or: The Interview You Do When You’re Not Doing An Interview
23 July 2017, Dallas, TX
Sitting in the front row at Don Henley’s Runaway Tours Q&A in Dallas the day after his 70th Birthday Concert, I could almost have been at a press conference, except that most of the questions being asked at this fan event were more thoughtful, and for the most part more educated, than anything the average journalist would ask.
At the two Eagles press conferences I had been to – Sydney 1995 and London 2013 – I had sat front row centre and I had asked good questions. I’m known for asking good questions; it’s what I often do professionally. Having never had the opportunity to interview Don outside of a press conference, I wanted to make the most of the one question I would get today. My turn came 90 minutes into the Q&A.
“Yes ma’am,” he said to me as I stood up, holding the microphone.
“Hi Don,” said I. “Happy Birthday for yesterday.”
“And thank you for last night and for bringing your voice so beautifully. I’m Debbie Kruger from Santa Monica, previously Australia, and we have met.”
I said that because the person who had asked a question before me, a man who wanted to know about song selections for concert set lists, evoked a curious reaction in Don – “Have we met before?” – and a response from the questioner – “No.” I’d met Don a few times briefly, but most recently we had had a lengthy one-to-one conversation after the Linda Ronstadt tribute concert in Los Angeles last December, lengthy enough that I hoped he might remember.
So Don looked at me and then he registered recognition. “Oh yeah, I know you. You’re a WRITER.”
I wasn’t sure if he emphasised the word “writer” because that is what is significant to him or because he derides a lot of writers’ work and might have read some of my work and disliked it. I hope it wasn’t the latter, but at any rate, I responded, “Correct. And I am mainly known for interviewing and writing about songwriters. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to ask you, I was thinking what I wanted to ask about songwriting. But really, as evidenced by today, and throughout your career, in many interviews, you’ve talked to almost every point there is about songwriting, and given many stories behind songs. So I thought, okay, I would like to ask you about singing. And not how you prepare, because we know that too, how you work out and you have the stationary bike backstage and you don’t drink –
“There’s more,” he affirmed, but I really did not want the details of his pre-performance workout regime, because he talks about that all the time and I don’t need to know that again. The aim here was to draw out something I hadn’t heard him say before.
“When you occasionally sing ‘Talking To The Moon’, which is just so beautiful – “
“ – and ‘Desperado’, which I know still means so much to you; when you haul out a cover – because you’re very fond of finding other people’s songs – something like the beautiful Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ –
“Or Otis Redding’s ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, and your voice fits into it so beautifully – ”
“Mmm,” he concurred.
“Do you get to a point where you transport yourself emotionally? I’d like to hear you talk about the emotion of singing, something that, say, Linda Ronstadt talks about. Because I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you talk about how you feel emotionally when you nail it, when you can get past all that technical stuff, and just sing. Well. Which you do often.”
“Are you addressing that question to the songs that I don’t normally sing, or the ones that I sing every night?”
I meant any song, any song at all. “When you think that you sing well, when you get past wondering whether you’re singing well, how does it feel for you emotionally to sing your heart out?”
In other words, Don, I didn’t say out loud, do you totally get off on having a stunning, unique, soulful voice when that voice works so damn well? Does your heart soar? Do you feel spiritual? Or at least ecstatic?
Don, bless that heart of his, started answering in terms of technicalities.
“OK. That depends on how my voice is doing on a particular night. Like last night I had a really good night. I think it was because I finally slept. Sleeping and singing are critical… when I just don’t sleep and I’m up on the Internet and I’m answering emails and I’m doing business and stuff, I don’t sleep much. And when I don’t sleep I don’t sing very well, and when I don’t sing very well I’m busy struggling in my head; I can’t really get emotionally into a song because I’m trying to make the notes right. And I’m worried about getting in tune and stuff like that so that takes a lot of the fun out of it. Last night I had fun. Because for some reason this was working.” Pointing at his throat. “I think because I slept the last two days in a row. I just made myself; I said, ‘You’ve got to sleep, son.’ So that’s what it comes down to, it’s either a struggle or it’s a joy. And you know, my voice tends to warm up more toward the end of a show. By the time I get to ‘Fast Lane’ and ‘Hotel California’ I’m pretty well there.
“But when you sing a song for 45 years there’s some acting involved; you have to go out there and sing it like it’s the first time you ever sang the song, and you still mean it. And I think I’ve gotten pretty good at that. I try. It’s not like I don’t care. But I have to remember that people want the emotion in there. I don’t want to over-emote. I don’t like singers who chew the scenery, who make it all dramatic. I’m not that guy. But singing when my voice is working is a joy. It’s a lot of fun.”
Oh Don, I wanted to say, then describe the joy. How does it feel inside? Talk to me about what joy feels like for you.
“To be perfectly honest, age has something to do with it,” he continued. “Frank Sinatra and a lot of people struggled when they got older. Sometimes it was alcohol. But your voice box after so many years of wear and tear… I have to work a lot harder, and I have a voice coach now, I’ve never had a voice coach in my life, I always sang wrong. And now they’re trying to teach me how to sing right. And I hope it doesn’t change, they swear to god it’s not going to change the tone in my voice. If it does, I’ll kill them. But I have to work a lot harder on it now than I did, to make sure it’s right. And I do ride the bike before the show for 30 minutes, I’m soaking wet. I lift weights; I do abdominal crunches. I’m doing it because I thought you were supposed to sing from down here and then the voice coach said, no, no, that’s all wrong. You sing from up here. And then voice coaches disagree about that; some say you sing from down here from your diaphragm and others say no, no, it’s all up here. So I’m going to have to try to get a definitive answer on that. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question.”
It is hard at these events, when others are waiting to ask their question and nobody wants to annoy Don, to press the point. But I gave it one more try. “I just wondered if you ever lose yourself and just feel emotional. Not necessarily now, but even in past years.”
“I rarely lose myself because I’m too busy thinking about the technicality of it; I’m busy thinking about singing the notes, and getting the note,” Don replied. “Now last night I lost myself a couple of times, because it was working and I didn’t have to worry about it. I did, I got emotional a couple of times last night. I really did. You know, thinking about things that have transpired in the last couple of years and how lucky I am to be here at this age and have this career and be able to have all these people come and see me, and have this great band that I have. I was overcome with gratitude a couple of times last night. But it’s only because my voice was working.”
He then hastened to add, “I didn’t mean I wasn’t grateful for all that other stuff. I just meant that that gave me the chance to think about all that other stuff, because I wasn’t struggling to hit the notes. So singing is biological and emotional. It’s both things. And you have to have a balance between the two. Then part of it is simply the mechanics, of this.”
I guess that asking Don Henley to describe any unguarded passions that emerge from the sheer pleasure of his art – singing, writing – is somehow too personal. The heart of the matter is okay for song lyrics but not for conversation with those outside the inner circle. Maybe, I thought later, I should have just asked him to talk about how he feels when he has those amazing beef ribs at Pecan Lodge, the best barbecue restaurant in Dallas, because I know he loves those ribs, as do I, and surely there is no work involved in eating them. (The barbecue topic did come up a little later. Read on.)
All of which drives home the point that ultimately Don Henley is a working man and work is what he likes to talk about. What we got in the three and a half hours of Don answering questions, very generously, with grace and good humour and at great pains to give as many people as possible the chance to stand and ask something so they were getting value for their money, was Don the earnest, hard working singer, songwriter, band member, father, friend. He is a very good friend to Randy Newman, for example, because twice during the session he gave long rambling endorsements of Newman’s about-to-be-released album Dark Matter (which is a damn fine album). The father thing, which he speaks of often, is always touching, and he talked about his son several times in this forum. When he says he has to keep working because “I have three kids to put through college”, which I have heard him say a number of times, I do want to laugh, because I imagine he could put many more than three kids through college just on the royalties from the chorus of “Hotel California”, without having to keep touring into his old age.
But it sounds good, like it legitimises his continuing work ethic, so he’s sticking to that line. None of the kids is in college yet, but he did tell us that his son Will, who graduated from high school this year, is taking a gap year and will do some travelling with Don. Those kinds of little insights – “I was up until about 4am at my kitchen having barbecue and birthday cake with my son” – were the charming moments of candour that wouldn’t happen at a press conference. He didn’t go partying after his birthday concert the night before. “They say, oh I bet you cats went out and had a wild party with Stevie and Joe. No man, we’re all old! I told them, I’ve got a thing I have to do tomorrow. A thing.”
We were his “thing”. A room full of devoted Henley fans – including his childhood friend and early band mate Richard Bowden from Linden, Texas, unobtrusively sitting in the audience – and Don on a big chair on a raised platform in one of his work man-like plaid shirts, looking tired but quite humbled. “I’m still waking up,” he said. “It took me a while to relax and come down after last night; it was pretty exciting… This is going to be a Q&A, you know I’m not singing today, right? Because I can’t. I used it up all last night on the stage. I gave it everything I had.”
He did, it’s true. I wrote about that here. It was a great concert; Don looked so happy on stage. He told us that he enjoyed having his friends there – Joe and Timothy, Stevie and Patty – and he told us that Paul McCartney had sent a text via Joe Walsh’s wife (whose sister is married to Ringo Starr) to wish Don a happy birthday. “It made my night,” he said. “As well as you, of course.”
