Maclean’s Interview: Don Felder

Guitarist Don Felder of the Eagles talks with Kenneth Whyte about ‘Hotel California,’ Power, greed and the third encore
Kenneth Whyte

Don FelderQ: When I was reading your book, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (John Wiley & Sons Canada), it surprised me—I’d forgotten that there was a time when the length of somebody’s hair could be such an issue.

A: Oh, it was huge. You know, my brother was just straight as an arrow, and got a scholarship to law school, and to this day you’d look at him and you know he’s a lawyer. So he was my predecessor, and then I had long hair, and was playing in bars, and my dad was really on my case.

Q: You grew up in Gainsville, Fla., and by the time you were out of high school you’d met not only Bernie Leadon, who was one of the founding members of the Eagles, but Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, the Allman Brothers. How’d that happen?

A: I don’t know if there was something in the water, or if it was something we all were smoking at the time, but an inordinate amount of people came out of that particular little area in north-central Florida, which was just a poor little town. We’d go play those fraternity parties Friday and Saturday, and sneak a beer out of the keg when nobody was looking, you know? During the summer we would go over and play the strip, either Daytona or Lauderdale or somewhere on the coast. That’s where I met the Allman Brothers.

Q: Who’s the best rock ’n’ roll guitarist you met? Would it be Duane Allman?

A: The best rock ’n’ roll guitarist I’ve ever met is Jeff Beck. He has the most brilliant dexterity and the ability to just play completely freely. Duane was a good guitar player but he was probably the most unique slide guitar player. Everybody else that played the old black blues music had played it on acoustic guitar, and Duane had taken that heritage and transferred it onto electric guitar, a Les Paul, and turned up this amp, and it was just smoking. But Jeff Beck, to me, is the most creative, innovative guitar player I’ve ever seen. He can play anything, literally.

Q: So you play in a few bands in Florida, and before long you’re in California where the rock music scene is taking off.

A: I’d always go see Bernie and we’d hang out in rehearsals and just jam. And so I got this call from Glenn Frey in the middle of the Eagles making the album On the Border, asking me if I’d come down and play slide guitar on this one song, ironically enough entitled Good Day in Hell, which turned out to be a very long good day in hell! I played that session and I got a call the next day from Glenn asking me to join the band.

Q: So you went from being a sideman to becoming a partner with the Eagles?

A: Correct, exactly. We formed this company called Eagles Ltd., which was a corporation owned by all five members, it was Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and myself, we each owned 20 per cent of this company that owned the Eagles. It owned the T-shirts, the touring, everything, it was all divided equally. This band was going to be different, there were going to be no sidemen involved with this organization.

Q: Those were innocent times, weren’t they?

A: Yeah.

Q: The Eagles changed when you came on, the sound changed. Obviously they heard something in your playing—in your guitar—that they were missing.

A: They made a conscious decision to try to direct the sound of the band away from country music and more into rock, pop. That’s why we recorded songs like Already Gone, which was a rock ’n’ roll, guitar-driven kind of thing that I played on.

Q: Okay, but they had guitar players. Why couldn’t those guys have played differently?

A: Well, because Bernie Leadon, who was the primary guitarist in the band, had his roots in country music. If you listen to the first couple of records, Eagles and Desperado, you’ll hear Bernie all over the place. And so what they were looking for was somebody that could bring some meat to the bone, that could make this band a rock ’n’ roll band.

Q: What was so unique about that sound?

A: It’s the spirit of it, and the people that I was drawn to, like B.B. King. I first saw him when I was about 13 or 14 years old. He was in a barn, and the women were crying and screaming out when he was playing. He was able to move people. Duane Allman was the same way, he had the ability to just make your hair stand up on your arms, on the back of your neck. That’s what I wanted to do. And I think that’s what they heard in my playing. When you hear the solo in One of These Nights or you hear the solos and music in Hotel California, it’s a moving performance, you don’t know what it is, but it’s exciting.

Q: It’s a very tight band, but no one really seems to get along.

A: I think the Eagles were really unique in that it had five people and everyone wrote, sang and played really well. It was like it had five front men, and it was a constant struggle and battle for the control and power positions in the band. And we just kept going full speed ahead for 10½, 11 months a year, either in the studio, or writing, or on the road, and you can only do that for a certain length of time before your nerve endings just get raw and you’ll just explode over the slightest little simple thing. As all the hits had been mostly sung by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, they seized more and more control, much to the detriment and anger of Bernie Leadon—he was just a sideman in their view—to the point where he quit. Later they drove Randy to the point where Randy quit.

