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The Eagles’ last flight?

Times Staff Writer

The long run of the Eagles began with a sad, funny little gig at the Westlake School for Girls and nights spent in the dingy confines of the Troubadour, where their crystalline harmony -- at least on stage -- would define the world-famous “Southern California sound.”

Now, in fact, it’s hard to think of Los Angeles without thinking of the music of the Eagles and it’s impossible to consider the band without L.A. as a frame.

The L.A. story of the Eagles is on the first page of the final chapter. The band has a new album in stores for the first time in 28 years and the members seem to know their own swan song when they hear it.

“It was painful birth,” lead guitarist Joe Walsh said of the struggle to finish “Long Road Out of Eden,” which ended up as a double album. “I can’t think we have another one in us. I really can’t.”

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When the new edition of the Billboard 200 chart is released Wednesday, it will show that the No. 1 album in America is “Blackout” from Britney Spears. But in reality, the bestselling album in the country over the last week was in fact “Eden” -- because it was sold exclusively through Wal-Mart stores and the veteran band’s website, “Eden” is ineligible for the Billboard tally.

The first Eagles album since the Carter administration has a first-week total that looks to be about 700,000 copies, according to the band’s manager, Irving Azoff. That doubles the sales of the new Spears album and makes “Eden” one of the fastest-selling CDs of the year even though it was not released by anything resembling a traditional record label.

“I’m not even sure what the recording industry is anymore,” said Don Henley, who with Glenn Frey is the most familiar voice in the Eagles. To add to the sense of strangeness, the iconic band finds its new music is getting its most significant radio airplay at country stations. Embracing that, the Eagles will perform Wednesday on the Country Music Assn. Awards on ABC, which, shockingly, will mark the first time the band has ever appeared on an awards broadcast.

In other words, if you think you are bewildered by the carnival fun house that is the music industry of 2007, try being a member of the Eagles.

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“I couldn’t tell you what a hit record is these days,” said Frey with a shrug. He and Henley are the only founding members left from the days when the Eagles got their start as a backing band for Linda Ronstadt.

They went on to claim the bestselling album in the history of American music, “Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975,” which is creeping toward 30 million copies shipped to stores, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. But that titan status in the boom of the 1970s has given them a collective impatience with the wilting industry around them now. “I feel like I was part of Camelot,” Frey said, “and it’s not coming back.”

“Eden” is an epic album (many critics, in fact, are saying it’s too long, although the reviews have also been largely positive) and all four members -- Henley, Frey, Walsh and bassist Timothy B. Schmit -- get a turn in the spotlight. It’s almost like they are taking their bows. The 20th and final song on “Eden” is a farewell tune, “Your World Now.”

“It’s a sort of a passing of the torch song, it’s an adios song,” Henley said. “It works on that level for our children and also on the band level.”

Back to the nest

A few weeks ago, the Eagles were back at the Troubadour to sit down for an interview with “60 Minutes.” Frey found the experience heartwarming -- and somewhat claustrophobic.

“It was like walking up to a house you used to live in and knocking on the door -- ‘Do you mind if I came in and looked around?’ ” Frey said. “The place seemed so big to me once and they are really so small. I don’t know what made the Troubadour feel like a giant place. Maybe it’s because for us it was an open road.”

Frey had come west from Detroit and was living in a shabby Echo Park apartment upstairs from a young songwriter named Jackson Browne. Frey would hitchhike to West Hollywood to soak in the pulsing scene at the Troubadour even though he was so broke he sometimes nursed one beer all night.

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Another young singer in the scene was Henley, fresh from Texas, which he ditched after hearing “California Dreamin’ ” on the radio. Henley and Frey became roommates and part of Ronstadt’s band, along with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. The four then went their own way, called themselves the Eagles and signed to a start-up label called Elektra Records. The label was run by a young manager named David Geffen.

They didn’t have to wait long for fame. Their first album, “Eagles,” yielded three hit singles: “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“We came up,” Henley said, “at a 45 degree angle.” Their second album was the 1973 Old West concept album “Desperado.” “We didn’t have any hits on the second album,” Henley said. “We made sure of that. We were afraid of commercialism. It was a bad thing.” The years would disabuse the band of that notion.

The next three albums -- “On the Border,” “One of These Nights” and “Hotel California” -- moved away from country twang and toward a dusty, Western sort of rock with more guitar sinew. A lot of that was due to the addition of guitarist Don Felder in 1974, and then Walsh in 1976. These changes were not made gently. Leadon, frustrated with the rock direction, announced his resignation by pouring a beer over Frey’s head. Bass player Meisner, sick of the chaos, left in 1977. The Eagles recruited Schmit, who was stunned by the backstage strife.