So having worked on his birthday he was now working the day after his birthday, sitting in front of 350 admirers that wanted to ask him questions or just share stories about how his music had affected their lives.
There were the people that asked him about each of his charities, the Caddo Lake Institute and the Walden Woods Project. Don has spoken about these many, many times and I got the feeling the questioners here wanted to show him that they respected how much Caddo Lake in Texas, near his hometown of Linden, and Walden Woods in Massachusetts, famous for the writings of Henry David Thoreau, whom Don reveres, mean to Don. For those who had heard Don speak of Caddo and Walden a hundred times, it was a bit of a shame to have time with Don taken up on subjects that had been talked of so often, but it is also just nice to hear Don speak. So speak he did. And pepper his responses with vignettes of his life. He grew up fishing on Caddo Lake, caught his first fish there in 1957 with his Dad. He loves Walden Woods and Walden Pond because he spent his childhood outdoors in the woods, a kind of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn upbringing, with a great affinity for nature. Reading Thoreau’s Walden gave him great solace while he was back home from California, watching his father’s health deteriorate in the summer of 1969.
His friend Richard Bowden popped up in some responses, probably because he was sitting right there in the room, and it frequently brought Don’s stories back to childhood. Someone asked, “When did you start drumming and singing at the same time? You seemed in your element playing ‘Hotel California’ last night.”
Don responded that he had not at all been in his element. “I was miserable. I was playing Scott Crago’s drum kit. When you’re a drummer and you’re playing on somebody else’s kit, if something is like an eighth of an inch off from where your drums are, it’s a nightmare. And I was playing his kit but I got through it, I faked my way through it.”
If this had been my interview alone with Don, I would have jumped in. “Why were you playing Scott’s drum kit? It was your 70th Birthday Bash concert. Why didn’t you have your own drums there? Why would you open up the possibility of being miserable? And, really? Miserable? Is that not a bit melodramatic?” There would have no doubt been a good answer for that, but the question was left unasked and it is still a mystery to me. Meanwhile, he went back to the sixties.
“I first started playing and singing in his living room in 1963.” Pointing at his friend. “That’s my friend Richard Bowden. Richard is from Linden, Texas and his Mom and Dad were extraordinary because they stayed up late, til about midnight or one o’clock in the morning, and his Mom would always make food, so we got to play music in their living room as late as we wanted. And his Dad was a musician, so he understood. I probably learned to sing and play at the same time in his living room in Linden, Texas. First it was a drum kit that I assembled from high school left over drums. And then my Mom some time in ’63, recognising that I had some talent, bought me a drum kit. And I would also practice at home on my parents’ porch down at the end of the house. And I would play along to Beatles records, play along with Ringo. Who just turned 78 by the way. [77 actually.] And he’s doing really well. Vegetarian works I guess.”
A vegetarian Don could never be. Texas through and through, he told me earnestly last December, to the point of being evangelical, that Pecan Lodge in Dallas is a must-go for meat eaters, and that I must have ribs, and so I went, and went back, and back again. (Sometimes having brisket, sometimes ribs, always sublime. I think my last meal on earth might have to be barbecue from Pecan Lodge.) Word had also spread through the fan community, so when someone at the Q&A asked him, “Burnt ends, ribs or brisket?”, Don said, “I had ribs last night.” And said that sometimes when his mind wanders while on stage performing, he’s thinking about ribs and burnt ends.
“I can do both, you know. I can do both without messing up. I had some great barbecue last night. By the way, all of you from out of town, Pecan Lodge.”
“Everyone went there today!” several shouted out.
“Oh they did? They run out of ribs sometimes. That’s their best thing.”
It gets that meaty sometimes, the conversation with Don.
But away from the barbecue subject, there were a lot of questions about his music. A woman from England, who had flown over especially, pointed out that artists are going on tour performing entire albums to commemorate big anniversaries. She asked if Don would consider performing The End Of The Innocence in its entirety for the album’s 30th anniversary in 2019.
“I love that you people keep up with these things,” he said. I always find it confounding that artists don’t keep up with their anniversaries themselves. I suspect Don does more than he lets on.
“This year is, well actually it was last year, the 40th anniversary of the Hotel California album. They’re putting out a 40th anniversary issue, but we didn’t get it out last year, they’re getting it out this year, and it will include some live tracks from the 1976/1977 Hotel California tour. That’s one reason I don’t sleep; I stay up all night mixing those tracks, remote control, I mix them with headphones on and there’s a guy in Austin sitting in a recording studio sending me the mixes, I make notes, I sent the mixes back to him, he mixes it, I’ve been doing that for weeks.”
A woman from Georgia stood up and introduced herself. “I have ancestry buried in Georgia,” Don said. “So do I,” she replied. Don then said, “Mine got out. Except for the ones buried there; they didn’t get out.”
She said that the song “The End Of The Innocence” has always touched her. “Is there a song or a line that you’ve written that still really touches you when you hear it or sing it?”
Ah, emotion in a song. I leaned in. Nope, he took it in a different direction.
“Ooh I don’t want to get into politics,” he began. “‘The End Of The Innocence’ has taken on a whole new meaning now, since the November election. When I talk about the lawyers cleaning up all the details and that sort of thing, that resonates with me. ‘The Heart of the Matter’ always resonates with me because we always need forgiveness from somebody…
“I enjoy singing ‘The Last Resort’ and on the Cass County album – which really wasn’t that much of a commercial success – once in a while, even though he’s no longer with us, sometimes I’ll do ‘The Cost Of Living.’ I feel really fortunate to have been able to sing with Merle Haggard before he left. So that one moves me because he’s not here any more. I was moved last night because it was a special occasion. Some nights, some nights honey it’s just a job. It’s just trying to get from the beginning to the end. It depends on where you are and how drunk the audience is and how they’re behaving. If they’re being quiet and respectful then I can get into it in my head. But if there are some people down front – they’re always down front – they’ve had too much and they’re talking loud through the ballads and things like that, it makes it really difficult for us. Or if there are a lot of cell phone cameras with the little white lights, you feel like you’re deer being hunted… So it all depends on the circumstance. But yeah, there’s still songs that move me.”
Someone said that he likes Don’s lyrics that have an interesting turn of phrase, such as “She just looks at me uncomprehendingly like a cow at a passing train” in “If Dirt Were Dollars”. He asked, “Did you make that up, or is it an old Texas saying?”
“Neither one,” Don replied. “I paraphrased it. It’s not an old Texas saying. I think it’s a British saying. I read it somewhere, and it’s not worded exactly, I didn’t plagiarise it, I just changed it around a little bit. ‘If Dirt Were Dollars’? Nobody ever talks about that song. Yeah I think that was a pretty clever line. You know how you look at men and you say something to them and they look back at you and you realise they haven’t understood or comprehended a word you said? But it’s a great image because you see cows standing out in the field and a train will go by and… There’s that great cartoonist that draws the cows all the time – Gary Larson – and there’s that one great cartoon where the cows are out in the field, they’re standing up talking to each other, and one of them yells ‘Car!’ and they get back down on all fours and are eating grass, and when the car goes by they all stand up again talking to each other. ‘Car!’ I’ve never been asked about that line.”
Another questioner asked about other phrases in songs. “Every song you sing speaks to us and a lot of them speak for us. But you always have a twist at the end, or you use an obscure phrase. Like ‘Wayfarers on’. Or ‘egg and dart’.”
We all wondered how this guy didn’t get the Wayfarers reference (in “Boys Of Summer”) but Don was patient enough to explain, “Wayfarers as you know is a brand of sunglasses. Ray-Ban really should sponsor my tour because I gave them a hell of a lot of free advertising and I haven’t received a penny for it.”
Don frequently brought up commercial aspects of his work and what he felt he wasn’t adequately compensated for. (More on that later.) This one surprised me. Don, you put “Wayfarers” in your song without consulting with Ray-Ban at the time, back in 1984 when Wayfarers were all the rage, and you now think you’re entitled to money from them? I’d say here, in Ray-Ban’s defence, that they had a product that gave you a visual idea that suggested a great lyric, and you should thank them for that. But I guess he was being wry.
He continued with his answer. “Yeah there are little twists, at the end of ‘New York Minute’, that’s seems to be a very a dark song, and it says at the end ‘You can get out of the rain and everything can change’. So that’s a little twist. I guess I studied a lot of O. Henry stories in high school, he was the guy that always put a twist at the end. The ‘egg and dart’ [from ‘Waiting In The Weeds’], god I’ve seen that misquoted so many times online. You know those lyric sites, they’re always wrong. A to Z Lyrics? They’re terrible. The egg and dart is an architectural term. You see it in every older house. It’s a design that’s used for a moulding, usually up along the ceiling, it’s a little round thing that looks like an egg shape and then between the little egg shapes is a little pointy thing, which is the dart. And it symbolises life and death. The egg is life and the dart, which is an arrow in ancient times, means death. So I just threw that in there because it went with the theme of the song. That’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written, by the way. [Applause] And you’ll never hear it played on the radio. Cause they never play the good ones on the radio.”
