observations and opinion
Don Henley can be rather gloomy and grim. Some people may find his lyrics portentous and his vocals oddly whiny. I am not one of those people.
Mr. Henley has the rather rare trait of being a very serious man, using his artistry to say what’s on his mind and in his heart. The word for his face is “dour” and I am not sure that I can remember seeing a photo of him smiling. Even in live concert, where his voice today sounds remarkably like its original self, Mr. Henley looks slightly pained but earnest, singing out those Eagles songs.
It is consistent with Mr. Henley’s persona that his recordings are difficult to retrieve on the free web: his lawyers are constantly on the prowl for unauthorized uploads. “If you want it, pay for it” he seems to be saying. Which is perfectly cool. But of course, there are some live recordings and fortunately the guy is good at replicating his records, giving us pretty effective proxies for the originals much of the time.
Mr. Henley is a tremendous romantic. Tremendous in the sense that it pervades his thought, alters his view of life and, not insignificantly, he’s really good at being romantic. I would go so far as to say that Mr. Henley is a prime exponent of what we will call the School of Romantic Realism. As a member of said academy, I can tell you what it’s all about. Or rather, John Lennon can tell you: love is real, real is love. You can’t see oxygen and you can’t really see sunshine (you can only bask in it) and you may not be able to see love. But guess what.
You know what. So does Don Henley.
Poetic and something of a dramatist, Mr. Henley tends towards storytelling in his work. His “A Month of Sundays” gives a first hand account of the death of the family farm, a kind of sweet grass Springsteen evocation of the disappearing American dream. The farmer sits “within earshot of the bypass” as “the shadow of suburbia” spreads out across what once were farm fields. I remember driving westward out of downtown Chicago in the mid 1990s, as endless acres of farmland disappeared under monster homes, malls and mega-churches. Even if one likes that way of life and doesn’t object to the architecture, those fields aren’t coming back. The farmer knows it as he says:“Now it all comes down to numbers, now I’m glad that I have quit. Folks these days just don’t do nothing, simply for the love of it.”
Only a man who knows that love is real, and is therefore a perfectly legitimate reason to do something – even when it really costs you – could write or say those words.
“The Heart of the Matter” included in my recent Gems for July, is a kind of biblical message delivered within the title of a Graham Greene novel (not a coincidence, I am certain). He makes it plain what happened (“the work I put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm”) but surrenders to reality (“I’m learning to live without you now”) but longs for a sign that the lover he deserted might at least, let him off the hook – forgive him “even if you don’t love me anymore.” It is unclear why he needs this forgiveness or what it really relieves him of. I suspect it’s just a ploy to talk to her again because, basically, that’s what people always try with the ones who’ve let them go.
“The Last Worthless Evening” paints a stark picture of singles searching for a new life. Henley is one, the hunter and the hunted but also an observer. When he sees the one who might be for him, he tells her rather confidently, “this is the last worthless evening that you’ll ever spend” – if she takes up with him, that is. Even when depressed, our hero retains his basic sense of self-worth. He even points out to her the terrible risk of tarrying:
I know you’re still afraid to rush into anything
But there’re just so many summers
And just so many springs
In “Home” it is many years later. Mr. Henley has moved past his lonesome days, his sunset strips and worthless evenings, into the quiet glow of marriage and fatherhood. “Home, where we can be with the ones who really care.” He makes it sound like there’s almost no-one who really cares. Because that’s true, actually.
But Don Henley’s most melodramatic, slightly over-the-top character drama takes place “In a New York Minute.” The dramatic structure and despair of the piece are so intoxicating that they captivated no less a talent than Aaron Sorkin, who named one of the best early episodes of The West Wing for the song. The episode was called “Somebody’s going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail.” The atmosphere of the song alone painted the whole story with a grim, knowing honesty.
In a New York Minute is another story of lost love (“baby I’ve changed, please come back.” ) Again, the lonely protagonist mourns what he let slip away. In what may be the best line Henley ever wrote, he observes “what the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear.” I am not sure that I have ever heard a thing more true or more painful – or more hopeful – in a song. Henley sees with his heart, which is how he knows so clearly, what is true.
He issues another warning too: if you’ve found love, hang on tooth and nail. Take a fool’s advice, he says.
Here is the fools’ advice, word for word.Harry got up Dressed all in black Went down to the station And he never came back They found his clothing Scattered somewhere down the track And he won’t be down on Wall Street in the morning He had a home The love of a girl But men get lost sometimes As years unfurl One day he crossed some line And he was too much in this world But I guess it doesn’t matter anymore In a New York Minute Everything can change In a New York Minute Things can get pretty strange In a New York Minute Everything can change In a New York Minute Lying here in the darkness I hear the sirens wail Somebody going to emergency Somebody’s going to jail If you find somebody to love in this world You better hang on tooth and nail The wolf is always at the door In a New York Minute Everything can change In a New York Minute Things can get a little strange In a New York Minute Everything can change In a New York Minute And in these days When darkness falls early And people rush home To the ones they love You better take a fool’s advice And take care of your own One day they’re here; Next day they’re gone I pulled my coat around my shoulders And took a walk down through the park The leaves were falling around me The groaning city in the gathering dark On some solitary rock A desperate lover left his mark, “Baby, I’ve changed. Please come back.” What the head makes cloudy The heart makes very clear The days were so much brighter In the time when she was here But I know there’s somebody somewhere Make these dark clouds disappear Until that day, I have to believe I believe, I believe In a New York Minute Everything can change In a New York Minute You can get out of the rain In a New York Minute Everything can change In a New York Minute