A Conversation With Don Felder – Part 2
I recently had the honor of interviewing one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock, Don Felder. For 27 years he was a member of one of the most influential and popular rock groups of all time, the Eagles. During his tenure with the band, Felder wrote the music for “Hotel California” and applied his signature sound to countless hits, including “Victim of Love,” “One of These Nights” and “New Kid in Town.”
Felder was inducted with the Eagles into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. After parting ways with the band, he went on to become a New York Times best-selling author with his autobiography, Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles, and in 2013 released Road to Forever – Extended Edition.
He is currently touring with Foreigner and Styx on the The Soundtrack of Summer Tourand they released a companion album, The Soundtrack of Summer: The Very Best of Foreigner & Styx, featuring a new version of “Hotel California” that’s performed by Felder, Styx and Foreigner.
Below is part two of my two-part interview with this legendary artist. You can read part one here.
In 1994, after a 14-year absence, the Eagles decided to reunite and perform the Hell Freezes Over concert on MTV. How did it feel to have the band back together after all those years?
It felt really good. There were a lot of issues that had not been addressed, personal issues amongst people…still friction between Don Henley and Glenn, and myself and Glenn…that had not been properly addressed. There was a lot of friction, unlike the Soundtrack of Summer tour. For me, it’s such a delight because there’s no drama. There’s no egos. There’s no yelling. There’s no friction. There’s no tension. It’s a lot of great guys making a lot of great music and having fun doing it.
And for me, the term play…when people say, “Oh, what do you do?” You go, “I play music.” You don’t say, “I stress music” or “I work music.” I play music. It’s a very invigorating, inspiring, almost childlike energy that comes out of playing. If you ever watch kids at play, they’re very enthusiastic.
It’s difficult when you’re in a situation where there’s a lot of stress and tension and drama to have that kind of playful freedom musically. So, I’m totally enjoying this Soundtrack of Summer tour and really hope that it not only gets extended, but that we also do more together in years to come.
You composed a new beginning to “Hotel California” for that concert. What was the inspiration for this?
In the middle of the ’90s everybody was doing unplugged versions of their songs at shows. Clapton started it with his unplugged video. So the Hell Freezes Over video was based on doing unplugged versions of some of our songs.
I had the daunting task of rearranging the music for “Hotel California.” And I sat down and figured out how to do it on a classical nylon string guitar, which I thought was kind of Spanish-oriented. It fit the sound of the music quite well. I had developed a lot of skills on classical guitar in the past and thought that would be a good way to do it.
So when we arranged it, we had the song start right at the beginning of the chord progression, like it does on the record. We rehearsed it that way at the soundstage in Warner Bros. studio where they were going to film it. We ran through it and then Don Henley said, “This song needs a special introduction. Come up with something.” So I had to, on the spot, make up an introduction. And we filmed it two times that night wearing the same clothes so we could cut between one version or the other version for the taping of the show, and both times I just made up that introduction. To tell you the truth, I don’t even think I could play it right now. I just made it up off the top of my head, recorded it and that was it.
Last year, the Eagles released a documentary titled the History of the Eagles and you participated in it. Do you think it provided an accurate representation of your parting with the band in 2001?
Well, it felt like it was an accurate representation of Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s view of my parting with the band. The whole History of the Eagles should have been titled, in my opinion, The History of Don and Glenn because they contracted the project, they paid for the project, they hired the Director. All the pre-story about everybody’s background and the history of where they came from was only about Don and Glenn.
Actually, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon had bigger careers in the music business before the Eagles, more success than either Don or Glenn. Yet, when you watch the initial history, it talks about Glenn coming from Detroit, Don coming from Linden, Texas, and nobody else. I mean, I had a lot of success prior to the Eagles too yet (laughs) none of that was in the video. So, I thought it was a really biased representation – especially my departure from the band. It shows how Don and Glenn viewed it or how they want people to think it happened.
I was interviewed for about three and a half hours and it was edited down to less than three and a half minutes, so they controlled all of that as well. But that’s the way things go in that band. They control everything.
In 2008, your autobiography, Heaven & Hell: My Life in the Eagles, came out and quickly became a critical and commercial success. What was it like to share your feelings about the band with the world and have it be so well received?
Well, it didn’t start out as a book. Initially, after I left the band and went through a divorce with my wife of 29 years, in the same year, I really wanted to sit down and understand very clearly how I had gotten from this little dirt road in north central Florida – white clapboard house with a tin roof that my dad had built with his own hands…pretty close to destitute poverty, being raised with high standards and morals, dragged to church every Sunday by my ear by my mom – to winding up in some mega rock and roll band that was being drugged, and promiscuity, and drinking, and living a completely different lifestyle that was a complete dichotomy to the one that I had known and been raised with.
