Q&A With Former Eagles Guitarist Don Felder
Don Felder, who’ll appear at the Highlands Ranch Tattered Cover on Tuesday, August 12 (click here to learn more), is one of the lesser-known members of the Eagles, but hardly an inconsequential one. He wrote the lion’s share of a little ditty called “Hotel California,” for instance. But he was fired from the band in 2001 after asking too many questions about financial matters – a move to which he responded with a big ol’ lawsuit. The settlement he reached forbids him from publicly discussing the deal’s terms, but that didn’t stop him from writing a book called Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles (1974-2001) – and neither did it prevent him discussing it in tremendous detail in the jumbo Q&A below.
For the most part, Felder was California mellow during the conversation, only getting testy after hearing what he felt was one too many questions about a recent Rolling Stone cover story in which former Eagles colleague Don Henley said numerous uncomplimentary things about him. Still, this topic drew out some interesting exchanges. Felder suggests that Henley and Glenn Frey, the twosome he holds largely responsible for his dismissal, get special treatment in the magazine due to their relationship with founder/publisher Jann Wenner, and scoffs at the implication that his removal from the combo spurred the completion of 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden, the first Eagles studio album in more than a quarter-century. Later, he talks about the genesis of the book; his upbringing; the talents of his former bandmates; his disinterest in a solo career; his dedication to his family in the wake of long absences during the group’s heyday; his frustration at Henley’s insistence on note-for-note renditions of songs in concert, as opposed to more spontaneous performances; and a credit switch on the ‘90s version of “Hotel California” that he calls “a classic example of greed, power and control.”
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Quite a few reviews of the book have characterized it as bitter, and Charles M. Young in a recent Rolling Stone cover story about the Eagles called it a “revenge book.” Did that reaction surprise you?
Don Felder: It really did. I really didn’t intend it to come off that way. As a matter of fact, I deliberately tried very hard not to make it a revenge book. I just tried to tell the story of my life, and to give as unbiased and balanced a view as I could of what it was like during the period with the Eagles. Kind of a Polaroid snapshot of a lot of the things that were going on. I wasn’t out to hang anybody’s head from the highest pole in town. That wasn’t the intent.
WW: Do you think that by focusing on the final third of the book, the people who’ve had that reaction are missing a lot of what’s most important about it to you, including the story of your youth and the way you got started in the music business?
DF: Unfortunately, it is primarily marketed at the Eagles audience – people who know me primarily through my success with the Eagles, obviously. And a lot of people read the book, and even though they derive a great deal of information about me, and enjoy a lot of the chapters about my early years, they’re really waiting to get to the salacious, juicy parts – all the dirt that was going on behind the Eagles story. So yeah, I think a lot of people focus on that, and obviously the press does. But as far as Rolling Stone, the Eagles, meaning Don Henley and [longtime band manager] Irving Azoff, have a great romance with Jann Wenner [Rolling Stone’s founder and publisher]. I knew going in to submitting my book for a review of that magazine, as well as in the Eagles cover article that came out the following month, that most likely it was going to be negatively reviewed and I’d be negatively portrayed in that article.
WW: I wanted to ask you some questions about that piece, which it sounds like you’ve read. The photo that’s at the beginning of the article inside the magazine is from 1978, and it features the four people who are currently members of the Eagles: Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit. Did you recognize that photo? And if so, were you originally on one side or the other in the shot and you were cropped out?
DF: I honestly don’t know. If we were doing a photo session together in the late ‘70s, I would have been in the photo shoot. I don’t remember the photograph you’re talking about, but it wouldn’t surprise me. With the venom and animosity that still lingers in that organization, not only toward me, but also amongst themselves as well, something like that could have easily happened.
WW: The article quotes Don Henley as saying that at a certain point, you decided that he and Glenn Frey shouldn’t be the ones running the band anymore, and that instead of talking to them, you tried to divide and conquer by going to Joe and Timothy. Given the number of times you tried to get to Henley and Frey, which you document in your book, is that claim frustrating to you?
