Going Solo: Don Henley

Hi Everybody! We have Robert back again this week to continue the Going Solo series. Today he will be covering Don Henley, who came into prominence with the Eagles. After the band’s breakup in 1980, Don Henley had an incredibly successful solo career in the ’80s. I love all his work both in the Eagles and in his solo career. The music is great, and the lyrics to most of his songs are outstanding. He can paint quite a picture. Now, before Hell Freezes Over, let’s hop in the Fast Lane with Robert as he takes us on a tour of Don Henley’s music.

Don Henley: Building the Perfect Solo Career

In 1977 I was eight years sold. I had received my first radio the previous summer and I was really getting into music. I listened to that radio every day and every night, sneaking it under my covers if need be. I had not bought any records – just pure radio. There were many songs that I liked, but one really stood out. It touched me so much that it became the first 45 I ever bought. I don’t think I really understood the song, “New Kid in Town”, I just knew that it made me sad. This was when I became an Eagles fan. I would not buy any of their albums until college, but I borrowed a few and learned everyone one of their songs that was played on the radio. A few years later, as I was really getting into music, I learned that the Eagles were considered one of the all times great rock bands, but they broke up in 1980. That song that I loved so much was one of their later successful singles.
Fast forward to 1984. I was living in Germany by this time, but the radio was still one of my constant companions. In Germany we received one American radio station – AFN. The station had to appeal to many listeners so the programming was eclectic. I made it a point to tune in to AFN every Sunday from 2-6 pm – that was when they broadcasted The American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. This was truly one of the highlights of my week. I actually kept a notebook that listed all of the #1 songs (geeky, I know – but this was before the age of the internet). Some time in early 1985 a song really caught my attention. The voice was so familiar – I knew I had heard it before. The song was “The Boys of Summer” and the singer was Don Henley. The voice of that great song from my childhood was releasing his own music! I needed to go buy it.

After begin a vocalist and drummer for the Eagles, Don Henley began his solo career in 1981 with the release of the album I Can’t Stand Still. This album was moderately successful with the biggest single being “Dirty Laundry” (which I like way more now than I did then). Henley also released a duet with Stevie Nicks called “Leather and Lace.” In addition he gave a song, “Love Rules” to the soundtrack to the classic ‘80s film Fast Times at Ridgemont High (if you do not have this soundtrack, check out the scene with Stacy and Rat when they are looking at yearbooks). This was an admirable start for Henley as a solo artist, but even better music was on the way.

In late 1984, Henley released a song that would place him firmly in the chronicles of ‘80s rock. The song “The Boys of Summer” came from the album Building the Perfect Beast. This song had everything that I liked in a song: good beat, clear guitar work, great vocals, and lyrics that had some meaning to them. I bought this album on the strength of this one single and I was not sorry. This album made me a true Henley fan. Over the next several years I bought everything I could find that he was a part of.

I remained a huge fan of Don Henley’s music and was again rewarded with an even better album in 1989 End of the Innocence. I was honestly blown away by the music and lyrics that Henly created here. I continued to follow Henley and the Eagles through the reunions and some new music, but nothing compared to these excellent classic albums of the ‘80s.

Now I have a dilemma. Return to the ‘80s typically features an entire album. Forgive me, but I am going to emulate the Toto article and choose my favorite ten songs from these two albums.

Building the Perfect Beast

Boys of Summer #5

The opening cymbals and guitar riff make this song instantly recognizable to most fans of ‘80s music. This excellent tune examines a strong summer love that has disappeared despite the promises that were made. The male voice in this song realizes, maybe too late, that that woman was the best he could get, “I thought I knew what love was / What did I know? / Those days are gone forever / I should just let them go, but. . .” – you know the chorus. This song received the appropriate accolades: it won the video of the year at the MTV music awards and Henley won the Grammy for best rock male performance. The song needs to be included in any list of the greatest songs of the ‘80s.

Sunset Grill #22

This song is a bit unusual for Henley (or the Eagles), in that it is a completely keyboard driven rock song – keyboard solo included. I liked this song very much the first time I heard it – I love the feel of this song. It is an easy scene to picture- the beach, the sun, people of all types – all centered around the Sunset Grill where the owner “calls all his customers by name.” Henley, as usual, displays his writing chops, “You see a lot more meanness in the city / It’s the kind that eats you up inside / Hard to come away with anything that feels like dignity / Hard to come away with any pride.” I admire songwriters who are strong in the lyric category. Some of my notable favorites are Prince, Sting, and, because of lines like this, Henley.

A Month of Sundays

I decided to put this song on the list instead of “Not Enough Love in the World” (which reached #34 on the Billboard charts) because, simply put, this is a better song. As an English teacher, I try hard to make some concepts clearer for students to understand. I use rock music every chance I get. Springsteen, Bon Jovi and this song show up every year. This somber, piano driven song, highlights the classic struggle between the way things are and the way they used to be. Some may dismiss this song because it does not have a catchy chorus or rhyming lines. Do not make this mistake. This is an agonizing song that captures middle America as well as John Cougar’s “Rain on the Scarecrow“.

