Don Henley: Predicting the Future

Music Features Don Henley
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It’s never easy, being a prophet in one’s own time.

After prescient Eagles vocalist/drummer Don Henley scathingly indicted his own excessive West Coast lifestyle with his band’s Grammy-winning 1977 smash Hotel California—and his definitive girl-comes-to-Hollywood-and-loses-it masterstroke “The Last Resort,” which took him over a year to studiously compose—he began prognosticating in earnest on his first solo set in 1982, I Can’t Stand Still. Its kickoff single “Dirty Laundry,” in fact, was lightyears ahead of its time, as it skewered the then-just-emerging 24/7 news coverage with a throbbing Hammond organ backbeat and “You get the bubble-headed bleach blonde who comes on at five/ She can tell you ‘bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye/ It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry/ Can we film the operation?/ Is the head dead yet?/ You know the boys in the news room got a running bet/ Get the widow on the set, we need dirty laundry.” And that was just his opening salvo.

Over three more sporadic efforts—Building the Perfect Beast in ’84, The End of the Innocence from ’89 and Inside Job in 2000—this latter-day Nostradamus foresaw the bleakest of futures, in treatises like the illiteracy-illuminating “Johnny Can’t Read”; a Kardashian-presaging “All She Wants to Dance” (“Crazy people walking ‘round with blood in their eyes…Wild-eyed pistol wavers who ain’t afraid to die/ And all she wants to do is dance…she can’t feel the heat coming off the street”); the pre-Enron corporate-greed damnation “The End of the Innocence”; his elegy to the American farmer, “A Month of Sundays”; and perhaps his more broad-sweeping summary on the above topics, “I Will Not Go Quietly.” And it wasn’t his closing argument: Henley returns this week with Cass County, a rootsy collaboration with stellar country artists that features his dire viewpoints on climate change (the loping pedal-steel lament “Praying For Rain” and “Even the old folks can’t recall when it’s ever been this hot and dry/ Dust devils whirling on the first day of July”) and today’s consumer-centered society (”No, Thank You” and its “We’ve got space-age machinery, stone-age emotions/ Today a man had better watch his back”). Indeed, the man has not gone quietly into that good night. Not by a long shot.

Does Henley, at 68, feel proud that his predictions have not only come true, but accelerated in ways no one could have possibly imagined? Phoning late one recent night from his home in Dallas, he lets out a long, resigned sigh before responding. “No,” he says. “No, I just feel sad. I’m sorry that I’m right. ‘Dirty Laundry’ was 1982, and we now live in what has been called ‘the disposable present’—news and theater are the same thing now.” He still watches televised coverage, he adds. “But I have to take breaks. You can’t watch it every day—you’d hurl yourself off a building, you know? And the clown car that is American politics now, it’s just shameful and disheartening. I have to have some optimism—I have children, you know. But it’s hard to be optimistic in times like these. So I don’t watch the news very much. I try to bury myself in novels and poetry and things like that. The news is just too depressing.”

Instead, Henley found himself tuning into a broadcast of the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War the other day. “And it’s so profound and thought-provoking,” he says. “”And it just reminds me of how history repeats itself, and how divided we are as a country these days, and how shallow everything is, and just how dire the situation has become. It’s a paradox.” Mankind should be respecting its environment, behaving as a sensitive steward of Mother Earth. “But that’s not happening—we’re more like a cancer on the face of this living organism,” he asserts. “My family on both sides were farmers, back in the old days. But that’s long gone—big agribusiness has put family farms out of business, and Dow and Monsanto are trying to control all the seed stock. So you can’t make a living farming anymore.” He pauses. “You know, George Orwell was pretty much on the money. With Big Brother, certainly, and just the future he envisioned. It’s not pretty. But still, we’ve got to make some music. We’ve got to carry on.”

Thus, Cass County, co-produced (and often co-written) with The Heartbreakers’ Stan Lynch, and named for the rural, mainly agricultural Texas borough where Henley grew up. There are 16 songs on it, one for every year that has elapsed since he’s been away. It opens with a cover of Tift Merritt’s mandolin-twangy “Bramble Rose,” which colors Henley’s patented gravelly rumble with the sugary tone of Miranda Lambert and the marbled murmur—and forlorn harmonica—of Mick Jagger. And it sets the perambulating pace for the Nashville-tracked collection, which boasts cameos from Merle Haggard (a chiming “The Cost o Living”) and Dolly Parton (the lonesome Louvin Brothers cover “When I Stop Dreaming”). It closes with a chugging “Where I Am Now,” a mission statement of sorts. “Because that’s pretty much the way I feel—I like being this old,” he confesses. “You can be crotchety, and you just don’t put up with as much shit because you don’t have to. So it’s not a country album. It doesn’t have a category. It’s a Don Henley album, goddamn it! There’s some country-flavored stuff on there, certainly—some traditional country stuff and some Eagle-y kind of stuff, and some blues and Americana. But I love to quote Buddy Rich: he said, ‘There’s two kinds of music—good and bad.’ And I agree with him.”

