(Pictured: Don Henley on MTV Unplugged, 1989.)
I am not a person who hates the Eagles as a unit. As for two of the most famous Eagles themselves, that’s different. Glenn Frey’s solo stuff had all the personality of muzak. Don Henley’s, meanwhile, can be unsubtle and unpleasant. To make consistently listenable music (and yes, opinions vary on how listenable the Eagles are), they needed each other.
During several hours on the interstate recently, I listened to Henley’s first three solo albums all in a row, and here’s what I think I think:
I Can’t Stand Still came out in the winter of 1982. “Dirty Laundry” was the big single, going all the way to #3 on the Hot 100; its harsh critique of TV news gained it a lot of publicity outside of rock ‘n’ roll radio, as serious talk shows discussed its implications. In 1982, what Henley described—the showbiz-ification of suffering and scandal—was primarily a big-city, local TV phenomenon. The rise of talking-head national cable news and the corporatization of local TV news in the last four decades, however, makes “Dirty Laundry” sound prophetic. But it’s a prophecy delivered by a guy yelling two inches from your face. And Henley wasn’t done with “Dirty Laundry”: “Johnny Can’t Read” and “Them and Us” take on the educational system and the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war with the same hectoring shrillness of “Dirty Laundry.”
Message: Don Henley is here to tell you what’s what.
(In defense of I Can’t Stand Still, it’s the most solid of his 80s records, with two lovely ballads, “Long Way Home” and “Talking to the Moon,” the country/gospel standard “Uncloudy Day,” and “Nobody’s Business,” a briskly rockin’ co-write with J. D. Souther and Bob Seger.)
Henley preached a lot less on Building the Perfect Beast. I liked it when it came out in 1984; I like it a lot less today. The only tracks apart from “The Boys of Summer” that don’t make me wish for the leavening impact of the other Eagles are “You’re Not Drinking Enough,” which is a respectable country song, and “Not Enough Love in the World.” “The Boys of Summer” itself is crispy from 35 years of airplay. (And for cryin’ out loud, radio, get yourself an edit and stop playing the album version, which starts with several seconds of high-hat cymbal and a single electric guitar and destroys whatever forward momentum your station has going.) On “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Henley gets caught up in Central American revolution, then comes home to the “Sunset Grill,” where he and his girl sit in the bar feeling smugly superior to everybody else who comes in.
Message: Don Henley is the most interesting man in the world.
It took five years before Henley returned with The End of the Innocence. I bought it right after it came out, hooked by the stately title track, but I never warmed to the rest of the album, even though I listened to it a lot for the next several years. On my most recent listen, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The three singles—“The End of the Innocence,” “Heart of the Matter,” and “The Last Worthless Evening”—are the best stuff on it by a long shot, and vastly different from the rest of the record, which is clogged with butt-ugly arrangements and misanthropic lyrics.
Message: please do not look Mr. Henley directly in the eye.
I bought Henley’s Inside Job in 2000 but have listened to it maybe twice, so I can’t comment on it. The 2015 album Cass County, on which Henley collaborates with an array of country stars including Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Tricia Yearwood, and Dolly Parton, is his best solo record by quite a bit, with the strongest set of songs he ever put on one record. But what makes Cass County better than Henley’s other solo albums is that it, and he, is not so self-important. Although there are a couple of instances where he slips back into old patterns, Cass County is mostly just a guy performing solid songs honestly. When the Eagles did that, they were at their best. It took their drummer a long time to remember the formula.