Don Felder on the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” “Heavy Metal,” other solo songs: Gimme Five

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Only two members of the Eagles had longer tenures than Don Felder, who played guitar in the band from 1974-1980 and then from 1994-2001. That gives him unique insight into the Eagles’ inner workings — including signature moments like “Hotel California” and the sessions for The Long Run. Here are his thoughts on solo highlights like 1981’s “Heavy Metal” and key tracks from his long-awaited new solo release, Road to Forever

“HOTEL CALIFORNIA,” with THE EAGLES (HOTEL CALIFORNIA, 1977): Perhaps the Eagles’ best-known song, “Hotel California” began as a demo idea from Don Felder, which then was completed by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The song, a gold-selling, Grammy-winning No. 1 hit in the summer of ’77, concludes with an extended guitar interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh — but Felder handed over the vocal duties to Henley. That kind of selfless devotion to the song was something Felder says was indicative of the Eagles’ commitment to their craft.

DON FELDER: What we did in that band, it was a very unusual circumstance to have five guys and each one brought such an abundance of talent. Everybody in that band would write, sing and play. Anyone in the Eagles could, and did, front their own band. So, it was unusual to have so much talent in one band. We took everyone’s strongest suit, in order to make the best records we could. Whether it was Don Henley singing “Hotel California,” or me singing “Hotel California,” Don Henley could sing the phone book, and I’d buy it. His voice is just sterling, spectacular. Joe and I became the two main guitar players in the band. I also adopted all of the country music flavors — playing pedal steel, five-string banjo, mandolin. I had to cover all of those elements from the older records on stage, as well as the new things going forward. So, we just relied on every one’s strongest suit for each song. I was more than happy to have other people sing, and have me just concentrate on writing music and playing guitar parts. I’ll never be the singer that Don Henley is, but he’ll never play guitar like me. Different people have different talents.

“I BELIEVE IN YOU,” solo (ROAD TO FOREVER, 2012): Working in the devastating aftermath of losing both his band and his marriage — both of which had lasted for nearly three decades — Felder somehow finds a path toward optimism. This song also works as a reminder of Felder’s unsung talent at getting new sounds out of his instrument, as he employs an EBow and a Gretsch — run through a Vox AC30 — to achieve something that sounds something like a cello. Felder used the same guitar onstage with the Eagles’ renditions of “Wasted Time” and “Desperado.”

DON FELDER: We’ve all had our hearts broken, we’ve all been kicked in the butt by love. Sometimes you’ve got to pick yourself up, and have the strength to put on a smile and try to find love again. That’s what that song’s about. With this project, I could really write these songs about my experiences in life, things that had a commonality amongst everyone who hears them. It wasn’t just something that was self absorbed. It didn’t have to be just about me. It was about our common experiences in life. That gave everything a very different feel. When I used to write for the Eagles’ record projects, it was very much like writing for a sitcom where you know all of the characters — you know who’s going to be funny, who’s going to make snide comments. It was just like that. I knew those people, I knew how they played, what they were capable of and what they can’t do, So you have to kind of write for that group, for those characters. With this project, I could write anything I wanted to write and then find the players that were appropriate. So, it was a little bit of a reversal. I felt like the handcuffs had been taken off, artistically.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Even the Eagles had times when they didn’t fly so high. Here are some notable stumbles, from “I Wish You Peace,” to “Frail Grasp of the Big Picture,” to (what the?) “Disco Strangler.”]

“HEAVY METAL (TAKIN’ A RIDE),” solo (HEAVY METAL soundtrack, 1981): For a member of the Eagles with only six official co-writing credits (including “Victim of Love,” “Visions” — which he sang the lead on — and, of course, “Hotel California”), Felder came charging out of the gate once the band initially called it quits. He started with this, a No. 43 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, then contributed “Never Surrender” to the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack in 1982, before following that up with the star-studded solo effort Airborne in ’83. Then, something curious happened: Felder disappeared into sideman work for the likes of the Bee Gees, Stevie Nicks, Bob Seger and Joe Walsh, among others, until the Eagles reunited in the early 1990s. He wouldn’t put out another solo effort until earlier this year.

DON FELDER: When I stopped working with the Eagles in ’81, I did “Heavy Metal,” and some other soundtrack work along the way, then my solo record. But through all of that, nobody else was married, nobody else had kids. We were just working our fingers to the bone, literally. I decided I was going to be Mr. Mom, and drive in a carpool. I got up and made breakfast. I was the commissioner of Malibu Little League. (Laughs.) I got to be a dad, and be there for my kids. This time around, my kids are all grown. In fact, I have grandkids now. I enjoy playing live music. When you are in the Eagles, that machine is all encompassing. You have no other time in the world. You eat, breathe and sleep the Eagles — whether you are touring or writing or in the studio. It all relates to what that machine demands.

“THOSE SHOES,” with THE EAGLES (THE LONG RUN, 1979): After the success of Hotel California, the Eagles added Timothy B. Schmit, but then took almost two years to complete a follow up — an unimaginable wait back then. Felder says their attention to detail was to blame for the delay. Over the course of that time, the Eagles continued incorporating more of the rock influences that had propelled this album’s multi-platinum predecessor — as heard on “Those Shoes,” co-written by Felder — even as the seams in this fragile enterprise started to show. The Long Run featured a trio of Top 10 singles, including the chart-topping “Heartache Tonight” as well as the No. 8 hits “I Can’t Tell You Why” and the title cut — but it would be the last studio release by the Eagles until 2007, and by then Felder had left the band.

DON FELDER: We kept trying to raise the bar higher, and higher with each record — so that not a single lyric or a note or a guitar lick went on those records that wasn’t as good as, or better than, the last record. It was the final product that was the utmost and highest concern. For instance, when we got towards the end of The Long Run, we realized that Glenn had nothing to sing on the record except this one song called “Teenage Jail.” So, we looked at all of the songs that I had, and all of the songs that Timothy had, and Henley too, trying to find something that we could finish for Glenn. And we just had nothing in his genre. So we called Bob Seger, and Bob had started about 60 or 70 percent of “Heartache Tonight,” which was perfect for Glenn. So we got together, and J.D. Souther, Don, Glenn and Bob finished writing that, ran into the studio and recorded that for Glenn — because it was the strongest thing for Glenn’s representation on the record. We couldn’t put out a record without Glenn singing a hit on it.

“WASH AWAY,” solo (ROAD TO FOREVER, 2012): On an album that includes Crosby Stills and Nash, American Idol judge and former Journey sideman Randy Jackson, not to mention two members of Toto, “Wash Away” might just feature the most notable musical addition. Tommy Shaw, of Styx fame, provided not only a lyrical assist, but also a key vocal contribution on a song that underscores the larger redemptive theme found across Felder’s Road to Forever. Shaw also helped with a song called “Heal Me.”

DON FELDER: Tommy is a dear friend of mine. He was in town in a rare moment when he wasn’t on the road. I was just bumping my head on these lyrics. I called and said, ‘Tommy, you’ve got to come over here and help me with these lyrics. Bring your guitar, and we’ll play around a little bit.’ So, we sat down and wrote some lyrics for a couple of days. From there, we set up a mic in my studio, and he sang some harmony on it. What we came up with was an idea about how we all go through life from our adolescence and we wind up with all of these scars all over our hearts. It’s a battle. Life just keeps on punching us in the gut. At some point, you want to find a way to erase all of that — to wash all of that trauma and all of that emotional damage away, then put on a smile and go through the rest of your life.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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