Don Henley Finds His Thrill at The Sunset Grill

Back in 1984 I was assigned to interview Don Henley, who'd just released Building the Perfect Beast his second solo album.

Henley picked me up in his black Porsche 911 and off we went to the Sunset Grill for lunch. We talked about music and life while downing burgers, fries and Cokes. Despite the classy name and the complex arrangement for the song that immortalized the place, the Sunset Grill was a tiny, hole in wall burger stand on Sunset Boulevard.

Henley described how the album was produced and some of the difficulties he encountered, including going back into the studio and completely re-doing the hit “The Boys of Summer” in a different key and upping the pitch to give it more drama. Henley hits almost impossibly high notes in the now-classic tune, and that, in part helped it to become an enduring tune. It’s been covered numerous times, including a punk take by The Ataris that’s become a classic in its own right.

As you read this 23+ year old interview, I think you’ll be struck as I was re-reading it, by how much the music business has changed and how far it’s fragmented and sadly sunk. Covering the biz in Los Angeles back then was fun as was I’m sure being part of it. I’m not sure that’s the case today as music has become marginalized and the business has lost its gravity thanks to the net and as far as I am concerned, the soul-killing digitization of music.

But back then, being at the Sunset Grill when the owner, his wife and his daughter realized for the first time that the regular customer who came almost daily in his black Porsche was Don Henley, a guy who had recently immortalized their burger stand in a song, and witnessing a cool moment in rock and roll history, was exciting and definitely fun!

Twenty three years later, The Eagles have reformed and will soon be touring in support of a new studio album. Back in 1984, who would have thought that would be happening? Not me, and I’m sure not Don Henley! Enjoy. (MF- 2007).

“Are you somebody? I think you’re someone!” the buxom woman exclaimed in a thick Eastern European Dr. Ruth (Good Sex) Westheimer voice. Down at the Sunset Grill, Don Henley’s well-kept cover is finally about to be blown. The woman, who’s probably served the veteran rock star hundreds of cheeseburgers, is finally getting the picture. “You…you are Don Henley!” “Yes,” Henley sheepishly admits. “You are so…so intelligent! she exclaims. “When you write [in the song, “Sunset Grill”] about ‘the old man there from the old world, to him it’s all the same, calls the customers by name’ —how do you know that?”

Before Don can answer, the East Berlin-born woman disappears, returning with “the old man,” her Viennese-born husband, Joe. His reaction to meeting the artist whose song is making his burger stand famous is to shrug and shuffle off back to the kitchen. Everyone breaks up…

The burgers were free that day at the little stand next to the Oriental Theater, but the price Don Henley paid was high. He had lost his anonymity at this scene. He could no longer sit on the sidelines observing, undisturbed. Henley has made a career out of doing that. His wry observations, his keen sense of melody, and, of course, his distinctive plaintive singing kept the Eagles at the top for almost a decade, and “Dirty Laundry,” Henley’s biting denunciation of the TV news game, recently sold over a million copies. But, despite those accomplishments, Don Henley is not exactly a household name—or face.

Without having written songs about it, newcomers like Boy George or Cyndi Lauper could pop into the Sunset Grill and be instantly recognized, and not just because of their bizarre looks. They’re media-visible. Henley isn’t. Have you seen Don Henley’s name on one of those ubiquitous KLOS rainbow-rimmed bumper stickers? Lauper’s probably already got one. The only way Boy George would get one from KLOS would be if he married Bruce Springsteen, but Jackson Browne’s got one. So why not Henley? Why the low visibility? Is it his observational third-person writing style? His being a drummer—usually one step below bass player on the recognition scale? Is it his reserved, thoughtful, non-flamboyant personality? Or has he been laying low after his much publicized visit to David Crosbyland?

“We were very low-profile in the Eagles as far as being individuals. We were a band and we were perceived as a band,” Henley told me, knocking back a cheeseburger in the control room at Val Garay’s Record One complex on Ventura Boulevard. The Eagles’ public homogeneity certainly contributed to Henley’s low visibility then, but with the release of his first solo album, I Can’t Stand Still, in 1982, Henley seemed prepared to step smartly onto the solo playing field. There were problems, however. One rumor had him suing Asylum over their handling of the record. “No,” he says, “there wasn’t a lawsuit over that” (although the Eagles did sue a number of times over royalty disputes). “But,” he adds, “I was disappointed with the job they did. I thought they could have done much better, but the company was falling apart.”

