Don Felder was once a member of that dysfunctional family we call the Eagles. He's the man who wrote the music for "Hotel California," the most-discussed song in the history of Songfacts.
Felder is not the most famous Eagle - Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey share that title. He is, however, a fantastic guitarist and a talented songwriter - his official co-writes (composer credits were stingy in this band) include "Victim of Love," "Those Shoes," and yes, "Hotel California."
When he was 19, Don left his native Florida for New York, where he joined a short-lived band called Flow. His next stop was Los Angeles, where he looked up a friend from back home: Bernie Leadon, then a guitarist in the Eagles. When Felder sat in with the group to record "Good Day In Hell" for their third album On The Border, he made such an impression that the next day, they asked him to join the band. Despite the obvious infighting, he took the job and became a key part of the evolution of the Eagles, sharpening their edges with his memorable guitar licks. As Henley said at the time, "With Don Felder, we can really rock."
Don has compared himself to an offensive lineman, doing the gritty job of blocking so Henley and Frey can make the big play. A happily incognito Eagle, he was the perfect fit for this volatile band. He was with them when they broke up in 1982, and again in 1994 when hell froze over and they reunited.
These days, Felder's only communication with his former bandmates is through lawyers. He became an ex-Eagle in 2001 after a nasty row that Don describes in his book Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001). He says he was left out of financial decisions and sandbagged by Henley and Frey when he asked questions. When he took legal action, Don says the response came back: "You're fired."
In this conversation, he talks about writing songs with the Eagles, breaks down "Hotel California," and discusses his 2012 solo album Road to Forever.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I'm a SoCal guy. Born in Inglewood and lived here my whole life. So yes.
Don: That's great. I was born right next to Destitute, Poverty.
Songfacts: Where is that?
Don: [Laughing] It's a dirt road in Gainesville, Florida.
Songfacts: Well, I'm glad that we had this chance to talk. This is with Songfacts, so we're going to talk about songs and songwriting. But the first question I wanted to ask you was that your first solo album, Airborne, came out in 1983, and Road to Forever in 2012. And math is not really a strong point for me, but something tells me that's an awful long time between albums. Why so long, Don?
Don: Well, a couple of things. Number one, when the Eagles hit the hold button in 1982, everybody scattered to make solo records. And so I said, Well, I'll make a solo record, too. But I had been on the road before the Eagles and during the Eagles for about the first 10 years of my kids' lives. And I refused to go out and tour because I wanted to stay home and raise my kids. I wanted to coach soccer, and I was a commissioner of Malibu Little League and would drive them to carpool and school and all that stuff. So I took on tasks like making a solo record, doing music for film and television, film scores, writing songs that went into motion pictures and stuff that kept me here in town as opposed to in a hotel somewhere on the road.
When we resumed in the Eagles in 1994, really the only thing you can do when you're in the Eagles is eat, breathe, and sleep Eagles. I mean, you're either on the road, writing in the studio, or doing press - it's just all consuming. When I left the band in 2001, I went through a pretty serious separation from those guys, as well as I went through a separation and a divorce from my wife of 29 years in the same 12 month period. So I really had every identity that I had adopted - being in a rock band, husband, family man - all just stripped away from me.
So I spent a couple of years doing a very cathartic, in-depth look into my life. I do a series of meditations every day and go back and look at specific things and areas of my life, how I got from that little impoverished condition on a dirt road in north central Florida through being in one of the largest bands in American rock and roll history, and how that had all changed me. And in an effort to try to find my footing and get my feet underneath me and go forward in life without carrying all that baggage along with me.
So as I came out of these meditations, I would write down these recollections on legal pads. My fiancée started reading these legal pads and said, "This would make an amazing book." So the next thing I knew I was on a plane going to New York, came back from New York, and I had five publishing companies that offered me deals to publish this book. And I had never written a book. I was a very poor English student in high school. I actually spent a summer in summer school making up an English class where I got an F in it for a semester. So whoever thought that such a poor English student would wind up on the New York Times bestsellers list? Certainly not myself.