What Henley says he was aiming for was authenticity. And his new label, Capitol, essentially gave him carte blanche to recruit any players that interested him. “Because a lot of what I’m hearing now just sounds fake,” he growls. “It sounds like manufactured, prefabricated, pre-digested bullshit. So I would like to be at least the curator of something good, or at least part of the great history of country music. But they don’t want authenticity these days—they want what’s trending now. So I’m determined to be the author of my own time, and I’m certainly not going to start trend-hopping now. I’ve got people on this record that I know are authentic, people that can really sing their asses off.”

People like Vince Gill, who jumped at the chance to play the Don Rich-style counter-harmony part in Henley’s Buck Owens-inspired “No, Thank You.” ”’Praying For Rain’ was the most polite, apolitical way I could talk about climate change without pissing off all of my fans in the red states, of whom I understand that there are many,” Henley chortles. “But with ‘No, Thank You,’ I’m saying ‘None of the above.’ I’m sick of all the rhetoric—I’ve seen enough political cycles to know that it’s all just bullshit.” His one remaining addiction? Magazines. He subscribes to as many thoughtful periodicals as he can. He glances down at one sitting on his desk, The American Scholar, and mentions its cover photo of the current Supreme Court. “And the caption is ‘Company men,’ and that pretty much sums it up,” he says. “This country is run by Wall Street and Big Oil and Big Coal, so ‘No’ was fun to write—I’m saying ‘I don’t like any of you.’”

A gently-strummed “Train in the Distance” is one of the only autobiographical numbers here, and it time-travels the Texan back home to a more hopeful, anything-is-possible-if-you-work-hard Linden-based childhood. They say you can never go home again, but he has a counter proposal. “Let me put it this way—you can go home again, but you just can’t stay,” he says. “I’ve been throwing around that T.S. Eliot quote that says ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to end up where we started and know the place for the first time.’ But I still don’t know if I know the place. It’s not the same place. It’s not just the landscape and the buildings—it’s also very much about the people who make up a place, and most of them aren’t there anymore. And it’s sad. It’s fading. It’s another fading little town, out in the middle of America.”

Not that Henley isn’t doing his part. He recently chipped in to have the local courthouse restored to its old Hellenistic glory. And after his mother died in 2003, he kept her original house in Linden. “Because I wanted my children to know what small-town life was like,” he explains. “So I live in Dallas. Sometimes. And as long as I don’t talk about politics or religion, I’m fine. So we go down to [Cass County], and we’ve got acreage, some farm land there and pasture land, and the kids get to be outdoors, out of the city. And some of the people I went to high school with are still there. But I was estranged from it for a while in the ‘70s, during the Eagles’ heyday,” he says, coughing. “When my behavior was not, uhh…did not comport with some of the older folks, or by the standards over at the First Baptist Church, where I was baptized. Before I regained consciousness. But then some time in the ‘80s, I started re-establishing my connections with the town, and I’ve been pretty heavily involved ever since. But it is frustrating. Every time I go back, I remember why I left.”

Over an unhurried, hour-long chat, Henley—who first teamed up with Glenn Frey out in Los Angeles in 1970, as members of Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, before flying out as The Eagles—explains that he’s basically busy, almost 12 hours a day, running a home office that has now usurped the family breakfast table. It might appear as if he’s penned only one song a year, but he’s been occupied raising his kids (one of whom phones him for advice, mid-interview, about a house party he’s thinking of attending; Dad cautions him to use good judgment, and get the hell out if he senses anything strange), occasionally touring with a reformed (in more ways than one) Eagles, and overseeing his Walden Woods Project. “We’ve managed to purchase and save 160 historically significant acres that Thoreau wrote about,” he says. “But there’s still one parcel that we really need to get our mitts on, but it belongs to the city of Concord, and they just don’t seem to want to part with it.” Another great irony of his surprisingly hectic existence, he sighs. “I’m too busy saving the woods to enjoy the woods, you see.”

Henley hits the highway a lot—he composed much of Cass County on regular 160-mile treks from Dallas to Linden—and he has a theory that the self-centered behavior of modern drivers is exemplary of where culture is headed. Put on your turn signal to switch freeway lanes, and cars speed up to cut you off, for no other apparent reason than because they can. “And that encapsulates the whole fabric of our society now. Common courtesy is gone,” says the artist, getting angry again. Perhaps angry enough to write a futuristic song about the subject. “So they might as well take turn signals off of cars. Driving is a bloodsport, and if you want to change lanes or get off the freeway, you’d better start doing it a mile or two in advance, because nobody gives a shit what you want to do. That’s what happens when there’s too many fucking people, like the psychologist who did the simple experiment of putting rats in a cage—the more you put in, the more aggressive their behavior becomes. It’s just a simple equation, but I don’t know what the answer is.”

Then again, maybe the man does. His latest vision from the scrying pool? “Nature’s going to take care of it,” he concludes. “We’re going to run out of fucking water, and that’s going to be it. That said? Life is still pretty good. And it’s better than the alternative, I guess…”