Don Felder: Returning To Heaven After Going Through Hell

By Jeb Wright

Don Felder, along with Joe Walsh, helped take the Eagles from a successful country rock band to international rock stars.

The Eagles are the most successful American rock band of all time and much of that success is due to the song "Hotel California," which Felder wrote the music for, including the iconic guitar battle at the end of the tune.

Once the Eagles decided to take time off in 1982, Felder wasted no time in having a hit song for the movie Heavy Metal, in fact, it received a ton of air play and he could have parlayed the song's success into a solo career. Instead, he decided to stay home and raise the kids, a decision he is grateful for.

After re-joining the Eagles, all hell broke loose, as he was forced out of the band, a story he recounts in detail in his book Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001). After that, he divorced his wife of nearly three decades and fell into a period of introspection.

Now, thirty years down the road since his last solo album, Felder is back with his new release Road to Forever, a collection of emotional songs that deal with life, death and love.

It is a very personal album that Felder took a long time to complete. Now Don is back on the road promoting his new songs. He is also back into the swing of things and enjoying life.

Jeb: Your fans have been waiting for this one for three decades. As it turned out, this is a very personal album.

Don: It is a very personal album, indeed. When I left the Eagles in 2001, within that same 12 month period, I went through a separation and divorce from my wife of 29 years. Just about everything I had ever known and adopted – being in a rock band and hanging out with the guys and being a husband and a family man – was all just stripped away.

I really spent a lot of time doing a very cathartic process of meditation in an effort to understand how I got from this little dirt road in Gainesville, Florida, to getting into the music business, and then, getting into the Eagles.

All of this really changed me and when it was all taken away from me, I wanted to figure out how I could get my feet underneath me and go forward. I started writing recollections from these series of meditations by longhand. My fiancé read them and said that they would make an amazing book.

Look, I was one of the worst English students in the world; I even had to spend a summer in summer school because I flunked English. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane going to New York City and had five offers to publish a book. It was just me telling my story. I, then, had the daunting task of writing the book.

I have a studio in my home, and as I would go through these recollections, I would stop writing text and go over and pick up a guitar and write music about these experiences. It was really a dual cathartic process, as I was writing both a book and an album about these experiences.

Once I was done with the book, then I had to go do a bunch of radio and television to promote the book. In between all of this, I also had my own band I was playing with. I was either promoting the book, or somewhere with my band, but every day I was off the road, I would be in the studio finishing these songs.

I had 26 songs ideas, which I paired down to 16 songs. Once I was that far along, then I paired it down to the best 12 songs. You can get the other four songs on iTunes, or on www.donfelder.com and you can hear them.

It took a lot of time to do all of that. I was also emotionally getting my feet underneath me. Between that, the book, the touring and making the album, it took a lot of time. Basically, that is what I’ve been up to the last ten years.

Jeb: You were not just in a rock band. You were in the most famous American rock band ever. I read the book. It was very emotional. What did you learn after doing all of this about Don Felder that you didn’t know before?

Don: It was a very in-depth and personal mission I was doing with the meditations I mentioned earlier. I went back to my early childhood, where I was raised by religious parents. My mother would drag me into church – I think I still have the scar on my ear where she would literally drag me.

I changed when I joined the Eagles. We were all taking drugs and I was drugged into promiscuity. All of the moral and ethics that I had been given in my life went out the window; that whole lifestyle really changed me dramatically.

When I left the band, I really wanted to look back and see what had caused all of that, and how I allowed all of the temptations; ego, sex and drugs, to affect me. I wanted to clearly understand my mistakes and learn how I could go forward in my life accepting that, and being free of carrying that baggage and avoiding the same mistakes in the future.

It was a really great period of time for me, as I was preparing myself to go forward. I learned some really great lessons.

I think one of the things that was the light at the end of the tunnel was about six months after my wife and I had separated. We had been going back and forth between lawyers and we were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. I called her and said, “This is silly. We’re giving the lawyers our money instead of giving it to our children. Why don’t we just sit down and have a meeting between your business manager, and my business manager, and we’ll figure out what you want, and what I’ll take. You just take half of whatever you want and I will take the other half.” In literally two hours, we resolved our divorce.

