Popdose Flashback, or When Good Albums Happen to Bad People: Don Henley, “The End of the Innocence”

On the morning of November 21, 1980, the Los Angeles fire department responded to Don Henley’s call to help someone at his house who apparently was having a seizure. The person turned out to be a naked 16-year-old prostitute who had been taking large amounts of cocaine and Quaaludes. While Henley pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and admitted the girl arrived after he called a madam to find girls to party with, he still claims that he didn’t have sex with her, didn’t know how old the prostitute was, and didn’t know how many drugs she was doing–he seems to place the blame for her mass ingestion on roadies who were at his house. In the end, Henley got a fine and two year’s probation, and avoided any harsher drug or sex-related charges. [1]

If this was merely an isolated speed bump along the road of life…well, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Fact is, Henley has had a long history of debauchery in his past. The book You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again — a tell-all from four high-priced call girls with celebrity clientele — goes into Henley’s love of coke orgies. I once saw a comic in Los Angeles that “acted out” a supposed event from the book, where multiple prostitutes visited Henley in his hotel room. I won’t go into detail, except one of the call girls mentioned that she had never in her life been around anyone who reeked more of alcohol than Henley.

And while Henley kicked his drug and alcohol habits apparently some time in the 1980s, his well known egotism and flippant attitudes towards other individuals seems to have stayed well intact. According to Marc Eliot’s biography of the Eagles, this behavior extended across his business, musical, and even personal relationships:

As had become his pattern, in the beginning Henley played the ultimate Southern-charm gentleman — flowers, phone calls, words of love, Lear jets to Paris for romantic dinners. In the end he was distant, unreachable, brooding, argumentative, and elusive. It was a pattern by now so familiar to the Eagles crew it had become a running joke. [2]

The most famous (or infamous) example of this was Henley’s relationship with Stevie Nicks right after her breakup with Lindsey Buckingham.[3] The initially passionate relationship quickly flamed out after Nicks got pregnant, told Henley she was thinking of having an abortion, and he reacted extremely carelessly to the idea. According to Eliot, this deeply hurt Nicks, and caused her to realize that Henley had no interest in a long-term relationship. Nicks had the abortion while in the middle of the Rumors tour, and later wrote about the unborn child as “Sara” for the Tusk album.

Even on the very day that I started researching this article, new examples of Henley’s narcissism showed up: a short email interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer was posted to help promote the Eagles show of March 24, 2009. In just a few lines, you find Henley going on about one of his pet projects — the Performance Rights Act to try and gain radio royalties for singers in the U.S. — overstating the amount of money that is currently being generated by radio these days, and ignoring the question about the difficulties of working on the bill in the current economy. Then, he responds in a completely overblown and irritated fashion to a question about the use of the term “spirits” to describe wine in “Hotel California,” when the latter is not actually an example of the former:

A: Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention — and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor….My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.

Okay, so Henley is frustrated by someone bringing this up for the umpteenth time. You or I would probably be frustrated too if we were walking in his shoes. Here’s the thing, though. He was giving an e-mail interview. He had the time to read back over his answer, say “man, that was a bit harsh…glad I got it out of my system,” edit the snark, or delete the question and answer entirely, and then move on. Henley didn’t do that, though, and his response reeks of something along the lines of: “Listen, hack: I’m giving you my time — Don Henley‘s time — and you choose to do something stupid with part of it? Who do you think you are?”

Finally, this article would not be complete without addressing the control that Henley has taken and continues to take over the Eagles. According to Don Felder’s autobiography (which Henley in part tried to have quashed [4]), the Eagles is not a band with a democratic distribution regarding either decision making, or the pay split amongst its members, but an actual corporation, including a board containing the remaining original members of the group. With Felder kicked out, the only group members left to vote on Eagles-related matters are Henley and Glenn Frey, who, according to an article in a 2008 issue of Rolling Stone, has finally come around to deferring to Henley’s position on Eagles matters: “Without Don…we’d be Air Supply.” [5]

Based upon the preceding, you would probably guess that Henley would be a better artist without a band to hold him down, and keep him from doing exactly what he wanted to do musically. And that assumption would be pretty reasonable. While all Eagles albums (with the possible exception of Hotel California) feature some dross, and sometimes songs either embarrassing (“The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks”) or hackneyed (Glenn Frey’s lyrics are perhaps the tritest this side of Jon Bon Jovi), Henley’s solo work has been rather good. And though each of each of his non-Eagles discs also contains some filler, his 1989 release The End of the Innocence is the most consistently rewarding, and has aged the best over the years.

