THE EAGLES' first hit (can it really have been 31 years ago?) was "Take It Easy," and it seemed that's what they did for the middle part of their sometimes fractious career, taking a 14-year break between 1980's "Eagles Live" tour and album and 1994's "Hell Freezes Over" reunion tour. That title derived from vocalist-drummer Don Henley's earlier prediction as to when an Eagles reunion might take place. The tour that brings the Eagles to MCI Center Friday and Saturday is named "Farewell I," a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that the band's long run is far from over.
As for Henley, taking it easy is something he seems constitutionally incapable of doing. There's the successful solo career, put on hold for the Eagles tour, and the band's three-years-and-counting recording of a new studio album, their first since "The Long Run" in 1979. There's the new, self-owned Eagles Recording Company 2, started in opposition to the current major-label system and ironic for the band whose "Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975" happens to be, at 28 million copies (and counting) sold, the biggest-selling album in history. With total sales of 120 million albums, the Eagles are the third biggest-selling band of all time (behind the Beatles and Led Zeppelin).
For Henley, 55, there are also several longstanding environmental campaigns (his work on the Walden Woods Project began in 1990), and in recent years his stewardship as co-founder of the Recording Artists Coalition, a group that lobbies to protect the rights of recording artists. RAC has testified at government hearings in Washington and California challenging long-term recording contracts, the fairness of royalty and accounting procedures, who owns the rights to original recordings and, most recently, the ongoing wave of radio consolidation and corporatization that, according to RAC, means fewer companies dominating the medium, thus undermining diversity of both music and opinion.
"I've been thinking in the last few weeks that I don't have the fire in my belly for some of the stuff that I had before," a tired-sounding Henley said recently from his home in Dallas during a break in the Eagles' tour. "I do have the best of both worlds, but on the other hand I don't have continuity. Touring is great and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be working at this age and to be doing as well as we're doing, but at the same time it really is disruptive. My personal life with my wife and children is constantly being interrupted; my suitcases are always packed and sitting downstairs by the front door. I come home and my children have changed in two weeks time and I feel sometimes that I'm missing very important years with them."
Henley has three children (ages 3, 5 and 7), Eagles co-founder Glen Frey has a 1-year-old and guitarist Joe Walsh, who joined in 1976, has young children as well. "I live in Dallas and they all live in the Los Angeles area, so I have to commute 1,500 miles to work," Henley says. This is not, he adds, why it's taking so long to record a new album that he feels is crucial. "I don't know how we can possibly tour anymore behind the same material," he says. "I personally can't do it anymore.
"Back in the '70s, we were taking two or three years to make albums. And it's not like the old days when our lives were completely our own. In those days, Glen and I would rent a house together when we started an album, get up every morning and break out the coffee and cigarettes and write songs all day, then go out to dinner and come home and write some more. But now we have families."
And not just kids. Henley's wife has multiple sclerosis, and his 87-year-old mother is in failing health. "I need to look in on her fairly often, so there's a lot of family," he explains. "So I need RAC like a hole in the head" -- Henley puts it more colorfully -- "and I'm sick and tired of people not participating."
What's disappointing to Henley is that RAC has yet to get widespread support from the very people who stand most to benefit from it -- recording artists.
Henley, who has been the most visible, and at times the only visible pop star, to speak out on RAC's behalf, says "it is frustrating . . . trying to help all these people who will not be helped, who don't want to help themselves." Much of the problem, Henley suggests, is political and social apathy unimaginable in the '60s.
"I remember the old bumper stickers that said 'Question Authority' and 'If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.' I wonder where all that went? I started writing a song a couple of years ago called 'I Don't Know My Generation Anymore.' Maybe it was all media hype. Maybe it didn't really exist. Maybe there were just a few activists and it was more about hair and clothes and music and sex and drugs. Maybe my generation wasn't ever what it was cracked up to be.