DF: It’s not frustrating. It’s just not accurate. I never challenged control of the band. Basically, all I did was start asking questions. There’s an old adage in Hollywood amongst managers: “Pay your acts enough money that they don’t ask questions.” And I started asking questions. Not only was I a one-third owner of Eagles, Ltd., and I’d been somewhat fiscally illiterate about the handling of funds and contracts and negotiations and all that – I just stayed out of it. But in the ‘90s, when we resumed and Don and Glenn literally seized power, and through greed and power just kind of started taking control of the whole thing, making all the decisions without even consulting or a phone call or what used to be a band meeting. None of that took place. And we’d go out and do a bunch of shows and I’d get a check, and that was it.
I had no idea of what was going on, what charities we were giving money to, or anything. So I started asking questions, not only as a one-third owner of the band – the three people who owned the band were Don Henley, Glenn Frey and myself – but as also a shareholder and stockholder in a multimillion dollar company, I had the right and legal grounds to ask these questions. And they became very intimidated. I got what I would call sandbagged as far as information being supplied to me, and when my lawyer finally sent letters asking for information they’d promised me they would deliver, the response I got was, “You’re fired.” So I wouldn’t really categorize it as me trying to take control of the band. I was simply trying to get answers to questions about where all the money was going. My question back to them today is, if you have nothing to hide, why hide everything?
WW: Your mention of the word “power” relates to another quote from Don Henley in the article. Charles M. Young writes about how getting rid of you seemed to be the key to unlocking their creativity when it came to writing songs for Long Road Out of Eden, their latest album. [Felder laughs.] The quote reads, “The guy wasn’t bringing anything to the party. He showed up on time and he played his instrument well, but in terms of creativity, nothing was happening. He was making a lot of money and he couldn’t leave it alone. He was obsessed with power.”
DF: Wow. That is so, so inaccurate. The only thing I can say in response to that… I don’t understand why this is turning into a rebuttal to the Rolling Stone article. That’s not what I intend this interview to be. You seem to be reading me quotes and asking me to respond, and I’d rather talk about my book.
WW: I certainly intend to do that. This last question will conclude the Rolling Stone portion of the program.
DF: Well, for every album we worked on, I brought in reels of tape of somewhere between fourteen and eighteen songs – some of them completed, with lyrics and melodies, some of them basic tracks. Things came out of those products. Like for Hotel California, I think I had a reel with sixteen songs on it. Two of them went on to be “Hotel California” and “Victim of Love.” Same thing for The Long Run. Every time we got together, I actually showed up and delivered more music and more creative input and more song ideas to put out on the table to work with and co-write with than anybody else.
So I don’t see how they can say that getting rid of me unlocked their creative ability. As a matter of fact, if you look at that album – and I haven’t looked at the writing credits – but it seems very odd to me, and peculiar, that they would select a J.D. Souther song that was written in ’72 [“How Long”] to be their first song. If I was the one who’d kept them all locked up in terms of their ability to create and write together, it seems quite ironic that they’d blame me for their inability to write when they couldn’t stay in the same room together, much less sit down and write.
WW: During the attempts to get a recording project going in the ‘90s and the early 2000s, you brought material to those sessions as well?
DF: I did. I had about twelve or thirteen song ideas. I still have the reel myself, as a matter of fact. And I turned in stuff for The Long Run that we cut a basic track for, and Henley couldn’t finish writing the lyrics for in time, and I took it and wrote it and rerecorded it, and it became “Heavy Metal” in ’84. So their claim of my being the one that was creatively bankrupt, or the reason they couldn’t write together, is absurd.
WW: Let’s go back to the early section of the book. Were those chapters every bit as meaningful to write as the latter ones?