Beginning with the Bruce Hornsby co-penned title track, Henley sets the mood of album as one of two intertwined themes: the harsh business of American existence at the end of the Reagan administration, and the additional work involved in finding and keeping relationships as one nears middle age. Sometimes this blend leans much more towards the former, like the first two tracks on side two, “Shangri-La” and “Little Tin God,” which speaks of a leader crafted in the form of Reagan, but which could also succinctly describe G.W. Bush to today’s listener:

The cowboy’s name was Jingo and he knew that there was trouble
So in a blaze of glory he rode out of the west
No one was ever certain what it was that he was sayin’
But they loved it when he told them they were better than the rest

Sometimes the themes lean towards the emotional rather than the sociopolitical, as in the single “The Last Worthless Evening” or the excellent rock-track “I Will Not Go Quietly” (“Too many tire tracks in the sands of time / Too many love affairs that stop on a dime / I think its time to make some changes round here”), one of the hardest songs in Henley’s career, featuring the distinctive harmony vocals of one W. Axl Rose.

Perhaps nowhere are the album’s two themes brought together as well as in the closing track, “The Heart of the Matter,” co-written with former Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch. Still a bit shocking in its honesty, the lyrics speak of the end of an era that drove individuals like Henley to “win” at all costs, while sacrificing human relationships along the way. After getting a phone call from a friend about a mutual acquaintance, the narrator reflects on their broken relationship, and his responsibility in its destruction by forgoing others’ considerations in a quest for temporal rewards:

These times are so uncertain,
There’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness,
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
The trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness:
They’re the very things we kill, I guess.
Pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms;
And the work I put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm

Knowing that it is far too late to say “I’m sorry” and have it mean anything, the narrator still pleads for forgiveness, knowing that anger taken to the grave will bring neither the spoils of victory nor happiness. It’s a stunning statement, and re-reading the lyrics, it could have been written both for and sung towards either a man or a woman. Henley could be singing it to Stevie Nicks or Glenn Frey; or perhaps both of them. While Henley’s continued behavior in the last 20 years may give a bit of lie to the fact that he takes the philosophy of his recordings to heart, a work like this — indeed, of much of The End of the Innocence -- is partly appealing because it shows both the man and artist is capable of addressing and recognizing those flaws, not just in the world but in himself.


[1] Christopher Connelly (Aug. 1991). “The Second Life of Don Henley”. Gentleman’s Quarterly Magazine.

[2] Marc Eliot (1998). To The Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles. New York: Little, Brown, 128-129.

[3] According to Buckingham, Henley suggested while the two of them were working on Henley’s track “You Can’t Make Love” (off of Building the Perfect Beast) that they should go out on a joint former Nicks-lovers tour. Apparently Buckingham didn’t find this idea appealing.

[4] Don Felder (2008). Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001). New York: Hyperion. It actually was pulled by its first U.S. publisher in 2007 due to pressure from the Eagles, but eventually came out in the States in 2008. Henley also tried to quash Eliot’s biography, only agreeing to let it be published if he was interviewed for the work, and it met his approval, which led to little new insight, and some events, like the underage prostitute bust, glossed over.

[5] Charles M. Young. “Peaceful, Uneasy Feeling”. Rolling Stone (No. 1053), May 29, 2008.

