They Can Tell You Why : Welcome back to Hotel California: After a split-up that left anything but peaceful, easy feelings, the Eagles are together again, Don Henley and Glenn Frey are writing songs--and they promise it's not just a money thing

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

"Stop . . . stop ," Glenn Frey shouts during an Eagles rehearsal with enough urgency to raise the blood pressure of anyone familiar with the band's history.

The Eagles didn't just break up 14 years ago. The quintet exploded from the tensions surrounding it--chiefly, the pressures they put on themselves to live up to huge artistic and commercial expectations.

Despite the up to $300 million in potential worldwide album and tour grosses looming for this reunion, it's easy to imagine those pressures returning and a single foul-up shattering it. A 1990 reunion attempt disintegrated before it even got to rehearsals.

But Frey's only concern this afternoon is that he can't hear the piano in the sound mix. Looking as trim as he did in the mid-'80s ads for a fitness center chain, Frey, 45, leaves the band and walks to the center of a massive soundstage in Burbank, where he listens again to the music as an engineer adjusts the controls.

Satisfied, he rejoins the musicians on stage. At the end of the song, he smiles. "Nice guitar parts," he says to band mates Don Felder and Joe Walsh.

This peaceful, easy feeling is typical of the reunion, says Frey, who with Don Henley was a chief architect of the group's musical vision.

"We've all grown up a lot," Frey says after the rehearsal. "When you first break up, the wounds are open. . . . There is going to be some anger and some hurt.

"But as years go by, all you remember is the good times. I said when we got back together, 'I don't live in the past. As far as I am concerned, this is Day One. Nobody has to make any reparations.' "

But the biggest surprise is the change in Henley, who was known in the '70s as the most intense Eagle--so fiercely protective of the Los Angeles band's legacy that he would dash off heated letters to critics whom he felt slighted the group.

"This is fun," Henley, 46, says with a disarming grin as he relaxes backstage after the rehearsal. "We are musicians. We are supposed to go out and play for people. Getting back together is normal. The abnormal thing was breaking up in the first place."

Just when no topic seems likely to rattle Henley and Frey, one emerges: money.

No matter how much the Eagles talk about coming back together for friendship and for the love of music, lots of people are going to suspect that the real motivation is the big bucks involved. And the band--which begins its reunion tour on Friday at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre--certainly made itself a big target by charging $115 for top tickets in certain markets.

Henley is a proud man, and the accusation stings.

"We live in a very cynical time," he says sharply. "The press is cynical. The public is cynical. . . . The truth is they have been offering us buckets of money every year to get us back together and the truth is there's not enough money in the universe to get us to do this if we didn't want to do it."

Henley catches himself.

"But you know what? I don't really give a damn," he says, smiling at the return of his old combativeness.

"I'm having fun."

*

Fun .

That's not exactly the word associated over the years with the Eagles.

It's fitting that the group is rehearsing this afternoon on a movie sound stage. This is a band that has always been surrounded by drama. The name of the summer tour--"Hell Freezes Over"--is itself a playful reminder of how for years this was the one group that no one ever thought would get back together.

The Eagles' first hit single may have been the soothing "Take It Easy" in the summer of 1972, but the troubled strains of 1976's "Life in the Fast Lane" were a more accurate description of the band's anxious pace, when it was known in the rock world as much for internal strife and its reported fast-lane excesses as for such gems as "Hotel California" and "New Kid in Town."

Whether serving up ballads ("Best of My Love"), country-flavored narratives ("Lyin' Eyes") or bluesy workouts ("One of These Nights"), the Eagles were the most consistent makers of quality hits of any American band since Creedence Clearwater Revival.

But those high standards took their toll on the band, whose original lineup consisted of Frey, Henley, guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist Randy Meisner.

By the time Felder was added in 1974 to give the band a harder rock feel, there were already reports of grueling recording sessions and screaming matches backstage.

"When I first walked in, everything seemed crazy," Felder once said. "Bernie was quitting and Randy was talking about quitting. Everyone was yelling at each other and fighting. They had just fired their manager and their producer. I thought I had joined a band that had just broken up. 'Oh,' I said to myself, 'smart move.' "

Leadon finally did leave the Eagles in 1975, followed after "Hotel California" by Meisner. They were replaced by Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit, respectively.

It was the "Hotel California" album in 1976 that was the band's crowning achievement--and, in retrospect, its albatross. The work, which spent nine weeks at No. 1, chronicled the attitudes of a generation trapped between the fading idealism of the '60s and the encroaching greed of the '80s.

