Eagles' long road to Eden

 

The Eagles are now more popular again with critics, as they have always been with fans, but when they play Dublin and Belfast in July, they will have unfinished business to deal with. Don Henley talks to SEÁN FLYNNin Chicago about a band enjoying an Indian summer

Downtown Chicago, March 2009

Don Henley wrote some of the best-known, most admired songs of the 20th century, including Hotel California, Desperado, One of These Nightsand The Boys of Summer. But these are not just songs: they enjoy a kind of independent existence as cultural touchstones of a time and a place – sunny southern California in the 1970s.

We are in the anteroom of Don Henley’s vast suite, which wraps itself all around the 28th floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Outside, it’s America; in this case a stunning view of Lake Michigan as it sweeps back toward the Sears Tower.

But no one is admiring the view.

Suddenly, someone introduces himself as Henley’s “personal assistant”. Henley will be with us shortly.

While we wait to be summoned, Eagles tour manager Larry Solters is checking his mail and simultaneously talking on his cell (as they call it over here). The news is not good. Heavy snow is drifting into Kansas, raising a question about the feasibility of tomorrow’s show.

Solters, a streetwise New Yorker, should know how to take the strain. He also handles Britney Spears and Gun’n’Roses, and is the US spokesman for Ticketmaster.

Solters is the big wheel driving the big business of The Eagles’ Long Road Out of Edentour. Last year, the band out-performed virtually every other act in the US, grossing more than $75 million (€57 million). This is the land of milk and honey, a long way from where The Eagles began in southern California all those sunny days ago.

But then The Eagles have always delivered for the bottom line. Over a two-year period in the 1970s they were shifting one million albums every month. Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975is the bestselling album of all time in the US. It vies with Michael Jackson’s Thrilleras the bestselling album worldwide.

This is the band who has done it all. But it is also a band which has some unfinished business with its huge fanbase on a rainy island off the north Atlantic.

Lansdowne Road, Dublin, June 2006

By the time The Eagles encored with Desperadothree years ago, thousands of fans had already filtered out of the stadium. The band had coasted through a soulless gig barely exchanging a glance with each other, let alone a word or two with their audience.

The following day the band’s lousy performance was the lead item on Joe Duffy’s Liveline. Why should we be surprised, asked one caller, the band members scarcely talk to each other, travel separately to the gigs and stay in separate hotels.

There is an old Steve Miller Band hit called Take the Money and Run. It could have been written about The Eagles’ ill-fated trip to Dublin three years ago.

The Sears Centre, Chicago, March 2009

The Dublin concert – part of the Farewelltour – might have closed the book on a band that could have been seen as a relic from the 1970s, all washed up and played out. But something extraordinary happened 18 months ago, when The Eagles released the Long Road Out of Edenalbum and breathed intelligent new life into the old franchise.

Tonight, in the 16,000-seater Sears Centre, the band returns to the glory days, revitalised by the happy challenge of rolling out some fresh material along with all those classic hits. It helps that the new material is so strong.

Henley’s Long Road Out of Eden, a sweeping Hotel California-style epic on the personal and political fallout from the war in Iraq, is a stand-out. The anti-Bush song has unleashed an angry reaction from middle America, and in some Republican states the welcome for The Eagles has been less than enthusiastic.

But the song, and the other strong new material, has helped to draw others back to a band most thought they had forgotten. The Long Road Out of Edenalbum has sold more than six million copies, an extraordinary feat in the downloading age. Last year, The Eagles topped the Billboard album again after an interval of 28 years.

Suite 2,810, the Chicago Ritz Carlton, March 2009

Don Henley, aged 61, is dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans. Despite all those tales of excess in the 1970s, the years have been a friend to him.

Henley has often been portrayed as the most earnest and solitary member of the band, certainly in contrast to the bigger, freewheeling personality of Glenn Frey. The feuding between the two has gained a place in rock’n’roll legend. But this afternoon, Henley, buoyed by last night’s gig in the Sears Centre, is friendly, even relaxed.

From the outset, it is clear how much he takes an old-fashioned, paternal pride in his songs. Long Road Out of Edeninterweaves the voice of a narrator with that of a soldier suffering in the Iraqi dust. It took Henley more than a year to conceptualise and write, but it is, he says, right up there with his best work, such as Boys of Summer, Heart of the Matter, Waiting in the Weeds(from the new album), My Thanksgivingand, of course, Hotel California.