Sitting in the front row I just had to speak up at this point. “But could we hear it on stage please?” I implored.
“Yeah. It’s hard to do,” Don said. “We did it for a while on that tour. It’s really hard to sing.”
It was The Long Road Out Of Eden tour, several years ago now.
“That’s okay,” I said. Meaning, it’s okay that it’s hard to sing, you can still do it, you like hard work, so sing it for god’s sake, because you say it’s one of your favourites, and it’s certainly one of our favourites. Sing it.
“Alright, I’ll give it a shot next time,” he said.
Then he added, returning to the original question about twists and turns of phrase, “I’ve been accused in my songwriting of being too serious and too morbid. If you look carefully in my songs there’s some humour in there. Randy Newman talked about that the other day, he’s one of the only persons who’s doing satire any more in songs, and he mentioned the fact that I do it a little bit, but nobody notices. He said, ‘Henley can’t really do satire because he’s in the Eagles, and nobody wants to hear him be the bad guy.’ I do throw a few little funny barbs in there, but it just seems to go right on by.”
Someone picked up from the “Waiting In The Weeds” reference and asked him why, after the Long Road Out Of Eden tour, none of the songs from the album have been played again. Good question. The album was the Eagles’ first studio album in 28 years and with Glenn Frey gone, most likely their last. Most of the songs on it are magnificent. We miss hearing them on stage.
“None of them?” Don asked, surprised.
“Well, I’ve seen you 31 times,” the questioner said.
“Well, then you would know. I’m just scrolling through my head right now trying to remember what songs were on that album. We did ‘Waiting in the Weeds’ for a while, and we did the title song ‘Long Road Out Of Eden’. ‘How Long’, we still do that occasionally, we do that once in a while.”
Well actually, no, you don’t. But nobody piped up to correct him. People just called out more song titles.
“’Busy Being Fabulous’, yeah that too. We should probably do that again. That song’s hard for me to sing. That’s a good question and I don’t really have a definitive answer for you except that we just decided that there were other songs that people would rather hear. It’s funny in this business. People connect songs to a certain time in their lives and they want to live in the past. And I can’t blame them because the past was sort of better than the present. In some ways, not in every way of course, but in some ways. And we gauge audience reaction, every time we do a concert, we’ll try a song, like something off of Long Road Out Of Eden, and if we don’t get the amount of applause that we expect, we go, okay, they’d rather hear something from the third album. And sometimes we rebel and we go, damn it, we’re going to do this anyway, whether they want to hear it or not. But at the end there we sort of honed it down to a greatest hits thing.”
If I had been interviewing Don I would have intercepted right there. Don, I would have said, I was in Australia for most of the Eagles touring years, so I am not a complete expert, but I saw the band quite a lot anyway, and twice on the final tour, a tour called The History Of The Eagles, which completely ignored the latter part of the band’s history that Long Road Out Of Eden was a big part of. So I think you are mistaken here. I promise you, enough millions bought that album that if you had played a couple of its songs live on The History tour or played them now, the response would be heartfelt joy. Just sayin’.
Don then said, “I think due now to some of the changes that are occurring in the band we’ll probably dig out some of those songs and do them again, because there are some really good songs on that album.”
And then he went off on his radio tangent. This came up a number of times; it always comes up when Don gets talking. “I don’t know if there are any radio people here or not, but I blame radio for a lot of this, because they just would not play the newer stuff. They do all kinds of research, demographic research and this or that, and they just play what they think people want to hear and they don’t give new stuff a chance, they don’t give people an opportunity to get accustomed to the new stuff like they did the old stuff. And it’s very frustrating. You know, Cass County didn’t get much airplay at all. They barely played it, and it’s because I’m over 40 or over 50. It’s called ageism. It’s all about the new, it’s all disposable razor cartridges now and it’s next, next, next – and it’s a shame. It’s a youth market, it’s all about the youth now, there’s nothing for people our age and it’s just wrong. It’s not that people stop loving music, you know. I could do a whole sermon about corporate radio, which has not served me very well in the past. But a lot of it is the way that radio is programmed and owned by big conglomerates. There are very few mom and pop radio stations any more. They’re all owned by big huge media conglomerates. Radio stations used to be programmed locally; local DJs would get to pick what they would play, what people in their local area would like. Now it’s all programmed from New York City or wherever it’s headquartered, and the word comes down from up top, this is what you’ll play this week. A lot of it’s political, a lot of it’s… payola… disguised as radio consulting. I don’t want to go too far into this because it gets ugly, but it’s frustrating for older artists because some people like Leonard Cohen get better as they get older; they actually have wisdom to impart, and they have things to say in their songs, and they don’t get played. You hear this mindless bubble gum crap, anything to say to anybody. But that’s the way it works, that’s the system. And so we play the other songs.”
Okay. I agree with a lot of that. A lot. It is an ageist industry, the music business. I know it, it causes me personal suffering, believe me. But I would say to that, Don, your concert audience is not necessarily your radio audience. The audiences that pay a fortune to see concerts by the highest echelon of heritage acts – Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand – are not in the least bit influenced by what they hear on the radio, in terms of buying tickets and enjoying these shows. They have every album, they have bootlegs, they spend thousands to come and see you sit on a little stage in a hotel conference room and talk. So don’t give us this “it’s all radio’s fault” that you don’t play tracks from an album you released ten years ago with much fanfare and which sold millions of copies worldwide and was certified triple platinum by the RIAA on its first day of eligibility (as per the news release your PR reps put out at the time). Maybe the truth is that after the Long Road Out Of Eden tour you were fed up with those songs. Maybe Glenn didn’t want to do them any more. I appreciate there could be many reasons why you dropped them from the set list, but don’t blame audiences and don’t blame radio. Not for this.
He has also regularly had a beef (for the sake of another meat reference) with record companies, most recently Capitol Records, which released his latest solo album Cass County in 2015 and which got a lot of press coverage, if not radio airplay. A questioner who wanted Don to talk about songwriting collaborations said that the lyrics on Cass County were his best work.
“Tell that to Capitol Records,” he shot back.
According to Capitol, Cass County debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Album Sales chart, marking the first No. 1 album of Don’s solo career. It seems like the label was right behind the album, at least at the time. Don has not enjoyed working with record companies for the most part, and we don’t know the full story, but it strikes me as curious that whenever he refers to Cass County he also mentions it not being a commercial success. For an album by an artist of his vintage, in the country/Americana genre, it did pretty damn well, as did the tour that supported it.
So when asked about when he would record his next solo album, which his fans are hanging on for with bated breath and hope will be the long-talked of soul record, Don said, “I may get another album out, I may not, I don’t know. It depends, I’ve still got three kids to put through college, and some of this other band thing happening. I’d like to, I’d like to get a couple more out before I fade away, but it just depends on what else is happening. Like I say, it’s not going to get played on the radio anyway. It’ll just be a personal love project or maybe the people in this room may be interested. But I guarantee it will not get played on the radio.”
Or it might. Or a concert tour really utilising that five-piece horn section Don tours with, featuring great soul songs – some new originals and some blow-our-minds covers like the aforementioned Otis Redding gem “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” – could be the best thing he ever does in his late career.
A question was asked about whether Don has any previously unreleased material that could turn up on new solo albums.
“I do have a couple of songs, yeah. I have a really good song called ‘Human Condition’ that we’re going to at some point build an album around. That was recorded years ago. And I hope in the next year or two build an album around that song.”
On the subject of collaborating and lyric writing, Don was asked, “When working with another lyricist, how difficult is that?”
“Well that process has changed over the years,” Don replied. “In the old days when Glenn and I used to write songs together we’d get in a room with a couple of acoustic guitars, and sit across the table facing each other and we’d write that way. And then slowly over the years it got to the point where we would get together sometimes and then would go our separate ways and work on the songs and then come back together and show each other what we’d done. And then that evolved into working completely separately sometimes, and just sending each other CDs or tapes or whatever, and writing more or less remotely. But we still got together occasionally and wrote in the same room or in the same studio. Some people I write with, like Steuart for example, we’re not necessarily in the same room together. He’ll send me a piece of music or I’ll send him some lyrics, and then he’ll study the lyrics or I’ll study the music, and then we’ll get together for a little while… To make a long story short, there is no set way that a song gets written any more. A lot can be done on the phone or on the computer. You rarely see it done the old fashioned way any more where you get in the same room and you hammer it out, but it does happen occasionally, it does happen.
