“During the 70s, every morning I woke up and thought: ‘This could end today’”: the epic story of how the Eagles became America’s Band

The Eagles in 1976
(Image credit: RB/Redferns)

Don Henley occasionally thinks about life’s intersections. About how things might have ended up if he’d turned left instead of right at certain points along the way. If he’d never moved from small-town Texas to big-city Los Angeles at the turn of the 70s, for example. Or never spent lonely nights hanging out alone at the Troubadour, the cliquey LA club where he eventually met Glenn Frey, alongside whom he carved out an unthinkable career as singer, drummer and joint driving force of the Eagles.

But when those thoughts do come, they pass quickly. Henley knows that life is a product of choices. Sure, there are blind alleys and unforeseen bumps and factors bigger than you are. But you don’t get anywhere by sitting around with your thumb up your backside, waiting for fortune to knock on your door.

“Some of it you can’t explain,” Henley says. “You can call it fate, you can call it dumb luck. But you can also give yourself credit for putting yourself in a certain place at a certain time. I sought out the Troubadour because I knew it was the place where things were happening that I wanted to be part of. We’re pretty good musicians, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the work ethic, the perseverance, just hanging in there, going out on stage when you’re sick and you don’t feel like it.”

Even Henley could never have conceived how the choices he made would play out. Forty-seven years after he and Glenn Frey willed the Eagles into existence, they stand as inarguably the biggest and quite possibly the greatest American band of them all. On a commercial level, that accolade is indisputable. The Eagles’ original ‘best of’ compilation, Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, ushered in the era of the platinum album – it was the first record to be awarded that accolade. Today it stands as the biggest-selling album in US chart history, having sold 38 million copies and counting. Worldwide they’ve sold close to 150 million albums in total. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, neither of whom are American, and Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks, neither of whom are a band, are the only acts to have sold more. 

But those figures tell only part of the story. The Eagles are as deeply woven into the fabric of American life as The Beatles are into British life. Their immaculately crafted songs – Hotel California, Take It Easy, Best Of Your Love, Lyin’ Eyes, Heartache Tonight, Desperado – have provided the soundtrack to successive generations. The band’s old friend, singer-songwriter JD Souther, once put their success down to the fact that they wrote songs that evoked memories of a life you wished you lived. Henley recoils at the term, but the Eagles are ‘America’s band’.

Almost two years ago, Henley came to another intersection and made another choice, this one among the biggest of them all: to resurrect the Eagles after the death of Glenn Frey in January 2016. Two years on, that decision has been vindicated. The US leg of the Eagles’ current tour began in March 2018. By July it was already the sixth-highest-grossing tour of the year, raking in more than £190 million. It is due to come to an end with a run of six UK dates in June 2019, including a show at Wembley Stadium.

“F Scott Fitzgerald once famously said that there are no second acts in American life,” says Henley. “I think we’ve proved that not only are there second acts, but there are third acts too.”

The Eagles in the desert in 1972

(Image credit: Henry Diltz/Corbis via Getty Images)

Step through an anonymous door on the mezzanine floor of one of Midtown Manhattan’s most breathtakingly expensive hotels and you enter another world. Rarities is an exclusive, invitation-only lounge, with wood-panelled décor, deep carpets and range of fine brandies that exude a luxury that is simultaneously out of time and timeless. It’s the perfect place to meet the Eagles. 

The three men who make up the core of the band in 2018 have arranged themselves in a semi-circle around a low table in the centre of the room. Henley sits on the left, the high-backed chair he’s chosen conveying his status as the Eagles’ senior partner. He’s serious and studious, but unfailingly courteous and less prickly than his reputation suggests. At 70, in a crisp black shirt, the most iconic singing drummer in the history of American music looks more like a well-heeled college dean or political statesman than the skinny hellraiser he once was. Journalists are warned in advance that he won’t go over “old ground”, meaning the chemical and sexual excess of the 1970s. The band’s longtime publicist sits in a corner of the room throughout our interview, silently policing this edict. 

Perched on a sofa in the centre is Joe Walsh, the guitarist who joined the Eagles in 1975, the year before the solid-gold one-two of Their Greatest Hits and Hotel California propelled them from common-or-garden stardom to gilded immortality. Walsh is exactly as you expect: a vortex of animated energy, even if his days of drinking, drugging and destroying hotel rooms with a personalised chainsaw are long gone. Walsh is on powerful antibiotics for some unspecified ailment. “It’s kind of like the old days,” he drawls, rolling his eyes back. “Whew.”

