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Don Henley of the Eagles / James Glader

Don Henley: The Eagles' 'History' lessons

The classic rock band's co-founder reflects on the retrospective focus of their latest tour and the band's enduring influence

By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music

Don Henley is a deadly serious guy – about his music, his charities, his work, his life. And why shouldn't he be? Whether you're a fan of his work in the Eagles or his solo output, his spot in music history is huge and undeniable.

Fans misread that demeanor at times as arrogance or pretentiousness. Granted, Henley doesn't suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. But he's pretty damn funny and honest, as proved by the recent documentary "The History of The Eagles," where nothing is off-limits.

With the launch of a new leg of the Eagles tour – structured unlike anything they've done before and with co-founder Bernie Leadon back in the fold – Henley took a few minutes for an exclusive MSN interview. He answered a tongue-in-cheek question about whether the Eagles were getting along onstage lately or are just "acting" with a glib yet serious reply. Something is working, because the tour is apparently going so well that Henley's solo album has been pushed back to 2014.

MSN Music: [Original member] Bernie Leadon is back onstage with you. How is that after decades apart? And of course, Timothy Schmit and Joe Walsh never (or barely) worked with him at all.

Don Henley: Bernie's return has gone very well. It took a couple of weeks to sort out harmonies, guitar parts, volume levels, etc., but once it all came together it was like he never left. Bernie is a very accomplished musician and he's an important part of the band's history. It's also good to have another harmony voice in the stack. We're all getting along just fine, thank you.

This tour is unlike anything you've done before. There's you and Glenn [Frey] onstage together to start, Bernie joining in, then the full band. Who figured out how to structure this?

Glenn did the lion's share of the planning, with some input from me. We've been kicking ideas around for some time, now, and we may still make some changes as the tour goes on.

Live music blog: The Eagles History tour

On the one bootleg I've heard of the new tour, everyone is chatty, spontaneous and seemingly happy. Is that great acting, or did the process of the documentary and re-teaming with Bernie bring about some new perspective?

Gee, I don't know whether to ignore the "bootleg" part of the question or the "acting" part. So, I'll just say this: This tour is obviously a corollary of the documentary and, onstage, we are trying to tell the story of the band in a personal, intimate way. That's hard to do in 20,000-seat arenas. Our previous tours have been geared for arenas – they've been more or less "greatest hits" type shows and it made sense for Glenn to do most of the emceeing, as that has been his traditional role. But, on this tour, which is called, "History of the Eagles Tour," it didn't make sense to have Glenn do all the talking. So, we all chime in. Still, the show is mostly music.

Regarding band morale, I suppose the documentary did impart some perspective, or at least serve as a reminder of how far we've come and how fortunate we are. I think that as we've grown older, each of us, in his own way, has been working on seeing the bigger picture more clearly. Perspective is one of the hardest things to get, and even harder to keep. It's a slippery, elusive thing, but it's one of the most fundamentally important achievements in life.

I know people who weren't fans who had their minds changed by the documentary because it was so honest and put your career in context with the era. What are the strongest reactions you've gotten?

We've gotten very positive feedback across the board. I've received some very touching messages from friends, fans, fellow musicians – in some instances, people who have known me for a very long time but didn't know what the band had been through. As you imply, it wasn't just the story of a band; it was also the story of an era. We were pleased and grateful that Robert Redford and the board at the Sundance Institute saw fit to include the documentary in this year's Sundance Film Festival, both in Utah and in London. It was very well- received at both screenings.

Your history not only included all band members but the people who helped perfect your sound, including producers Bill Szymczyk and Glyn Johns. How important were they in the Eagles' success?

We learned a lot from both of them. They each had very different styles, personally and professionally, but there was value in all of it. Like so many things, that has become more apparent in hindsight. Szymczyk was at the helm during the mega-platinum years and we put in some long hours with him, down in Miami. But there were also several second engineers and tape operators [this was before digital] who burned the midnight oil with us. Our success involved a great many people who went above and beyond the call of duty.

Daft Punk's new album, "Random Access Memories," was based on the lush production style the Eagles had in "Hotel California" and "The Long Run." What's it like to have your influence picked up all these years later, especially in a different genre?

Well, it got me some "cool points" with my 15-year-old son. I really enjoy the new Daft Punk album. I understand what Messrs. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were trying to achieve. My son turned me on to "Random Access Memories" and I, in turn, sat him down and played him most of the music that influenced it. It was a great educational, bonding experience. It's wonderful when generational and stylisic boundaries can be gracefully crossed. One of the more interesting things about getting older is observing how things run in cycles and how perceptions change with the passage of time. At the end of the day, we're all just synthesizing and recycling; we're all using the same building blocks, putting them together in millions of infinitesimally different ways.

Bing: More on the Eagles | More on Don Henley

So why do you think your work/sound aged so well?

I think there are a number of reasons, including the fact that we never bought into fads or trends. We stuck to classic elements – country & western, bluegrass, blues, rhythm & blues, soul, rock – and combined them into our own sound. As I've said many times, we are a musical mutt. We weren't purists, we weren't cutting edge, but we never aspired to be. We were painstaking but not perfectionistic in our songwriting and production values. We dealt in universal themes, rather than the insular and the unaccessible. We never let any of the "cult of fashion" or "cult of personality" crap overshadow the music. We didn't have any robot masks or giant mouse heads, but for a long time we managed to stay relatively low-profile or incognito as individuals, letting the music do the talking. It was a different world, back then, in terms of media; artists were able to cultivate a little mystique. This was before "celebrity news" became a genre, before so-called "entertainment media" and tabloid reporting merged and tramped into the field of proctology. We also had demographics on our side, all of us being born near the beginning of the post-WWII baby boom generation.

The Eagles have a long history of political activism, from benefit concerts to your Walden Woods work. Have you soured on the notion? I read something from you several years back saying our country had become "ungovernable."

Political activism has to be carefully measured out over time. Otherwise, there's a burnout factor. There's a time to engage and a time to stand back. It's an uphill battle to accomplish anything, these days, when there is so much one-issue, special-interest politics, so much counterproductive partisanship in Washington. The band, as a whole, is not currently involved in anything that could be called political activism, although we still do some charity work, primarily for educational or medical causes. At the personal level, I continue to be a part of the effort to stop the erosion of copyright and the abuse of creative and intellectual property by global Internet service providers and media companies. In particular, the Sovereign Nation of Google, which enables thousands of copyright infringements daily and has built a multibillion-dollar global empire, at least in part, on content created and owned by other people. I also continue to chair the Caddo Lake Institute and the Walden Woods Project. This is our 23rd year at Walden and there is still critically important work to be done there, in terms of both education and preservation. I hope to complete the mission before I'm 70, but it's going to require a tremendous amount of fundraising, which is not exactly my favorite thing to do. Interested parties can go to www.walden.org to learn more about the project.

Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is a frequent contributor to MSN Music and its Reverb blog.

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3Comments
Sep 19, 2013 2:54AM
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I had the pleasure of meeting Don Henley twice, in my opinion he is a wonderful person.  He has done more for others then anyone will ever know.  My 20th Henley/Eagles concert is 29 days away and I can't wait to see them again.  I cannot get enough! 

Sep 12, 2013 12:43PM
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mfletcher135....... One of these nights.......One of these crazy old nights....
Sep 12, 2013 10:06AM
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Why no mention of the very important part of the Eagle's history...... Don Felder.  Arrogant is the best way to describe the narcissistic Don Henley. This article is another example of his uncontrollable urge to make everything about him and not the fans that made him rich. Don Henley is not a good person.
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