So I had the daunting task of writing this book. Now, at the same time I had a band of my own for about the last 8 to 10 years, and was going out and doing corporate shows and casinos and performing arts centers and summer festivals and all that stuff, and assembling this book. And while I was writing this book and reliving those emotions that went into all those experiences, when I wasn't writing the text, I would go into my studio and I would write songs and try to express those feelings and what was happening and my emotions in song. It's one thing to write text, it's another thing to write music.
So I managed to assemble 26 song ideas. And when I finished the book and went out and did promotion for it and went around touring, I realized that what I really wanted to do was go down and take those 26 songs and pare them down to the best 16, go into the studio, finish recording those songs and producing them. Then I pared them down to the best 12 songs, and wound up releasing this record. That's all in between going in and out of LA while I was touring. I'd go out and be home for five days. I wouldn't be off for five days; I'd be in the studio for five days writing lyrics on an airplane with headphones on and a laptop and MasterWriter as a lyric program. Just taking every opportunity I had time-wise to finish that project. I was very delighted with the way it all turned out, and really glad that I went through that process. It was a really fun process. And I promise you, it won't be another 30 years before I release another solo record.
Songfacts: The song that stuck out to me that I really liked off of it is "Girls in Black." First of all, it seemed kind of strange, because it almost seems like you're talking about goth girls. Is that what you're talking about, or are you just talking about girls that like to wear black?
Don: I have a particular personal weakness for blonde haired women in black attire. There's a striking, eye catching allure to blonde hair and black gowns or heels. Not the goth look. But it's a striking combination for me.
So when you drive around in Los Angeles, you see that look on just about every other street corner. It's a very popular look for myself, as well as probably every other guy in town. So I thought instead of limiting the song lyrics to just blondes in black, I should write the lyric to include the other two thirds of the female populace, which is brunettes and redheads. So I changed it to girls in black. I thought it was kind of broadening my interest base there to change it from blondes in black to girls in black.
Songfacts: It made me think about the Tom Petty song "Free Fallin'," where he talks about the vampires along Ventura Boulevard. It's almost like a nicer side of that.
Don: Tommy was one of my old guitar students in Gainesville, believe it or not. I don't know if you know that or not.
Songfacts: I read that.
Don: Yeah, we've known each other for way too many years. He turned out to be a great songwriter. Not much of a great guitar player, but a great songwriter.
But no, I didn't have that line particularly in mind when I started writing that song. I have an attraction to blondes in black. So that was my inspiration.
Songfacts: I want to ask you a question a friend of mine asked me to ask you. And this comes from the song "Hotel California," which you co-wrote. There's a line where it talks about "The warm smell of colitas."
Don: Uh huh.
Songfacts: Where did that come from?
Don: Well, actually, nobody in the band except for Bernie Leadon and later Timothy Schmit were from California. Everybody was from a different state. Walsh was from Kansas, Henley was from Texas, Glenn was from Detroit, I was from Florida. And we all drove into Los Angeles on what used to be Route 66.
As you're driving in Los Angeles at night, you can see the glow of the energy and the lights of Hollywood and Los Angeles for 100 miles out in the desert. And on the horizon, as you're driving in, all of these images start coming into your mind of the propaganda and advertisement you've experienced about California. In other words, the movie stars, the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, the beaches, bikinis, palm trees, all those images that you see and that people think of when they think of California start running through your mind. You're anticipating that. That's all you know of California.
And the colitas is a plant that grows in the desert that blooms at night, and it has this kind of pungent, almost funky smell. Don Henley came up with a lot of the lyrics for that song, and he came up with colitas. When we try to write lyrics, we try to write lyrics that touch multiple senses, things you can see, smell, taste, hear. "I heard the mission bell," you know, or "the warm smell of colitas," talking about being able to relate something through your sense of smell. Just those sort of things. So that's kind of where "colitas" came from. It's a plant that grows in the desert and blooms at night.
Songfacts: The original title for that song, I've read, is "Mexican Reggae."
Don: [Laughing] Yes, that's right. It wasn't really a title. When I first wrote all the music for it, I put it on a cassette with about 16 or 17 other song ideas, another one was what later became "Victim of Love," and gave copies of the cassette to Joe Walsh, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Randy Meisner. At the time I said, "If there's anything on this cassette you like you want to work on, call me and let me know."