To Walsh’s right is Timothy B Schmit, who joined the band in 1977, replacing original bassist Randy Meisner. Even up close he looks a couple of decades younger than his 70 years. His speaking voice, like his singing voice, has retained a youthful purity. The only sign of age comes when he places his leg gingerly on the table in front of him. He damaged a ligament in the shower back in March and its still painful. “It’s getting better,” he says, “but it’s still not right.”

“We used to be immortal, Timothy,” says Walsh. “What happened?”

“Reality happened,” Schmit replies ruefully.

There’s one man missing, of course. Glenn Frey, the Eagles’ singer, guitarist and co-founder passed away in 2016 of complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia. But while Frey is no longer here, neither is he completely absent from the Eagles in 2018.

In the aftermath of his colleague’s death, Henley was emphatic that the Eagles were done. There was an appearance at that February’s Grammy Awards, when the band reconvened for a moving performance of Frey’s signature song, Take It Easy, with longtime friend and the song’s co-writer Jackson Browne stepping in on vocals. That was meant to be the last of it.

“After Glenn passed away, none of us could really see into the future,” Henley says now. “He was the founding member of the band and we didn’t really see how we could go on without him. We didn’t consider it. We didn’t think the fans would embrace it. And so we just drifted. We had a year of mourning, so to speak.”

The suggestion to reactivate the band came from Irving Azoff, their veteran manager and music industry power player. A year or so after Frey’s death, Azoff broached the subject of getting the Eagles back out on the road, with country superstar Vince Gill standing in for the late singer.

Gill seemed the perfect fit. He was a golf buddy of Frey’s, and a huge Eagles fan from way back in the day. He had the right voice too: the same highway croon as Frey, albeit one with a Nashville twang. “I think the fans would be okay with that,” Azoff told Henley.

Henley wasn’t convinced it was enough, however. He reasoned that if the Eagles were to take to the wing again, they needed a more direct connection to their late co-founder: a blood relative. And he knew just the person.

The same week they played the Grammys, the surviving members of the Eagles performed at a private memorial for Glenn Frey. One of the guest singers who joined them on stage was Deacon Frey, Glenn’s 23-year-old son.  “Obviously a reunion was the last thing on my mind at that point,” says Henley. “But the image of him singing so bravely stayed in my mind.” Henley told Azoff that any reconstituted Eagles line-up should feature Deacon Frey. “And that came as a shock to people,” he says. 

Walsh has a different view of it. “For a year, I just didn’t knew how to process it,” he says. “I thought somehow… I don’t know, it wouldn’t be right to not try. And so when this was presented to me…” He nods eagerly. “Sure.”

The first show the new line-up played was in March 2017. Most bands would have chosen to break in a new line-up at an intimate gig: a club, maybe, or a theatre. But that wouldn’t have been the Eagles’ style. Instead they stepped back into the fray with a pair of headlining appearances at the twin Classic West and Classic East festivals at LA’s Dodger Stadium and New York’s Citi Field Stadium (capacity 56,000 and 41,000 respectively). Today, Henley says he was unsure how this new iteration of the band would be received. Which sounds faintly insane.

“No, we didn’t know if they would accept Vince and Deacon or not,” he insists. “That was soon put to rest. The crowd at the Dodger Stadium just embraced Deacon, and Vince too. I think it surprised them. It surprised all of us. That’s when we knew we might be able to do this, we might be able to continue.”

They did continue, of course. Today the Eagles are well into their third act. And despite Henley’s initial reservations, it’s difficult to imagine it turning out any other way. 

The Eagles playing live onstage in the late 1970s

The Eagles in the late 70s, with Don Felder (left). (Image credit: Fotos International/Getty Images)

Don Henley hadn’t been living in Los Angeles long when he saw Janis Joplin at the Troubadour. It was the end of September 1970 and she was sitting alone at a table, nobody talking to her. Henley was struck by how lonely and sad she looked. Less than a week later she was dead. 

“She was another one who wanted to show the people back home,” Henley said of Joplin a few years ago. The implication was clear: Henley, the son of a Texas farmer, saw himself as an outcast too.

“Janis had been bullied in high school,” he says. “They’d made fun of her because she was different. She was looking for acceptance, which is why a lot of us went to California: to find our tribe. I think all of us were misfits in our own way, which is why we go into the business. The popular kids at school were the football players. They got the pretty girls. A lot of famous rockers were high-school nerds.”

After everything they have seen and done, it seems strange to think that a band as hugely successful as the Eagles were partly born out of a need to prove themselves. But a close look at their body of work bears that out. Henley and Frey saw themselves as craftsmen, sweating over the songs they wrote, building layer upon layer of music, weaving complex harmonies around each other. The very first song they wrote together was Desperado, the evocative ballad that became the title track of the band’s second album. It’s testament to their diligence that neither that nor any other Eagles song has ever outstayed its welcome.

