Time flies when you're the Eagles. Nearly three decades to be exact.
"Yes, well, we've never been fast," quips Don Henley about the Eagles' much-anticipated Long Road Out of Eden, the band's first studio album since 1979's The Long Run. The two-disc, 18-song collection of all-new material charts an epic - and eclectic - flight path through the band's trademark soundscapes and lyrical bite. Save for some contemporary cultural and political references, it's as though the Eagles never left their sonic nest all those years ago. The only difference is those same vintage themes of lost innocence and lost love, of carefree abandon, and of dissent and protest are now swirling through their sweeping harmonies with an added poignancy and precision as Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh all enter their 60s.
"I thought at 60 years old, my life would be a heck of a lot more simple and less frenetic than it is now," admits Henley, who moved out of L.A.'s fast lane and back to his native Texas in the mid-nineties to raise a family.
"But life just hasn't turned out that way."
Just don't think of Henley as the elder statesman of rock 'n' roll. "No, I look to other people for that," he says with a grin. "I don't think that rock 'n' roll is meant to have elder statesmen. You're either supposed to die, or you're supposed to just disappear. ... I mean, I'm probably in the best physical shape of the last 30 years, but I never expected to be doing it this long."
But while recent efforts by some of their classic-rock contemporaries have met a lukewarm response on today's fractured music charts, the Eagles continue to set new industry records with their latest offering. Not only did Long Road Out of Eden make its debut at No. 1 (selling an impressive 711,000 copies its first week, compared with only 290,000 for Britney Spears's new disc Blackout), but Eden was recently certified seven-times platinum in the United States after only a few weeks of release, making it the best-selling album by a group in 2007. This makes the most successful American band - with over 120 million albums sold worldwide since 1972 - the only group in music history to score a No. 1 album of new material more than 35 years after releasing its debut. And to top it off, Eden was nominated for a Grammy Award. Many are savouring this triumph as a shot across the bow to the deteriorating stranglehold of the major music labels, as the Eagles chose to distribute Eden exclusively through Wal-Mart and on their website (Eaglesband.com) for a price of only $11.88 (U.S.).
Henley views the overwhelming response as a blessing. "Part of me kind of expected it, just based on the [reunion]concert tours we've done, but then part of me was fearful that nothing would happen." He admits that "we worried for a while about how to fit in with what's happening on radio, but finally we decided we just need to be who we are."
It's a mission statement echoed by fellow singer-songwriter Glenn Frey. "We ultimately concluded that what people like about the Eagles is our singing," Frey says. "So the criteria became: Can we sing this? Does it sound like the Eagles? Because we were making a record for our fans, and our fans first and foremost love to hear us sing together.
"So it didn't matter if it was rock, a ballad, a cappella, country, or a Mexican song," Frey adds.
"As long as it's a good song with our voices, and Joe Walsh's guitar, we'd be all right."
Though they officially disbanded in 1980, their wildly-successful Hell Freezes Over reunion tour in 1994 and subsequent concert album thawed some of the tensions that previously prevented a new studio record. But as work finally began in 2000, it was soon shelved out of frustration. "We didn't want to go out being an 'oldies band' or a classic-rock band just regurgitating our old material," explains Henley.
"And we didn't want to do what a lot of groups or artists our age do, which is make a half-hearted effort for the sake of doing an album, or to fulfill a contract.
"And to tell you the truth," continues Henley, "I walked out on the process a couple of times. I said, 'Guys, we don't have the right mindset. We're not ready to do this. I'm going back to my solo career. I'll see you in a year or so and we'll try again.' "
Finally the band found its focus once again. "Quite frankly, most of the work only got done in the past two years," says Henley, who set up shop for the band at his Malibu recording studio and also at Frey's L.A. studio. "Once we got our legal problems with our ex-band member behind us [guitarist Don Felder was fired in 2001 and then sued Henley and Frey] we were able to be creative and think more clearly ... depositions and songwriting just don't go together very well," remarks Henley. "So after that passed, we started to really bust out and the songs just started flowing."
Admittedly, the timing was perfect. "We'd been waiting for some of this bad music to die down, for certain trends to go away, so that we could get out there on the dance floor again. We're a band that knows how to bide it's time, and how to wait."
But what really rankles Henley are accusations that Eden is simply a cash grab for the band that holds the distinction of top-selling album in U.S. history, with over 29 million copies sold of their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 release. "There's always going to be those cynics out there, but the fact is that we do this because we love to do it," he states firmly. "I mean, I never hear anybody ask a 60-year-old painter why he still wants to paint."
