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When it comes to music, guitarist Don Felder is in it for the long run

Felder reflects on fond memories of playing music as a kid, the ups and downs of being an Eagle and getting guitar lessons from the legendary Duane Allman.

By Jeb Wright

In 1974, The Eagles were on the verge of change. The band had a pair of country-flavored albums and a handful of Hot 100 hits under its belt, all produced under the watchful ear of Glyn Johns. Work had begun on the third album, but halted.

When the group returned to the studio, there was a new guitar player (Don Felder) and a new producer (Bill Szymczyk). Although the band didn’t completely abandon the country-rock sound that had brought it that far — “My Man” features slide guitar, while the banjo is front and center for “Midnight Flyer” — the resulting and aptly named “On The Border” album made it clear that the Eagles were spreading their wings.

The Eagles publicity photo Asylum Records

The Eagles hit their commercial peak with the lineup featuring (from left) Don Felder, Joe Walsh, Randy Meisner, Glen Frey and Don Felder

By 1976, Bernie Leadon and his banjo had left the nest, making way for guitarist Joe Walsh to join the decidedly rock and roll lineup. That year, the band reached what many consider its creative peak with “Hotel California,” the title track of which Felder co-wrote. The Eagles became bona fide rock stars, with easy access to money, sex, drugs and booze. What was once a happy West Coast rock band was now a big business fueled by money, power and ego. The band broke into factions, and Felder was ousted. His book, “Heaven And Hell: My Life In The Eagles (1974-2001)” offered an uncensored look at how the Eagles operated — and it wasn’t always pretty.

Throughout that process of writing and self-discovery, Felder realized that what was missing from his life was playing and performing music. He put a band together, hit the road and released “Road to Forever” in 2012. Now, two years later, Felder re-released the album with four additional tracks and toured with Foreigner and Styx on The Soundtrack of Summer tour.

GOLDMINE: You’ve re-released “Road to Forever” as an expanded edition.
DON FELDER: When I started writing for the album, I had 27 song ideas, and I picked what I thought were the best 16 of the litter. When I went into the studio, I had planned on putting all 16 on the album.

Don Felder Road To Forever Expanded Edition

Management said, “iTunes needs an exclusive, and Amazon wants an exclusive, and Japan wants one, too. England and Australia want an exclusive song.” Four songs literally got taken off of the CD and became exclusives for those other markets. I always thought those four other songs were great songs and that they should be included on the record. When we decided to re-release this thing, I wanted to put all of the songs back on there, as that is the way it was originally intended to be.

GM: Are you doing this because you feel the album didn’t get enough attention the first time it was released?
DF: No. “Wash Away,” which was the second single off the album, wound up being on the classic rock charts at No. 4, right between Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. I felt that was a nice place to be, and I was in good company. The new single for the tour promotion is called “You Don’t Have Me.” It was written about people that want to take everything they can from you, and you just don’t understand why, because they’ve got everything they need. But they don’t have me. It is a good rocker, and we will be playing it live during the Soundtrack of Summer tour. You will probably hear it on the radio, as well.

GM: “Road to Forever” is a solid album. My favorite of the newly added tracks is “Southern Bound.”
DF: I can see why. You have a slight southern accent to begin with.

GM: And my name is Jeb.
DF: And your other brother’s named Jeb, too (laughs). I grew up in the South and remember spending years on the road, and whether it is southern California or southeast Florida, you are out on the road and you bang around, and what you really want to do is find some place to sit on the beach and some warm water to get in. “Southern Bound” is about that.

Whether life has banged you to death, or traumatized you, this is the place in your mind where you get to go and have warm water, sunshine and relaxation, and, to me, that is the South. I wanted to write a song that had that feeling to it. We really all want to be southern bound.

GM: This album, “Road to Forever,” was a cathartic process for you.

DF: When I was writing my book, I was also going into the studio and writing song ideas. A lot of the feelings that came out about my history — and my reliving my history — I wanted to put those feelings and emotions into my songs. I feel I am a better writer of feelings and emotions in songs than I am as a writer of text in a book. That was the first book I had ever written, to tell you the truth, and it was a cathartic process, but I wanted those feelings and emotions in song. It really is easier for me to do that. Songs like “Heal Me” on “Road to Forever” is really about how we all go through the scars of childhood, to the scars on our heart from romantic affairs, to the way life batters us up ... you want to find some way to heal yourself of that. It is a similar theme in “Wash Away.” While I was going through all of that history of growing up, and the Eagles, and the loss of my marriage to my first wife, and all of that, I wanted to write something that had that emotion in there. Musically, it was cathartic, and I think all musicians and writers use their art as a way to express their feelings, whether it is a positive thing, like you’re in love, or the sorrow and heartbreak of romance gone bad. All art is like that. Whatever form of art you choose, the purpose is to express feelings.