“We worked hard at our craft,” says Henley. “The work ethic came from The Beatles. We saw the sheer number of great songs they wrote and went: ‘Okay, if we’re going to be that good we have to keep writing.’”

They were good, too. Between 1972’s classy self-titled debut and 1979’s exhausted yet occasionally brilliant flame-out The Long Run, the Eagles released six albums, which showed that if they couldn’t quite do everything they could do most things: country, pop, blue-eyed soul, R&B, hard-edged rock’n’roll, soft-focus ballads, even, as 1979’s grinding Teenage Jail proved, something close to heavy metal. Even after all this time, Henley still bristles at the ‘mellow California rock’ tag they were saddled with early on.

The band had other things in their favour beyond their songwriting skills. Firstly, they came together at a time when rock’s terrain was still being mapped out. A collection of like-minded musicians had descended on California in the years before Henley and Frey arrived there; it seemed like sounds, ideas and visions were being passed on by osmosis. 

“We were surrounded by all these great songwriters,” Henley recalls. “There was the Laurel Canyon scene, Gram Parsons had introduced country music to rock’n’roll and synthesised that, you had the Buffalo Springfield and you had Poco. And you had bigger cultural things happening. There was the Vietnam War, there was the first wave of the women’s liberation movement, there was civil rights movement, the environmental movement was just getting started. There was a lot going on.”

“We should probably put drugs in there too,” adds Walsh.

“Well, there was that,” Henley concedes. “Unfortunately.”

The other thing the Eagles had was extraordinary ambition. Or rather Henley and Frey did. They were both working-class kids who moved to California to escape a future on the family farm (Henley) and in the automobile factories of Detroit (Frey), and they forged a bond immediately.

According to those who knew them, they were very different personalities: Frey was a fun-loving R&B freak, whose singing voice evoked lazy days and wired nights; Henley was intense and perpetually fretful, with one of the great white soul voice of the decade. But they complemented each other perfectly. After one early rehearsal, Henley reportedly took Frey aside and said: “We’re going to have to run things.”

Henley doesn’t deny it. “The group dynamic is the same across the board,” he says. “You name any big group and it’s all pretty much the same story. But the goal was to try and get better with every album.”

The Eagles in 1979

(Image credit: GAB Archive/Redferns)

With Irving Azoff as their handler-come-attack dog, the Eagles were unstoppable. Certainly few other bands could touch them in terms of success in the 1970s. There was Zeppelin, obviously. Fleetwood Mac came close too. “We saw them as the competition,” Henley says of the latter. “Everybody was, actually. We were on good terms with everybody, but we’d take note of how other bands were doing chart-wise. We wanted to be in the game. We had a competitive spirit.”

That competitive spirit was used by their critics as a stick to beat the Eagles with. The New York press, especially, were scornful of the band’s unvarnished ambition, of Henley and Frey’s steely-eyed determination to make the Eagles bigger and better than every other band out there, viewing it as if it were some terrible crime. They were written off as everything from gimlet-eyed careerists to a bunch of pre-yuppie breadheads who single-handedly ruined the 60s dream. The gatekeepers of cool were still taking potshots long after the event: “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles,” was the mantra of The Dude, the main character in the Coen Brothers’ beloved 1997 film The Big Lebowski.

“We got some terrible reviews,” Henley says evenly. “You have to thicken your skin to be able to take it and continue.”

To outsiders, the Eagles’ confidence verged on the superhuman. But in the 2013 documentary The History Of The Eagles, Henley confessed to feelings of insecurity at the peak of his band’s fame: “Success can be as frightening as failure, especially when you have questions of your own worthiness.” 

“Everybody gets frightened when success hits and you’re in your twenties, and suddenly you’ve got all this notoriety and money being thrown at you and you don’t know what to do with it,” he says now. “Everybody has that insecurity: ‘Am I worthy of all this attention? Am I good enough?’ 

Doesn’t success make you bulletproof?

“No,” he replies. “During the seventies, every morning I woke up and thought: ‘This could end today.’ We all did. Sometimes we’d do a concert and have a really bad night and I’d go: ‘Okay, that’s it.’ Or we’d get a really bad review and I’d go: ‘That’s it. That’s the end of it.’ You question it. So you turn to drugs or you explode your career somehow.”

The theatre of excess that surrounded the Eagles’ during their imperial phase has been elevated to the status of legend. Depending on how you view that kind of thing, their chemical, sexual and financial extravagances are either a handbook of how superstar rock’n’roll bands should behave, or a cautionary lesson in how they shouldn’t. 