And then, when it all went away, I wanted to understand what had happened to me. How I had gotten to where I was. Try to center myself like you do when you throw pottery. You have to center the clay perfectly because if you don’t, it comes out lopsided. I wanted to emotionally center myself with that understanding before I went forward in life and brought all of that baggage (laughs) along with me. So, I started doing these series of daily meditations – between a half hour to 45 minutes – every day on specific areas of my life and experiences and trying to recall them. And when I’d come out of these meditations, I would start writing as quickly as I could on a legal pad, like you would after just coming out of a dream, to recall and remember it. It was really a cathartic, self-exploratory process.
My fiance started reading these legal pads and went, “Ya know, this would make a really great book.” I said, “I can’t write a book. I failed ninth grade English.” I had to spend the summer in summer school, while everybody else was out in the lake and water skiing and fishing and going into the pool. And I was in English class making up an F so I could go on into the 10th grade.
So, she introduced me to this guy Michael Ovitz and the next thing I knew I had five offers from publishing companies in New York to write this book. After thinking about it, I realized it was a story worth telling. And since it was so healing for me to do, I decided to finish it.
I spent the time, about a year and a half, working on the autobiography. And, actually, it wold have come out years earlier if it wasn’t for the legal issues that my lawyers and the publishing company went through to get it to where it was legally publishable.
Once it was out, it was a big relief. You put something out and you don’t know if you’re gonna’ get slaughtered by Eagles fans or if they’re going to read it and understand it and be empathetic. It went on to be a New York Times best-seller, which was a huge surprise to me, and it was a very healing process for me.
Your 2012 solo album, Road to Forever, was your first in nearly 30 years. What was it like writing and recording those songs?
(laughs) Well, as I was going through that cathartic process, starting in 2001, and reliving really extreme experiences in my life, I was moved very emotionally by a lot of what happened to me – both positively and negatively. And I’m better at expressing myself in music than I am in literature, so I would immediately go into the studio and write chord progressions or sing lyric ideas or try and capture that thought or feeling in concept and song. Then, I’d go back and write it in text, a more analytical composition in text. As a result, I wound up having almost 30 songs. I think 27 songs that were pretty much finished in my studio. And I said, “I should take these and zero in on the best 15 or 16 of them and go into the studio and finish them.”
So I did that and recorded and finished 16 of them. At just about the time we were ready to put the artwork on it and put it out, the record company and my manager said, “Well, we need to have an exclusive for iTunes. Oh, and Amazon wants an exclusive song. And Japan wants an exclusive song. And Europe needs an exclusive song.” So, we had to pull four of the songs off of the CD release and use them as exclusive promotional songs only to be used on iTunes, Amazon and blah, blah, blah. So that cut it down to 12. And after that exclusive term lapsed and we were getting ready to do this tour, I decided to take those four songs that were omitted from the original release and repackaged it as the “Extended Edition” so everyone could hear the songs that I wrote and played.
One of the songs that I co-wrote with Tommy called “Wash Away” wound up being number four on the Classic Rock charts between Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. What an honor that was for me. As a matter of fact, I have a print-out of that chart that I’m going to have it framed and put up in my office.
The single that’s out right now, “You Don’t Have Me,” it’s been in the top five on classic rock radio for the past nine weeks. It’s been at number one three times for three weeks.
And the new version of “Hotel California” that I recorded with a couple guys from Styx, a couple guys from Foreigner, has been number eight. So, it’s an honor to have two songs in the top 10 on classic rock radio right now. It’s very redeeming for me.
One of the songs I really enjoy on Road to Forever is “I Believe in You.” It would have fit perfectly on an Eagles album. So, if you’re looking for a new single, I think that’s the one.
(laughs) Yeah, I love that song. It’s one of the things I find that people have the hardest time with in life. Once you’ve gone through a relationship – whether it’s a relationship with a band or a relationship with a woman – and you’ve been really hurt and wounded by it, it’s really hard to want to try again. It’s really hard for women to trust that they’re not going to get damaged again or for guys to trust that they’re not going to get hurt again. There’s all this tentative fear that gets in the way, and that song was trying to get beyond that by extending a loving hand and saying, “I believe in you. I know you’ve been hurt, but give me your hand and we’ll make this work.” Trying to extract that trust and get someone to open their heart again.
‘Cause I had to do that myself. Going through the damage of separating with the Eagles and my ex-wife. This woman, Cathy Nicholson, my fiance, was the one saying “I believe in you” to me and reaching out to give me the helping hand to get back up. It was good.
All the songs on that record have a personal experience in them. That was the good part about writing all of those songs. They all come from great experiences in my life.