“It's about growing up and looking back at the '60s,” Don Henley said of his Grammy-winning single Boys of Summer.
For a nostalgic song about lost youth, it began with a very futuristic piece of technology.
Futuristic for 1984, at least. Heartbreakers guitarist and co-writer Mike Campbell recalled, “I knew this guy Roger Linn, who worked at Leon Russell's studio. He was always tinkering in the back room, and we'd say, 'What's he doing back there?' 'He's building a drum machine.' It was pretty revolutionary at the time.
"I was able to get one for 'FOR,' which is 'Friends of Roger price' (laughs). I had it in my back bedroom, with a 4-track, and I stayed up all night typing in tambourines and claps and snares and got a little pattern going, then I came up with that melody line on the keyboard.”
A week later, Campbell played the song idea for Tom Petty and producer Jimmy Iovine. But it was rejected for a possible Heartbreakers song. “They said, 'You know, I think that music's a little jazzy for what we're doing right now. And I agreed with them. So I put it aside.”
Campbell says it might've just sat collecting dust, but then Iovine called to say that Don Henley was looking for songs for his next solo album. “So I put it on cassette and brought it to Don Henley's house,” Campbell recalled. “We'd never met before. He and I sat at opposite ends of a long table, and he had a little cassette player and put the cassette on. He didn't tap his foot or move his head or anything. Just sat there with his arms folded. I thought he hated it. It finished, and he said, 'Okay, I'll see what I can do with it.' And I left.
“On my way home, the phone rings and it's Don. He says, 'I've just written the best song I've written in ten years.'”
Borrowing a title from Roger Kahn's acclaimed book about the Brooklyn Dodgers (which in turn borrowed it from a famous Dylan Thomas poem), Henley penned a lyric and melody that throbbed with the ache of lost innocence and youth. In the final verse, the line - 'Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac' – seemed to sum up a whole generation and how they'd squandered their hopeful vision.
“I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville,” Henley recalled. “The status symbol of the right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead 'Deadhead' bumper sticker on it.”
Much of the studio session for Boys of Summer was spent trying to replicate Campbell's home demo, with all its quirky offhand charm. There were technical glitches, an analog tape malfunction that almost swallowed the song, and a key change that required an on-the-fly rearrangement, but they finally got it.
The song went to #5 in the US and was Henley's biggest hit in the UK. It benefitted from its moody black and white video, directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. The clip swept the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards.
For Henley, it became a signature song. Meanwhile, Tom Petty later admitted it was the one that got away.