Like many things in the Eagles’ story, this aspect of their career been magnified and distorted by success and time. While they were enthusiastic consumers of cocaine, pot, booze and whatever else they could get their hands on, they were hardly alone. Countless bands, from superstar level to the lowliest garage punks, indulged in whatever they could get their hands on in whatever quantities their bank balances would allow. It just happened that the Eagles’ bank balances allowed them to indulge more than most.

Still, drugs undoubtedly played a part in the Eagles’ split in 1980, exacerbating their problems as much as causing them. The pressures and expectations of running America’s biggest band put a strain on Henley and Frey’s relationship, as did the tortuous process of recording The Long Run, which came out three years after Hotel California, an age in 70s terms.

The end of the Eagles is as mythologised as everything they did. It famously came on July 31, 1980, during a benefit show for Democratic Senator Alan Cranston. A mixing desk recording captured Frey threatening to kick guitarist Don Felder’s ass, counting down the songs until he can do it. Camera footage shows a furious Frey chasing Felder’s limo after the show. It’s one part comedy gold, one part terrifying insight into just how rotten things had become in the Eagles.

The band members reacted in different ways. Schmit, who had joined one of the biggest bands in the world only a couple of years before, was heartbroken. “I called Glenn when I heard it was happening. I wanted to get it from the horse’s mouth: ‘Are we splitting up?’ And he said: ‘That’s it, it’s over.’ I was deeply affected.”

Henley sighs deeply. “So was I. I was just lost.”

The Eagles at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1998

(Image credit: JON LEVY/AFP via Getty Images)

A strange thing happened while the Eagles were away. In 1980, the same year the band split up, Ohio radio station M105 began branding itself ‘Cleveland’s Classic Rock’. More stations swiftly followed suit, and classic rock radio was born. Their playlists consisted of the great bands of the previous 15 years: Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Eagles – especially the Eagles. 

“Even when we were broken up the music was playing on the radio,” says Henley. “It took on a life of its own and kept us in the public ear. And as the old saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

With Hotel California on constant rotation on the radio and various post-split solo albums in the charts, it seemed like the Eagles hadn’t gone away at all. Henley maybe have famously jibed that the Eagles would reunite “when hell freezes over”, but even he missed the band.

“I missed the good parts of it, I didn’t miss the bad parts,” he corrects. “[As a solo artist] once in a while I got tired of making all the decisions, having the weight and the criticism all fall on my shoulders. I had a great solo band, but sometimes I would long for that experience where you get to share the burden, where the spotlight isn’t just on you.”

In that pre-instant-information age, the Eagles’ 1994 reunion came out of the blue. They had tried quietly four years earlier, only to be stood up in the rehearsal room by Frey, who decided at the last minute that he didn’t want to do it after all. This time, however, it was different. The band’s final 70s line-up reassembled to record Hell Freezes Over, a mostly live album which winkingly borrowed its title from Henley’s old quote, and its approach from the then-voguish MTV unplugged format.

“We made a deal with one another,” says Henley. “To be less tumultuous and emotional. It took us a few months to work it out, but once we got comfortable it was like a shoe that fits. And I think we were flabbergasted at the warmth of the reception that we got after being away for fourteen years.”

The tensions that had forced the band apart in the first place had been consciously parked. The drug habits and womanising were replaced by families and healthy lifestyles. They still had an uncanny ability to print money – Hell Freezes Over went on to sell nine million copies, and the subsequent two-year-long tour is estimated to have grossed $200 million (£154m) – but the reunion seemed to be about more than just inflating already swollen bank accounts. There was a sense that it was about restoring friendships, too.

“I think so,” says Henley. “It wasn’t like we’d been completely disconnected from each other during the fourteen-year period, we’d see each other once in a while. But I think we all realised that we’d created something really good and that we’d been through the fire together. That we really ought to be friends no matter what came of the band reunion. There was a desire not to keep carrying around that weight.”

The reunited Eagles carried on touring on and off over the next 20 years, playing to an estimated nine million people, raking in close to a billion pounds and jettisoning the odd member (guitarist Don Felder, who served from 1975 to 1980 and again from 1994 to 1999, is persona non grata today due to long-held mutual animosity between him and the Frey/Henley axis). 

In 2007 the Eagles recorded a brand-new 20-track studio album, Long Road Out Of Eden. It might not have had the potency of their 70s records, but it certainly didn’t spoil their legacy. 

“I keep hoping my best work is not behind me,” Henley said at the time, suggesting that there might one day be another Eagles album.

And that’s the way it would doubtless have carried on had Frey’s death not led Henley to another of life’s great intersections.