We now call each other all the time and she is invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. She has another man she is involved with and I am engaged. Things could not be happier. We have four kids and grandkids and are wonderful friends. We have a relationship now that we both really value.

We were high school sweethearts and you just don’t hack that off of you and throw that away. We are very close and we care so much about each other.

I wish that same kind of sentiment could have been applied to the Eagles situation. Unfortunately, they are not interested in any such sort of relationship. I have tried numerous times, but all I ever hear back is from their attorneys.

Jeb: Talk about the new song “Fall from the Grace of Love.”

Don: That is what was happening in 2001 when my wife and I were going through our separation and divorce. It was just tragic and I wanted to capture that feeling in that song – not in a negative way, but in a way that shows how nobody wants to go through that.

I wrote that song and hopefully enough people that have gone through similar experiences can resonate with that idea to have some sort of bond through that song. The experience itself is painful.

Other songs on the album are about how when things happen to you in life that leave scars on the heart, how you have to find a way inside yourself to resolve those issues, so you can go forward without carrying all of that painful baggage with you for the rest of your life. If you don’t, then you will have outbursts at people because you’re still carrying all of this festering pain.

As a matter of fact, at the end of the song “Heal Me,” I wrote this track idea that was going to be called “Healed” which was going to be this joyous tribal rhythmic song. I went through some very painful experiences, and then healed from it and celebrated that joy that we get from life. You wind up being healed by going through the painful part and then, joyously celebrating these experiences.

The album is not all just doom and gloom, as there is a lot of optimism on it as well.

Jeb: Did you write “Road to Forever” years ago?

Don: I started writing it a long time ago, when my father passed away when he was 66.

I had just joined the Eagles. I had been in the band about three or four months, so he never got to see my success, musically. I started writing the song acoustically, with just one voice.

When I started writing this record I was talking to a great producer named Greg Ladanyi, who produced records by Warren Zevon, Jackson Brown and Don Henley. He is a legendary producer.

We had been meeting for about three months, playing golf, having lunch and he was listening to my song ideas. He got on a plane and went to Greece and he fell off the back of this big soccer stadium and he passed away; he had a very untimely death. I wanted to do that song for my father, but also for Greg, as he had done so much groundwork in laying out the steps of how I would go about making this album. I called in all of the people that he had talked about using on the album and everyone played on that one song; it is a bit of homage to Greg.

At the end of the song there is an effect that I call The Pool of Souls. If you could stick your head up into heaven and hear all of the souls that have passed before us humming around our head; that was the effect I tried to create. I went online and I found this speech Greg had given on YouTube about producing. In this speech, he was talking about analog recording and digital recording. He said, “And that’s the difference between the two worlds.” I took that part and I put it in at the very end, with his voice saying that, in The Pool of Souls. He is on the record, but he is in The Pool of Souls and he’s talking to us from the other side.

Jeb: “I Believe in You” is a very emotional song.

Don: Everybody goes through relationships and has their heart broken. A lot of times people are just afraid to take that step back into a love affair and give themselves to another person in fear that they are going to be crushed. This song is trying to convince the other person that love is possible and that they should open up and let this love come in; that you can believe in a love that can last forever. It is the optimistic side of getting people out of the pain and getting them to take that blind leap of faith, so that they can experience love.

Jeb: Now, this song, “Girls in Black” is not emotional, it just rocks. I love the guitar on this one.

Don: The song title started out as “Blondes in Black.” I have a really striking affinity for women with really long shocks of blond hair wearing black. It is a wonderful combination and it is very eye catching.

I started writing the song and I realized I was cutting out two thirds of the woman out there, so I made it about blondes, brunettes and red heads. I changed it to “Girls in Black.”

If you get in the car in Hollywood and drive around, then you see that look and it is very striking and on nearly every street corner. It is a weakness that I have and I imagine a lot of guys have the same weakness.

Jeb: You ended up with some huge names on the album, including your old band mate when you were kids, Stephen Stills.

Don: Stephen and I have been friends since we were in a band when we were fifteen years old. He lives down the street, maybe a mile and a half from me. We play golf when we are both in town. He comes to my kid’s birthday parties. We are just good friends.

When I was doing “Fall from the Grace of Love” I called Stephen and asked him if he would sing on it. He said, “Yes.”

