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The Eagles' Don Henley: 'We don't have time for fighting anymore'

Don Henley performing in California last year
Don Henley performing in California last year Credit: Getty Images

It has been a long run but the Eagles are approaching the end. The American supergroup’s six UK and two Dublin concerts, starting in Wembley Stadium on June 23, could be the last time we see them on this side of the Atlantic. “We are in extra-innings, to use a baseball term,” says Don Henley, the only original band member still with the group. “I’ll go so far as to say this is probably the last time we’ll play in Europe. That’s just the way I feel.”

“You can check out / But you can never leave,” Henley famously sang on Hotel California in 1976. “We wrote that when we were young men,” he notes, with a wry laugh. “I think the songs will outlive us.”

Henley speaks with a slow deliberation evocative of his origins in rural Texas. “I’ll be 72 in July,” the songwriter, drummer and vocalist says. “I’ve got nerve damage in the left arm and shoulder from 55 years of repetitive motion, pounding the snare drum. I’ve got hearing loss. There will come a time, no matter what your heart and mind wants, when your body says you’ve got to stop. And it’s not too far down the road.”

The veteran musician is determined to make the most of every remaining show. “It is a bittersweet feeling, because it makes us enjoy the moment more. The overwhelming emotion now is gratitude. I look back through the decades, and I’m amazed by all of it.”

The Eagles formed in Los Angeles in 1971 around the writing partnership of Henley, a country boy who had studied literature in college, and guitarist and vocalist Glenn Frey, a savvy Detroit kid raised on Motown.

Taking it easy: the Eagles in March 1972 Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

If Henley’s aching voice and poetic lyricism was the heart of the Eagles, Frey, who died in 2016, was the mastermind of their urban roots groove. Talking about his bandmate to me in 2013, Henley described their chemistry: “We had a routine. Every day we’d get up, shake off the hangover and start writing songs. It was a good balance. He was very spontaneous and uninhibited, I was more reserved and introverted.”

By 1975 they had scored five Top 10 hits in the US, including Take It Easy, Lyin’ Eyes and Best Of My Love. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits 1971-1975 was the best-selling album of the Seventies, and that was before they shifted 42 million copies of Hotel California worldwide.

It was a wild ride, with Frey famously describing their early career as: “Got crazy, got drunk, got high, had girls, played music and made money.” Their reputation for cocaine consumption and hard partying became the stuff of rock legend, although Henley is clearly uncomfortable about the band’s hedonistic past. “A lot of time was wasted doing things of little or no value,” is a typical, slightly prickly response to questioning about offstage behaviour. “I think it’s the nature of rock ’n’ roll, doing too much too young. But when you think about it, we managed to accomplish quite a bit given the shape we were in.”

They acquired and shed various members, finally breaking up in 1980 following a charity fundraising concert during which Frey and guitarist Don Felder threatened to beat each other up. Things got so bad that Henley famously declared the Eagles would only reunite “when hell freezes over”. Fourteen years later, in 1994, they embarked on the Hell Freezes Over tour.

The second act of the Eagles included a multimillion-selling 2007 double album, Long Road Out of Eden, and some of the highest grossing tours of all time. But when Frey died unexpectedly aged 67, following intestinal surgery, Henley announced the end of the Eagles. “I couldn’t see a way to carry on. It didn’t make any sense to me.” Yet here they are again, with Glenn’s son Deacon Frey joining a line-up including lead guitarist Joe Walsh, bassist Timothy B Schmit and country singer and multi‑instrumentalist Vince Gill.

“Basically, at heart, I’m a band guy,” says Henley. “The solo thing wears you down after a while. Sometimes I’d just rather be a spoke in the wheel.”

Relationships in the band now are good. “We are very close just by virtue of what we’ve been through. There is a lot of camaraderie and laughter. The combativeness and tension is practically nonexistent. We don’t have time for that now. We’re not those young men anymore.”

From the very first Eagles song he wrote with Frey, the aching Desperado, to solo hits The Boys of Summer and The End of the Innocence, there has always been an elegiac tone to Henley’s work, a fascination with looking at the present through a prism of the past.

“I don’t want to live in the past, but it’s nice to visit, it gives you perspective. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future, everything feels a little upside down, especially in our country right now, and I think people need touchstones, something that is familiar and even predictable so that they can feel grounded.”

There was a perception that Frey was the driving force in the Eagles, a tough taskmaster who ran strict rehearsals and insisted on the band’s reputation for gleaming perfectionism. Have things changed now that Henley has taken over the reins?

“There’s never been perfection,” he laughs. “We make mistakes every night. Hopefully, they’re not noticeable to others. We are more relaxed about it, but I think that is just age.”

With a personal wealth estimated at over $200 million, Henley has no financial need to keep the Eagles on the road. “But I need to work,” he insists. Frey’s death made him “acutely aware” of how much time he “may or may not have left”. And he has seen many friends retire and suddenly get old. “Their bodies started to fall apart, they weren’t happy,” he says. “So in spite of all the pain and physical punishment, we do it because it keeps us alive. You get the blood flow. You get the energy from the crowd. And at the end, when the people are standing and cheering, that’s when the sense of wonder and gratitude flows. We sort of look at each other and go, ‘Can you believe we are still here, after all this time?’ It’s a wonderful thing.”

Eagles’ UK dates start on June 23 at Wembley. Tickets: eagles.com