Don Felder publicity photo

There aren't a lot of folks who can say they got guitar lessons from Duane Allman, gave guitar lessons to Tom Petty or played in a band with Stephen Stills. But if you're keeping track, be sure to mark Don Felder's name down for the hat trick.

GM: Was it difficult for you to express those feelings?
DF: No, no, not at all. It is a joyous experience to dig down into festering areas of your past and bring those things to the light of day, take a cold hard look at them and be able to share them to get rid of them. It releases all of the energy that you store by holding onto them. The more you release those things and get them out of you, then the freer you are of your past, and you are able to move forward in life. You may be creating new baggage, but you’re no longer dragging the old baggage along with you.

GM: When I read that book, it was eye-opening. We knew, as fans, the Eagles had gone from a band to big business, and you describe what it was like. But the thing that tore me apart was getting toward the end and you discussing your marriage falling apart. After all of the BS you went through, I was ready for the ultimate happy ending.
DF: I am still waiting for the ultimate happy ending (laughs). I am not certain there is one in life. I think those are sort of fantasies. I think life is an ongoing process of dealing with both the light and the darkness, the happiness, the sorrow. The width goes from how deep your sorrow is to the total height of your happiness. If you only have the happy ending, then you’re not really facing it all.

GM: One goes along reading your book, and things are working out for Don, and then it is like, “Oh no.”

DF: Yep, that is a good caption for my tombstone: “Oh no!”

GM: The book led to the “Road to Forever” album, which led to you performing live. At what point did you decide to go back to the stage?
DF: The one thing that started me off in life and brought me the most amounts of joy and happiness was playing music when I was 10 years old. It lit me up and propelled me through the starvation of the streets of New York and the hard times in Boston, and all of the struggles through my life. The joy I get from playing music is the one thing that has motivated and propelled me. If you let the negative parts of life destroy the parts of life that bring you joy, then it is a downward spiral. As a matter of fact, when I started writing that book, it really didn’t start out to be a book. It was a self-exploration of how I’d come from where I grew up and what had happened to me and my joy of music. It was about how joining the Eagles, and how that happened, and how it became a business. My morals used to be that my mother dragged me into church every Sunday by my ears, with me kicking and screaming. I went to Sunday school from when I was old enough to walk. By the end of the ’70s, with the Eagles, I was drug into promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse and the whole lifestyle, and my morals had completely changed. I needed to understand, for myself, what had happened to me, and what I wanted to address in my life and in myself, what was good and what I could nurture. What aspect of me had arisen and come out of me, that I didn’t want, and what I was unhappy with. I wanted to address these things and get them out of my life.

I think with what I went through with the Eagles and then my divorce really took a lot out of me. I started doing these daily meditations for about 45 minutes a day. I looked at certain experiences and what they had meant to my life, and when I came out of these meditations I would write them down, longhand. It was much like a dream. I would have these insights, and I would write them down. I found myself filling up legal pads of these recollections, and these memories and insights. My fiancée read them and said, “This would make a great book.” The next thing I knew, I had a book deal.

It started out as a self-healing and self-understanding process where I could address issues that had happened in my life without going further forward and causing me problems and not understanding what had happened. I needed to center myself. At the same time, I was writing music about that whole process. It was sort of like I was doing a self-excavation, emotionally and spiritually, to understand who I was, how I got that way and what I wanted to do going forward.

I just want to be the best healthy person I can be. I wanted to get back to playing music. I realized doing all of that was the thing that brought me the greatest joy in life. I knew that is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to retire and go walk around some golf course every day. I know too many people that are extremely wealthy who spend whatever time they have in their life on frivolous things like shopping and buying cars, or collecting watches, or taking trips. That doesn’t necessarily do anything for me. I can walk through a casino and not have any urge to gamble or drink, because that is not what I want to do. What really brings me joy in this life is to play music. When I went through writing that book and I went through all of that self-exploration, I realized that what I wanted to do was to start writing and playing music again.