As Henley tells it, David Geffen, who started Aslyum, vowed never to sign more acts than he could fit in his living room. With inmates like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles already in the Asylum, the notion made perfect sense.

But after Geffen departed, Henley says, “They started signing all kinds of acts, from Tony Orlando & Dawn to Pink Lady…I looked at a roster in the late Seventies and there were 80 or 90 acts, and I think I recognized about five of them—and, of course we [the Eagles] were paying for all that.”

Simultaneous with the release of Henley’s first solo album came a complete restructuring of Asylum. “They fired about 500 people one week and brought in this guy Bob Krasnow, who, I guess, is a nice guy (pregnant pause) and they moved the company to New York. And [Krasnow] made some comments to the press about ‘all the old dinosaurs we have on the label,’ and it really pissed me and [Glenn] Frey off.”

While Henley complains about Asylum, he’s also willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for the album’s relatively lackluster performance and his inability to capture the public eye.

“Part of it was my fault. ‘Johnny Can’t Read’ [the album’s first single] was the wrong thing to do. It was a little bit too much of a leftfield turn from the Eagles days, and it took a lot of people by surprise. It was too controversial. It pissed people off. There was a DJ in Houston who wouldn’t play it. A DJ in Atlanta said it was un-American! And it hit home to too many people who couldn’t read, you know? And football in America is right up there with God!”

Ironically, it was neither Aslyum’s nor Henley’s good judgment that resulted in the release of the single, “Dirty Laundry.” Indie promo man Larry Bird and tip-sheeter Kal Rudman literally forced it on Asylum, according to Don. The song became a left-field hit, reaching number three, but the album never rose above 24, apparently due in large measure to Asylum’s lack of follow-through.

When the dust had settled, I Can’t Stand Still, a brilliant debut solo effort—stronger than any Eagles album to these ears—had reached only about a tenth of the fans who’d bought the final Eagles album. Still, Henley says, “I sold 650,000 copies or something, which is respectable, I guess, for a first album…I had a gold album and a gold single…I was moderately satisfied.”

This time around, Don Henley seems to have gotten it all right. The music on the new album, Building the Perfect Beast, meshes beautifully with a wide variety of radio formats. Don’s back with old pal David on the Geffen label, and—unlike the aftermath of I Can’t Stand Still, when the “…went off to Colorado and talked to the cows for about six months” —Henley is currently in the midst of a revolving-door interview schedule.

Why shouldn’t he come out of hiding? This is Don Henley’s time. The years have added distinction to his boyish features. He’s been happily in love with a woman for over four years. And the album has already taken off. “They [Geffen staffers] call me up everyday to tell me how many records I’ve sold.”

No wonder they’re glad to call. Both the album and first single, “The Boys of Summer,” are legitimate major-league extra base hits.

The Geffen Company knows how to work a record, but credit for the near-unanimous acceptance “The Boys of Summer” has had among AOR and CHR programmers alike goes to Henley and his co-producers, Danny Kortchmar and Greg Ladanyi. Unlike the self-conscious “new wave” Farfisa beat of “Johnny Can’t Read,” “The Boys of Summer” mixes real drums, drum machines, guitars, guitar synthesizer and keyboard synth, creating a perfect radio track. The record sounds fresh without radically altering the generally reactionary AOR sound. And romance certainly beats illiteracy any day as the subject of a potential hit song.

I asked if this new synth-filled album is a reaction to the reception the rather Seventies-sounding I Can’t Stand Still received. Slightly taken aback by the question, Henley answered, “The album is an extension of the work I started on that album. The technology is on the record as part of the songwriting—to make a point and color the words.”

The move away from a guitar-dominated sound also came about partly because Henley’s current writing partner, guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar (once James Taylor’s righthand man) has taken to writing most of his songs on keyboard. “Guitar solos, to me, are getting as boring as drum solos,” Henley states. Nonetheless, when the trombonists set to play the big solo at the end of “Sunset Grill” couldn’t give Henley what he wanted, Kootch played it on a Roland guitar synthesizer. The successful integration of synthesizers into Henley’s sound may in part be due to the help he got from people like Toto’s David Paich and Steve Porcaro, as well as Mike Boddicker and Benmont Tench. Randy Newman even helped program the synths on “Sunset Grill.”