“The way I like to write now is that I like people to send me music, or I’ll send them a piece of music that I’ve started and they’ll finish or add to it and then they’ll give it back to me. I’ve gotten selfish about the lyrics, I like to write them all myself. I don’t collaborate very much on lyrics any more. I would if it were Jackson Browne or JD Souther, somebody like that, I’d probably collaborate on lyrics with them, but most of the people I just want to get the music and I don’t want to hear their lyrical ideas. I’m open to it, it’s just I hate to reject people, I hate to criticise and say that’s not working for me. You have to have a very strong ego and personality to write songs because, like acting, there’s a lot of rejection involved. And you have to learn how to reject other people’s ideas in a very diplomatic and non-offensive way. Songwriting is a very delicate process and that’s why Glenn and I really went at it, we could say anything to each other, like ‘I think that stinks!’ We wouldn’t say that exactly, but you’d have to be able to tell somebody that what they’ve just written is not working. And there are not very many people you can do that with, without them getting their feelings hurt. So it’s a rare relationship. The great thing about Steuart is he just leaves me alone, he doesn’t even try to interject. He’ll have an idea once in a while. So I’ll write different ways with different people. It depends on who the person is and what they’re willing to do. Some guys don’t care, Steuart’s not particularly dying to add lyrics to things; he’s a musician and he’s happy just to contribute music and help me write lyrics on top of it and he’s fine with that. So again it just depends on the situation and the people you’re trying to write with.”
Steuart Smith, who famously said on The History Of The Eagles documentary, “I’m not an Eagle”, joined the group after guitarist Don Felder was fired from the band in 2001. The band loves him, the fans love him, he’s perfect. Early in the Q&A someone asked Don to talk about Steuart.
“Steuart Smith I met, oh gosh, it was in the early 2000s I think,” Don replied. “Don Felder had just been removed from the band, and Bernie had left, and we needed a guitar player who could play that kind of music, and there aren’t that many of those guys in the United States, they just don’t exist, people who can play like that. I was at a concert one day in Hollywood at the Ford Theatre, which is a little outdoor theatre built into the hillside there in Hollywood near the Hollywood Freeway. Shawn Colvin was playing, and accompanying her was Steuart Smith and a bassist named Larry Klein, who was a producer who was married to Joni Mitchell for a while. The three of them were playing, and I’m a big Shawn Colvin fan and I knew Larry Klein, but my eyes were riveted on this guy named Steuart Smith. And I went, Jesus, this guy is great, incredible. So I got in touch with him, and I said, ‘You know I’m in this little group called the Eagles and we’re really looking for a guitar player who can play in this style that you play in. And there really aren’t very many of them in the United States or in the world.’ And he went, ‘Well, I kind of like playing with Shawn, I like her music and it’s a good gig for me.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I’m talking about some serious employment here.’”
This got a lot of laughs, as it would. It’s a great story; we hadn’t heard it before.
“So he said, ‘Okay.’ And so I had a couple of meetings with him and then it was time to take him to meet Glenn. I told Glenn, ‘I found this guy, he’s incredible, he’s just amazing, he can do everything that Bernie can play and he can do all those bendy licks, and he can play anything.’ And Glenn said, ‘Okay, bring him over to the studio.’ Glenn had a recording studio out in West LA, and I took him over there one afternoon, and we ran him through three or four songs, and Steuart’s kind of nervous and he’s sitting there and he’s playing, and Glenn’s just sitting there listening to him. We finish, I say, ‘Glenn and I have to talk about this now’, and Steuart leaves the room. And I looked at Glenn and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he went, ‘Bingo.’ He said, ‘That’s the guy.’”
As Don told that story, he was right back there with Glenn, in that moment. It was precious.
“And so he’s been with us ever since,” said Don in conclusion. “And he goes off and does side projects, he’s worked with Rodney Crowell a lot, he does still play with Shawn Colvin once in a while. Steuart’s one of those guys that he cannot stop working and sit still for five seconds. If we’re not playing, if we’re not doing Eagles stuff, or if I’m not doing solo stuff, he’s off doing some other project. He never ever stops. We say, ‘Steuart why don’t you take a vacation, just a couple of days?’ But he just loves to play and he’s really good at it. So if we hadn’t found him I’m not sure if we could have continued, frankly, because there are not many guys around that can do what he does.”
Now that was an interesting thing to say. I might, had it been just me interviewing Don, have said, What do you mean you’re not sure you could have continued? You would have broken up the Eagles because you dumped Felder? Because the Bernie factor was old, Bernie had already been gone for 25 years anyway. And Felder was bad energy in your group and getting rid of him was instant relief. Yet his departure could have ended the band? Really?
I would have liked to hear about what Don and Glenn were thinking, when they fired Felder, about who else might have been suitable to step into that role of second lead guitar alongside Joe Walsh. I imagine they had other names in mind. At any rate, we loved that story about how Steuart joined the Eagles. We loved being back with Glenn for a moment.
A woman asked about something Don has said in Rolling Stone – “Which interview was that, honey? Which year was that?” – and she didn’t know, but I’m guessing it was in the special edition “Eagles The Ultimate Guide” that was published in April 2016 in tribute to Glenn. The woman said Don had referred to Eagles songs being released before they were finished. He had not actually said that. He had talked about the struggle between perfectionism and needing to let a song go. And he spoke to that in his response to this woman.
“As some of my band mates will tell you, I will work on the song for a millennium if I could. Sometimes a song will finish itself, and sometimes a song will not finish itself. Bluster your way through, just wrap it up the best you can. Off the top of my head right now I can’t remember any songs that I wish I’d kept working on but I’m sure there were a few. But some songs just turn out better than others. You try to make them all good but some of them actually write themselves, you know, they just come to you and they turn out whole and well done and they tell a story and it ends up just fine. And others are just stubborn and you have to sit there and just make up an ending. And sometimes you’re happy with it and sometimes you’re not. You know books are the same way; I read a couple of books lately where the ending disappointed me. The book started out great… and you get about three-quarters of the way through and it just goes…. It’s the same with songs. Some of the better songs, actually, I’ve written where the last verse came first and you work backwards from there. Or you get the middle first and you work to both ends. There’s no set way to do it. But some songs, you know, we try to make every song on an album good, but they’re not all going to be equal, they’re just not. Even the Beatles had some junk on their albums. And they had many of them. It’s called filler. But we always tried to make albums as best as we could.”
Another woman asked a question that made us all laugh. She wanted to know about Don’s inhales and grunts in songs like “One Of These Nights” and “Hotel California”. (“She’s got the Mercedes Bends – uhhh!”). “How did they come about?” she asked.
Don was confounded by the question but graciously responded. “They’re just little adlibs that you do in the studio. They’re just spontaneous little things. Listen to a Stevie Wonder record some time. You know, you hear him breathing and grunting and doing all kinds of stuff. They’re just part of the musical thing that comes out, they’re something you just feel and either the producer says, great, we’ll keep that, or they cut it out. They weren’t premeditated. Some of it was just joy, and some of it was just trying to emulate James Brown or something. They’re just spontaneous things that happen. And either the guys in the group like it or they don’t. I’ve never been asked that question before, so thank you.”
Ahh, joy. Grunting can be joy. That’s good to know. A sweet man got up and said, “I want to know what your favourite song is, and why you’re so sad in your songs. Who hurt you?”
We laughed, but it was a pertinent and beautiful question.
“I think the best songs are sad songs,” he replied. “I don’t enjoy happy little songs. Randy Newman said something, that happy songs are actually harder to write. Because you have to keep it funny, you have to start funny, there has to be a middle funny part and then you have to end funny, and that is really difficult to do. Sad songs, all the great romantic songs throughout history, from Frank Sinatra to Paul McCartney, every great songwriter does his best work writing sad songs. You can only hear ‘You Are My Sunshine’ so many times. On the other hand I could listen to ‘Yesterday’ by Paul McCartney over and over and over again.
“I think we’ve all been hurt at one time or another, especially when I was a kid in high school, in junior high, you get beat up, you get bullied. And I’ve had a lot of girlfriends. It’s like Joni Mitchell said, you take all your pain and you turn it into art. That’s what you do with it. Most great art has some tragic element to it. Paintings, songs, films, it’s just part of the process. And it’s so much easier to work from tragedy than it is from… I can’t even think of any happy songs that I like.
“But it’s not just individuals that hurt you; life hurts you too. Just living on the planet. You get hurt by friends, you get hurt by family, you get hurt by the political situation, you get hurt by the suffering of other people, people who go hungry, all the horrible things that happen, all of that hurts, if you’re aware of it, if you read the newspapers, if you know what goes on in the world, you have to experience some sorrow and some pain with that. And that works its way into the songs sometimes. Randy Newman, by the way, has got a new album coming out… I think he’s a genius. Randy Newman and Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen were IT for me; they’re the best songwriters.” He then went into a lengthy promotion for Newman’s upcoming Dark Matter album.
I would have liked to ask Don why he believes happy songs need to be funny. I had a lengthy discussion (for my book, Songwriters Speak) with broody Australian songwriter Nick Cave, about the fact that even something like “Wonderful World” is a polemic, that it puts forward a notion that the world is not at all wonderful, and it’s a topic I could imagine discussing at some length with Don. He didn’t write it, but “Peaceful Easy Feeling” does not contain funny parts. It’s just happy. Of all of Don’s solo songs, there are perhaps only two I think could be considered happy, both on the Inside Job album – “Annabel”, about the tender love for his baby daughter, and “My Thanksgiving”, where he concedes that he has a lot to be thankful for. Actually, maybe being thankful is not necessarily happiness. At any rate, neither of those songs is funny. Joe Walsh is the guy who puts funny lines in his songs, and those songs, like “Life’s Been Good” are painfully sad, because Joe was always the archetypal clown character and clowns are usually sad. But I digress.