In many ways, Henley and Frey, who came to Los Angeles from Texas and Michigan, respectively, to follow their rock 'n' roll goals, wrote about the state of the American Dream, using their experiences in rock to convey the innocence, temptations and disillusionment of that pursuit.

The pressure of trying to top "Hotel California" caused the making of the next album--1979's "The Long Run"--to be a nightmare.

Frey at the time described the biggest casualty of those sessions as his friendship with Henley. "We always had to worry about doing this or living up to that," he said. Walsh described the atmosphere in the band at the time as "paranoid." He said the group "lost perspective. We just kinda sat around in a daze . . . for months."

Frey also cites burnout and drugs as contributing factors.

"I hesitate to blame it on drugs because that's such an easy (excuse), but it is fair to say that cocaine may have brought up the worst in a lot of us," Frey says now.

Speaking about the breakup period, Irving Azoff, who managed the band during its glory days, has said, "The longer you're in a band, the harder it is. The first album was recorded in two, three weeks. The second in four weeks and so forth. 'Hotel California' took nine months. 'Long Run' took 1 1/2 years.

"(By then) they were 32, 33. They've built houses. They've made tons of money, but they haven't had time off to really enjoy it. So there are lots of reasons to back off from all the pressure."

The end came in a phone call from Frey to Henley, shortly after the group's final performance--a 1980 benefit at the Long Beach Arena for then-Sen. Alan Cranston.

When the rest of the Eagles returned to Miami that year to complete the group's live album, Frey stayed in Los Angeles. The band had to fly tapes back and forth to get it completed in time for a holiday season release. Not even the lure of an extra $2 million advance from Asylum Records if the album contained two new Eagles songs was enough to breach the gap.

With wounds still open two years later, Frey ridiculed the idea of ever playing with the Eagles again. "There'll never be a 'Greed and Lost Youth' tour," he said flatly. He said he'd rather make music on his own.

It would be another 12 years before he changed his mind.

*

All five Eagles went on to make solo albums in the '80s, but only Henley continued to prosper at anywhere near the same creative and commercial level.

After a sluggish start with his 1982 solo album, his next two-- 1984's "Building the Perfect Beast" and 1989's "The End of the Innocence"--sold 2 million and 3 million copies, respectively. The best of the songs, including "Heart of the Matter" and "Boys of Summer," also reflected the craft and character associated with the Eagles.

It wasn't such smooth sailing for Frey.

Despite such hit singles as "The Heat Is On" and "Smuggler's Blues" in the mid-'80s, Frey's recording career stalled. None of his five solo albums made the national Top 10. He made some sidesteps into acting, including the lead role in the CBS-TV series "South of Sunset," but it was canceled last year after one episode.

Felder, Walsh and Schmit also failed to become consistent sales forces.

So it was only natural that the reunion rumors would begin circulating. The surprise, in retrospect, is that it was Frey--rather than Henley--who tended to be the holdout.

"Every couple of years, I'd run into Irving (Azoff) and he'd go, 'You know there is a bushel basket of $100 bills waiting for you if you guys could just do an album or do a tour,' " Frey says now. "But I'd go, 'Yes, but I have a nice life now, Irving. It's not that important to me.' "

Henley was generally open to a reunion.

"I went in cycles about it," he says, sitting in a trailer backstage after the rehearsal. "I think there were times when I thought, 'Never--if they begged me, I wouldn't do it.' And then there would be times where I would think, 'It wouldn't be so bad.'

"Those thoughts kept going around like that for years, but I don't think I ever totally discounted the possibility of it. As our friend J. D. Souther always used to say, 'Time passes, things change.' "

*

Things had changed enough by 1990 for Henley and Frey to take a stab at writing together.

The idea was to include two or three new songs in a greatest hits album that would be released in conjunction with a U.S. tour.

But Frey ultimately backed away.

"I wasn't ready," Frey says now of that period. "I had just remarried . . . had just had major surgery to remove a section of my large intestine--a congenital thing since birth--that left me laying on my back in Cedars-Sinai with a bunch of staples in my stomach.

"When something like that happens, you lay back and say, 'What's important?' The answer to me was write songs in the morning, play golf in the afternoon and have dinner with my beautiful new wife who was just pregnant with our first child. The timing was bad for me."

As late as last January, the timing still seemed wrong--and all five Eagles were making separate plans for the summer.

