Born July 22, 1947, in Linden, Tex.; son of an auto-parts salesman/farmer and a schoolteacher. Addresses: Office --c/o 10880 Wilshire Blvd., # 2110, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
After the dissolution of the Eagles in 1981, Don Henley emerged as a strong soloist playing the part of both "romantic raconteur" and "commentator with a conscience." While the initial draw to rock and roll might have been excitement and money, for Henley it became something more important: a vehicle for change. Even during his years with the Eagles, Henley felt it was important to produce work that was more than entertainment. That commitment became even stronger after the group broke up. "Keeping in mind that a good love song never hurts on an album," Henley told Rolling Stone, "I try to get as much information as I can gracefully get into a song without making it a pedantic treatise."
Born July 22, 1947, in Linden, Texas, Henley was an only child, son of an elementary school teacher and an "auto-parts salesman-farmer." He grew up listening to country music and later spent six years playing in a band that had formed during high school. He also played in Linda Ronstadt's backup band, out of which, according to some sources, the Eagles arose. College-educated with a love for good literature and a penchant for finding just the right word in lyrics, Henley explained the logical influence of country music on the otherwise rocking Eagles this way: "I was in a big Emerson and Thoreau frenzy [after college], living that Sixties idyllic flower-child kind of life from a rural perspective ... rediscovering that whole American agrarian myth." California in 1970 still had the flavor of the West about it and was accepting of long-haired musicians who liked rock and roll. "It seemed the logical place to go," Henley said, and the Eagles did, launching a successful career studded with seven award-winning albums.
Henley's first solo album, I Can't Stand Still, features a curious combination of political and personal themes that was to continue on subsequent albums. Side one handles the latter, with love songs expressing something quite different from the "see ya later" mentality the title track suggests. Henley explores loneliness and longing, his treatment of male-female relationships more sensitively handled than was often the case with the Eagles. Asked about the anti-woman charge brought against the group in earlier years, Henley told Rolling Stone, "Um, Glenn [Frey]'s attitude toward women was a little different than mine sometimes. I'll just let it go there." Side two of the LP includes one of the album's toughest tracks, "Johnny Can't Read," an intentional shot at the dilemma of illiteracy. Other issues confronted are the nuclear threat, in "Them and Us," and what Rolling Stone reviewer John Milward termed "the exploitative nature of TV news" in "Dirty Laundry." Unfortunately, Milward suggests Henley preaches too much, and has a credibility problem in being a comfortably living artist contemplating the problems of the common man. According to Milward, "Henley's social concerns don't bleed half as much as his personal ones."
Building the Perfect Beast, released in 1985, fared better in the eyes of critics and record buyers. As with his first album, Beast was a collaborative effort, but Henley's voice and direction are unmistakable as he crosses the boundary between rockers with shrill, biting lyrics (as in the title track) and soft, bittersweet ballads (as in "Sunset Grill" and "The Boys of Summer") with ease. It was "The Boys of Summer," described as "a romantic song full of nostalgia and vitriol," that garnered him a Grammy, not to mention almost continual airplay.
But, as usual, the general public may not have understood Henley's intentions any better on Beast than they had years before on Hotel California. Nostalgia was part of it, but there was more. "We raised all that hell in the Sixties, and then what did we come up with in the Seventies?" Henley commented to Rolling Stone. "Nixon and Reagan ... I don't think we changed a damn thing, frankly. That's what the last verse of "The Boys of Summer" was about ... we thought we could change things by protesting and making firebombs and growing our hair long and wearing funny clothes. But ... after all our marching and shouting and screaming didn't work, we withdrew and became yuppies.
Four-and-a-half years passed before the release of Henley's third album. "I've got to learn how to do this faster," he told Rolling Stone, "but I don't know if I can. Songs have to arise from life." On The End of the Innocence, they do. Again, much of the album has a tough, rocking sound, with some songs bordering on the savage--"manicured savagery" according to Time --but savagery nonetheless. Henley delivers harsh criticism about social and political issues in "Little Tin God," "If Dirt Were Dollars," and "New York Minute." Yet even as he kicks and snarls his way through pieces like "I Will Not Go Quietly," the album has an atmosphere of sanity and not the "jaded swagger that often got the Eagles branded as a slick bunch of SoCal libertines." Not all of the album roars, of course. "The Heart of the Matter" is considered an especially sensitive classic-sounding song, and the title track, a remarkably evocative, wistful "love" song with an excruciating undertone of disenchantment, longing, and loss--of innocence, of youth, of faith in country and family.
The combination of personal and political themes rises out of Henley's belief that the two are permanently intertwined. "I think that how we relate to each other as men and women, or as people has something to do with the way things are going in general." He feels that where there is disillusionment, distrust, and suspicion in and about the "system," so too will it exist in personal relationships. Sensitive to the world around him, Henley continues to draw on experience and emotions to express himself, though the process is not always an easy one. "You have to dredge up all kinds of feelings and emotions and wear them right on the surface of your skin," he says, "and I don't like to do that sometimes."
When asked to comment on the overall effectiveness of rock music as a vehicle for change, Henley seems pessimistic. "I wish I could say it has changed things, but I'm afraid it's been used largely as an escape. And when it comes to political issues, most rock & roll artists are living in the Dark Ages ... they practically deny the existence of, and do not participate in, our democratic system." Despite the lack of progress made on issues of concern to him, like the homeless and jobless, Henley maintains a certain hopefulness. "I do have hope. I mean, inside every cynic there's an idealist trying to get out. At least in my case there is." And, in this case, the idealist is not keeping his ideals to himself.
by Meg Mac Donald
Don Henley's Career
Singer, songwriter, and drummer; performed as member of backup band for Linda Ronstadt; founding member of the Eagles, 1971-81; solo artist, 1981--.
Don Henley's Awards
Co-recipient (with other members of the Eagles) of Grammy Awards for best pop vocal performance by a group, 1975, for "Lyin Eyes"; for for record of the year, 1977, for Hotel California; for best arrangement for voices, 1977, for "New Kid In Town"; and for best rock vocal performance by a group, 1979, for "Heartache Tonight"; solo Grammy Awards for best rock vocal performance by a male, 1985 and 1989.
- Solo LPs
- I Can't Stand Still Asylum, 1982.
- Building the Perfect Beast Geffen, 1985.
- The End of the Innocence Geffen, 1989.
- New York Times, July 5, 1989; July 9, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, October 14, 1982; December 19, 1985; November 5-December 10, 1987; July 13, 1989.
- Time, July 31, 1989.