DF: Let me tell you why I wrote this book. Within a twelve or fourteen month period, I went through a divorce from my wife of 29 years, which is devastating emotionally and earthshaking as far as your whole world being turned upside-down. And within that same twelve month period, I left the Eagles. We parted ways for whatever reasons. So I found myself with my whole life and identity and everything I had known over the past thirty years gone. And so I found it very cathartic, and I started out almost meditating for 45 minutes a day about my life. How I had gotten and arrived where I had in my life from this little dirt road in an impoverished area, and a very humble upbringing in North Central Florida to living in Malibu and now in Beverly Hills. How did this happen? What happened to me?
And eventually, instead of just meditating, I started sitting down at a word processor and writing stuff out and then looking at it and reading it, not with the intent to write a book. It was almost self-study, or self-analysis. So the intent of the book was multi-faceted. It was very cathartic for me to understand where I’d come from – the steps along the way musically and through relationships and events that had led me into the Eagles, and while I was in the Eagles, the music and the relationships and the events that happened that caused me to no longer be in the Eagles. And in hindsight, that process is a very similar process to a lot of people who have this dream of going into Hollywood and being a movie star, or standing in their bedroom and playing air guitar to some music when it’s blasting in the background and dreaming what it’s like. Kids who get their first guitar at eight or nine years old and see John Mayer. They have the same response to him that I did to my favorites when I was a kid – that enthusiasm and that influence. And reading that story, you get a look at what it’s like whatever your original upbringing was. But kind of what it was like to go through all that emotionally, financially, spiritually.
A lot of things happened to me. I was raised, like I said, in a very humble upbringing by my mother, who would drag me to church every Sunday by my ear, and to Sunday school. Very religious, moralistic Southern Baptist upbringing. And yet by the ‘70s, once I was in the Eagles, I was drugged into promiscuity and drugs and alcohol. This whole other part of my life took over as part of being in that situation. That was totally contrary to all of my upbringing, and when we stopped touring in the ‘80s and I realized what had happened to me in that eight years we’d been working together, and how it had changed me, I made a conscious and deliberate effort to recognize what had happened to me. And when we reunited in ’94, I was very well aware of all the pitfalls and temptations that were about to be re-presented, whether it was alcohol or drugs or women or fame. The whole trappings that go along with it. And I made a deliberate and conscious effort to avoid those and face each one eye to eye and overcome those challenges – and I’m proud to say that I did.
One of the things that was happening in the ‘70s was the intimidation of the management and the business and my economic ignorance. And so, in the ‘90s, when I started asking questions, I said, “Wait a minute. I need to be advised about what’s going on with my own company. I can’t let these other two partners of mine just run off with the whole store. That’s okay, but at least tell me what’s happening. Tell me what’s going on, instead of telling me, ‘Shut up and go stand in the back corner and play your instrument.’” Don Henley, I think I quoted him in the book: Every time I would ask a question, he’d say, “Felder, just shut up and think about the money.” Whether it was a question about the crew or the artwork or whatever we were doing, I kind of had a ball-gag shoved in my mouth and a check shoved in my hand. And I realized that even though it was difficult for them to consult me or tell me about anything, they interpreted it as a challenge to their authority, which was not the intent at all for me to do. It was just simply trying to make certain I wasn’t getting screwed, like everybody else who comes through Hollywood.
WW: One of the things that hasn’t been mentioned in many reviews is that throughout the book, you complement Don and Glenn on their songwriting ability – particularly Don, who you speak glowingly about. All these years later, despite all the acrimony, can you still appreciate the skills they have in those areas?
DF: Absolutely. I think Don Henley is a brilliant contemporary rock writer. He would have been a fabulous poet if he weren’t a musician. He was a literary major, and not only that – he’s gifted with a brilliant voice. To me, Don could sing the New York City Yellow Pages and I’d buy it. I just love the sound of his voice. And just because some people are blessed with some elements of genius, and they’ve been given some fabulous gifts, it doesn’t mean they don’t have warts. We all have warts on our personality and things that are unpleasant. No one in this world is perfect. So just because there are parts of people that you disagree with or you put up with, there’s no reason not to admire them for their gifts. You have to recognize them for that as well, and I do that for both Don and Glenn. I think the legacy of what they’ve written is really undeniable.