“I like to think of myself as a good casting director. One of the most joyous parts of recording for me is assembling the musicians and especially the singers. I mean, that’s the fun part at the end, after you’ve sweated the lyrics.” Henley called on Motel Martha Davis, Patty Smythe of Scandal, Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) among others, to sing harmonies and background vocals.

“I have a lot of nerve. I’ll call anybody. I didn’t know Patty or Sam and some of the others. I was afraid some of those people were not going to be into an old guy from the mellow Seventies, you know? And Patty said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I used to sing ‘Witchy Woman’ when I was 15!” Don called bare-acquaintance Lindsey Buckingham, who would up singing and playing guitar on “You Can’t Make Love.” Sixteen year old guitar wiz Charlie Sexton played on “Man With a Mission,” and producer Jimmy Iovine’s suggestion that Don work with a young writer named Mike Campbell yielded “The Boys of Summer.” “It’s really unhealthy to just stick together in little groups.”

The ever-changing cast of characters, tied to Henley’s core, gives the record a unique communal feel. It’s obvious from this musical interaction, and from his conversation, that Henley places a premium on quality communication. “The way people relate to each other on a one-to-one level is directly related to the way the world is and the way the times are.”

As on the last album, Henley concerns himself with the state of intimate relationships on Side One of Building the Perfect Beast, and “the big picture” (as Henley calls it) on Side Two. And, as on the last album, Henley sees the state of love in disrepair, his own current stability notwithstanding, in songs like “You Can’t Make Love,” “Not Enough Love in the World,” and “You’re Not Drinking Enough.”

The biggest part of “the big picture” on the LP’s second side is the title song, which takes on the whole of mankind:

Sharper than a serpent’s tongue

Tighter than a bongo drum

Quicker than a one-night stand

Slicker than a mambo band…

For we have met the enemy—and

he is us.

It’s an irony the song captures exquisitely.

“Sunset Grill,” though is the album’s masterpiece. It’s one of those recordings that, like Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” captures the spirit of the times so perfectly that it resonates with it and becomes one with what it’s trying to describe. Among other things, “Sunset Grill” is about “The worth ethic in America today and how everybody seems to want the most possible money in the quickest amount of time with the least possible effort.” It’s also about the spreading “franchise” mentality, which is creating a non-thinking automaton class of individuals who needn’t create or take responsibility.

Making judgments like these opens artists to charges of hypocrisy, but Henley needn’t worry. The album is a testament to taking responsibility and fulfilling it. Building the Perfect Beast is a meticulously crafted work, conceptually and musically. It stakes out its territory and moves the listener forward into it.

Perhaps the arrangements are sometimes too densely packed and—occasionally—Henley’s voice sounds a bit thin (readily admits to “chops” problems during the sessions). Certainly, the recording is sometimes harsh, constricted, and lacking warmth. But for those who have felt all along that Don Henley is in the same league as the other original Asylum solo artists, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, this record offers convincing evidence. Given those two artists’ recent output, Henley would seem to be in a class by himself.

The record is very big, the video of “The Boys of Summer” is on regular rotation on MTV, and Henley plans to tour. When the singles have been culled from the album and the tour is over, Henley might even find himself a star. For a guy who’s been at the top of the rock heap for ten years, that be a reasonable assumption.

But maybe in this age of instant stardom and People Magazine-style scrutiny, the less of Don Henley that surfaces, the more effective he can be artistically. For, as he himself says, “Information is not necessarily a substitute for meaning.”

sumnerbrowne's picture

Thanks, Michael/Sir. Enjoyed this piece. I'm a big Henley fan. I have 2 vinyl copies of each of his first 3 albums. INSIDE JOB never made it to vinyl.  I wonder if you wrote a review of THE END OF THE INNOCENCE --- I believe that effort is even much better than his BEAST album. Would that he were as prolific as Neil Young...Alas, over the past 3 decades he has only released 4 albums and 2 compilations. Hope you can review his CASS COUNTY when it finally comes out this year. Thanks.