After getting together in 1971, the Eagles needed to find an identity and prove themselves as songwriters. They did both on their debut, which they cut in London with Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin producer Glyn Johns. The album was released on June 1st, 1972; in March 2016, Don Henley spoke to Rolling Stone about the record that launched the group to stardom.
Legend has it that before this album was recorded, the band rehearsed in the Hollywood bungalow where Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther were living.
Honestly, I don’t remember rehearsing in that bungalow. I vaguely remember the little enclave of bungalows, there at the corner of Highland Avenue and Camrose Drive, and I recall that J.D. and Linda shared one bungalow and Jackson Browne was living in one of the others. But I don’t remember rehearsing in any of them. I’m not disputing what J.D. said; I’m just saying that I don’t have that recollection. I do remember rehearsing in a little wooden shack called Bud’s (after its owner), just off Ventura Boulevard, near Barham Boulevard. Bud’s place was tucked into a parking lot behind a liquor store called the Spirit Locker, which has been renamed, now. I also remember rehearsing, later on, in a building that was located near the intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Vineland Avenue. This is the place where Glyn Johns came and heard us for the second time and finally decided that he would produce us. So you could say that the Eagles band really coalesced, really began, in the San Fernando Valley.
In what ways did you want the Eagles to stand apart from other bands?
We had four singers, and though we weren’t the first band to feature a lineup like that, we wanted to make use of it in unique ways. We wanted to create material that would showcase each of the band members’ strengths. Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner had already been members of two pioneering country-rock groups. Bernie was in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Dillard and Clark. Randy was the original bassist in Poco and then joined Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. Primarily, though, it was the material we were concerned about. Our main goal, at the beginning and throughout our career, was to write good, memorable songs, make albums that had little or no filler, that were consistent from beginning to end in terms of songwriting and production. We also wanted to be a good live act. We wanted to be the whole package. We didn’t always meet our goals, but we tried.
Your best-known lead vocal on that LP is “Witchy Woman.” Can you talk about how that song was written and recorded, and what inspired the song?
That song grew out of a piece of guitar music that Bernie had submitted to the band. I took the piece and began working on lyrics and melody. The female character in the song is a composite. I had been reading a book about the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife, Zelda, who, in her thirties and forties, drifted in and out of psychiatric hospitals suffering from schizophrenia (or more likely, bipolar disorder), while her husband’s health and career spiraled downward, due to his abuse of alcohol.
Another inspiration for the song was the roommate of a girl I was seeing in the early 1970s. All things occult were popular in those days. Ouija boards, séances, palm reading, etc. A lot of the girls were into what was called “white witchcraft,” that is, they were practitioners of folk magic for benevolent purposes, as distinguished from malevolent witchcraft or black magic. I think some of them practiced a little of both. I thought it was charming and seductive, but I never took any of it seriously. For the most part, it was just a phase people were passing through, part of the overall youth movement and the quest for spirituality, which included a re-enchantment with the “old ways.” It was harmless fun.
Another inspiration for that song may have been the shamanistic aspects of the Carlos Castaneda books we were intrigued with at the time. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Peruvian-born Castaneda became a popular American author while earning his Ph.D. at UCLA.
What do you recall of the first time you heard “Take It Easy”?
I don’t recall the first time I heard it in its basic form, but I will always remember the first time I heard those shimmering guitar chords in the intro pulsing through the big playback speakers at Olympic Studios in Barnes, a suburban district in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, where the first Eagles album was recorded. The song’s primary appeal, I think, is that it evokes a sense of motion, both musically and lyrically. The romance of the open road. The lure of adventure and possibility – Route 66, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pacific Coast Highway. Great American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Jack Kerouac to Wallace Stegner have addressed this theme of the restlessness of the American spirit, of our need to keep moving, especially from east to west, in search of freedom, identity, fortune and this illusive thing we call “home.” There’s a thought-provoking quotation from Thomas Wolfe’s famous novel You Can’t Go Home Again: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America – that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.”
When the album was finished, what did you learn about this still-new band and the way it could work in a studio?
I knew that it wasn’t all going to be smooth sailing, that the various members had certain strengths and weaknesses and that they weren’t always objective about what those strengths and weaknesses were. There was some difference of opinion on the musical direction we would be going in. Variety and contrast are good things if they can be harnessed into a coherent whole. I could see that there were going to be real problems with “division of labor.” Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.
What do you recall of the photo shoot in the desert?
There was a lot of laughter and a sense of camaraderie. The Joshua Tree National Monument, in 1971, was more wild and untouched than it is today. It was a magical place. There was a pervasive feeling that we were embarking on a momentous journey; there was an air of portent in the positive sense. It was simultaneously a sensory and a spiritual experience. That’s the effect that the peyote cactus has on most people, but not all. Under the effects of peyote, in the glowing dusk, we saw the Joshua trees as sentient beings. The Mormons, who were also given to hallucinations, were obviously on a different kind of high when they stumbled into the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s and envisioned the native Yucca brevifolia as the Biblical warrior Joshua, arms stretched skyward in prayer.
Peyote is a small cactus that grows wildly in the Chihuahuan Desert and contains a psychoactive alkaloid (mescaline). The cactus can be found in areas of Texas and Mexico and is common among scrub where there is limestone settlement. This plant, particularly the mescaline within the plant, can produce a wide range of effects including deep insight into one’s spiritual side. Auditory and visual hallucinations are also common with the use of peyote.
Common use of peyote consists of chewing on the plant or boiling it to create a reduction that can be drank as a tea. The consumption of 10 to 20 grams of dried peyote buttons will produce a wide range of effects including hallucinations, metaphysical insight or spiritual introspection. Since ancient times, tribes in the Mexico region have been chewing on peyote buttons to produce an anesthetic effect or pain relief. Native American tribes continue to use peyote as a curative drug for a wide array of ailments. However, various unpredictable effects can arise when a person takes peyote. The major downfall to this drug, like other hallucinogens, is that there is no surefire way to know how the drug will affect the user or what types of side effects may arise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some feel only deep meditation-like symptoms while others may suffer intense anxiety or hallucinations that could pose serious risks in terms of the behavioral outcomes of the user. So, I’m not recommending what we did, back then, to anybody. A couple of guys in our party did get nauseous and throw up, but they were fine after that and it was the only negative thing we experienced at that photo shoot. You have to munch on trail mix to keep yourself from getting nauseous, and I think maybe they had forgotten to do that.
Photographer Henry Diltz and our art director, Gary Burden, were participating as well. Gary, an award-winning album-cover designer, is a former Marine who grew up on his father’s citrus farm in Laguna, and Henry, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet, is a noted, award-winning photographer. Also along on these trips was our former road manager [and] spiritual/philosophical adviser, John Barrick, who had once tended bar at the Troubadour. It was a colorful, adventurous circus troupe we had assembled. Everybody was into the spirit of the thing. Again, I want to emphasize that ingesting mescaline or any psychoactive alkaloid does not result in permanently transforming an individual into a more insightful, enlightened, spiritual being, but it does temporarily facilitate a different way of seeing the world. In the early going, we went out to Joshua Tree and did that peyote ritual a couple of times. I think that J.D. Souther and Ned Doheny were along on one of the campouts. It was on one of those trips that Glenn saw a huge eagle fly right over him at a relatively low altitude. Naturally, we took this as a sign.
Trivia question: What are those whistle-y sounds on “Earlybird”?
Those are the sounds of actual birds chirping. They were taken from a sound effects library. I thought – and still think – it was corny, but it wasn’t my song. Adding the chirping sounds was the decision of both the song’s author and our producer. Forty-four years later, it really doesn’t matter, does it?