This Runaway event was taking place on the weekend in between the two Classic festivals that signalled the return of the Eagles. I had not attended the Los Angeles show a week before, which I wrote about here. New York was a week away. The Eagles coming back, with Glenn’s son Deacon and country superstar Vince Gill in the line-up, was still a matter of great contention amongst some fans. So we were wondering how the Q&A would go once that subject was introduced. Someone stood up and asked a simple question: “How much longer can we look forward to hearing the Eagles come out and perform?”
Don began, “Well let’s see, Leonard Cohen did it until he was, how old was Leonard when he stopped? He was damn near 80, wasn’t he? He was older than that. And I look at him, I look at Mick Jagger – if I could just get that thin. I don’t know if he eats food! Keith Richards of course is a miracle. There are two factors involved. One is our physical health, ‘cause it may look easy up there, but it’s athletics, you know. It’s not just musicianship, it’s athletics, especially if you’re playing the drums and singing at the same time. And I work out for about two hours before every show. Stevie Nicks warms up her voice for three hours before every show. I ride an exercise bike, I lift weights, I do stretching, I do a whole routine backstage before I go on. Very different than the seventies. And it’s more difficult now to maintain a voice; when people get older things happen to the voice box. I don’t drink any more when I’m on tour. I rarely drink when I’m off tour, but no drinking when on tour because alcohol swells the vocal chords, and it’s just simply more important to perform well than it is to have a drink or two, although god knows sometimes I want one. So it all depends on how we’re doing, on everybody’s health, and on whether the people still want to come and hear us or not. Which we’re finding out now with these next few gigs. Those are the main two factors – the individual and collective health of the members, and the demands to see us. If those two things hold out I think you can count on a few more concerts.
“The thing we did at Dodger Stadium the other day, it wasn’t my best work but we were a little nervous. A lot of the technical things went wrong but I have to say that Deacon Frey, Glenn Frey’s son, I was so proud of him. He was cool as a cucumber. He’s 24 years old, and if you can imagine, he’s never played in front of an audience of more than 150 people, and he was in Dodger Stadium in front of 50,000 people, and he just killed it, he was just like, okay, I’ve got this. And Vince Gill of course is one of the best singers and guitarists on the planet. And me and Joe had a bad show but the rest, the new guys, did just fine. We’ve got some new crew members, we’re ironing out some things, but hopefully the thing in New York will go over a lot smoother. We’re going to do some more of those, there’s going to be one in Seattle at some point, there’ll be one in Atlanta, Georgia. And then we’ll see. It’s an experiment just to see. If the reviews we got in LA are any indication, things are looking pretty good, they were very kind to us.
“I won’t say that it’s not strange up there without Glenn. It is. And it’s going to be. But seeing his son up there, I’m right behind him on stage, and I swear to God, his hair is exactly like… it’s like looking at Glenn when he was that age. It’s heart-warming and freaky at the same time. But it’s a wonderful thing. So I think there’ll be a few more at least. Let me just put it this way, we’ll be around.”
Sitting there seeing and hearing Don say the Eagles would continue to be around without Glenn was still disconcerting. But nobody was going to go into that conversation; and Don had already accounted for his change of heart in the press, and there would be no point in riling him now.
Someone else asked about preparing for the Classic shows, choosing the set lists and who would sing what song.
“Well the set list was pretty much decided from previous set lists,” Don replied. “But we did rehearse for two and a half weeks. We rehearsed at first without Vince Gill because he was on tour, and he wasn’t there for some of the first rehearsals. But after he got there we rehearsed for two weeks at a big facility over at Culver City, California. We had to change up some harmony parts, there were a lot of the details we had to work on. We’re still workin’ on. We always rehearsed a lot in our career; we liked to over-prepare. And so we did that. We rehearsed a lot. We’re still going to rehearse when we go to New York, we’re going to rehearse in the stadium. You can rehearse in a rehearsal hall, that’s one thing, but when you get into a stadium it’s an entirely different ball game. Everything sounds different, the mixes are different, what you hear in your ear is different, and everything changes. We rehearsed for two nights in Dodger Stadium so that our light guy could focus all the lights; he had to figure out all the stuff that was on the big IMAX screens on the rear. So we spent two nights in Dodger Stadium before the actual show and we’ll spend a couple of nights in the stadium in New York before that show as well. There’s a lot that goes into it. We have two monitor mixers, one on each side of the stage; they’re new, we’re still breaking them in. So it requires a lot of preparation.
“We’ll sit around rehearsing vocal harmonies in a circle in chairs. We call it the Circle of Fear. We’ll figure out the harmonies and then we’ll go to microphone and play the song with instruments and microphones, and then we’ll go back to the Circle of Fear and do the next song that way with just the harmonies on acoustic guitar, and we’ll go back to the microphones and play with the band, and back and forth like that for hours. We usually rehearse about six or seven hours at a time.”
I would have liked to ask at that point, how did all of that work without Glenn present, the band’s Lone Arranger? Who is the music and vocal director for you now?
And – something so many of us wanted to know but nobody asked – was Bernie Leadon asked to join the band for the Classic shows? He had participated in the History of the Eagles tour over a two-year period and, when Glenn died, Bernie wrote that at the end of the final show on the History tour, “Glenn gave me a big hug, said ‘This isn’t the end,’ and another big hug.” So wouldn’t Glenn have liked Bernie to play with the band now? Was he in fact invited and he turned it down?
Someone now got up and asked, “What prompted you to ask Vince Gill, and is he going to stay with the Eagles?”
“Probably,” said Don. “Several things prompted us to ask him. One thing was that he and Glenn were good friends, they played golf together. Vince is an avid golfer and Glenn was an avid golfer, so they met that way. Secondly, we all had admired Vince’s music; he’s one of the best singers on the planet, one of the absolute best singers there is and one of the best guitarists as well. So we knew that he was one of the only guys – he was like Steuart Smith – he was one of the only guys who could have stepped into that position and done that. I mean really, I can’t think of anyone else. So those reasons. I was a little surprised though, because, like you, I thought he was kind of a bluegrass guy. He brought these gigantic amplifiers with him, these huge electric amps, not one but two of them, that are custom made. So it’s really loud on that side of the stage. It’s as large as Walsh is on the other side. It balances things out. So Timothy and I are going to have to get used to it. But he’s just a hell of a musician and an incredible singer and a really nice guy. He fits in really well. And we’re all very proud of Deacon as well. As I said before, for a 24-year-old kid to get up there, and do that? And Deacon is really into it, he’s taking voice lessons, he’s got a voice coach, he’s working out with a trainer, he’s all in. So we’re very proud of him. And I know his Dad would be proud of him as well.”
Going back to Don’s solo work, someone got up and commended Don for being “master of the duet” and asked him if there was anyone he had recorded a duet with where he knew instantly the song would be a hit.
“Well, you never know what’s going to be a hit,” Don replied. “I know people in the music business, they’re called A&R men and their job is to figure out what’s a hit and what’s not. And they don’t know either, they’re wrong about half the time. I knew when I sang ‘Walkaway Joe’ with Trisha Yearwood that was going to be a hit, that was pretty obvious. ‘Leather and Lace’ I thought maybe it would be a hit. But I wasn’t sure. You never know until it’s there. I figured that ‘Love Ain’t Enough’ with Patty Smyth was going to be a hit, you could tell. But also it depends on the momentum in the artist’s career, if the record company is really behind it and there’s some momentum going and you know they’re going to spend some money on promotion. There are a lot of factors that come into play to make a hit, you know. It’s not just because a song is good. The duets are done frankly to give more clout, to give a bigger chance of being a hit. They figure, well if we put these two people together we’re going to have a double potency thing here. So I hate to say it but a lot of it’s very calculated.
“But I’ve been blessed, to sing with Dolly Parton was one of the great joys of my life. She just killed it. She walked into the studio that day…” Don then told the story he had told before, many times, of recording the Louvin Brothers song “When I Stop Dreaming” with Dolly in Nashville. A cute story. I’d heard it before. What I hadn’t heard was the story of recording “The Cost Of Living” with Merle Haggard.
“Merle Haggard of course, that was a trip. He was something else. He got a little grumpy because I made him do too many takes. He was used to going in and, you know, Frank Sinatra was famous for that, he’d do one or two takes and it was ‘I’m out of here.’ And Merle was a little bit that way. He didn’t really appreciate the 16 or 18 takes. But I was honored and privileged to sing with him. He came into the studio – we did part of it here in the studio in Dallas – and he walked in, he was on his bus, he was on his way from Austin to Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth for a gig. He had his whole entourage; he had his wife and his son, his bus driver and his manager and they all came filing into the studio. And he sat down beside me and said, ‘You know, I really like this song.’ And I said, ‘That makes me really happy because I wrote it with you in mind.’ And he looked at me, and he said just as poignant as he could be, he goes, ‘Don, what’s happened to the music?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I think it’s come too far from the land and too far from the church.’ And he said, ‘Yeah I guess that’s right.’ He was very philosophical. Until I made him do 18 takes. Then he was pissed off. He came storming into the control room. ‘Is this some kind of a fucking joke?’ And I said, ‘No sir. I’m just trying to get the sound, that rich baritone you had on ‘The Way I Am’ and ‘Silver Wings’, and all that stuff.’ And he said, ‘I believe you boys are looking for a younger man.’ My producer, my partner Stan [Lynch], elbowed me, he goes, ‘That’s a great song title.’ So we wrote that. But I was honoured and privileged to work with the man because he and George Jones, to my mind, my three favourite singers in the world are George Jones and Merle Haggard and Ray Charles. And of course Aretha Franklin. And Trisha Yearwood. But it was just an honour to sing with him.”