"We are living in an age of moral cowardice, in both the corporate and artistic worlds," Henley says. "Dissent, which is not only the foundation of this democracy, but also a foundation of rock 'n' roll, is practically extinct. What passes for dissent is fashion coupled with lowbrow, unfocused violence, which is placed upon a pedestal and worshipped as though it were meaningful. It's only meaningful to the corporations who propagate and profit from it. The U.S.A.'s primary exports now are violence and insipid pop culture." The Eagles' new single, "Hole in the World" -- the only new song in their current setlist -- is a soft-spun, harmony-rich plaint addressing the lack of love and understanding in the world. According to Henley, "It's not exactly a protest song: I see it as a song that carefully frames some questions about the whole concept of being special or being chosen in some sense -- the idea that is tacitly implied by the current administration, which is that God is an American, a white, male American."
Which sounds remarkably like a protest song about jingoism.
"People probably understand what the song is about, but people don't want to think too deeply right now," Henley says. "We are so afraid in this country of self-examination and self-criticism that we are literally putting our culture into the toilet."
Worse, he adds, is that "nobody wants to do anything to upset the cash cow, and that includes telling the cow what it needs to hear. And so popular culture, and particularly popular music, continues to wallow in this faux rebellion, this pretense of danger, this phony outrageousness that is absolutely meaningless in terms of the big picture.
"Rather than indulging in paranoid fantasies about so-called weapons of mass destruction that are supposedly stockpiled in far-flung, Third World countries, we ought to be fearing the weapons of mass distraction that are being manufactured here. We ought to be up in arms about the complete corporate takeover of the American arts, letters, journalism, politics, ad infinitum. The legacy of cultural reportage and calls to arms that has traditionally been handed down through folk music -- and includes bluegrass, blues, chants and field hollers -- is dead. Whether or not there is a resurrection depends on the new generation of musicians and writers, very few of whom, it seems, know or care about history."
But even as he admits to being depressed about the general state of affairs, Henley insists he doesn't "want to write a whole album about it, or get on a soapbox and say this is rotten and that is rotten. I'm looking very hard for some hopeful signs and something positive to write about."
As for something positive to speak about, Henley has to go no further than the new kid in the Eagles' lineup, guitarist Steuart Smith, who replaced the fired Don Felder (whose suits for wrongful termination and breach of contract continue). Smith grew up in Washington and spent many years with local bands before moving to Nashville and working with Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Shawn Colvin. Known for his positive energy, Smith is not an official Eagle, but he is proving to be a crucial addition to the flock.
"He's great," Henley says. "Steuart's quite a musician, and he's added a lot of much-needed creative spark to the band. And he's been very good for the writing process with regard to the new album. He's just great to have around because he's ready when you need him but he's not intrusive. And he's always reading a good book, so you can actually talk about things with him besides guitar picks. He's incredible, one of the best I've ever seen and one of the few people who could have stepped into this position and handled it as gracefully as he has. The thing that is most gratifying to me is that the crowds seem to love him -- they applaud him vigorously every night and when he's introduced they chant his name.
"I'm looking forward to writing and recording with Steuart for many years, even outside the realm of the Eagles," Henley adds. "Steuart's versatile, and I want to make a country album and a bluegrass album. I want to do a lot of things just for pleasure now, musically."
As for the open-endedness of the reconstituted Eagles, Henley says "it's great. We're doing business -- even in this economy, we're doing better than a lot of our peers. But it's not quite as rewarding spiritually and emotionally as it should be and I hope that we can remedy that.
"Otherwise I'm going back to my solo career, or what's left of it. I still owe Warner Brothers two albums, and by the time I get those done, I'll probably have had enough. I'd be perfectly content to do what John Lennon did and sit here every day with my kids and cook for them, take them to the bathroom in the middle of the night, take them to their swimming lessons. At the same time, there's the Irish streak in me that is so disgusted with these times we're living in that I want to shout about it. I want to write some songs that really pull no punches whatsoever, knowing full well that there's no place they could get played, knowing that corporate radio would never ever play them."
Don Henley, take it easy? Just doesn't scan.
THE EAGLES -- Appearing Friday and Saturday at MCI Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Eagles, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)