And Henley believes he knows why rock acts get a bad rap. "I think it goes back to the sixties or seventies when we all started growing our hair long and parents wanted you to go to college and become a dentist or something. They would say, 'When are you going to grow up and get a real job?'
"But this is a real job," he emphasizes. "It's a difficult job. And it's something we chose to do. It's not a hobby for us. We're not pop stars; we're professional musicians. ... I don't care if you're making widgets, people have to be creative in order to grow and live a full life.
"I mean, songwriting is something I've done since I was 15 years old," Henley adds. "And nothing is more gratifying for me, or any of the other guys in the band, than to hear a song come to fruition in the recording studio. Why wouldn't you want to keep doing it?"
Yet Hotel California's ominous last line, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave," still haunts. When the Eagles returned to L.A. to debut some of their fresh material in concert, suddenly Southern California was ablaze in wildfires. Thick plumes of smoke were now rising up through the air, not that "warm smell of colitas." It seemed a fated "welcome back" to the band that so memorably chronicled the California Dream-turned-sunny hell during the seventies. "We're still very deeply and sentimentally attached to Southern California, regardless of where we might live," says Henley. "Los Angeles is really the place where it all happened for us, and the root of everything - good or bad - for us as a band."
For it was there that Henley met Glenn Frey one night at the famed Troubadour club - at that time the hub of the L.A. music scene - where the likes of David Crosby, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt would hold court.
Recalls Henley: "Glenn asked if I'd like to go on the road with Linda Ronstadt's band and I said, 'You bet I do.' I was broke and here was a chance for $200 a week. We went out for a month or two and Glenn and I struck up this great friendship. That's when we started plotting to put a band together."
By 1971, the pair had hooked up with guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist Randy Meisner to form the Eagles. With their 1972 debut album boasting two Top 10 singles - Take It Easy and Witchy Woman - the Eagles soared from the start. Synthesizing the smooth harmonies of country music with studio-polished rock, they became the embodiment of the laid-back Southern California rock sound.
"We always incorporated every kind of music into our stuff," explains Henley. "Glenn and I were both big soul-music fans, and Motown fans, and R&B fans. But nobody at the time ever seemed to notice that. We were always a 'country-rock' band, come hell or high water. That label stuck to us like Velcro - we just couldn't shake it."
But in 1976 came the major turning point for the band. Hotel California was released and the harder-edged album - influenced by new Eagle additions Joe Walsh and Don Felder - became the group's masterpiece, spending nine weeks at No. 1 with its dark exploration of the gilded Hollywood lifestyle, using L.A. as a metaphor for the state of the nation.
The Eagles were chronicling the attitudes of a decade with an insight and bite that had all but disappeared from rock after the turbulent sixties. But the hedonistic and troubled strains of Life in the Fast Lane and Hotel California also revealed the band's internal strife, temptations and overindulgences - the American Dream unravelling before their very eyes. And when they released 1979's The Long Run, the overwhelming pressure to top themselves had finally torn the band apart.
The Eagles didn't just break up; the band imploded from the pressure surrounding it.
"It was just a very bad time," recalls Henley of the band's demise as that decade drew to a close. "We were a collective mess. Burned out. Pissed off at one another. Drugged out. It was rock bottom. We desperately needed a break, but the machine wanted more. There were contracts to fulfill, concerts booked - we had to feed the monster." Yet it seems time has not mellowed the famous frictions in what Frey calls "the most dysfunctional band in music."
"But the bottom line," says Henley, "is that we are, despite all our differences, able to create and produce things and I think that's probably better than if we all saw the world the same way, you know? The albums would be pretty boring. 'Cause this album is all over the map emotionally and stylistically and subject matter-wise ... it's a lot like life. And I think that's a good thing."
And much like life, Henley is unsure what the future holds for the Eagles. "I know, I'm going to be like 90 years old before they get done," he says, chuckling. "So we'll just have to see what happens." That's why Long Road Out of Eden closes with a beautiful Mariachi-flavoured ballad called It's Your World Now - a sort of Tequila Sunset for the Eagles.
"We wanted to end the album on a positive, hopeful note," explains Henley. "That song is primarily a message to our children. But it could also be construed as a fond farewell - some parting thoughts for our loyal fans as we ride off into the sunset."
On the Border (1974)
One of These Nights (1975)
Hotel California (1976)
The Long Run (1979)
Eagles Live (1980)
Hell Freezes Over (live, 1994)
Long Road Out of Eden (2007)