And so Henley said, "I like that song that sounds like a Mexican reggae." That was his description of what it drew in his mind. And later we started talking about it, and he came up with the framework lyrically of the hotel being a physical structure called the Hotel California, which there is no real Hotel California other than the one that's down on Sunset here, the Beverly Hills Hotel is the artwork on the front of the cover.
But it was just a way to lay the foundation for that album. And once that concept was done, once you arrive in LA and you have your first couple of hits, you become the "New Kid In Town," and then with greater success, you live "Life In The Fast Lane," and you start wondering if all that time you've spent in the bars was just "Wasted Time." So all of these other song ideas kind of came out of that concept once the foundation was laid for "Hotel California." It was a really insightful title.
Songfacts: I was much younger when it came out, but as I got older I started to realize how it symbolized a lot of what I saw around me in Southern California. Did you realize it would have such an impact when you were creating it?
Don: No, not really. It's odd, because when we finally finished that whole album, the record company had been pounding on the door trying to get in and get this record, because they wanted to release it. We were about four months overdue on delivering our record per our contract. So we finally let the record company in. The execs come in and we had this playback party for them at the record plant here in Los Angeles. And after the song "Hotel California" played, Henley turned around and said, "That's going to be our single."
In the '70s, the AM format, which was what we were really aiming for, had a specific formula; your song had to be between three minutes and three minutes and thirty seconds long, and it had to be a dance track, a rock track, or a trippy ballad. The introduction could only be 30 seconds long before the singer started, so the disc jockey didn't have to speak so long.
"Hotel California" is six and a half minutes long. The introduction to it is a minute long. You can't really dance to it. It stops in the middle when the drums stop: "mirrors on the ceiling," that section, and it's got a two minute guitar solo on the end. It's the complete wrong format.
So I said, "Don, I think you're wrong. I think that's a mistake. I don't think we should put that out as the single. Maybe an FM cut, but not a single." And he said, "Nope, that's going to be our single." And I've never been so delighted to have been so wrong in my life. You just don't know.
Younger folks may be more familiar with the South Park homage to the film that showed up in the 2008 episode "Major Boobage."
Don: No. Actually, a lot of those guitar parts in that song "Heavy Metal" were in a song that I had written that we were working on for The Long Run record. We cut the basic track for it, and it was tentatively titled, "You're Really High, Aren't You?" [Laughing] We didn't know what to call it, so we just made up this name for it. That was a working title.
And we literally ran out of time. I mean, we barely finished that record before it finished us. Truth. So we got enough songs to finish and we said, "That's it, we're done. Let's put this thing out and get out of here before we kill each other."
But it actually did really well as a single off of that soundtrack album. And so it was really written specifically for that movie, but I used a lot of the track that I had written for an Eagles song that had never been finished. I'd said, "Hey, those are great parts. I'm going to use these parts and I'll use this title for introduction, and I'll write the lyrics based around this graphic, and there we go."
Songfacts: When it comes to discussing the Eagles, unfortunately, your name is not the first one that people usually think of. They think of Don and they think of Glenn. But can you tell me a little bit about what it was like when you were recording with the Eagles as far as creating the songs? It seems like you contributed a lot of the music but weren't always noted in the songwriting credits.
Don: Well, I'll just say we all contributed to every song. No one made up the guitar parts that I played but me. Everybody brought their particular talent to each recording. And it was really an unusual circumstance to have five people in a band that every one of us wrote, sang, and played. And any one of us could have and had previously fronted their own band.
It was an unusual amount of talent, that we had five singers, five songwriters, and five musicians. And so what a novel idea to have everybody be able to write, sing, and play in the same band. So we had an abundance of talent and we used everyone's strong suit. Joe and I were the primary guitar arrangers, and wrote a lot of the music. But Henley was obviously the strongest lead vocalist, was a great lyricist. The team of Henley and Frey have written some amazing songs. I think they're the American version of Lennon and McCartney as far as songwriting goes.
So we had just an abundance of material, an abundance of talent, and an abundance of singers in the same band.
Songfacts: When it comes to guitar solos that you created with the band, what are your favorites?