The first band that I played with when I came to California was Crosby/Nash. I was, ironically, playing Stephen’s parts in that band. I called up David and Graham and asked them to sing on it. They both agreed. I called up my friend who owns the House of Blues Studio and we all went in there and sang backgrounds on it.

Tommy Shaw from the band Styx is a good friend of mine and a great singer and songwriter. I was banging my head on the lyrics for two songs. One was “Heal Me,” that I talked about, and the other was “Wash Away.” I was having trouble writing lyrics that were poignant, but not preachy.

I called up Tommy and he happened to be home, as Styx is on the road about 22 months out of the year. He said he would come over and he brought a guitar and we wrote a song that was kind of a like a Crosby, Stills & Nash song and we wrote lyrics for those two songs. I said, “While you’re here we’ve got to stick up a microphone and let you sing some harmonies on the chorus."

The only other guitar player I invited in was Steve Lukather, who is a monster guitar player. He is one of the funniest guys; he’s just a crack up.

I didn’t want any of the drama that I had with my old band making records. I wanted people who were fun, sincere, good people that could make it a really fun experience. Luke is perfect for that. Steve Pocaro came in and played some keyboards.

Randy Jackson, who everybody knows as the dog dude from American Idol, came in. Nobody knows that he is just a monster bass player. He is one of the best bass players in Los Angeles. He played on this optimistic love song called “Someday.” It needed to have a killer bass player on it and I tried a couple of other bass players, but it was made for Randy, so he played on it. Everyone who came in is a friend of mine and they all played their butts off on it.

Jeb: How rewarding is it, as a musician, to have put this album together and to have it come out this good?

Don: It is really inspiring; to the point that I promise that I won’t take another 30 years to do it again. I had such a good time doing it that a lot of the trepidation I had of going back and dealing with all of the technical problems and personality problems went away. None of that existed and it went very smoothly. I really enjoyed the process.

I ended up using Ed Cherney, as an engineer, who had worked on Rolling Stones records and Bonnie Raitt records. Ed was actually the second engineer on Hotel California in 1975, or 1976. He was sweeping up the floor and setting up mikes back then. He is such a sonic engineer and he mixed the album for me. I felt really comfortable with him. He is a good friend, who I play golf with, and go to Starbucks with and catch up.

I am so excited about this that I am ready to do another one. I’ve already started sketching out some new songs, so, hopefully, in a couple of years, I will have another one out.

Jeb: How much of this album will you be able to squeeze in the live show?

Don: That was a big question mark for me, but I am playing three to four new songs. The first couple of shows I had quite a bit of trepidation doing that. I wondered how I could put these in with all of these mega hits that I co-wrote and worked on with the Eagles. I wondered how new songs would be received going up next to those. The response has just been really great.

A lot of the songs that are on this new CD sound like me. A lot of my work that people know me for with the Eagles sounds like me. A lot of these new songs sound very much like a continuation of that Eagles history, but with a new band playing them.

It has been received well by the people in the audience and I have received rave reviews from the press. A couple of people have even said to me that this is the album the Eagles should have made instead of their last one. I’m flattered but, at the same time, it is what it is. I’m very happy to have been so well received.

Jeb: Thirty years ago you were riding high with the great song “Heavy Metal.” Why didn’t you purse a solo career on the heels of that hit song?

Don: When the Eagles hit the hold button in about 1982, I had been on the road nonstop for pretty much ten years. I had four young kids who had pretty much lived the first eight, or ten, years of their life with an absentee father. I made a decision to stay at home and build a studio. I did “Heavy Metal” and I did music for film and television. I stayed at home and coached soccer and drove them to school.

I really wanted to be a father and the only way I could do that was to stay at home. I refused to go out on the road and do exactly what you talked about on the heels of “Heavy Metal.” I really appreciated the success and the response that went along with it, but it was not enough to make me get back on the road and leave my family.

Jeb: You did “Those Shoes” on The Long Run. Where did you come up with the idea to do a double talk box solo?

Don: My background was listening to horn bands. My father would play music every day when he came home from work, but it was stuff like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. My sense of phrasing was developed from horn players.

I had a band in New York City called Flow that was a jazz fusion rock band. We had a keyboard player that played organ, but he also played soprano sax, the same kind of sax that Kenny G plays. Instead of playing a thousand notes like Kenny G, he would play five notes and his phrasing on those notes was spectacular.

