Bookshelf: Don Felder, “Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001)”
Former Eagles guitarist Don Felder titled his memoir Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001) in an attempt to sell more copies of the book. Co-written with journalist Wendy Holden, the book is more than the tell-all Felder’s former band feared when they took him to court and held up its release in litigation. In the book, he doesn’t even begin recording with the legendary group until 100 pages into it. Before that, Felder unfolds the tale of a young man growing up dirt poor in Gainesville, Florida, during the late ’60s. Literally raised in a tin roof shack, Felder’s parents were survivors of the Great Depression. Although his father could be a brute with his belt, he also encouraged Felder to pursue his gift for music. This encouragement led Felder to the guitar with which he hoped to emulate his hero B.B. King. While his older brother went to college and law school, Felder struggled to get through high school and fell in with the hippie culture of that era. Felder’s long hair and beard led to a physical altercation with his father and resulted in Felder leaving home in his late teens.
On his own, Felder kicked around Florida, befriending the late Duane Allman and hanging with his childhood buddy, Bernie Leadon. Both men would become influential figures in Felder’s life. It was Allman who inspired Felder to learn slide guitar and told him to “(c)lose your eyes and listen to the music…when your spine tingles, you’ll know it’s right.” Felder has carried these words with him ever since. Multi-instrumentalist Leadon, on the other hand, moved west to Los Angeles and gained fame with The Flying Burrito Brothers and as a founding member of the Eagles. For years, Leadon pleaded with his friend to join him and the growing musical movement on the west coast. Felder chose to toil away in New York and Boston in a band that went nowhere, and doing session work. More important to him, Felder reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Susan, fell in love and they got married. During a tour stop in Boston, Leadon finally convinced Felder and his bride to travel west. Once in California, Felder fell in with the gang at David Geffen’s Asylum Records. After a year being a sideman, he was invited to play some tracks on the Eagles’ third album, On the Border. An immediate chemistry was felt between Felder and the other band members, which included Leadon, bassist Randy Meisner, drummer/vocalist Don Henley, and guitarist/vocalist Glenn Frey. Soon thereafter, Felder was asked to join the band. Despite Leadon’s warning, Felder jumped at the chance to join an established group with two records under its belt.
From there, the book takes off in describing Felder’s dual life, one of a husband and father who was constantly absent from his family’s life, and the other a hedonistic rock star showered with fame, money, booze, drugs and women. In reading Heaven and Hell, one expects the tawdry exploits of a band at the height of their success. In fact, knowing the book was held up in court, the mind runs wild contemplating what exactly Felder wanted to reveal about his famous former bandmates. With their infamous E3 parties after each concert (the “E3” standing for third encore) where women were lined up outside the bedrooms and cocaine was lined up on the mirrors, the Eagles became hardcore drug and sex abusers. Yet, after reading a book like Motley Crue’s The Dirt, Felder’s memoir comes off as rather tame and repetitive. With no specifics of the band’s hedonism, there are only so many ways you can say “we did a lot of coke, drank a lot of whiskey and had sex with a lot of women.” If these dirty deeds represent the reason the Eagles didn’t want the book published, they made a huge mistake. Without the vices, we are left looking at two men, Henley and Frey, slowly taking over control of the band with their own ambition and greed. Their greed becomes so powerful that these two force out the original members of the band and strike up shitty deals with newer members (albeit, multimillion dollar shitty deals). Throughout the book, Felder refers to Henley/Frey as “The Gods.” In truth, they don’t come off as gods; they’re just dicks.