Don: I would say the solo in "One of These Nights" was one of my favorites. The solo on the end of "Hotel California" is another one of my favorites. Some of the work I did on "New Kid in Town" was one of my favorites. There's an acoustic guitar harmony solo where I play about six acoustic guitars and harmony together on "Sad Cafe," which is a really unusual solo that was kind of fun to do. So I try to do a lot of different types and styles of soloing in that band.
Songfacts: I had read that you're not really in touch with Henley and Glenn except through your lawyers. Is that still the case?
Don: Yeah. I was married for 29 years, and when my wife and I divorced, after six months or so of the lawyers bickering back and forth, I just called her up and I said, "Let's go sit down and lay out all of our assets. And you decide what you want and we'll just take half of whatever you want and we'll be done." And we settled it in a very amicable way. We're still great friends. We speak about every two or three weeks. She comes to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. We have kids, we have grandkids, we have hundreds of friends together. There's no reason to carry that animosity on through the rest of your life with someone that you spent so many years so intimately with.
And I felt the same way about my relationship with the guys that were in the Eagles, that it was somewhat silly to continue that kind of steel door lack of communication. So I've reached out numerous times to them with just a handshake and wanting to leave on friendly terms after the 27 years we worked and wrote and recorded and toured together. And the only time I hear anything back from them is from their lawyers. It's not my choice. It's just the way they choose to handle the situation.
Songfacts: All right. Let's talk about a few more songs. I really like "Victim of Love," which is another one that you wrote. Do you remember writing that song and how that came about?
Don: Yeah. We were trying to move in a heavier direction, away from country rock. And so I wrote, like I said, 16 or 17 song ideas, kind of in a more rock and roll direction, and "Victim of Love" was one of those songs. I remember we went in the studio and we recorded it live with five guys playing. The only thing that wasn't played in a live session was the lead vocal and harmony on the choruses. Everything else was recorded live.
And when we made the vinyl copy - what's called a "mother" that they stamp out all the vinyl records with - Bill Szymczyk, our engineer, used to engrave in between the label and the last band. He would etch a little saying into the vinyl that's on every Eagles record that he worked on. And on the Hotel California record, he wrote "VOL is 5 piece live." Which means "Victim of Love" is 5 piece live. So it was a really fun record to write, record, and we loved playing it live. It was one of the more edgier, rockier songs that the Eagles recorded.
Songfacts: You mentioned earlier how The Long Run just about killed you guys. In what way was that?
Don: We had been trying to raise the bar with every project, every tour, and every record, to surpass what we had done before. And we were coming off of Hotel California, which had become just mammoth in impact. There was a lot of pressure on us all to write and produce and record and perform a record equal to or superior to Hotel California. So we had been on the road for almost three years and went straight in the studio. With our nerve endings worn down to pretty much raw, we found it a difficult and daunting task to surpass ourselves. It was called the hardening of the artistry.
When you try to match yourself, it gets harder and harder the more successful you are.
So we got to a point where we realized we've got to just wrap this up and end it here and get out of the studio and get on the road. There were a lot of arguments and dissension and contentious arguments about songs and schedules. It was really not heading in the right direction. That's why, when I recorded this new record, Road to Forever, I really wanted to go into the studio and have fun doing it. I called a lot of the people in on this record to help me work on this record and play and sing on this record that are fun people. Like, Steve Lukather is one of the funniest guys in town. You can't be in a room with him without laughing till your sides hurt. Crosby, Stills, Nash are just three of my really great friends that I've known for years and years and years. So Stephen and I had a band when we were 15 in Gainesville. They're just good guys. There's no drama. There's no yelling, screaming, fighting in the studio.
I really didn't want to do that this time in the studio, so I called in Tommy Shaw from the band Styx, he's a great singer and a great writer, to help me write some lyrics and sing some backgrounds on some stuff. Randy Jackson, the "Dawg" dude on American Idol, everybody knows him from being a judge on that television show, but he's just a monster bass player. Unbelievably great bass player. Probably one of the best bass players in Los Angeles. David Paich, the keyboard player from Toto who wrote the song "Africa." Just a lot of great people came in to work on this record who were just sterling musicians, but also really energized, fun, lighthearted people. And it was just a delight to be in the studio working on a project with the same intensity as we were making Eagles records, but with a whole different vibe in the room, like a fun, uplifting, laughing, good time vibe. And I think that comes through on this record. I know it does on the writing, and it comes through on a lot of the performances, as well.