WW: One place you don’t make that kind of a mention is in the acknowledgements section. Was that something you considered doing and then changed your mind?
DF: No, I had an acknowledgement in there, but I took it out.
WW: What was your rationale for taking it out?
DF: There was no rationale. It’s an area that I can’t discuss. All I can say is that as a result of our legal settlement, we have a confidentiality agreement regarding certain things I can’t speak about. Why that wasn’t put in the book would fall into that category, so I can’t discuss it.
WW: One of the interesting thing you touch on in the book is the members’ essential anonymity, even at the height of your popularity in the ‘70s. Because of the iconic imagery on the album covers, and because this took place before the MTV era of music videos, most people simple didn’t recognize you even though you were enormously popular. You talk about the advantages of that – but was it disadvantage when it came time to establish yourself as a solo artist?
DF: I never really made a concerted, conscientious effort to establish myself as a solo artist. Like I said, while we were on the road in the ‘70s, I had children born to my wife, so when we stopped touring in ’80 or ’81, I went out to what used to be the countryside of northern Malibu, which used to be very rural, with horses, and outside of the fast lane of Los Angeles – and I was a dad. I got up in the morning and made breakfast, made box lunches for my kids, drove them to school, car-pooled, went to soccer games, recitals. I tried to make up for the many years I’d been absent since their birth. And I put out a solo album because while we were making, I think, The Long Run, Irving Azoff thought it wise that when we were negotiating to do that album, everyone in the band should have an individual solo deal with Warner/Elektra/Asylum as part of that deal. So I was obligated to do a record. I went into my studio, did a record, put it out – but I never toured behind it. I don’t think I ever played a single show. I really didn’t want to. I really wanted to concentrate on being a dad.
So I did some television, I did some music for film. Things where I was able to stay at home, stay under the radar, and not be consumed with that whole rock-and-roll thing again. Because I really wanted to raise my kids. It wasn’t that the anonymity made it difficult for me to do. It’s just that I chose not to do it. In fact, I went out to dinner last night at Mr. Chow’s [a restaurant in Beverly Hills], and when I walked out, there were like fifteen paparazzi taking pictures of me. So it hasn’t really effected things in a negative way at all. But I’ve never pursued actively doing a solo career.
WW: During the ‘80s, of course, Don and Glenn did actively pursue solo careers, and since music videos had come to the fore by then, they became very well-known faces. Did that contribute to the power dynamic shifting even more in their direction once you made the reunion decision in the ‘90s?
DF: Yes and no. In their minds, it did. In their minds, they were the two stars, and rightly so as far as solo albums were concerned. As far as the Eagles, everyone in this band, including Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon, myself, Joe, Timothy – for 27 years, I worked shoulder to shoulder with these guys. Writing songs. I was on every stage, touring, playing every song. Every night we stayed up until five o’clock in the morning in the studio for months and months and months, working to build this company, build this image, build these records, build these tours. I stood shoulder to shoulder with my two partners, Don and Glenn. But then all of a sudden, because they’d had more successful solo careers, they felt like they were “Entitled” – and that should be capitalized, in quotes – entitled to more from the Eagles.
And so from the onset, I had disagreed somewhat, because I’d felt in the past that everyone should have an equal share, in the ‘70s. And if it was to be the Eagles, that’s the way it should be. So we had some disputes early on about the distributions and control and I just stepped back and went, “Hey, whatever you guys want to do, that’s fine.” And I did. I let them do whatever they wanted to do, until I started asking questions about what they were doing. And that’s why I said, if you’ve got nothing to hide, why hide everything.