These songs and others helped The Eagles to reel in Grammys and numerous other awards. But the band – regarded as cutting edge in the 1970s – are now routinely derided by the coolest critics.

Gram Parsons famously labelled the band as bubblegum pop, while David Crosby yawned widely when talking about The Eagles on the acclaimed BBC documentary, Hotel California: LA from The Byrds to The Eagles. For all their technical and songwriting ability, Crosby accused the band of taking few risks.

You get the sense from Henley that this lack of critical esteem rankles.

“The critical establishment from New York always looked down their noses at west coast bands and culture,” he says. “We have never got the fawning critical acclaim of U2 or Bruce Springsteen, acts who are perceived to have changed our culture.”

But Crosby’s charge of no risk-taking appears to strike a nerve. Henley thinks it unfair.

“I don’t think you could say that about my solo work or Joe Walsh’s,” he says. His own view is that the leader of the band, Glenn Frey, is more averse to risk-taking. “In the early days we were too thin-skinned and combative about the critics. But these days we have moved beyond that. We are getting very positive reviews for the album and the shows

. . . As they say, politicians, buildings and whores tend to gain respect if they stick around for long enough.”

These days, Henley says The Eagles are in a happy place, releasing their own records without hassle from record companies and looking after their own business. “It’s pretty calm here . Glenn and I still have our differences, but we have learned how to compromise.”

The Eagles broke up in 1980, with Henley vowing never to return until Hell Freezes Over. In 1994 the ice thawed and the band, kept alive by constant airplay on classic rock radio and by Henley’s solo work, re-formed. They have been on the road on and off for the past 15 years.

Henley says there are no dramatic flare-ups any more. “The whole tour runs like a Swiss watch. There is no partying and there is no carousing.”

What does remain from way back then is Henley’s distrust of the media, captured so vividly in his song, Dirty Laundry.

Henley has a particular loathing of Rupert Murdoch, a man who, he says, has “single-handedly lowered the standard of news reporting by turning it into theatre. It has trivialised the serious. But all American TV now is about about exploitation and humiliation. The abuse heaped on kids in shows like American Idolis not very civilised.’’

Henley still buys CDs regularly, but little that excites him is emerging from American Idol and its ilk. However, he does not sit around the house listening to Stairway to Heavenor Go Your Own Way, preferring more contemporary acts, such as Rufus Wainwright and Snow Patrol.

For now, he hopes the forthcoming Irish concerts will exorcise the bad memories of Lansdowne Road. “I am sorry about that gig,” he says, “but the weather was against us and we are only human.”

He is taking his four kids, hoping they will reconnect with some family from Northern Ireland. He still recalls warmly an Eagles gig on the lawn at Stormont Castle shortly after the Belfast Agreement was signed.

“It had been raining earlier in the day, but the cloud rolled over and the sun broke through,” he says. “It was particularly memorable.’’

These days, Don Henley, venerable songwriter and singer, lives the life of a regular Joe in Dallas when he is not on the road. There are no paparazzi swirling around there, so he can go a week or two without being recognised or harassed. That said, the next day he might get dozens of requests for photos and autographs from courteous and friendly fans.

“I have a very quiet life off the road. I am on the school board and I do some gardening,” he says. “I take my parenting duties very seriously.’’

The bottom line: 28 reasons why The Eagles always shift the units

The Eagles play the Odyssey, Belfast, on June 30th and the RDS, Dublin, on July 2nd. A typical set-list played by the band during the current tour includes some of the perenially lucrative old favourites, plus new songs from the Long Road Out of Edenalbum which has revived critical interest in the band:

1 How Long

2 Busy Being Fabulous

3 I Don’t Want to Hear Any More

4 Guilty of the Crime

5 Hotel California

6 Peaceful Easy Feeling

7 I Can’t Tell You Why

8 Witchy Woman

9 Lyin’ Eyes

10 Boys of Summer

11 In the City

12 The Long Run

13 No More Walks in the Woods

14 Waiting in the Weeds

15 No More Cloudy Days

16 Love Will Keep Us Alive

17 Take it to the Limit

18 Long Road out of Eden

19 Somebody

20 Walk Away

21 One of These Nights

22 Life’s Been Good

23 Dirty Laundry

24 Funk 49

25 Heartache Tonight

26 Life in the Fast Lane

27 Take it Easy

28 Desperado