Singer, songwriter, drummer
After the dissolution of the Eagles in 1981, Don Henley emerged as a strong soloist playing the part of both “romantic raconteur” and “commentator with a conscience.” While the initial draw to rock and roll might have been excitement and money, for Henley it became something more important: a vehicle for change. Even during his years with the Eagles, Henley felt it was important to produce work that was more than entertainment. That commitment became even stronger after the group broke up. “Keeping in mind that a good love song never hurts on an album,” Henley told Rolling Stone, “I try to get as much information as I can gracefully get into a song without making it a pedantic treatise.”
Born July 22, 1947, in Linden, Texas, Henley was an only child, son of an elementary school teacher and an “auto-parts salesman-farmer.” He grew up listening to country music and later spent six years playing in a band that had formed during high school. He also played in Linda Ronstadt’s backup band, out of which, according to some sources, the Eagles arose. College-educated with a love for good literature and a penchant for finding just the right word in lyrics, Henley explained the logical influence of country music on the otherwise rocking Eagles this way: “I was in a big Emerson and Thoreau frenzy [after college], living that Sixties idyllic flower-child kind of life from a rural perspective . . . rediscovering that whole American agrarian myth.” California in 1970 still had the flavor of the West about it and was accepting of long-haired musicians who liked rock and roll. “It seemed the logical place to go,” Henley said, and the Eagles did, launching a successful career studded with seven award-winning albums.
Henley’s first solo album, I Can’t Stand Still, features a curious combination of political and personal themes that was to continue on subsequent albums. Side one handles the latter, with love songs expressing something quite different from the “see ya later” mentality the title track suggests. Henley explores loneliness and longing, his treatment of male-female relationships more sensitively handled than was often the case with the Eagles. Asked about the anti-woman charge brought against the group in earlier years, Henley told Rolling Stone, “Urn, Glenn [Frey]’s attitude toward women was a little different than mine sometimes. I’ll just let it go there.” Side two of the LP includes one of the album’s toughest tracks, “Johnny Can’t Read,” an intentional shot at the dilemma of illiteracy. Other issues confronted are the nuclear threat, in “Them and Us,” and what Rolling Stone reviewer John Milward termed “the exploitative nature of TV news” in “Dirty Laundry.” Unfortunately, Milward suggests Henley preaches too much, and has a credibility problem in being a comfortably living artist contemplating the problems of the common
For the Record…
Born July 22, 1947, in Linden, Tex.; son of an auto-parts salesman/farmer and a schoolteacher.
Singer, songwriter, and drummer; performed as member of backup band for Linda Ronstadt; founding member of the Eagles, 1971-81; solo artist, 1981—.
Awards: Co-recipient (with other members of the Eagles) of Grammy Awards for best pop vocal performance by a group, 1975, for “Lyin Eyes”; for for record of the year, 1977, for Hotel California; for best arrangement for voices, 1977, for “New Kid In Town” ; and for best rock vocal performance by a group, 1979, for “Heartache Tonight”; solo Grammy Awards for best rock vocal performance by a male, 1985 and 1989.
Addresses: Office— c/o 10880 Wilshire Blvd., # 2110, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
man. According to Milward, “Henley’s social concerns don’t bleed half as much as his personal ones.”
Building the Perfect Beast, released in 1985, fared better in the eyes of critics and record buyers. As with his first album, Beast was a collaborative effort, but Henley’s voice and direction are unmistakable as he crosses the boundary between rockers with shrill, biting lyrics (as in the title track) and soft, bittersweet ballads (as in “Sunset Grill” and “The Boys of Summer”) with ease. It was “The Boys of Summer,” described as “a romantic song full of nostalgia and vitriol,” that garnered him a Grammy, not to mention almost continual airplay.
But, as usual, the general public may not have understood Henley’s intentions any better on Beast than they had years before on Hotel California. Nostalgia was part of it, but there was more. “We raised all that hell in the Sixties, and then what did we come up with in the Seventies?” Henley commented to Rolling Stone. “Nixon and Reagan … I don’t think we changed a damn thing, frankly. That’s what the last verse of “The Boys of Summer” was about… we thought we could change things by protesting and making firebombs and growing our hair long and wearing funny clothes. But … after all our marching and shouting and screaming didn’t work, we withdrew and became yuppies.
