Demonizing Don Henley: Unwrapping the Byzantine Politics of a Boomer Icon

As Barack Obama looks to the 2012 election, no matter the outcome, one can assume that the Baby Boomers are slowly exiting state right from the nation’s political theater. Writing in his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama lamented the drift of the boomer generation during the 1990s. Politicians of both parties descended into petty conflicts, epitomized by the Clinton impeachment. For Obama this was a generational fault: “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”

Not that all Boomers are the same. For example, despite similar predilections for infidelity, politicians like Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton are viewed as diametric opposites. Another binary might be Bob Dylan and Anita Bryant. Still, binaries are boring. What about differentiation within the more liberal aspects of the Boomer generation? Take the figure of Don Henley. The former Eagle’s presence in popular music spreads over four decades. An environmental activist and music industry critic, Henley seems to regard himself as an elder spokesperson for his generation. He labeled the election of George W. Bush the greatest boomer “blunder”. Clearly, Henley stands as a paragon of virtue. Of course, anyone listening to his greatest hits album knows Henley is an artist of vision. Unfortunately for Henley, his music attests otherwise.

The Dude vs Don Henley

The Dude: Jesus, man, can you change the station?

Cab Driver: Fuck you man! You don’t like my fucking music; get your own fucking cab!

The Dude: I’ve had a…

Cab Driver: I pull over and kick your ass out, man!

The Dude: – had a rough night, and I hate the fucking Eagles, man

In the 1998 Coen Brothers classic, The Big Lebowski, Jeff Lebowski, The Dude, ends up on his ass, cabless, as result of his hatred of the Eagles. A former 1960s radical who helped co-author the original Port Huron Statement (“not the compromised” version, he tells Julianne Moore’s character after a romantic encounter), the Dude represents one segment of the “New Left.” Granted, Lebowski hardly seems the political type, but he claims he once was. His politics seemed to have melted into bowling. In most things, the Dude exhibits a marked detachedness. Yet, the Eagles seem to symbolize all that was wrong with the world. Why?

On the surface, the Eagles seem like your typical early 1970s rock band. An easygoing, country-influenced rock group, the Eagles sold nearly 30 million copies of their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). One would think an individual of the Dude’s persuasion might find the Eagles brand of easy going rock the perfect match to his two favorite products: beer (ok, white Russians for the classy occasions) and marijuana. However, the Eagles remain one of the lamest rock bands of all time. Most of their songs consist of tales about dangerous women, “life in the fast lane,” break ups, and cowboy outlaws. Yawn. Just because the Dude is stoned most of the time doesn’t mean he doesn’t have taste. For example, which is cooler: A) Glenn Frey used to be on Miami Vice or B) Glenn Frey used to be an Eagle? Duh. Is it significant that the Dude’s unfortunate cab ride altercation occurs after an unpleasant encounter with a Los Angeles pornographer based on Boomer era icon Hugh Hefner? The larger point here remains that the Dude saw the Eagles for what they would prove themselves to be in the 1990s, a proto-Hootie and the Blowfish without the humility. Sounds a lot like some Boomers I used to know…

Don Henley v. Himself

Out on the road today

I saw a dead head sticker on a Cadillac

A voice inside my head said don’t look back

You can never look back

— Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer,” from Building the Perfect Beast

In a 2008 Rolling Stone article documenting the Eagles reunion tour, Glenn Frey was quoted as admitting that Henley made the Eagles what they were. According to Frey, without Henley the Eagles were little more than “Air Supply.” Whatever the Eagles’ musical merits, they were a 1970s “pop culture institution.” Penning tunes about predatory industry types, hedonistic lifestyles, and feckless Southern Californians, the Eagles cast a critical eye over America, all while indulging in many of very diversions they cautioned against. The ubiquitous Hotel California remains their signature piece. Henley has often described the song as representing the “dark underbelly of the American dream.” For Henley, Hotel California revealed the excess and waste of American culture, a topic the Eagles “knew a lot about.” One might suggest that this sort of social commentary serves as a thinly veiled justification of the Eagles’ own indulgences, but for now Henley’s explanations will serve as a baseline.

So if the Eagles were the proto-typical 1970s album oriented rock band in an AOR era, what does this mean for Henley’s solo work and how does it relate to boomer regret?

Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits provides a useful window into the artist’s psyche. One has to admit that for all his pretensions, the packing for Actual Miles pokes fun at Henley. Fellow T of M contributor (and founding member of the Don Henley Society (DHS), Southeastern chapter) Georgia State Professor Alexander Sayf Cummings frequently defends Henley, pointing out that from the smarmy car salesman to the discount sticker label proclaiming “Actual Miles,” the greatest hits albums illustrates Henley’s self awareness. “It’s kind of funny that he called the greatest hits ‘Actual Miles,’ isn’t it? As in the cheesy, sneaky car salesman trying to pawn off some old jalopy to unwitting consumers? There’s a little bit of self parodying going on there.” (Professor Cummings related these thoughts in a savagely critical email to the author in which the Georgia State academic compared the author to a “syphilitic Andy Rooney.”) Fine. The packaging is great. While one could argue his “Actual Miles” tag was more a comment on greatest hits packages in general, it is reasonable to conclude that Mr. Henley can on occasion laugh at himself.

All that said, the old truism proves accurate, “the truth is in the pudding.” Henley’s pudding coagulates with a pervasive sense of loss and regret. For example, one of his most recognizable songs remains “The Boys of Summer,” (the Ataris recently covered it) a tale on the surface about lost love (and stalking), but also about the 1960s and the ethereal nature of youth. When Henley sings, “I saw a dead head sticker on a Cadillac/A voice inside my head said don’t look back/You can never look back” he at once impugns 1960s radicalism and nostalgia. The placement of a “dead head sticker” on a gas guzzling American made corporate behemoth like Cadillac represents the death of the very ideals the Dead and the decade purported to represent. Throughout his sad sack tale, Henley constructs a stalking ex-boyfriend, always in the background, always waiting to step in. It’s hard to not see the symmetry with aging boomers who sometimes let 1960s nostalgia haunt every decision made. Still, a more cynical observer might note the fact that Henley’s popularity in the 1970s resigns him to such viewpoints. If the 1960s has been mythologized as a decade of leftist social change and activism, the 1970s represent the stultification of the New Left. Instead, the New Right and a decade of backlash simmered, boiling over in the 1980s. In this way, Henley’s leadership of the Eagles inclines him to dismiss the 1960s. Unless one considers warnings about the malfeasance of record industry execs political, Henley’s Eagles were decidedly apolitical. The New Left fractured and burst apart into so many directions. The Eagles’ drug-induced haze fit perfectly into this milieu. “Fuck activism, let’s get high.” Really, when did the Eagles ever sing about anything truly significant?

So maybe we should consider Henley’s solo work in a different light. Perhaps, the Eagles’ inability to address social issues bothered the petulant future environmentalist. Maybe this explains the pointed turn his music seemed to take in the 1980s and early 1990s. Songs like “Sunset Grill” and “All She Wants to Do is Dance” skewered society for its delusions, nefarious nature and self promotion. In “Sunset Grill,” Henley narrates the sadness of a local eatery where one can “watch the working girls go buy/Watch the basket people mumble/And gaze out at the auburn sky”. Murders become “more respectable by the day.” Once again, Don sticks it to Socal. “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” attacks the Americans for their feckless lack of attention to world affairs. Henley’s paramour remains ignorant of the local rebellion such that authorities are:

pickin’ up the prisoners and puttin’

’em in the pen

And all she wants to do is dance, dance

Rebels been rebels since I don’t know when

And all she wants to do is dance

Molotov cocktail-the local drink

And all she wants to do is dance, dance

They mix ’em up right in the kitchen sink

And all she wants to do is dance

Henley’s critique of Americans’ obliviousness regarding international affairs has numerous supporters, but one wonders why didn’t he care about these issues when he was leading the Eagles. Even when Americans do pay attention to global affairs, US news outlets treat foreign conflict or disaster as a money making venture. In “Dirty Laundry” Henley croons:

We got 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

Now some have argued that “Dirty Laundry” is really Henley settling old scores with the nation’s news outlets. In a carefully worded follow up email, the aforementioned Professor Cummings argued that despite having a great “bite,” the song said more about Henley’s “issues with the prying, prurient media,” than it did about real news reporting. For Cummings, “Dirty Laundry” served as another example of a rock star “carping about the media while disguising it as social commentary.” (Professor Cummings also pointed out that Andy Rooney has had a fine career and to his knowledge did not have syphilis) So reasonable people might disagree. Whichever explanation you choose, clearly, Mr. Henley did not like the direction America was heading. Yet, one could argue the Eagles provide a symbol of the very drift that so angered Henley.

