The Imperfect Beast

Don Henley's massive 1989 hit “The End of the Innocence” was a complex piece of songcraft that reminds me of the kind of portraiture that Paul Simon writes on a good day. Paced at a crawl, with co-writer Bruce Hornsby's immediately recognizable keyboards underpinning the melancholy sentiment of the lyric, “Innocence” spent nearly six minutes telling its cynical yet ultimately optimistic and romantic tale about the things adulthood can do to a person if he's not careful. Henley's voice never sounded more sympathetic. “I need to remember this,” sings that parched voice about the “small town in each of us,” and for a moment he finds the connective tissue between the heart and brain. It's one of those rare moments when even the lush, studio polish of that late-Eighties production cannot render the message either ironic or irrelevant. Artists spend their lives chasing moments like that. As well they should.

Henley doesn't have many “rock critics” in his corner. (Personally the only grudge I hold is that most of those Eagles songs are too long. Aside from that, I'll take “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Lyin' Eyes,” and “The Long Run” to the beach sometime, along with “The Boys of Summer” and “Sunset Grill,” from Henley's solo career.) These days, however, at least Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner seems to have changed his tune. While Henley's band the Eagles went on to sell hundreds of millions of records -- Greatest Hits has become the all-time best-selling album, at more than 25 million served, surpassing Michael Jackson's Thriller and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, among others -- the laid-back, Southern California hippie outlaw with the love 'em-and-leave 'em attitude never connected with the likes of Rolling Stone and its writerly ilk back in the Seventies. Their rivalry even spawned a competitive softball match between the band and the magazine after the Eagles wanted the staff to either put up or shut up. (The band won, by the way, 15-8. But, really, softball to prove a point?)

Times have changed, however. It was reported in Roger Friedman's column at Fox Network News how former Newsweek scribe Karen Schoemer had her review for US Weekly killed by the forces at Wenner Media (Rolling Stone, US Weekly, Men's Journal) for not liking Henley's new Inside Job album very much.

This isn't exactly unexpected news. Coziness between advertising and editorial has ruined plenty of decent journalism throughout the ages; and who wouldn't expect certain favors to be granted in the upper echelons of power given this cynical age? The report just sounds even more ironic when you tune in Henley's VH1 Storytellers episode and hear the man himself complain at length about how corporate endeavors have harmed the human soul. Then again, in the same Storytellers, Henley tees off about sensationalized journalism, à la his tune “Dirty Laundry,” conveniently failing to mention the possible inspiration for the tune: his own little run-in with Johnny Law. Two years probation for drug possession and fined for “contributing to the delinquency” of a teenage girl might be considered just a bit more than sensationalism to members of the press, Don.

These, of course, are sins of the past. And if the guy didn't bring it up himself, it might not come up as often. But like the recovering alcoholic or born-again religious fanatic who regales his captive audience with the hard lessons he's learned, so Henley tells us about the true love and happiness he's found. It's all over Inside Job, his first album of new material in eleven years. Perhaps if the melodies captivated the imagination (I forgave him the “heart is on the shelf/not quite myself” rhyme scheme in “The Last Worthless Evening” due to a satisfying chorus), the homilies about love and commitment wouldn't sound so threadbare. But as it stands, it's hard to get excited about “Taking You Home,” even as it celebrates the miracle of human life and expresses a father's love. Larry John McNally's “For My Wedding” may have special meaning for Henley and his bride, but its platitudes (“For my wedding I don't want violins/Or sentimental songs about thick and thin”) aren't meant to sound ironic. Yet they do, considering Henley and former Tom Petty sideman Stan Lynch's smooth production.

Match these songs of love and devotion with the social commentary of “Workin' It,” where “We got the little black car, the little black dress/Got the guru, the trainer, the full court press.... We got the We got the agent, lawyer, lapdog, voyeur.” According to the song, all this is considered bad. This from a guy who sold tickets topping out at $135 apiece for his Eagles reunion tour, and whose manager, Irving Azoff, is one the industry's most powerful and influential men, a man who it would be safe to say is a master of the art of the “inside job.”

But none of this makes it on to an album called Inside Job. It might have been interesting -- and at the very least, admirable -- for a man to own up to his own role in the continued corporatization of culture. He could've pitted himself as a sympathetic character merely taking the steps that were sure to be walked by someone. But instead we are left with the long and lugubrious closer, “My Thanksgiving,” where he tells us: “It's too long we've been living these unexamined lives.” Really, Don, do you want to go there?

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Rob O'Connor