During the dusty Texas summers of his youth, Don Henley worked in his father's auto parts store and learned the vagaries of fan belts, batteries, spark plugs, tailpipes and mufflers. His father taught the future rock star plenty, and, when the family business started to collapse, one of the lessons was to recognize who was to blame.
"My father was a small-business man after he got out of World War II," Henley said. "He despised chains, the big guys, who eventually helped put him out of business."
FOR THE RECORD:
The Eagles: An article on Don Henley in today's Calendar section describes Don Felder as a founding member of the Eagles. The group began in 1971; Felder joined in 1974. —
Wal-Mart: An article about the Eagles' Don Henley in Tuesday's Calendar section cited Wal-Mart as the world's largest company. The retailer is the second largest, behind Exxon Mobil Corp., according to the most recent Fortune 500 rankings. —
Now the son is in business with Wal-Mart, the biggest of the big guys. The Eagles, the rock band that claims the bestselling album in the history of American music, will soon release their first studio album since "The Long Run" in 1979, and, if you want to buy it, you'll have to get in line at Wal-Mart or wait 12 months to get it elsewhere. "They will have an exclusive on it for the first year," Henley said, explaining for the first time a core part of the "strategic partnership" announced in late October.
The Eagles have taken plenty of heat through the years for cashing in -- their tours have some of the priciest tickets around, and the history of backstage bickering has added to the aura of mercenary priorities -- but the 59-year-old singer-songwriter has always been a maverick and rock's most cerebral grump. He explains that anyone who sees some sort of disconnect between his famed Walden Pond preservation efforts and this new corporate deal is simply not paying attention.
"A lot of the people who have criticized us are obviously unaware of what Wal-Mart is doing in overhauling their operation," he said, rattling off the company's well-publicized initiatives to open eco-friendly "green stores," reduce packaging and use its market share to pressure vendors into pursuing environmentally conscious approaches.
And there's the fact that the Wal-Mart deal offered a promising escape route for Henley and his band mates; they have no traditional record label deal, and, after watching the file-sharing websites rise to power, they were open to any path to keep their connection with fans.
"This is the world we live in," Henley said. Then, with a chuckle, he added: "In the big picture, they can't be any more evil than a major record label."
A last Eagles tour?
The singer-songwriter, sitting recently in an L.A. studio, was in a cheery mood, all things considered. The day had started with a major crisis: "It blew up this morning," he said. Surprisingly, he wasn't talking about the Eagles and their effort to make new music without killing each other. "The water heater at the studio blew up this morning. Well, it didn't blow up, but it started leaking and it was going to blow up."
Then his 11-year-old daughter called from Dallas to get help with her French homework ("I had two years of it," he groaned, "but I'm useless."), which competed with the singer's last-minute fundraising duties to secure $900,000 to scoop up a farm adjacent to the Thoreau Institute in his beloved Massachusetts forest. All of that, though, was a welcome distraction from his true enemy at the moment.
"Yeah, anything to stay away from those legal pads," he said, referring to the unfinished lyrics for "Long Road Out of Eden," the title track to that new Eagles studio CD, which, come to think of it, will be the first Eagles studio CD given that "The Long Run" was released in the vinyl days of the Carter administration.
The album, he said, is due to Wal-Mart "in the next 60 to 90 days," but the real deadline on Henley's mind is the tour that will follow.
"We're inching our way toward some kind of completion here on the album, and we hope to get it out in time to hit the road this summer. We believe we've got one more world tour in us, and then that'd be about it. We might just ride off into that old sunset."
That's exciting news at the Concert Industry Consortium, which has brought promoters from around the country to Hollywood this week; an Eagles tour (along with reunions by Van Halen and the Police) means the Rolling Stones can take a year off as the beast of burden responsible for dragging baby boomers through arena turnstiles.
The prospect that this might be the last Eagles hurrah had Henley in a somewhat reflective mood. The band has always had sweet harmonies on stage, but that has always been a rich irony for anyone who watched their dressing room brawls. Henley said a detente has been reached.
"Incidents still happen on tour, but we don't let it get in the way of the performance. That's something you learn to do over a long span of years." Or, you don't -- "The key to being on the road is to try to keep two things: Your sense of humor and your sense of gratitude."
On that theme of thanks, on Friday night, Henley will be honored at a lavish banquet as the MusiCares "person of the year." The admission fee and a silent auction will benefit the Grammy MusiCares program, which helps aging, sick and indigent musicians.