Okay, so in the interest of fairness, T of M will concede that Henley at least pretended to care about stuff in the 1980s. Then came the 1990s. Henley donned a ponytail and it all went to hell. Now before you accuse T of M of holding some kind Henleyesque grudge (the man is FAMOUS for his own), let me point out others were no more enamored of the man. Take punk rock hillbilly Mojo Nixon. His 1990 song “Don Henley Must Die” took the former Eagle to the proverbial mat. Nixon also resented Henley’s sudden turn toward the political

He’s a tortured artist

Used to be in the Eagles

Now he whines

Like a wounded beagle

Poet of despair!

Pumped up with hot air!

He’s serious, pretentious

And I just don’t care

Nixon didn’t stop there. Henley was “killing rock n roll” and not because he was old but because the former Eagle had “no soul.” What did Nixon think of Henley’s lyrics? “I love his sensitive music/Idiot poetry, swell.” He admonished Henley to “loosen up his pony tail.” In the end, Nixon concluded: “Don Henley must die! Don’t let him get back together with Glenn Frey!” The 1980s punk rock provocateur hoped in vain that “No Eagles Reunion” would happen.

A year before Nixon’s satire, Henley released the now classic The End of the Innocence. Its title track criticized Ronald Reagan (“They’re beating plowshares into swords/For this tired old man we elected king”) and Ollie North (“Armchair warriors often fail/we’ve been poisoned by this fairy tale”). Granted, Henley’s critiques hit the mark but his mawkish nostalgia for an America that was more pure rings false. His innocent America consisted of segregation and sexism. Moreover, where does a 1970s drug fiend who travelled across America having sex with groupies get off claiming that NOW America lost its innocence? The rest of the album ostensibly explores regret and romantic loss, most notably in songs like “Heart of the Matter,” “New York Minute” and “The Last Worthless Evening.”

Don Henley vs. Corporate Rock (or Don Henley v. Himself, Again)

Fast forward to the late 1990s. The Eagles reunion tour unfolded with a kind of lazy boomer mass nostalgia. Yet, the concerts received more attention for their insanely expensive tickets. Moreover, the overpricing of tickets influenced other boomer reunion acts to do the same, setting into motion a kind of pension fund for over the hill rock bands. Sounds kinda corporate, Don. At least during their 2008 tour they produced an album. Of course, Henley negotiated an exclusive record distribution deal with Wal Mart. One can assume that its okay to rip Reagan but not the modern day business entity that in many ways encapsulates the very values that Henley found so offensive in the late 1980s. All this makes his 2010 tantrum regarding Republican Senate candidate Chuck Devore’s use of the “Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do is Dance” in campaign parodies that much odder. Though he resents conservative appropriations of his music for electoral purposes, Henley aligns himself with entities like Wal Mart that perpetuate the kind of policies and economics supported by individuals like Devore.

In all these ways, Don Henley serves as a useful representation of boomer regret and contradiction. It must be noted that one does wonder about the pitfalls that face subsequent generations. For example, what will Generation X regret look like? (Wait, you have to actually have cared about something to have regrets! Hey now!) Still, in regard to Henley, the romanticization of the past at the expense of the present and the rose colored memories of how that past unfolded oozes through his work and from vocal segments of Boomer America. In a possibly apocryphal quote, Winston Churchill was attributed with saying “any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains. Show me a young conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains. “ While numerous scholars have suggested Churchill never said this, the sentiment sums up Don Henley and some of his Boomer cohort well. Whatever the case may be, Don Henley probably is not the devil. Instead, he is just another boomer trying to come to grips with his present on the basis of his past. The hardwired positions of youth, the reliance on strict moral codes or ideologies, fade as people age and encounter the grey areas that make up most of life. Henley has proven no exception. In the end, T of M still digs his work, but his vision of the present and past could use some adjusting.

(Note: T of M would like to point out that only SOME boomers suffer from the “Henley affliction”).

Ryan Reft