WW: In terms of recording and live performances, you also talk about how you were interested in a little more spontaneity. You felt that sometimes the imperfections made the music that much more vital, but they definitely didn’t feel that way. When you listen back to live recordings, for example, do you wish you’d had the opportunity to stretch out a little bit more?
DF: Well, I came from a background out of New York where I was in a jazz-fusion rock band [it was called Flow]. And that band was primarily set up as players where everybody was able to play off the cuff, improvise, create a solo on the spot. That was my training. Some comedians have to sit down and write a joke and then go onstage and say it verbatim every night, and other comedians have this ability to go on stage and improvise and be funny about it. The artists I’d always admired, like Duane [Allman] and even Clapton in his early years in Cream and those bands, were people who were able to play in the rock idiom, but with that kind of freedom musically. And what I was able to do was to bring a lot of that spontaneous creativity to the writing – to being able to write solos that were right off the cuff, like the introduction to “Hotel California” for the Hell Freezes Over album.
We had rehearsed that song acoustically starting at the beginning of the song, and we were on a soundstage getting ready to tape it for our DVD and after soundcheck, Henley said, “This song needs a special introduction.” And I went, “Well, what are you going to do?” [Laughs.] All he did was sit on a stool with a pair of maracas. But he said, “Come up with something.” Because he knew that in a matter of ten minutes, I could write a whole guitar introduction, and I did. Both times we taped that – we taped that show twice – both introductions I made up on the spot. It was literally a shot from the hip. I just made it up live in front of an audience, and he knew that I could do that, because I’d done it so much in the past, and in the studio. And that was my territory. Turn the spotlight on and give me a key and let me go. That’s what I really like doing. That’s what Joe is great at doing, too, and I was so excited when Joe joined the band. I thought we’d be able to do more things like that.
But when I wrote “Hotel California” and gave the cassette to Henley, he loved the track, and we got in the studio and recorded the basic tracks, and he sang on it. But when it came time to do the basic guitar tracks on the ending, I was just going to set up with me and Joe and write some great, searing guitar parts at the end. And we started playing, and Don said, “Stop. That’s not it.” And I said, “That’s not what?” And he said, “That’s not what’s on the cassette. Do it exactly like you did on the demo.” And I’d done that a year ago. I said, “I don’t remember what I did a year ago.” So we had to call my housekeeper in Malibu and have it play the song to us over the phone. We were in Miami, and we had to record it on a cassette over the telephone, and I had to listen and learn what I had made up off the cuff a year ago, because Don wanted it exactly like the demo.
WW: So your example about the DVD taping, where he encouraged you to make something up on the spot, was the exception, not the rule.
DF: Yes, and it was unbelievable. You want to talk about control? Someone who doesn’t have the ability to freely do that has to have control. They need to have that kind of control. They know exactly what they’re going to do, they know exactly what notes they’re going to play. They don’t have to be forced to step outside their box. They feel nervous and frightened and insecure outside their box, because they’re out of control. Joe and I, on the other hand, loved it out there. We savored the freedom. And to me, that’s where the most exciting, creative, on-fire performances come from out of artists and musicians.
In my book, I write about getting in my car in Florida and driving up to New York to see Miles Davis live. It was unbelievable. Those guys don’t play the same notes two bars in a row, much less two nights in a row. It just gushes out of them – this brilliance, this talent. There’s no need for this control, and trying to play it exactly like you did last night, and tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next night. So the show, musically, became very rote. The choreography, the lights. It was like a play. Everybody walked up and said exactly the same lines every night. You try to do it with as much enthusiasm and vigor as you could, because you’ve got a live audience, and you want to do the best you can. But there was no excitement, no fire, and I think a lot of the criticism over the years, not only in the ‘70s but in the ‘90s, of the Eagles live was, they’re not exciting. There’s no creativity there. It’s exactly like the record.