Songfacts: Why did you call it Road to Forever?
Don: Well, it's probably the only song on the record that I started writing years ago. My father passed away when he was 66 years old. He had worked his whole life, retired at 65, and then the last year of his life he passed away and never got to see my success in the Eagles. I'd just joined the Eagles and was just starting to take off, and he never really got to see the success.
So I started writing this really pretty acoustic song called "Road to Forever," about us all showing up on this planet and living our lives, but going down this road that we all know where it goes. And so when I started writing for this record, I had been talking with this producer, Greg Ladanyi. He produced Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne. I think he even did a Don Henley record. A bunch of really great records on his career. For about three months he and I were in talks to produce this record. We'd play golf, listen to my songs, talk about where we would record it, who was going to play on it, when we would start.
And literally about a week before we were due to commence going into the studio on this record, he got on a plane and went to Greece to visit another one of his acts that he was producing who was the Greek Madonna, and had a tragic fall off the back of a stage in this soccer arena, and passed away.
So when we got in the studio, I said, "I've got this song that I started with my father, who just passed, but I'm going to call all the people in to work on this song that Greg and I had talked about and kind of make it an homage to Greg and my dad."
I wanted to have some rock and roll strength in the middle of it and at the end of it. So I took it from this little pretty acoustic introduction ballad into like this rock and roll song. And then at the very end of the song, I created this effect, which I call the "Pool of Souls." It's as if you could stick your head up into the clouds of heaven and hear all the souls that have passed before us swarming around our head. You can hear their voices speaking in your ears. I created this effect, and at the very end of the Pool of Souls on the fadeout of it, I went online and found this lecture by Greg Ladanyi, where he was speaking on a dais at a recording and engineering convention. And he says this line: "And that's the difference between the two worlds." So I picked that little line of Greg off of YouTube and put it at the very end of the Pool of Souls. So the last thing you hear is Greg saying, "And that's the difference between the two worlds."
It was a really fun project to do and we got all those players in to play on it. It was a salute to my dad and Greg, and I'm certain we'll see them somewhere down the road.
Songfacts: Wow. That's interesting that here you have this project that's so much fun to create, and yet there's some very serious stuff going on, as well.
Don: Well, that's life. It's light and dark, good and bad, lighthearted and serious. And that's kind of what the theme of a lot of these songs is about, is as we go through life, we wind up being battered and scarred on our hearts from experiences, loss of love relationships, loss of people that pass away, abuse as children, just traumatic experiences that happen. And at some point you want to be able to find a way to heal yourself, to wash away all that pain and go on for the rest of your life with joy, in a joyous way. And accept those traumatic experiences along with the love that comes along, too. That's sort of like light and dark, yin and yang. It's all part of the experience. Neither is good or bad, it's just something we both have to face as part of the human condition.
So that's the theme that runs under all these songs. Like "I Believe in You," somebody that's been really broken by love in the past. And you're trying to get them to have the faith to take that leap of faith again to open up their hearts and try to love again. "Someday" is the same kind of theme in that. "Heal Me" is about that same topic. "Fall from the Grace of Love," we all have a commonality, as far as the human condition, that people can relate to. And true art, to me, whether it's literature, poetry, music, photography, filmmaking, all carry that kind of substance that people have experienced, can see or hear and relate to and share that common denominator of the human condition and be empathetic to it. They can relate to it. And so whether it's a play or music or literature or whatnot, it needs to be able to relate to people on a human level that way.
Songfacts: Well, you know what, I don't think I could say it any better myself. I think that's a great way to kind of put a bow on our conversation. I'll tell you what; this has been so much fun just to hear your stories. Over the years when I've read about the Eagles and what a dysfunctional family it could be, it sounds to me like you've come out the other side relatively sane, which is a good thing.
Don: I'd like a large font and bold print on "relatively."
February 4, 2013. Get more at donfelder.com.
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