When I wrote that song, “Those Shoes” Joe Walsh, who had just joined the band during Hotel California, also played the talk box. I wanted to write a song with two talk boxes. If you listen to that song then it could be two trumpets playing that melody together. The concept was taking my phrasing from those horn players and writing them for guitar players.

It was the same thing on “One of These Nights.” That really should have been David Sanborn playing alto sax during that one solo; that kind of phrasing is sort of how I think.

Jeb: You were friends with Bernie Leadon and the band had you come in to rock up a song or two for the Eagles. The next thing you know Bernie was out and you were in. Did you feel odd about the way that all went down?

Don: Bernie and I had a band when he was sixteen and I was fifteen. He replaced Stephen Stills in that band. We are great friends and I love him to death, as he is a great guy. We still have contact and we are dear friends and we always will be.

Bernie was a very country musician. He played a five string banjo, a bluegrass flat top guitar, mandolin; pedal steel…his electric guitar playing was second to his country playing. That is why the early Eagles albums had such a country influence; he was the lead guitar player.

They wanted to shift from country music to something that could be played on AM radio. In the ‘70’s AM radio had to be a rock track, or a dance track, or a drippy ballad. They had hits like “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Take It Easy,” but they really wanted more rock and roll. They wanted me to come down and play slide guitar on a song called, ironically enough, “Good Day in Hell.” I went in and played electric slide guitar on it, as it was a rock track.

The next day, Glenn Frey called me up and asked me to join the band. I went back in and recorded on a couple of songs for the On The Border record, “Already Gone” was one of them, and I think the song “On The Border” I played some percussion on, as well.

My task was to drive the band into the rock and roll AM radio market. Bernie fought against that musical direction. He didn’t fight against me personally, but he got to the point that he decided to leave the band. In 1975, he quit the band after One of These Nights and Joe Walsh came in to replace him.

Jeb: I recently did an interview with Bill Szymczyk. He said one of the highlights of his career was the time he spent in the studio recording the "Hotel California" guitar solo. What was it like for you?

Don: I wrote all of the music for that track. When I was doing the demo, I wanted to write a song where Joe and I could go toe-to-toe on, as we had done several times before during live shows.

I picked up my guitar and I would play something like I would play and, then, I would put it down and pick up a Strat and I would play something like I thought Joe would play. I would then answer it and I pieced together that kind of tradeoff on the end of "Hotel California."

When we finally got to the studio, I thought Joe and I were just going to plug in two guitars, put two mikes on it and I would play a lick, and then Joe would play a lick, and then I would play a lick, and we would just go toe-to-toe on it. We were doing that and Henley walked in the control room and said, “Stop, that’s not right; that’s not it.” I said,” What do you mean?” He said, “That’s not like the demo.” I told him that I had recorded the demo a year ago and I didn’t even remember what that was. Henley says, “No, you’ve got to play it like the demo.”

We were in the studio in Miami and I had to call my housekeeper in Malibu and have her find that cassette – if anyone even remembers what a cassette is—put it in a blaster and play it over the phone into the studio in Miami.

I had to sit and learn what I had just made up off the cuff a year before. I had to figure out what the notes were and we had to figure it out, bar-by-bar. We would play a bar, and then, we would record it, and then, we would play the next bar and record it, and so on.

It came together and it was quite a feat. It took us a couple of days to put those solos together on the end of the song.

Jeb: My last one is this: The Eagles were a great band but when guys named Felder and Walsh came along, they became rock stars. Do you agree?

Don: The Eagles had an abundance of talent. Everybody could play, everybody could write and everybody could sing. Every one of us could, and did, go on to front our own band. There was an exceptional amount of talent there, from vocals, to guitar, to arranging.

When Joe and I joined, we brought another element to the band that really helped propel them into rock and roll, which took them to a level that the previous Eagles were unable to attain. We all created something far bigger than any of us would have ever been able to accomplish by ourselves.

Jeb: One more: I want to know if you are going to record one of these shows and release a DVD or Blu-Ray?

Don: That is a great suggestion; as a matter of fact I would love to do that. You’re right, that would be great.

Jeb: If I see one come out then I am going to smile knowing I planted a seed.

Don: I’ll give you credit on the DVD.

www.donfelder.com

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