WW: In the case of you and Joe, you obviously feel there was so much potential to go beyond that. Did that make the shows feel limiting to you?
DF: Yeah, it really was. I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s a regret I have that we weren’t ever able to really explore the possibilities of what was there. As a matter of fact, we’d go to a show, go to a soundcheck, and nobody would even jam. Like, “Hey, I’ve got this idea. Check this out.” The crew that set up our gear would jam. They had a jam band, and they’d jam and have solos and just have fun, and then we’d go and do our soundcheck, and it’d be the same soundcheck every day, and the same show every day. There was no creative spontaneity. There was just no fun, in my opinion. It was all just serious business.
WW: You talked earlier about how cathartic writing the book was in general. When you’re not doing interviews like this one, do days go by where you either don’t think about the Eagles at all, or at least you don’t think about the bad times?
DF: I hope I don’t sound too negative, because I still have a lot of fond memories, and I still have a brotherly bond somewhere deep down in my soul with these guys. We were together for 27 years, starting off in ripped jeans and T-shirts and driving rent-a-cars around when we were kids. We spent a huge part of our lives together, and went through hell and back to get to where we wound up. So I still have a great affinity for those people. I love Joe, I love Timothy. Don and Glenn are fabulous musicians and writers, and yeah, they have their warts, but they’re not evil people. I don’t hate them at all. I hope I don’t sound that way. I have a lot of fond memories, and I have a lot of memories of great times. And I don’t think anyone will ever be able to take anything away from our accomplishments together.
Now, I challenge you to take Don Henley’s solo career, and especially Glenn Frey’s solo career, and compare it to anything the Eagles have done in the way of ticket sales, record sales, worldwide recognition. The total of that band is far greater than the sum of its parts. To me, it’s what the band together did, and I was curious why their last record – and I haven’t listened to the whole thing – but I was curious why it sold so well and was such a phenomenon without having a hit. There wasn’t a hit single on the radio, and in order, these days, to sell records, you have to have a hit single. And it forces the question, were people going out to buy the Eagles record in anticipation that it would be more like the old Eagles records that they’d known and loved without actually having a hit on the radio? Usually you have a song that you like and you go out and buy the record. This kind of worked in the opposite direction.
But I did want to say something about “Hotel California.” When I wrote that song and that track, and we put it on the album, on the original vinyl in 1976, the credits read, “ Hotel California,’ written by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey.” And typically when songwriters write together, the person who wrote the most of that song is listed first, the person who wrote the second amount is listed second, and the person who wrote the least is listed third. If you look at the ’76 vinyl, that’s the credits. When we reformed in 1994, and we re-recorded “Hotel California,” which is, as far as I know, the only song recorded twice, by the same band, and has been nominated for Grammys both times. But on those credits, after I rearranged the whole track, wrote the introduction, wrote the solos, wrote everything, and Don Henley did nothing different from what he’d done before, and Glenn Frey added nothing to it in ’94, the credits read, “‘Hotel California,’ written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Don Felder.”
WW: I remember that there had been a controversy when Paul McCartney put out a live album [1976’s Wings Over America], and on some of the tracks, the credits were listed as “McCartney-Lennon” instead of “Lennon-McCartney.” But in this case, I don’t remember hearing anything about it at the time – so I was surprised when I read about the credit change in your book.
DF: I couldn’t say anything publicly about it when I was in a band, but to me that’s the classic example of greed, power and control. Somebody who would seize something like that credit for themselves, to elevate themselves in history unfairly and unjustly over what they’d done – it’s a shame to me. But despite all of that small stuff, I didn’t care about that. The fact that I was able to write something that was part of being such a legendary hit means everything to me.
WW: What are you doing musically these days?
DF: Well, I’m about halfway through a CD of my own. I’m in no big rush. I’m playing with a lot of really fun people who I like to write and record with. Hopefully by this time next year, it’ll be finished and we’ll be back on the phone talking about a new CD.