship guru advice we see on PBS and in best-selling self-help books, right?

On the other hand, “Damn It, Rose” may be the best lyric on the album, but I wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t read them in the CD booklet. The music track is so long and repetitive that after listening to Inside Job several times through the words still hadn’t fully registered.

Getting back to the things I know or think I know about you. I know, for example, that you take pride in pushing yourself as a vocalist—I recall your saying that “Boys Of Summer” was originally written and recorded one key lower than the one in which it was eventually released, but you decided in the studio to stretch yourself. It must have been a good move, since the song became one of your signature hits and reintroduced you to a younger generation. Like me. I notice that on your new album, you’re still in fine voice, and you seem to have learned a lesson that some other tenor singers haven’t (not to mention any names, Sting), that you can’t expect to sing like you did in your 20s when you’re in your 50s, and arranged your songs accordingly.

I know that unlike some rockers of, forgive me for using the term, your generation, you were never phobic about the technology that rose up the ‘80s. I could make an argument that Building the Perfect Beast is, at least in part, a techno-pop album, but it never lost a raw feeling. You’ve gone away from that sound since, and it probably was a little bit of it’s time, but there’s still a lot of stuff on this album that just sounds cool.

I know that you’re a book lover, like me, and I couldn’t help noticing that some of your song titles this time around sound like poem or short story titles: “Good-bye To A River,” “They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming,”—that one’s got to be a story by Raymond Carver. Knowing that this is your first solo album in over a decade, following domestic upheaval and eventual settling down, the Eagles reunion, and a legal problem or two, I’m going to assume that “The Genie” is a leftover from the Building the Perfect Beast days. Certainly it revisits a lyrical interest of yours, the consequences of exploration and knowledge. Unfortunately it adds nothing to what you’ve previously said on the topic.

Don, I’m 28, and it’s possible that in another couple decades or so when I’m nearer to where you are in years-on-this-planet terms, this album will resonate for me a lot more than it does right now. But I’m writer enough (he said modestly) and old enough to know, or least to have an idea what you mean about:

I make a church out of words
As the years dull my senses
And I try to hold on to the world that I knew
I struggle to cross generational fences.

I am almost neurotic about using words as correctly as I can, and I’ve seen the blank stare of a beautiful 19-year-old woman when I mention something that’s a common reference in my world, but she has no idea what it is. But you reached a member of my generation a long time ago, back when you had metaphors more subtle in your arsenal than:

Now the trouble with you and me,
my friend
Is the trouble with this nation

As in “My Thanksgiving.”

What I would give Thanksgiving for would be for you to for you to surpass what you’d done in the past with I Can’t Stand Still and Perfect Beast. I like Inside Job a lot more than I liked End of the Innocence (except for “Heart Of The Matter”), but you still haven’t topped those first two solo albums. For me. My other Thanksgiving would be for us to meet up again in another few years (but not, I hope for your sake, another decade) and find ourselves more receptive to each other, that is, you having more to say that interests me, and me being more interested in what you have to say.

Until that time, Don, I wish you good health, continued success, and a happy family life.

Best wishes,

Ben Varkentine

Topics: don henley
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