Another questioner told Don that he loved the song “Waiting Tables” from Cass County and asked how his solo concert set lists are put together.
“It’s tough,” Don said. “First of all you want to play the songs that you know people want to hear, you’ve got to play the hits. But then I like to throw in a few album cuts. Clint Eastwood has a theory about making movies, his theory is, two for them, one for me. So I like to throw in things like ‘Talking To The Moon’, which I only do here in Texas because it’s a song about my growing up in Texas, it’s about these lonesome little towns like the one I grew up in that are all dying now. And ‘Waiting Tables’ is also influenced by my hometown because I’ve always had a soft spot for waitresses, it’s a tough job, it’s a really tough job. The Last Picture Show was one of my favourite movies, and the great actress who plays the waitress in that movie, Ellen Burstyn. When I throw in songs that I want to hear, the audience gets really quiet and you don’t get much applause. Sometimes I do it anyway just because I want to break up the monotony, I’d like to hear something that I like to hear. So we still have a set list and we go over it every night, and we say, do we want to change anything tonight, and sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. It depends on where we are; it depends on how my voice is doing, and whether I can sing those songs well or not. When I don’t sing a song often I sometimes have trouble with it, I need to get the groove into my brain. But it’s a tricky situation, because you have to balance it just right, you have to think about how many fast songs you can do before you can do a slow songs. How many slow songs you can get away with before you have to do a fast song again, what keys the songs are in. There are just a lot of things that you have to consider to make sure the show is balanced and has a flow. And we put a lot of thought into the set list.
“But sometimes I’ll just take a flyer; my band can play anything, so I can just go to them and go, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to do this. And they go, but we haven’t done that in months. And I say, well, you can do it. You know, I try to play what people want to hear but there’s always going to be somebody, like, I left out ‘Last Worthless Evening’ on this tour, and people complained about it. But it’s a dance. The older I get the more that I’m going to do, because I figure I deserve it, I have to be happy too. I’ll be honest with you, it gets boring playing the same songs every night for 45 years. You really want to hear something else. And I know what the songs mean to people, I know that they’re important and that they’re part of the fabric of people’s lives and the culture and all that stuff. But people also have to realise that I hear these things in my sleep. And that I would like to throw some other things in once in a while. And some people like that and some don’t. But I think in the future you’ll hear me mixing it up a little bit more because there’s a lot of things that I haven’t played that I could play and that I will play. Like ‘Waiting In The Weeds’. In the Eagles it’s a different story. In the Eagles it’s sort of Holiday Inn Express. But I have much more freedom in my solo work and I can do whatever I want cause I’m the boss.”
So, in speaking of Don’s songs that are really important to people, one woman got up and told him that “Boys Of Summer” helped her get through some awful times, that it took her to her happy place. “Is there a song that does that for you, or that you and your wife share?”
Don said he prefers silence.
“But I want to tell you something,” he then went on. “What you just said about that song and what it means to you… I was asked by a reporter at the Dallas Morning News the other day about that same thing, and I’ve had people actually ask me, when you listen to your records what songs do you like to listen to? I say, dude, I’m sick of them by the time we finish making an album, I’ve heard it a hundred times. But what you just said is the reason that I do what I do. What you just said is more important to me than all the gold records and all the Grammys and all the stuff, all the awards and accolades that I’ve gotten, the fact that those songs mean that to people. I was reading fan mail the other day about people who were going through terminal diseases and veterans who were crippled in the war and have come back and listened to those songs and those songs have been therapeutic for them and helped them get well and get through hard times. And that means more to me than anything else. So I thank you. If that does that for you then I’m more than rewarded. I wrote that song at a place called Zuma Beach in Southern California, it’s on the Pacific Coast Highway and it’s nostalgic, I like nostalgia. So that’s what made that song happen. Pacific Coast Highway has been really good to me.”
Later on, a woman told Don that she had loved the I Can’t Stand Still album since it was released, when she was 15-years old. This past year she was diagnosed with MS (which Don’s wife also has) and a tumour in her neck. And his music is the thing that she has been able to lean on for support in her most difficult moments. His music has been an incredible part of her life and she wanted to thank him from the bottom of her heart.
“Well thank you,” Don said, affected. “That’s exactly the kind of thing that I was talking about earlier. There are times when I get cynical, and I get sick and tired of doing these songs, and then I hear something like that. Or I read a fan letter like I read the other night from somebody who had a similar situation. Or I read a letter from the guy who was in the Iraq war or in Vietnam or something like that… and it brings it home to me, what these songs mean to people. ‘Cause I forget sometimes, I’m so close to it that I can’t see it. And I don’t want to make a big deal out of it for myself – oh, I’m a songwriter and I’ve got Grammys – ‘cause I’m just trying to be a normal person, especially for my kids. But it’s good for me to be reminded once in a while. It’s also scary, it’s a big responsibility. As I said in one of the interviews recently, these songs are much more important than any one of us in the band. The songs are the thing. We made ‘em but they’re gonna live on a lot longer than we are and it’s good for me to be reminded of how much they mean to so many people all over the world. That keeps me grounded and it gives me the enthusiasm to go out and keep on doing them. Not for myself, and not for the money, but for what they mean to so many people. Because trust me, when we were writing them we had no idea that they were going to be accepted the way they are and become a part of people’s lives, we didn’t have any idea. So thank you for those words. And I hope that everything works out for you. My wife has MS. And things are improving on that front; there’s all kinds of stuff in the pipeline and they’re going to figure it out sooner or later. So you hang in there.”
A woman had flown to Dallas all the way from Norway for Don’s birthday. She asked him what his life would have been if he had not become a musician.
“I’ve been asked that question and I really don’t know the answer to that,” he replied. “I might have been a school teacher. I don’t know, I really didn’t have a Plan B – it’s either gonna be this or nothing. I have no idea what would have happened. I just got lucky. Richard and I had the good fortune to meet a guy named Kenny Rogers. Kenny is wrapping up his career in October and I hope to go and sing with him in Nashville; he’s going to have a big farewell concert, and I want to be there for him. ‘Cause he played a huge role in my career. These little intersections happen in life and we don’t know why. Things could have been very different, but they weren’t. So I’ve stopped trying to figure all that out, because you just can’t. What happened happened and I feel very fortunate and grateful for all of you and everything that’s happened over the past 45 years. You could have fooled me.”
A woman asked about the song “Taking You Home”, saying her eight month old son falls asleep to it, in fact falls asleep to all Don Henley and Eagles music.
“I wish it would do that for me. It keeps me awake,” Don said, probably not trying to be funny but everyone laughed. “I wrote that song about my children, about my first born. We used to put my kids to sleep to Kenny Loggins’ album, Return To Pooh Corner, and all that stuff. But I know what you mean. Congratulations to you.”
Don has said many times that his children and his family life are nobody’s business. Someone asked him to talk about how The History of the Eagles documentary came to be made, and he said that he and Glenn insisted that they didn’t want their families and kids in the film.
“I’ve seen complaints on the Internet, ‘Their kids weren’t in it!’ Our kids are nobody’s business. They didn’t ask to be famous, they didn’t ask to be born to famous parents, they just showed up. It was the situation. And so we’ve all, me in particular, I fought very hard to keep my kids out of the spotlight, because it’s harsh. It’s harsh. I’m always flabbergasted by the celebrities that go, ‘Look at my baby, here’s my baby!’ It’s crazy.”
But he answered the next question thoughtfully.
“Do you think your son Will is going to pursue a career in music?”
“I don’t know,” Don said. “On the one hand I don’t want him to live in my shadow. And on the other hand he’s a very good musician. One of the problems is that the music business is not the music business that was there when I started. I got in at just the right time. It’s very difficult now with the new digital age and music being digitised and stolen on the internet, it’s very hard to make a living off of music any more, because you don’t get paid for your songs. You get paid but it’s fractions of cents. Plus, when I was coming up there were places to play, there were clubs to play in, there were music venues where you could play. We played frat parties, we played the Elks Lodge, we played anything and everything, Richard and I. There are not many places to play any more. You go on a TV show now and you’re famous overnight. You don’t pay your dues; you just get picked by a TV audience. I feel sorry for these kids when I see them at the end, because I go, you don’t know what you’re in for. First of all they’re going to take most of your money. And second of all, very few of you are going to last, even if you win the contest. So it’s a whole different ball game now.