Eagles playing live in 2008

(Image credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

You can find venues like the XL Center in any mid-sized town across America, but this specific one happens to be in Hartford, Connecticut, two and a half hours’ drive from New York City. The Eagles juggernaut has rolled into this concrete arena for tonight’s show, bringing with it a state-of-the-art stage set that includes a vast, stage-wide screen and attracting 16,000 people keen to bathe in the songs that have soundtracked American life for close to 50 years.

This is the first of a batch of eight dates that will bring their touring year to a close. This how the Eagles operate these days: short clusters of gigs, followed by a break. “Eight shows is about all we can muster without having two weeks off,” Walsh says drily.

For all their protestations, on stage the Eagles appear anything but old. This is partly down to the entourage of fitness trainers that have taken the place of the drug dealers and groupies of old, and partly down to the agelessness of the songs they play.

The front line that strides in unison to the front of Hartford’s XL Arena stage tonight to sing opener Seven Bridges Road a-capella is different yet the same. Vince Gill is an unassuming presence stage right, and his voice meshes seamlessly with his new bandmates. He’s a utility player,  singing on New Kid In Town, Lyin’ Eyes, their cover of Tom Waits’s Ol 55 and original bassist Randy Meisner’s traditional showstopper Take It To The Limit. And then there’s Deacon Frey. He stands just off-centre, sandwiched between Henley and Walsh. He’s lankier than his father, and the handlebar moustache he’s growing emphasises the resemblance. He’s 24 now, a year older than his father was when he started the band with Henley. Not surprisingly, he takes his dad’s songs exclusively: Take It Easy, Peaceful Easy Feeling and Already Gone.

Before the tour started, Walsh was tasked with coaching Frey Jr in what it takes to be an Eagle. “He could play the songs, he could sing the songs, but not at the same time,” says Walsh. “At the Dodgers Stadium I told him: ‘Look, breathe. If you panic, you’re gonna think everyone’s looking at you. They’re not.’”

Henley: “So he kept his eyes closed.”

Schmit: “Just like his father.”

Nearly three years after his death, Glenn Frey is an inescapable presence. At the end of Peaceful Easy Feeling his image is projected on to the massive screen at the back of the stage, prompting a standing ovation from the audience. In the hotel lounge in New York, Henley admits that he still sometimes looks around, expecting to see his old friend on stage next to him.

“He’s still in our heads,” he says. “And he’s still in those songs. His spirit is there. And his flesh and blood is there. He’s very much a part of the show and always will be. And I think it provides healing not just for us, but for Deacon too.”

The Eagles with Vince Gill and Deacon Frey in 2018

(Image credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

The Eagles’ past is etched in stone, halfway between mythology and reality. Their present is unfolding right now. But the future? That’s something even Don Henley, who has spent his whole career determining his own fate, doesn’t care to predict.

As it stands, this tour ends with those UK shows in the summer of 2019. Currently there’s nothing planned beyond that. Henley says they’re too busy worrying about tomorrow’s performance to think so far ahead. Today he’s even rowing back from the statement he made around the time of the last Eagles album about hoping his best work wasn’t behind him.

“I said that years ago,” he says. There’s a pause. “I’m not sure I care any more. Because we could make the best album we’ve ever made in the history of this band, and it wouldn’t get played on the radio simply because it’s all about demographics now, it’s about marketing youth to youth.”

“There are no albums,” says Walsh. “The internet ate ’em. There is no side two. If we made new music it would be for us.”

Do you still have an itch to create new music, though?

“Some days I have it and some days I don’t,” says Henley. “It comes and goes. One of the primary motivations of creating this stuff is that you know somebody’s going to hear it. The point is to reach people. But it’s just not there.”

Henley insists he doesn’t think about his band’s legacy either, although clearly he does. “The songs have taken on a life of their own,” he says at one point. We’re only curating them. We’re just the vehicle for presenting these songs to the people. We’ve come to realise what these songs mean to people, and how they’re part of their lives. You could call it nostalgia, and there’s nothing terrible about that, especially in times like these, when things are so unhinged and crazy. I think it gives people two and a half hours of relief from the crazy, chaotic world outside. Especially in America.”

Another pause. 

“We used to think that rock’n’roll was going to save the world. But it didn’t. It hasn’t. It’s done some good things. It’s brought people together. But in terms of the culture at large or anything political, I’m not sure how much difference it’s made.”

He says this matter-of-factly. There’s no hint of defeat or resignation in his voice. Only time will tell if this turns out to be his band’s third act or something closer to a victory lap. Rock’n’roll might not have changed anything, but the Eagles did.   

Originally published in Classic Rock 256 (2018)

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.