There may be an unkind joke to be made there that the Eagles qualify in two of the three categories. Everybody in the band has some challenges to deal with on the road. For Henley, it's playing drums with his bad back and keeping his voice intact.
"We are approaching 60," he said. "Tours used to be mentally challenging. Now they are mentally and physically challenging."
And that backstage debauchery? The man who sang "Life in the Fast Lane" said those days are long gone.
"The kind of partying we used to do, well that's been a thing of the past for some time," he said. "Spare me the 'Behind the Music' stuff. You won't see that at our shows. It's like a morgue backstage."
Getting 'down in the dirt'
That doesn't mean the band is completely past its days as a study in volatile chemistry. Just six years ago, Henley and the other principal songwriter and singer, Glenn Frey, bounced founding member Don Felder from the outfit, leading to a flurry of nasty lawsuits that is still being sorted out.
That led to cynical attacks on the band, but not nearly as many as they heard last year when they signed a deal with Wal-Mart, the world's largest company, which has been steadily criticized as a massive engine of social and environmental harm.
"It's easy to sit outside on the sidelines and throw rocks when you don't know what's going on, but if you're going to change corporate America, then we have to get down in the dirt with them," Henley said.
Wal-Mart is happy with the deal, at least so far; David Porter, Wal-Mart's vice president of home entertainment, gushed back in October that the retailer was "very pleased to be able to bring our customers an alliance with America's greatest rock icons."
Still, in the bargain Wal-Mart gets a cranky star promising to keep an eye on the promises made ("I will be watchful.") and to make a stink if they don't come through ("You can always get a divorce.")
The album that Wal-Mart will be getting won't be the predictably neutral material it always got from its other corporate troubadour, Garth Brooks. Henley said the lyrics are laced with dark humor and war protest.
The title track is "about the war in Iraq and the evolution of man." Listening to himself, he chuckled. "It's not a fluffy little tune ... there's a portion of a song you can dance to." He waited a beat and asked for a favor: "Put a 'ha-ha' in there after that, OK?"
It's not that Henley isn't funny, it's just that people are so accustomed to his serious mode that the jokes can slip by. Henley seems torn at times between his impulses to provoke and preach and the entertainer's natural imperative to please a crowd; it's hard to dig in your heels and bow at the same time.
Henley seems to be surprisingly anxious about the new music, which is endearing, and ready to fight all the old battles one more time, which is inspiring. It's a good mix just as long as things don't blow up.
"There are big, important global things and the mundane problems of everyday existence, and everything in between," the singer said.
"Grace in all of them would be good. I have to say, the water heater is pretty high on my scale of importance right now. I don't like cold showers."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Breaking up is hard to do
Suddenly it's the season of the rock reunion. Three classic L.A. bands are putting aside old feuds in the name of new ventures while three other notable acts have picked Southern California for their return to a shared spotlight.
* The Eagles: They defined the L.A. sound in the 1970s, and while they have toured in recent years they haven't had a new studio album since that decade ended with "The Long Run." That's about to change. They are finishing up a CD that will be sold for the first year only at Wal-Mart and will also embark on a tour that Don Henley describes as their last road run.
* The Police: Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers split in 1984 amid much acrimony, but this year marks the 30th anniversary of their first record and they're in the mood to celebrate. First, the Brits will open the 49th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday at Staples Center (airing on CBS), with a tour to follow.
* Van Halen: On March 12, this signature L.A. rock band will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with two lead singers: David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, frontmen whose styles and personalities clash. After that, Roth and the band will tour for the first time since the Reagan administration with L.A.-area shows in June. Sorry, Sammy: "Playing these timeless hits only works with Dave," Eddie Van Halen told MTV.
* Rage Against the Machine: The band was the fiercely political conscience of the 1990s L.A. rock scene but fell apart in 2000 as Zack de le Rocha went solo while Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford joined Chris Cornell under the Audioslave banner. Now they will headline the final night of the 2007 Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio on April 29. The word from the band: It's one-and-done, just that show.
* Crowded House: They said farewell at a 1996 show in Australia that brought more than 100,000 people to the steps of the Sydney Opera House, but the suicide of drummer Paul Hester in 2005 brought the members together with new purpose. They will play their first reunion show April 29 at the Coachella Festival in Indio and an album and tour will follow.
* Jesus & Mary Chain: The Reid brothers of Scotland made some mesmerizing music, but the band was just as famous for the stage volatility and a number of well-publicized audience riots at their gigs. Everything fell apart in 1999; they try to pick up the pieces for the first time in Indio at Coachella on April 27.
-- Geoff Boucher