“And he’s not sure he wants to be in the music business. Because he knows what’s happened to it. I told him if he wants to do it for fun and for joy, just for the fun of it, which is why we all started in the first place – that and to meet girls – if he wants to do it for that reason then that’s fine, but I’m not pushing him to pursue it as a career. There may come a time, there was something in the paper today about maybe he’ll grow up and join Deacon Frey, and carry on that legacy, but I don’t know if I want him to, I don’t want them to necessarily play their father’s songs for their whole life. If they write some of their own to go with the older songs that would be great. But I want him to have a creative career of his own; I don’t want him to just be a jukebox carrying on what I did. I would like him to establish his own identity and his own music, and have his own thing going on. But he’s taking a gap year right now, he’s just graduated from high school, we’re going to travel around some and see the world. Before they blow it up. ‘Cause most kids who go to college at 18 don’t have a clue what they want to do. I know so many people who wish they had waited for a couple of years before they went to college because they would have had a much better idea of the direction they wanted to go in. So right now he’s in that transitional stage where he’s just trying to look around him and see what his choices are. And if he wants to be a musician that’s fine with me. I can give him a lot of advice. He won’t listen.”
Given Don’s fairly negative view of the world and society, somebody asked a very interesting question. “You’re not optimistic about the future, quite pessimistic, but can you tell us what you are optimistic about?”
Don gave a lengthy and considered response: “I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s a little thing called North Korea and a little lunatic that runs it? I worry about that. I’m sure there’s some people in this room that don’t believe in climate change but I do; I talk to scientists from NASA, I know people in the scientific community, I have travelled to some places where the glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate. And I’ve seen places where the sea level is rising already; I worry about that. Some of my friends who are Silicone Valley experts, the guys who make all the new technology, are extremely worried about Artificial Intelligence. They’re afraid that it’s going to get so good that it’s going to take over. I don’t lie awake at nights thinking about this stuff but it’s on my mind. I think the political scene is a mess in Washington, I think it’s a horrible mess.
“On the other hand, on the positive side, I see the incredible advances being made in the field of medicine. For example, if my father had the kind of cardiovascular care that I’ve gotten he would’ve lived another 20 or 30 years. I’ve seen great advances in medicine; they saved my life back in 2010.”
That startled me; I had not known of a major health scare that Don had faced in recent years. He did not elaborate and nobody asked him to.
“And technology, the Internet is an incredible thing, it’s good and bad, because we tend to waste a lot of time on it and I get so sick of the pop up ads. The cell phone is a marvellous invention. And I see a lot of good things happening in technology in terms of people who are actually doing something about the environment, about climate. Texas for example is one of the leading states in wind power; we have more of it than anybody I think, which is a good sign. I see electric cars becoming more popular, I see battery technology becoming more popular, they power cities on batteries, they’re building a battery grid to run Los Angeles, it’s already in the design stages. The news is so alarmist, they would make you think that the world is just coming apart. The fact is that in a lot of places crime rates are lower than they were ten years ago. There are a lot of good things happening but we just don’t tend to hear about them on the news because what sells magazines is tragedy and drama. That’s what sells news; we call it the journalism of conflict.
“Music on the other hand is getting worse. There is some good stuff out there but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Maybe these difficult times will bring about better songwriting. Usually good songwriting occurs in times of turmoil. But we’re in the shallow end of the pool. And I know I sound like an old fuddy duddy when I say that, but it’s true. There’s just some bad, stupid, worthless stuff out there. It’s all about trends and demographics all based on research, all based on the youth market. Just about the time you get to our age when you know something, and you’ve got a bit of wisdom, they don’t write any music for you. You have to go back and listen to Paul Simon or somebody to get something that’s worth listening to. Cause they don’t make music for us. It’s all about the younger demographic. But that was a tangent.
“There are a lot of good things happening in the world. I get up every day and I try to balance. I can slip over to the glass is half empty thing a lot. But the glass is half full, too. So I think we’re going to see a lot of advances in technology and we’re going to do a lot of good things for the world. And hopefully we’ll learn to get along; hopefully they’ll figure out what to do in Washington, except fight with each other. Cause nothing’s getting done. We’ve got to get rid of this radical partisanship. There used to be a thing called statesmanship, where people could reach across the aisle and work with people that had not necessarily the same beliefs as them but they were willing to compromise in order to lift everybody up. It’s called the common good. Now politics has become about naked self-interest. All political rhetoric is designed now to give us the impression that we have nothing in common; the rhetoric is to divide us now. And we’re not really going to get anywhere that way. All political rhetoric is designed to destroy any prior sense of common purpose. And so somebody’s going to come along, they may be ten years old right now, they may be 19, they may be 20, but somebody’s going to come along who is going to show some leadership and common sense and is going to appeal to a wide range of people.”
To which someone screamed out “Don Henley!”
“I don’t want that job,” he said. “I like my job. I don’t know why anybody would want that job any more. It’s a no-win situation. You can’t win, you can’t. But I have to be optimistic because I have children, and I have to believe that… things may get worse before they get better, but I do believe they will get better in the long run.”
Just like a song title.
An amusing fellow from somewhere in Texas said it was tough figuring out what to get a guy for his birthday who can get just about anything he wants. So he brought Don some “butt nuggets”. Meaning fresh farm eggs. Don was amused.
“You are talking about chickens? That’s great. I have them every morning. In fact I have a couple of chickens. They stop laying when it gets this hot. In Dallas they just don’t do it. Butt nuggets. I’ve never heard that before. Very appetising. I’m not into the gift thing, but I’ll take those. All you being here today and last night was gift enough for me. I’ve got a bunch of presents at home that I probably won’t open for two or three months. It drives my kids crazy. But thank you.”
One can only imagine rooms full of gifts that Don can’t be bothered dealing with. My book, which I gave him back in January and which he told me later, when I had my picture taken with him, he had no recollection of seeing, is probably in one of those rooms. Open your presents, Don!
Don was asked, “If you had the opportunity to have lunch or dinner with any individual, living or deceased, who would it be?”
“Oh man. It’s a big list,” he said. “Just one? Three? I would like to have dinner with one of my ancestors, whose name is Alexander McWhorter. Because he was a Presbyterian minister in Newark, New Jersey; he got a degree from Princeton and then he got an honorary degree from Yale, his portrait hangs in the hall at either Princeton or Yale. He was the minister for George Washington’s troops and said the blessing at the dinner before George Washington crossed the Potomac. In that famous painting when you see George standing in the crowd, he was part of that group. So I would like to ask him what that was like. I’d like to have dinner with John Lennon. Because he’s the only one of them I’ve never met. I met the other three, had lunch with George, and I know Ringo and Paul now, but I never met John. I met his son, Julian. Can I have one more? Christ is always on the list. I’d say, what really happened? Never mind all the stuff that’s written down by men 300 years later, what really happened? There’s a long, long list. I’d like to meet Chopin and tell him how awesome his stuff is. He was a rock and roll star in his time. He was the dude. He was extraordinary. You know, Albert Einstein, the list goes on.”
A man from Florida said that as recently as five years ago he would not have imagined Don sitting down with fans in an intimate setting to do a question and answer session. “Is it me, or have you seen yourself change? You were someone who didn’t have much to say but now you seem, at least in your public persona – ”
“A nice guy,” Don cut in. And got a lot of laughs.
“I think I’ve been misunderstood. For quite a long time now. When we first started I will admit that I was an angry young man. Fame is a scary thing, you know, it scared the hell out of all of us, we didn’t know how to handle it. We were very defensive, very insecure. A lot of young artists don’t feel worthy of fame. I never liked the spotlight; I still don’t like the celebrity… the whole celebrity thing now has become so tacky and so disgusting that it’s something that we never wanted any part of. Usually when I opened my mouth back then I had some smart arse remark to make where I was talking back to the press, which is always a mistake because it’s their paper. And so you get older and you get used to wearing it. I’m much more comfortable in my own skin now than I was back then, and I’ve gotten used to the territory that comes with being famous, and I just don’t worry about it. I go the supermarket, I push the cart around, they write about it in the local magazine. It’s always I’m at Whole Foods, pushing the cart around at Whole Foods. You know, everybody’s gotta eat. And I like pushing the cart around; it’s therapeutic for me. I go really late at night, wear a baseball cap. In this town, it’s not like Hollywood. Here people are very polite and they don’t rush up to you screaming and yelling and jumping up and down. Well, sometimes they do. And it’s just something you get used to.
“In the beginning I don’t think any of us thought that we deserved it. I think a lot of young artists have a certain amount of guilt. Because it’s a hard thing to happen to a 23, 24 year old kid; suddenly you’re thrust into the national spotlight, and you’re tossed about, and you’re written about and criticised and you’re analysed, and you have to develop a thick skin. It’s even worse now. Every show on television is about judgment. Have you noticed that? Everything’s a contest and somebody’s better than somebody else. It wasn’t quite as bad back then. But we had our feuds with Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times; when you’ve been trashed in the New York Times, you can pretty much handle anything after that.