GM: You participated in the documentary “The History of the Eagles.” Did that open any doors of communication between you and the band? Also, do you have any idea why things are the way they are between Glenn Frey, Don Henley and you?
DF: No, it didn’t open any channels of communication. When I first heard from my lawyer that they wanted me to participate in “The History of the Eagles”, I asked my lawyer to call Irving Azoff and to find out if it would be possible for me to speak with Irving about this project and directly open communication between us. Irving refused.
I had to make a decision to go in and be interviewed and be filmed or not. I decided that after 27 years of being in that band the right thing to do was to go in and be interviewed and be part of “The History of the Eagles.” I think it would have been odd if I had not done it. There was no communication, no e-mails, no lunches and no nothing with any of the guys in the band, or with Irving.

Eagles Hotel California album

The second part of your question was, “Do I understand why things are the way they are?” I do. I know the personalities of Glenn Frey and Don Henley. They have a bit of a philosophy that you’re either in their army or you’re their enemy. Once they decided to ask me to leave the band, I became their enemy. They don’t reconcile that way. I’ve known Glenn Frey to hold a grudge for 30 years against somebody. It’s just the way they are and the way they choose to go through life.

I was married for 29 years to my ex-wife, and we parted under very amicable circumstances. She comes to my house for Thanksgiving with her boyfriend, and we see each other at weddings and funerals, and we have grandkids and we have hundreds of friends together. We talk on the phone every couple of weeks about our kids or grandkids. I’ve tried to reach out to the Eagles to have a handshake and to try to bury any hatchets — not professionally and to try to go back and play with them — but rather to resolve those negative issues in a positive way. They don’t seem to be interested in doing that. They just keep marching forward in lockstep with their mission and goal in mind.

GM: The darkness, at least for you, is over.
DF: I decided that what time I have left, I can either do with a smile on my face doing what I enjoy doing, or I can do it worrying about what I should have done, with regrets and living in that darkness. I choose to live as close to the light as I can.

GM: You've done a tour with Styx and Foreigner. Tommy Shaw made a guest appearance on “The Road to Forever.”
DF: I have known Tommy for over 10 years. We have done a lot of benefits together with Alice Cooper. I have sat in with Styx. We’ve done shows with my band and Styx together. That family of the people that are in the band like Tommy and JY [James Young], but the family around them, including management and road crews, are really good people. There is no attitude, or drama or ego. Everybody really likes each other. It is the same thing with Foreigner. When I got to meet them, I was pleasantly surprised to find out they are really nice guys. We did some recording together in the studio, and we did some television appearances together, and we did a couple of days of interviews together. I realized that this was actually going to be fun. We were going out with three huge catalogs — with the Foreigner catalog, the Styx catalog and my catalog with the Eagles and solo — and put on a great show for probably over four hours.

Soundtrack of Summer

GM: Duane Allman taught you how to play slide guitar.
DF: That’s right. In Gainesville, Fla., where I grew up, which you may know from reading my book “Heaven & Hell,” there were a lot of people in that town. Tom Petty was one of my guitar students there. Stephen Stills and I had a band together when we were 14 or 15. Bernie Leadon replaced Stephen when he left. The Allman brothers’ mother lived in Daytona Beach, and they would come over to Gainesville, where the University of Florida is, and we all played Fraternity Row on Friday and Saturday nights. During the summer, when the university was not in session, we would all go and play the dance clubs at the pier in Daytona Beach. When we finished playing, we all went to this diner.

The Allman Brothers were known back then as The Allman Joys, and my band with Bernie was called The Maundy Quintet. We would be in this diner at 1 in the morning and try to get some breakfast. After that, we’d either hang out, or we’d go over to Duane’s mother’s house. Duane was the first guy I had ever seen playing electric slide guitar. I had seen blues guys play acoustic slide guitar, but he had taken it and transformed it onto electric guitar and was just on fire. I remember sitting on the floor of his mom’s house and saying, “You’ve got to show me how to do that. How do you tune it? How do you do it? Where are the pulls on the slide that sound like a harmonica?” He basically showed me the setup, the tuning, where the different positions were on the neck to play slide in different keys. He gave me the foundation, and I picked his brain for as much information as I could. I started really listening to him play in these battles of the bands, as the Allman brothers always won these things. They were the best band in the area. Duane showed me and taught me how to play slide. I never tried to emulate him, or copy him, but he gave me my foundation for the instrument. GM