The Eagles: They survived the fast lane

By Neil McCormick

As a new documentary recalls their days of hedonistic superstardom, The Eagles, one of the biggest selling bands in history, talk to Neil McCormick

The Eagles (from left) Glenn Frey, Don Felder, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit as they were in 1977. Photo / Supplied
The Eagles (from left) Glenn Frey, Don Felder, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit as they were in 1977. Photo / Supplied

Joe Walsh has played the guitar solo in Hotel California thousands of times, in rehearsal and on stage. "I never get tired of it," he drawls.

"It's still a challenge. I really have to pay attention. I mean, I can play it crappy. But I like to play it good." Recorded in 1976, the twin guitar weave of Walsh and Don Felder, dovetailing and splitting, spiralling into the ether, then combining for a syncopated coda, may well be the most famous guitar solo in the history of rock.

"Don and I were competitive, we always tried to one-up each other, and we did that in Hotel California, except we decided to team up [and come together] at the end, 'cause that way nobody would win." Walsh laughs. "Yeah, it was a tie. Maybe everybody won."

The album that song was off, also called Hotel California, and Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) were both released in 1976 (the latter selling more than 42 million copies), and remain two of the biggest selling albums of all time, up with the likes of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

Back when they were the biggest band in the world, Walsh was The Eagles' rock'n'roll firecracker, a guitar-slinging virtuoso who brought a dangerous edge to their slick, California country rock machine, and he still has enough swagger to carry off a ludicrously coiffed, dyed-blond hairdo.

At 65, he looks good after everything he has been through. He speaks slowly, with the synapse burn of an old hellraiser, but he's smart, thoughtful and still exhibits flashes of the old deadpan humour.

But as a revealing new documentary, History of The Eagles, makes clear, Walsh is lucky to be here at all. "I was a little uncomfortable with the old footage of me, when I was a mess," admits Walsh. "But it was important that it was in there, 'cause we were trying to tell the truth. I ended up alcoholic and totally dependent on various other substances. I mean, I had a blast, we all pushed it, but I took it too far.

"I can't comprehend how I could have done it, how I could have smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and all the rest, and stayed up all night and then gone to the next concert and played. But it has a way of convincing you that you can't do anything without it. I played music high for so long, I didn't know how to do it sober."

When The Eagles reunited in 1994 after 14 years apart, it was on condition that Walsh cleaned up. "I'm so grateful that I'm alive, 'cause a lot aren't. I hit bottom before I OD'd and a lot of my friends did it the other way around."

Walsh pauses, eyes misting up.

"I don't know why I'm here and they're not but I am here ...

"And part of my responsibility is to do a really good job and show people that there is life after total dependency."

These days the band look different from the stoned, smiling young troubadours gathered round a desert campfire in the peyote-fuelled photo session for their 1971 debut album.

Only two of the original line-up remain, the songwriting team of Glenn Frey and Don Henley, looking suited, tailored and padded out, and exuding the poker-faced confidence of the very rich and powerful. The Eagles acquired and shed members along the way, with varying degrees of acrimony, and now the band includes Walsh (who joined in 1975) and the skinny figure of Timothy B. Schmit, who arrived in 1977.

With candid interviews, and archive footage of the band writing, rehearsing, partying, playing and bickering, the two-part documentary does a fine job of depicting their journey from starry-eyed young musicians to gilded superstar burnouts, before reconfiguring as thoughtful, measured old pros.

"We were pretty naive when we started, just kids. Men grow up slowly, especially in the entertainment industry," ponders Henley, the drummer with the soulful voice and poetic lyrics. Henley seems the most uncomfortable with the notoriously hedonistic aspects of the band's past.

"The 60s and 70s were no knitting circle. We played hard but we worked very hard, we were diligent about songwriting and rehearsing, even in the midst of all the debauchery. It's the songs that survive."

Detroit-born Glenn Frey comes across in the documentary as the driving force in The Eagles, a gifted writer and arranger but also a tough taskmaster.

"We were like the odd couple," laughs Henley, recalling early days as roommates in LA. "He would make a mess and I would clean up after him. We had a routine: every day we'd get up, shake off the hangover and start writing songs. I think it was a good balance. Glenn was very spontaneous and uninhibited. I was more reserved and introverted, and he certainly encouraged me as a writer and lyricist."

Country boy Henley is the soul of the band, still fretting about whether what they do has lasting value. "I'm not sure if you can change the world with music any more. Maybe back when we started, that might have seemed possible. Rock's become very shallow and trite, it's moving towards entertainment, modern vaudeville, which makes me sad."

Henley suggests the Eagles' forthcoming world tour - yet to be confirmed for New Zealand - might be their last, and worries that the band have little relevance.

Yet he still feels playing their classic hits has value. "Because they represent a time when people did care a little bit more about the world. And people want to hear them."

Says Walsh: "We've been through every trip a band can go through. And basically what's left is to just play, which is all we wanted to do in the first place."

Who: The Eagles
What: New documentary History of The Eagles
Where and when: Prime, Tuesday, 8.30pm
Listen to: History of The Eagles, three-disc set out now(From left) Timothy B. Schmit, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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