“So I’ve just gotten more comfortable, especially after I became a father. If you can raise three kids, you know you can handle pretty much anything else out there. And I’ve just gotten used to the idea that it is what it is. We did what we did, we wrote these songs, people liked ‘em, it’s all good. I read bad reviews now and it doesn’t really bother me much. Although we don’t get many bad reviews any more. There’s that old saying: ‘Old buildings, politicians and madams all get respect if they stick around long enough.’ So I probably wouldn’t have done this five or ten years ago because I wanted to stay – and I still want to stay – out of the spotlight, I still don’t like the fame part. Except when I want a table in a restaurant. Then it comes in handy. Or if you want to raise money for a charity. That’s the thing that I find it most useful for is if you want to do something good, if you want to raise money for Walden Woods for example, or Caddo Lake down here, or something like that. Then it helps. Otherwise it’s a pain in the ass. We all change, hopefully for the better and grow into ourselves, I think. But again, it’s hard to be a 23 or 24-year old kid and get suddenly you’re huge, and all this money coming in, and people lie about you. You’re growing up in public basically. That’s why a lot of child stars become heroin addicts. It’s hard.
“I’ve mellowed some,” Don concluded. “Like I said, having three kids will do that to you. But thanks for that question, that’s an interesting question.”
Someone asked, “What would the present day Don Henley say to the 21-year old that left Linden for California?”
“Oh. Oh we don’t have time here,” Don said. “I’d just say, ‘Well you did some things right and you made a few mistakes.’ I wasted some time on some tangents, got off on some sidetracks that were a waste of time, but those kind of hypothetical questions you look back and you say, well look, if I’d been something different… But you didn’t and you can’t go back and redo it now, so it is what it is. Everything I did, including the mistakes, made me who I am right now. I learned from those mistakes. As the song says, I have some regrets, but too few to mention. I met Paul Anka the other day as a matter of fact. You can always go back and tell your younger self, but your younger self probably wouldn’t listen. So it all worked out the way it was supposed to I think.”
“Other than shopping at Whole Foods, how do you relax?” someone asked.
“I like to grow tomatoes and chilli peppers, although it’s hard in Dallas, it’s so darn hot. I go fishing once in a while, down at Caddo. I go back to my home town, hang out with Richard some times, just hang out there. But I’m usually workin’. It’s funny, people ask me, what do you do in your time off? ” He laughed. “I don’t really have much time off. This is a 24/7 job. There are decisions after decisions after decisions to make every day. I exchange probably 100 or 200 emails a day with our manager and with other people in the organisation. I thought life would be slowin’ down by now; most people are retired by now. But it’s speeding up. And at some point it’s gonna have to stop. But I’m going with it right now because not that many people get this chance, and I’m really putting everything I’ve got into it. I would like to make some more records, I would like to tour some more, I’d like to finish funding my charities, you know, I’ve got a list of things that I need to finish. A lot of things I want to do. It’s all about health. If you’ve got your health you’ve got everything. And I work on that really hard, I take fistfuls of vitamins; they may not do anything, but I take ‘em. As long as they don’t hurt me. And I work out three or four times a week for like an hour and a half to two hours, I work out before every show. Because I want to sing, I want to do well. I want to give people their money’s worth, I don’t want to stink. I don’t want to be one of those older artists that goes limping out there and does a half assed performance. I’d rather pump gas.”
Very early on in the Q&A a woman asked Don what was on his bucket list. I’ve saved it for last because I love the wistfulness within Don’s meandering response.
“There are several things but they tend to get replaced,” Don said. “One of the main things I’d like to do is travel more with my children. I wouldn’t say I’ve been an absentee father but I’ve been gone a lot and I’ve missed a few things. I try to be at home for all of their important school activities, if they’re in a play or doing something. If I’m home, I’m home; I’m not going into an office every day. I’m either gone for two weeks or I’m at home for two weeks. And usually they’re glad to see me leave. But I would like to travel with them and show them some of the world while it still exists. And another one of my dreams is, when I was a boy growing up back in Linden Texas, my father had a huge cornfield. And it was a magical place for me. I would go out there after the corn got way over the top of my head and it was a wonderful hiding place, it was like a maze, it was like a fairy tale… I would just get lost in the cornfield. I would lie down in the cool dirt between the rows and just look up at the clouds going by through the corn stalks and stuff like that… And it gave us what is missing from our society today for our children, which is Dreamtime. The Aborigines in Australia talk about Dreamtime and that’s missing now because we’re all glued to these gadgets. We used to lie on our backs and just look up at the sky and watch the clouds go by. And at night we could see the satellites go by when they first launched Sputnik and those things, you could actually see those go by if the sky was clear enough in our hometown.
“So I hope to do more of that kind of stuff. And to go fishing more. And see some of the world. I’ve travelled all over the world but I haven’t seen very much of it from the inside of a hotel room or the inside of an airport or the inside of an airplane. You see the road into town, you see the road from the hotel to the venue where you’re going to play, you see your dressing room and you go back to your hotel. And when I’m on tour I don’t go out very much; I can’t afford to because I can’t afford to talk in loud restaurants because it tears my voice up. So I’d actually like to go and see the world that I’ve been to but haven’t seen. I’ve been to Italy but I’d like to go back and just eat my way through. And I would like to go to places like the Galapagos Islands and environmental places that are special and important. I’d like to go to Antarctica. I’ve been to Iceland but I’d like to go back. I’d like to spend some more time in Great Britain tracing my ancestral heritage and my family tree. I’ve begun doing that but there’s still a lot of work to do. There’s so much to do. I want to live a really long time so that I can do it. And show my kids; it’s important to me to show my kids, I want them to know about their family tree and where they come from and all that sort of thing. So there’s a huge bucket list.”
As lengthy as my report is, I’ve left out many other questions and answers. Such as Don’s detailed, oft-told story of travelling to Honduras with a group on a humanitarian trip and encountering a native in a remote village with a cassette tape of Hotel California in his old boom box, and Don wondering if there was anywhere in the planet where he and the song were not known. I also left out his detailed recollection of recording the Desperado album in London when there were regular power outages, and getting Mexican food shipped over from Los Angeles, along with a case of Velveeta, his favourite pseudo-cheese product. He also recounted the recording of the song “Desperado” with an orchestra whose members were so bored they played chess between takes and grumbled about not feeling like desperados. Don said yet again that he has always felt his vocal on that song was below par. It’s my favourite song of all time. Of all time. The vocal is just fine, Don. No extra takes, no later versions on meticulously mastered live albums, no other performance can surpass the magic of that original recording, before you were a superstar, of one of the first two songs you and Glenn wrote together. Nothing. Here’s a story I might have told Don if I were alone with him having this all-encompassing conversation. In January 1980 I was in Israel, sitting on a cold bus with 30 other Australian Jewish students, riding in the dead of night from somewhere to somewhere else, in the Negev or the Sinai perhaps, and out of the blue I started singing an A capella rendition of “Desperado”. Apropos of nothing. I was not a confident singer and nobody had been talking about the Eagles. It just came up from inside of me, in the middle of a dark desert road in Israel, and I sang it, and everyone in the bus went quiet and listened, and when I finished they all gave me a rousing applause, which startled me, as I hadn’t realised everyone was listening. I’ve always remembered that. It meant nothing, and yet it meant everything.
So that was the Runaway Tours Q&A session for Don’s Birthday Bash weekend. The working man worked it well, worked it hard, gave us a big piece of himself. We were told the Q&A would go for 90 minutes. At the two-hour mark Don said he would take a few more questions and then continued for 90 minutes more. He said he wanted everybody to get their money’s worth. And we did. He repeated himself now and then and was occasionally forgetful, but hey, he’d just turned 70 and he’d been up eating cake at 4am. In terms of my fellow questioners, the audience of fans in the room, I found their incessant appreciative applause annoying. Not just after every question, but at the mere mention of someone’s name (“Steuart Smith”) or a little funny aside. It seemed to take forever for the applause to die down so that the conversation could continue. There’s a reason at classical concerts why audiences are instructed not to applaud during a piece, but to wait until the end. It’s incredibly distracting not to mention noisy. But that’s just me; I’m kind of irascible when it comes to being in large groups of people.
After our photos were done, we adjourned to a huge rooftop party room for supper and birthday cake. A DJ played loud Eagles and Henley music that we didn’t really need to hear as most of us just wanted to talk about what we’d experienced. The Runaway Tours dudes looked pleased with their work, and threw themselves into full party mode. People came up to me and said, “You’re the writer!” Yes, I was. I am.
Runaway Tours is on to a good thing with this packaging of concerts with fan Q&As. Joe Walsh had done one a couple of months before this (at Graceland, very cool I’m sure), and other artists, especially Jon Bon Jovi, whose brother runs the company, does them frequently.
Don apparently told the organisers after this, his second year in a row, that he needed a break of a few years until the next one. The talking for more than three hours was one thing; the process of having his photo taken with everyone afterwards taking another hour or so was another. It’s tiring stuff for an old guy. Perhaps the next one he does will coincide with the release of his memoir. (Write the book, Don! Write it, please!) I have ideas about how Runaway could package that one up as a Los Angeles experience. (Talk to me, guys.)
And if Don does ever write the memoir, I hope he will share much more about his true joys, as well as his sorrows, and give an insight into the depth of feeling behind those joys. Perhaps even go beyond the technical aspects of performing to explore the joy of having a voice that melts people to their very core, whether he is singing his own songs or the songs of other writers.
May that voice never be silenced.