Henley was going to work on songs for his next solo album and overseeing his campaign to preserve Walden Woods in Massachusetts. Frey was heading to Nashville to make a country-rock album. Between studio sessions, Felder was looking forward to spending time with his family on a new boat. Schmit and Walsh were also thinking about separate album projects.

The first step in the change of plans was the success of "Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles," an album that featured versions of Eagles hits by such country stars as Clint Black and Travis Tritt.

Azoff says he put the album together to raise funds for Henley's Walden Woods preservation campaign and to kick off the country division of Azoff's Giant Records--not to lure the Eagles back into the nest. However, when sales topped 3 million within six months--it went to No. 1 on Billboard's country charts and No. 3 on the pop charts--the album's popularity underscored the public's interest in a reunion.

But would the five Eagles get along after all these years? Though the musicians said they kept in touch, relations between Henley and Frey remained delicate.

"In some ways, I think a lot of (the conflict) was imaginary," Henley says now of his relationship with Frey during the last dozen years. "We were apart, and rumors would get back to us about something the other guy might have said and it might send us off, but every time we were actually in each other's presence, we were fine. Every time we would run into each other, there was no bitterness or animosity."

The test came last Dec. 6, when they all agreed to guest in a video being shot in Los Angeles to promote Tritt's version of "Take It Easy" from "Common Thread."

Schmit, 46, knew the importance of the day, but he tried to downplay it in his mind.

"I went around for a long time after the breakup changing the station when Eagles songs came on because it was sad to think about what had happened," says the singer and co-writer of "I Can't Tell You Why."

"The (Tritt video shoot) was fun, but that's as far as it went. I said I am not going to start thinking what if . I am just going ahead with my plans for the summer."

The video shoot went so smoothly, however, that steps were soon under way to change those plans.

The Eagles reunion always depended on the green light from both Henley and Frey, so the matter was in their hands when they got together for lunch with Azoff, who manages Henley, and Peter Lopez, who manages Frey, in Aspen, Colo., on Feb. 11.

Azoff sensed an immediate rapport.

"There had been times over the years in Aspen where Glenn and Don would get together and we would try to pretend it was old times, but it always seemed a little strained," Azoff says.

"But this time it all felt right. I could feel that things were different . . . that after all these years, the wounds were really healed."

Agreed Lopez, "It was just one of those special moments when Glenn and Don realized how much of a bond there was . . . how much history there was between them--and how much they wanted it back."

For one thing, the timing was finally right.

Henley was free to work with the Eagles, since his own recording career was on hold because of a lawsuit with Geffen Records. Frey wasn't tied up with an acting or recording project.

With Henley and Frey on board, calls were made to the other band members and plans for a tour were begun.

"To me, this isn't a reunion, but a resumption," says Azoff. "There is a thirst in Don to work with Glenn . . . that I think is going to keep them together."

Henley agrees that the goal is to keep the Eagles together beyond the tour. He looks forward to writing with Frey.

"I'm a collaborator by nature," he says. "I went out to Glenn's house the other day and I just had the beginning of a song. I threw it at him and he picked up on the idea and we finished it that day. It felt wonderful writing with Glenn again. I left his house walking on air . . . just to know that we can still do it."

*

If everything goes right, the five sold-out Irvine Meadows concerts and one sold-out Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion show are just the start of what may be a yearlong Eagles assault.

The band has already taped a two-hour special that will be shown on MTV in September--around the release of a live album from the taping. It will include studio versions of four new songs--two of them written by Henley and Frey.

The first leg of the tour is scheduled to end Oct. 8 at the Rose Bowl or the L.A. Coliseum, but the shows are likely to continue overseas until next spring. In all, the tour could gross up to $100 million in the United States and possibly another $50 million overseas, sources say. T-shirts and other merchandise at concerts could add another $25 million.

The album could gross $125 million to $150 million, based on projections of 10 million in worldwide sales. But there are complications with the collection.

Because its old Elektra Records contract has expired, the band is a free agent that can sign with any label. The problem is that Henley and Frey have contracts with Geffen Records and MCA Records, respectively, and both labels have warned that they'll sue if the artists make an Eagles album--on the grounds that the artists are tied exclusively to their labels.

The band could release the album anyway and deal with the lawsuits, or release it on MCA-owned Geffen Records, perhaps as a way for Henley and Frey to gain their release from the labels.

Geffen may be willing to take the live album in lieu of two more Henley albums on the grounds the Eagles album will outsell them--and that could end what has been a bitter legal squabble.