Four-and-a-half years passed before the release of Henley’s third album. “I’ve got to learn how to do this faster,” he told Rolling Stone, “but I don’t know if I can. Songs have to arise from life.” On The End of the Innocence, they do. Again, much of the album has a tough, rocking sound, with some songs bordering on the savage—“manicured savagery” according to Time —but savagery nonetheless. Henley delivers harsh criticism about social and political issues in “Little Tin God,” “If Dirt Were Dollars,” and “New York Minute.” Yet even as he kicks and snarls his way through pieces like “I Will Not Go Quietly,” the album has an atmosphere of sanity and not the “jaded swagger that often got the Eagles branded as a slick bunch of SoCal libertines.” Not all of the album roars, of course. “The Heart of the Matter” is considered an especially sensitive classic-sounding song, and the title track, a remarkably evocative, wistful “love” song with an excruciating undertone of disenchantment, longing, and loss— of innocence, of youth, of faith in country and family.
The combination of personal and political themes rises out of Henley’s belief that the two are permanently intertwined. “I think that how we relate to each other as men and women, or as people has something to do with the way things are going in general.” He feels that where there is disillusionment, distrust, and suspicion in and about the “system,” so too will it exist in personal relationships. Sensitive to the world around him, Henley continues to draw on experience and emotions to express himself, though the process is not always an easy one. “You have to dredge up all kinds of feelings and emotions and wear them right on the surface of your skin,” he says, “and I don’t like to do that sometimes.”
When asked to comment on the overall effectiveness of rock music as a vehicle for change, Henley seems pessimistic. “I wish I could say it has changed things, but I’m afraid it’s been used largely as an escape. And when it comes to political issues, most rock & roll artists are living in the Dark Ages . . . they practically deny the existence of, and do not participate in, our democratic system.” Despite the lack of progress made on issues of concern to him, like the homeless and jobless, Henley maintains a certain hopefulness. “I do have hope. I mean, inside every cynic there’s an idealist trying to get out. At least in my case there is.” And, in this case, the idealist is not keeping his ideals to himself.
I Can’t Stand Still, Asylum, 1982.
Building the Perfect Beast, Geffen, 1985.
The End of the Innocence, Geffen, 1989.
New York Times, July 5, 1989; July 9, 1989.
Rolling Stone, October 14, 1982; December 19, 1985; November 5-December 10, 1987; July 13, 1989.
Time, July 31, 1989.
—Meg Mac Donald
Born: Gilmer, Texas, 22 July 1947
Best-selling album since1990: Inside Job (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "Taking You Home"
Singer/songwriter Don Henley first came into prominence as a core member of the Eagles, a 1970s supergroup for whom he was the drummer and singer. The Eagles broke up in 1981, and, while all of the band's members went on to solo careers, Henley's post-Eagles career became the most commercially successful. Never afraid to voice his opinion, Henley uses his celebrity status to champion and raise money for such causes as the environment, copyright infringement, and corporate greed.
Don Henley grew up in Linden, Texas, located in the northeast corner of the state. He first developed a passion for music when his mother brought him home a record of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog." He was also influenced by the country music that his parents enjoyed, and he was an avid fan of the Beatles all through high school. Henley attended Stephen F. Austin University and North Texas State, earning a degree in English. Along the way he played in a band made up of friends from high school called Shiloh. With the help of fellow Texan, the singer/songwriter Kenny Rogers, Shiloh cut one album, but it barely reached the public. Henley ventured to Los Angeles in 1969, where he became part of Linda Ronstadt's backup band. He and a fellow Ronstadt band mate, guitarist/singer Glen Frey, formed the Eagles in 1972, with Henley on drums and vocals. In addition, Henley wrote many of the band's songs. Before their high-profile breakup, the Eagles emerged as one of rock music's most popular bands and ended up selling some 85 million records. Only Led Zeppelin and the Beatles have sold more.
Henley's first non-Eagles foray into recording was a duet with Stevie Nicks in 1981 titled "Leather and Lace," which became a Top 10 hit. He released three albums in the 1980s, each of which spawned several hits. I Can't Stand Still (1982) contains "Dirty Laundry"; Building the Perfect Beast (1984) features "Sunset Grill" and "The Boys of Summer" (which won a 1985 Grammy for Best Rock Vocal on a Single); the most successful of the trio, The End of the Innocence (1989) (which earned Henley a 1989 Grammy for Best Rock Vocal on an Album), contains the hits "The Heart of the Matter," "The End of the Innocence," "The Last Worthless Evening," and "New York Minute."
These albums evinced the political bent of much of Henley's work. He does not hesitate to advance his views outside the recording studio. In the 1990s he began to raise money to protect portions of Massachusetts' Walden Woods, the setting that inspired much of the best writing of the nineteenth-century author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Henley helped raise $25 million to purchase one hundred acres of the forest, and his efforts were honored with a National Humanities Medal from President Clinton in 1997. In 1999 he opposed Clinton's signing into law the "Work for Hire" amendment of the Copyright Act, giving record companies sole ownership of an artist's work forever. Henley has been an impassioned voice for the repeal of this amendment.