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  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Great, great piece, though I had to laugh at the book report-style source credits. Man, don't fuck with Tom Werman, huh? :)

  • JonCummings

    Boy, I didn't know the details & extent of Henley's douchebaggery. (You have to admit, the guy knows how to take his own advice while he's “livin' it up” — when the cops came that night in '80, he certainly remembered to “bring his alibis.”) Still, the man has made some significant contributions — his performing Leonard Cohen's “Democracy” on inauguration night '93 remains indelible — and I can't help but imagine that Glen Frey was worse.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    Frey is TOTALLY worse, if only because he doesn't have a fraction of the talent to back up the douchebaggery.

  • jethro

    Agree, Frey IS totally worse. Even Henley defers to Frey who is the true leader of the Eagles, (as acknowledged by Henley). Everything is done Frey's way, period.

    Having read Felder's book I can't help but believe it's not all as he says….he's actually rather complimentary of Henley as a whole. But Felder had his own issues and lackings that didn't do much for the good of the band so he had to go. Can't ignore that.

    As debauchery goes, hell back in my 20's, I was really BAD too. They had all that money to cloud their judgement; I couldn't fault them for things the rest of us all did, and if we had that kind of money, would have done TOO to their extremes.

    The Cleveland interviewer asked about an aspect of the song he totally did NOT “get” so I don't blame Henley for being annoyed at yet another example of stupidity. Hotel California is so misunderstood it's ridiculous.

    Any eccentricities Henley lives, are dwarfed by his massive genius. There are few lyricists of his caliber who can write on anything with great thought and wisdom. The man is special, warts and all. Legendary level, having lasted 40 years now; how many of today's so-called “artists” will be as influential 40 years from now? I say, few, if none.

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  • jhallCORE

    Well done. Had no idea about the personal baggage. Pretty ugly. Liked the insights on the cuts off that particular album.

  • Dennis

    “Any eccentricities Henley lives, are dwarfed by his massive genius.”

    I really hope you're kidding. The man is a douche, and his music is even worse.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    Well, compared to Frey, he's Lennon and McCartney rolled into one. But you're right — “genius” is a stretch.

  • David_E

    But … but “Smugglers Blues” is a trenchant analysis of how sad people get when they're smuggling!

  • http://xolondon.blogspot.com xolondon

    There's no VIP in heaven. Don Henley will end up in the dirt like the rest of us.

    That said, I also love New York Minute from this CD.

    Excellent post!

  • Elaine

    Regarding [3], Joe Walsh is who Stevie Nicks names as the love of her life. In a way, The Eagles kind of IS a joint-former-Nicks-lovers band.

    http://www.wowowow.com/entertainment/stevie-nic

  • Elaine

    Regarding [3], Joe Walsh is who Stevie Nicks names as the love of her life. In a way, The Eagles kind of IS a joint-former-Nicks-lovers band.

    http://www.wowowow.com/entertainment/stevie-nic

  • Elaine

    Regarding [3], Joe Walsh is who Stevie Nicks names as the love of her life. In a way, The Eagles kind of IS a joint-former-Nicks-lovers band.

    http://www.wowowow.com/entertainment/stevie-nic

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  • Rich Hartsmith

    I'm part of a small minority, I'm sure, who prefers Henley solo to the Eagles. Just looking at Frey and Henley's solo work side by side is all you need to see. Even if you're not a big fan of Henley's solo albums, you'd have to admit they blow away anything Frey has done. the Heat is On? Really? Awful.

    Boys of Summer aside, I think Henley's lesser known songs are actually his best. As mentioned here, I Will Not Go Quietly is excellent. If Dirt Were Dollars is laugh out loud funny at times and stuff like You Better Hang Up, Driving With Your Eyes Closed and I Can't Stand Still are underrated (and relatively unknown) gems.

  • Caroline

    I love Don Henley — very talented. I’ve heard recently he has a 35 year old daughter called “Brittaney Olson” but am not sure this is true? Supposedly she was/is Evan Longoria’s best friend and bridesmaid at Eva’s wedding. I wonder who mom is? Does Brittany sing or compose like dad? Just a curious fan.