“I thought at first it was just the normal tensions, you know, but these were really intense,” Schmit said. “And then came that night in Long Beach.”

The “Long Night in Wrong Beach,” July 31, 1980, found the Eagles muttering dark threats to each other between the choruses. After the show, there was a brawl backstage. Schmit watched it all in shock. “I remember after weeks it sank in: This really was the end of it all.”

Frey scoffed when asked if it was meaningful that what came together in Southern California also splintered here.

“Bands have arguments in Memphis, sometimes they have arguments in New York,” he said testily. “Look, we disagreed all over the world.”

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Together again and again

The band members went their separate ways after their California divorce, but they came back together for the kids. The fan appetite and the big money it represented led to a 1994 reunion with a delicious name: the Hell Freezes Over Tour. The group was Henley, Frey, Walsh, Felder and Schmit and they broke records. A concert album (along with a few new studio tracks) sold 8.5 million copies and in 1998 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The band circled the world twice on tour but there wasn’t a lot of warmth backstage. The five members played together for the last time at Staples Center on New Year’s Eve 1999.

A few weeks later, the band fired Felder and lawsuits followed. Felder claimed Henley and Frey wanted to hoard the band’s money. The two founding members countered that band chemistry would improve without Felder. (There was a settlement but legal subplots remain; also, Hyperion Books in September cited “legal reasons” for the cancellation of Felder’s tell-all memoir about the band’s debauchery and bickering.)

The Felder affair reinforced the nagging image of the band’s as a sour, mercenary collective. One way to measure the ubiquity of the Eagles is to gauge the bile they inspire. Punk rock was, to many observers, a direct response to the Eagles, and hating the Eagles even made it to theaters as a recurring gag in “The Big Lebowski.” The new deal with Wal-Mart brought hectoring. Henley said the impetus for the deal was the environmental initiatives by the world’s largest private employer but Frey said it was simple math: “If this is our last album, I wanted to sell as many copies as possible.”

The band members stopped listening to the detractors years ago, but even they said they were ready to retire the franchise at the start of this decade.

“The old songs are part of the cultural lexicon and they have been good to us, but at some point singing them over and over just isn’t any fun,” Henley said.

In summer of 2001, the band was in Europe on tour when a funny thing happened. With Felder out of the picture, the band found that it was acting like, well, a band again.

“We didn’t just play, we started hanging out again,” Frey said. “It was a pleasure to go to sound check. There was a lot of fun and lot of laughs on the charter flights from country to country.”

Steuart Smith, Felder’s replacement, became “a catalyst, a source of rejuvenation for us,” as Henley put it. The band decided to go into the studio and chose a fateful date: Sept. 11, 2001. World events seeped through the studio walls. One of the first pieces of music they worked on was an extended jam that coiled with ominous power.

“I remember thinking we’re never going to write the lyrics to this thing, it’s just too long and too scary,” Frey said. But Henley, who had written the epic Eagles song “The Last Resort,” responded with another “magnum opus,” as Frey called it.

That forlorn rumination on the Middle East and geopolitics became the title track of the new album, even though much of the CD is relationship songs and honeyed harmonies. In fact, the album covers just about every Eagles musical territory and creative surges kept adding to it.

“We were done with the album a few times,” Walsh said, “but it wasn’t done with us.” Maybe so, but the famously dour Henley frets that the album should have been leaner. “I think there are only a couple of superfluous things on there.” He declined to elaborate. “That would break the band up. Again.”

The most likely thing to break up the Eagles is time, distance (Henley lives in Dallas, the others in different parts of California) and the tug of family. The band just opened the Nokia Theatre with a run of shows but on opening night Henley was backstage talking about his family.

“I talked to my kids a little while ago; I had to remind them I had a concert tonight,” Henley said with a chuckle.

Last summer he was the first Eagle to turn 60, and he celebrated by surfing in Malibu with his 9-year-old son and pal Jimmy Buffett. Smiling, Henley seemed just as interested in being a beach boy as in carrying on as an Eagle.

“This is the final statement. We got back together and went around the world twice on tour but then there was nothing left to do without new music. Now we have this album that fits in with our body of work. There won’t be another Eagles album after this. That’s what I think today.”

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com


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