In 1994 Henley rejoined the Eagles for their self-effacingly titled "Hell Freezes Over" reunion tour. Their breakup in 1981 was bitter, and members of the band stated publicly that they would regroup only "when hell freezes over." They released a live album from the tour, and it features Henley playing drums on a few of the cuts, an instrument that he abandoned in his solo career because of the strain it put on his back. As a solo performer Henley has focused mostly on vocals although he does play guitar. Henley pushes his high-pitched, penetrating tone to its limit; it is one of rock music's strongest voices.
He waited eleven years to release his next solo effort, Inside Job (2000), a typical blend of personal and political songs. The title track is a scathing comment on the "Work for Hire" amendment, "Goodbye to a River" is an environmental anthem, and "Working It" is a satire on corporate greed. Large conglomerates, lawyers, and America's propensity for lawsuits have all provided fodder for Henley's scorn. A ballad from the album, "Taking You Home," was first slated to be part of the soundtrack for the film, Double Jeopardy (1999). When it was yanked at the last minute, Henley, a multimillionaire, immediately sued for the profits lost.
Henley reunited with the Eagles again for a short tour in 2003, ironically titled "Farewell Tour I." In 2003 the Eagles were planning to release a studio album—their first in twenty-three years. Henley's solo projects come slowly; he remains one of rock music's most meticulous songwriters, working into his lyrics an array of vivid images and messages.
I Can't Stand Still (Asylum, 1982); Building the Perfect Beast (Geffen, 1985); The End of the Innocence (Geffen, 1989); Inside Job (Warner Bros., 2000).
Henley, Don, the most successful of the former members of The Eagles, both artistically and financially; b. Gilmer, Tex., July 22, 1947. Henley’s father, a farmer who also owned an auto parts store, instilled a love of the land and nature. His mother, a teacher, taught him to take in everything, making him one of the few college dropouts to drop bits of Thoreau and Emerson into conversation. Henley worked with a variety of bands in East Tex. One of them, Shiloh, came to the attention of Kenny Rogers. Rogers urged them to L.A., and Henley dropped out of North Tex. State, where he was studying English with thoughts of following in his mother’s footsteps. Rogers produced an album for the band. While the album didn’t make much noise, Henley met labelmate Glenn Frey, and the two of them joined Linda Rondstadt’s touring band. While on the road with Rondstadt, they hatched the plans for their own band, which would become The Eagles. For their debut album, Henley co-wrote the hit “Witchy Woman” the band’s first Top Ten hit. He also co-wrote the group’s first chart topper, “Best of My Love.” He co-wrote two more chart toppers for the band’s watershed album Hotel California, “New Kid in Town” and the title track. He co-wrote the band’s final #1 tune, “Heartache Tonight,” as well.
When The Eagles broke up in 1980, fans eagerly anticipated the band’s solo output, but most of the albums lacked The Eagles’ flair. Henley’s first foray was a duet with Stevie Nicks on a 1981 cover of “Leather and Lace” that eschewed the more country elements for a heavier blues orientation. Henley’s solo debut, the biting I Can’t Stand Still, carried on his penchant for social commentary. The blisteringly funny “Dirty Laundry” rose to #3 on the pop charts, going gold. The album also went gold, rising to #24. It took a little over two years to follow it up, but Building the Perfect Beast expanded on both the polished rock and lyrical eloquence of its predecessor. The affectionate “Boys of Summer” rose to #5; the funkier “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” hit #8; “Not Enough Love in the World” went to #34; and the melancholy “Sunset Grill” charted at #22. The album hit #13 and went triple platinum.
In 1989, Henley launched one of the most impressive and successful pop records of the year, The End of the Innocence. The slick, downbeat title track, co-written with Bruce Hornsby (who played piano), hit #8. Reminiscent of The Eagles, “Last Worthless Evening” rose to #21, as did “Heart of the Matter.” Other tunes, like “New York Minute,” became favorites on rock radio. The album rose to #8, spending nearly three years on the charts and going quintuple platinum.
However, with the exception of a #2 gold duet with Patty Smythe, culled from her eponymous album in 1992, Henley’s solo career has taken a back seat to his environmental activism and a bit over a year spent with the revived Eagles in the mid-1990s. Rumors abound of a new solo album, but they remain rumors.
I Cant Stand Still (1982); Building the Perfect Beast (1984); The End of the Innocence (1989); Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits (1995); Inside Job (2000).
D. Henley, ed., Heaven Is Under Our Peet (1991).