Not that all the $300 million will go to the Eagles. Azoff and Lopez decline to discuss a breakdown of the potential gross, but sources say bands on a stadium-arena tour should walk away after expenses with about 40% to 50% of the box-office take and about $2 per album sold. This could conceivably mean $75 million to $85 million for the Eagles under the best-case scenario. It is assumed that Henley and Frey--as founding members--will receive the largest share of that. Both have earmarked an unspecificed amount--believed to be in the millions--for various charities, including environmental and humanitarian groups.

"Despite the figures involved, this isn't a case of Don and Glenn being desperate for money," says someone close to the band. "They have made so much money from Eagles publishing that they can live comfortably the rest of their lives. This tour is something they wanted to do."

*

Beyond the debate over ticket prices and whether "greed" is the motivating factor, the reason there is so much interest in an Eagles reunion is the music.

That must be a bittersweet irony for a band that saw its efforts widely criticized in the late '70s by various forces--including the emerging punk generation--as too laid back, irrelevant and overly cynical.

"I never thought every song we did smelled like a rose," Henley says now. "There is some of the stuff that Glenn and I listen back to now and we cringe. But that's the way it always goes.

"I think we were just trying to figure out our place in the world. It's not so different now from all these kids in Seattle and the grunge groups. Anger is one of the primary motivators of rock 'n' roll and there is always a certain hopelessness out there."

About the cynicism charge, he adds:

"Back when we were accused of being hopeless and cynical, I always thought there was a lot of hope and idealism in what we were writing.

"We were trying to encourage people to stand on their own two feet . . . to see that idols of any kind, whether they be rock 'n' roll or religious, generally have feet of clay. I think a lot of our songs were memos to ourselves."

With the tour approaching, the mood at the rehearsal was businesslike, even subdued--as if everyone involved was saving his energy for the days ahead.

Walsh, 46, who is living on a boat in Marina del Rey while earthquake damage at his Studio City house is being repaired, compared the six-day-a-week sessions to baseball's spring training, where everyone is trying to get in shape for the long season.

"It really felt good right away," says the upbeat Schmit, who lives in Woodland Hills with his wife and their two children. "There is something about playing with a certain group of people that you can't replace . . . a connection that works."

The enthusiasm is tempered by the memories of how everything was torn apart before.

"I think most of the time in the back of everybody's mind there was the kind of yearning for it to come back together, yet also kind of afraid of re-entering the whole thing," says Felder, 46, a father of four who lives in Malibu with his wife.

"We all remember what happened last time and we remember the good and the bad . . . and we hope that we are all older, more mature now and can learn from the mistakes. So far, it has been great. But I think we are prepared that if it stops being fun, it'll stop--just as it stopped before."

Everyone is counting on that maturity.

There was such an adult ring to the Eagles' material that it's surprising to realize that Henley and Frey were roughly the age of such troubled '90s youth spokesmen as the late Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder when they were writing many of the Eagles hits. Frey and Henley were in their late 20s when "Hotel California" was released in 1976.

"I think one big difference is we have learned how to differentiate between what to worry about and what not to worry about," says Henley, who is single and has a house in Los Angeles--and who tends to be the most philosophical of the band members. "We used to worry about and try to control everything that went on . . . instead of just worrying about the music."

Frey, who also has a house in Los Angeles, is the most outgoing member of the band, the kind of guy who could have been the star quarterback and class president in high school.

Looking at the now deserted rehearsal stage, he is asked about his 1982 "Greed and Lost Youth" remark.

"I am prepared to be called 'Jurassic rock' and I'm prepared for certain people to not want to believe it is sincere . . . that we are just in it for the money," Frey says of the reunion tour. "But we have turned down millions and millions in corporate sponsorship on this tour. Besides, I don't think anyone who bought the tickets complained about the price."

Like Henley earlier on the same topic, Frey catches himself tensing and sighs.

"The only way we can prove ourselves is through the music," he says finally. "That's why we had to all be committed to this to make it work. This isn't something we can just walk through. I wouldn't have gotten near this if I thought we were going to embarrass ourselves. My nightmare is to have the Eagles end up like the old (washed-up) heavyweight fighters and have people say, 'Gee, the Eagles should have never come back. . . . They got murdered.' "

The Eagles open their tour Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, and continue there Saturday, next Sunday, May 31 and June 1. They play June 3 at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion. All these shows, which begin at 8 p.m., are sold out.

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