Q: Throw drugs and success and money into the mix and it’s almost, in retrospect, a miracle that you lasted as long as you did.

A: Well, you know, the three ugly elements that really present themselves in human circumstance are greed, power and control, and I don’t care if it’s a family arguing over an inheritance, or corporate partners over how to run a business, or bands, there’s that struggle over greed—who’s going to make the most money—the power of who’s really in charge, and the control of all the decisions. That struggle is one of the most difficult, if not the ugliest, parts of human relationships, and when there’s billions of dollars at stake, as there was later in the ’90s, it becomes surrounded by small armies of attorneys, and managers, and accountants.

Q: So the spirit got drained out of the band by the, what, late ’70s, early ’80s?

A: Right, right. And it was very difficult to reunite. But in ’94 when we finally got back together there was such a huge amount of money put on the table for us to do it that everyone was on their best behaviour. But then as time went by a lot of the same old issues started raising their ugly heads.

Q: I’m surprised at how physical it got with you guys sometimes. You were throwing each other up against the walls.

A: But it was just the frustration that accompanied the intensity of the work, and the pressure. The magnitude of that success after Hotel California was so enormous, so beyond what any of us had ever envisioned or expected. We created this monster with Hotel California, and it ate us!

Q: I wanted to ask you about the song, because it’s the Eagles’ signature song, and it’s described as the Eagles’ masterpiece, probably comparable to Hey Jude for the Beatles, would you say?

A: Stairway to Heaven, yeah, those sorts. It’s really nice to be a classic, by the way.

Q: That song has a different sound from where the Eagles had been before because it starts off with a Latin influence in the opening chords, and it’s got this semi-reggae beat to it. Where did all these influences come from?

A: There was a lot of Latin influence in Florida, there was a huge Cuban and Hispanic population. Reggae was something that was just around the corner, you know, in Jamaica

Q: It’s funny that the quintessential California rock song is inspired by Florida influences.

A: I know!

Q: What’s the third encore?

A: The third encore was one of the heavenly parts of being on the road that produced a hellish amount of guilt in my life. Before, during and after the show, part of our road crew would go out with bags of buttons—they were like little campaign buttons with a pin on it—and they said “3E” on them, which stood for the third encore, and find the most beautiful women in the arena and invite them back to this party with the Eagles at the hotel. There’d be somewhere between 75 and 150 women. And in those days I was the only married guy in the band. Everybody else was going there like they were fishing for tuna and were just pulling them out, throwing them up on the deck, going back, getting another one, it was out of control. A lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol, a lot of cocaine, Quaaludes, a lot of brandy, I mean, no excuses but most of the time I was fairly well intoxicated. So I started partaking in the third encore. For days after that, I ’d just be eaten up with the fact that I was being promiscuous on the road while I had a wife and kids at home, and three or four days later I’d wind up going back in just to get a drink and wind up withanother woman.

Q: You are frank in the book about those experiences and the troubles they caused in your marriage.

A: Well, I just tried to be as honest as I could. Later, when we reunited in ’94, going in I knew I was going to have the same opportunity to make the same mistakes, so I prepared myself so I could battle these demons and battle this desire, and indeed I wound up going to bookstores and buying really spiritual books. I’m very proud to say that I went through that whole Hell Freezes Over period, and I passed the test the second time, I got through that without a mistake.

Q: Animosities and tensions build up, and Henley and Frey eventually tell you you’re no longer in the band. How does it feel to see them out there still under the banner of the Eagles?

A: Well, there are two things that strike me. Number one, I was sadly disappointed at their record musically. Henley and Frey used to be one of the greatest songwriting teams—like Lennon and McCartney—and for them to come out with their first single from a 1972 J.D. Souther song that I played on in ’72 or ’73 with J.D. and make that their first single, to me was like, “What?!?” I was really disappointed.

Q: They’re touring, playing the old songs, and making a lot of money, but creatively they seem to be exhausted.

A: That’s right. Now, the one thing that Don Henley and Glenn Frey told me as we were working on One of These Nights, “You know, we’re going to make a pact that we’re never going to be like the Beach Boys,” but indeed, ironically enough, that’s exactly what they are. It’s like the Eagles Orchestra now. You go back and listen to the Eagles from 1976, it’s five guys onstage, all singing, all playing, live. It’s not a bunch of overdubs and fixed-up tracks and accompanying musicians. You can really hear what that band used to be.