As the band achieved massive success with their multiplatinum album, Greatest Hits 1971-1975 (it continues to be the best-selling album of all time), Leadon quit and was replaced by Joe Walsh. Pressure mounted to follow up the greatest hits album with something bigger and better. That follow-up was Hotel California. The title track from that album was something Felder primarily wrote by himself. He does a fine job of detailing the birth of this classic song, how it grew from a melody that popped in his head, to the opening guitar part, and then into a full length demo complete with the dueling guitar solos at the end. All that was missing were the lyrics. Ultimately, what Heaven and Hell does is a reasonable job of debunking the myth that Henley and Frey were the sole reason for the band’s success. Manager Irving Arzoff (another “villain” in the story) aligned himself with Henley and Frey early on, and focused all of the media attention on these two. Felder pulls away the curtain to reveal that each band member contributed important roles to the quality and success of the Eagles’ music. Besides “Hotel California,” quite possibly the most recognizable and overplayed/popular song in the Eagles’ history, Felder also came up with the haunting bass intro and killer guitar solo to “One of these Nights,” cowrote most of FM radio hit, “Victim of Love” and performed the lovely, poignant acoustic solo on “The Sad CafÃ©” (from The Long Run).
Felder makes an effort to jump back and forth between the wild world of touring and what was going on with his wife and three children. The guilt he feels over missing so much of their lives and cheating on Susan, the woman who supported him through all of the hard times, is palpable. His confessions of love continue up until the moment she finds independence and starts a business of her own. After that, the marriage falls apart and a bitterness creeps into the book that I find a tad unfounded. Let’s be honest, there’s no telling how many women this guy slept with during the Eagles’ heyday, and he’s angry at her for finding professional satisfaction after years of being a stay at home mom? Honestly, I’m surprised she stayed with him so long.
There is an even greater bitterness toward Henley and Frey, primarily at Frey. Of all the people in this book, Frey comes off looking the worst. He manipulates, insults and does just about anything he can to get his own way. Henley is no saint, mind you, but Felder has a much higher regard for the pensive drummer, lavishing praise on most of his solo albums and the quality of his lyrics. Strangely, both men took on a sort of “parental” role in Felder’s life as he was always aiming to please them and gain their approval, very much like he sought approval and acceptance from his father.
In the ’90s, the Eagles reunited for a very lucrative album and tour. On the surface, they appeared to have buried the hatchet, but behind the scenes, these men were barely speaking. After that tour ended, talks began of a new album. Before that could happen, though, Azoff, Frey and Henley came up with new contract for the band members (who included Timothy B. Schmidt on bass, having joined the band in 1979 after Frey browbeat Meisner into quitting). The Gods offered Felder, Walsh and Schmidt less substantial contracts than what Frey and Henley would be earning. Finally fed up with their bullshit, Felder stood up to them, questioning the terms of the deals. This led to his dismissal from the band. In describing the news that he would no longer be an Eagle, Felder appears more heartbroken than when his marriage ended. But this makes sense. After dedicating most of his adult life to the legacy of this band, and sacrificing his family relationships and watching his marriage crumble, this was the ultimate blow. However, the story doesn’t end there. In fact, in his writing, you can actually feel a weight lift off of his shoulders once he doesn’t have to deal with the insanity of being in the Eagles. The book ends on an upbeat note; Felder even proclaims that he would go onstage with his former band at a moment’s notice, if asked. He writes “After all these years, those guys still feel like family to me. And like family members you don’t always get along with all the time, the physical connection is there, underpinning everything. Blood is thicker than water, they say. We shed enough blood, sweat, and tears in the three decades we spent together, and our ties are strong.”
On the whole, Heaven and Hell is a good read for any fan of rock and roll and anyone who is looking for a rags-to-riches story that ends on a positive note. Felder seems like a decent guy who is trying to be honest about his feelings. His writing style falls somewhere between confessional blogger and the ramblings of an aging rocker regaling you with war stories between sets and shots backstage at a middling dive somewhere in the southwest. This may explain why Wendy Holden was brought in to co-write. One senses that she made many of the passages more poetic than you’d expect from the typical rock and roll autobiography. For most people, Felder was always the mysterious member of the Eagles; in concert, he never took center stage and sang lead vocals on a song. He always let he guitar speak for him. With this memoir, Felder has finally found his voice, and he steps into the spotlight with confidence.