All She Wants to Do is Dance #9

Whenever this song comes on the radio, someone in my family always criticizes it for not saying anything except “All she wants to do is dance.” Granted it does say this line at least fifteen times, but there is much more to this song than the chorus, a good beat, and an infectious rhythm guitar. This song is about complacency. We see all these bad things around us, but most are unwilling to help or even pay attention to what is going on. Henley is urging us to take action and help solve some of the country’s problems; do not just go on like nothing is happening. This song has depth for those who listen closely.

Driving With Your Eyes Closed

Did you ever like a song and were not too sure why? This is one of those songs for me. I like the catchy rhythm guitar and solo. I like the imagery of the difficulty of accomplishing something while our eyes are closed. Besides, it is not often that a rock song will have allusions to French poets.

End of the Innocence

End of the Innocence #8

This album is full of great songs, but this may be my favorite. Many will recognize Bruce Hornsby’s stylings on the piano, but Henley’s lyrics make this song great. He captures the human propensity to return to older days when things were simpler. Clearly life has always been complex and full of pitfalls, but we do not recognize this until we are older. Most of us idealize our youths – clearly I do by writing for Return to the ‘80s. All of my memories of those days are perfect. My adult self understands this is impossible. As we age, we see and experience the negative aspects of life and, because it is harsh, we return to the memories of our youth. Enough philosophy! This song is excellent and once again shows what a great writer Henley is.

The Last Worthless Evening

This song brings back memories of college. I was a catering student manager (which I enjoyed); in the summer the five student managers ran the entire kitchen which remained open for summer students. We did everything: cooked, cleaned, washed dishes, mopped – everything. They were long days, but we made it fun; we all became great friends and hung out after work, too. One night after a particularly hard day, we were mopping – and this song came on the radio (yes, we mopped each night with the music blasting). The chorus of the song was perfect! It became a ritual to play this song right before we left for the night. The song itself is a great love-ish song where the singer is trying to convince a woman that her life is not over. After a difficult break up is experienced, we need to take time to heal and then get back in there and not let it ruin the rest of our lives.

New York Minute #48

Another great, albeit, somber song. I was first drawn in by the song’s title. Henley uses this idiom to show how so much can happen in such a short amount of time. The character, Harry, has had enough of his hustle and bustle Wall Street life – so he just disappears. The narrator of the song does his best to explain Harry’s, and therefore, our, situation: “Lying here in the darkness / I hear the sirens wail / Somebody’s going to emergency / Somebody’s going to jail / If you find someone you love in this world / You better hang on tooth and nail / The wolf is always at the door.” Yet another great Henley verse to ponder.

The Heart of the Matter #21

I like to think of this song as a philosophical love song. Clearly a difficult breakup has occurred. The natural reaction is to be upset, bitter, and let it affect the rest of your life and relationships. Henley says that we need to grow and get to a place where we are able to forgive the other person as well as ourselves. The song’s bridge says this perfectly, “There are people in your life who’ve come and gone / They let you down and hurt your pride / Better put it all behind you; life goes on / You keep carrying around that anger, it will eat you up inside.” This is a touching song that challenges us to forgive others. The video is a live performance from 1990.

I Will Not Go Quietly

I chose this song for three reasons: 1. Lyrically, this captures Henley’s personal philosophy, 2. That searing guitar is just too good to deny, and 3. Axl Rose is the backup vocalist. There have been plenty of examples of Henley’s writing here, but again he shows his knack for placing strong ideas inside of lines that rhyme: “Too many tire tracks in the sand of time / Too many love affairs that stop on a dime / I think it’s time to make a few changes ‘round here.” The lyrics set up an aggressive song that is enhanced by those guitars that hit you like a slap in the face. Need more aggression? Add some vocals by one of the most known singers of the late ‘80s, Axl Rose. What you have here is just a great rock song.

There you have it – one of the best songwriter/vocalist/drummer from the ‘70s and 80s. I have loved Don Henley’s music, but his lyrical content is second to none. Let me throw in a little English teacher love here. In 1990 Henley helped form the Walden Woods Project which set out to save Walden pond, one of the most sacred spots in American literature. It is the place that Henry David Thoreau lived for two years and became his inspiration for Walden, one of the most respected books in the entirety of the American literary canon. Don Henley is more than just a drummer or a songwriter. He has made himself a clear, strong voice in the American environmental movement, as well as a deserving member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with the Eagles). His work in the ‘80s is timely and powerful. All of the tracks on both of these albums deserve to be featured here and listened to over and over again.

3 thoughts on “Going Solo: Don Henley”

  1. Is it possible anywhere to view the performance of Henley at Jan 1990 Grammy awards of “End of the Innocence”? I don’t watch those shows but saw that for some reason and remember its being very good and, like the Eagles show I saw in 1973(?) opening for John McLaughlin, almost creepily precise in its covering of the studio version.

    Liked by 1 person

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