Eagles' Don Felder Returns to His Southern Roots: "I was Drugged -- Not Dragged -- Into All Sorts of Promiscuity and Drugs"
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week: Don Felder returns with his first solo album in, get this, thirty years.
It's always intriguing when an artist appears to go into hiding, or at least retreats from public view, and then suddenly emerges after a prolonged period of time. At one point, John Lennon and John Fogerty left the public eye for five years and ten years, respectively. I remember thinking at the time that when those artists returned, it was a momentous event, something akin to the Second Coming.
Nowadays however, seasoned artists take a longer span of time between albums as a matter of course. For example, when was the last studio release by the Rolling Stones or Joni Mitchell? How about the Who? Never mind Neil Young's sudden burst of activity, one could literally count the decades between studio sets by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Even so, thirty years seems an extraordinarily long time to wait for a new album, but indeed, that's how long it's been since the first -- and last -- solo album by former Eagles guitarist and vocalist Don Felder.
Felder was summarily fired by the band after a 27 year tenure in 2001, and subsequently wrote a tell-all book, Heaven and Hell: My Life with the Eagles (1974 - 2001), which eventually climbed the New York Times bestseller charts. The time he spent in reflection and rumination eventually led to several new songs and as of next month, a new solo album aptly entitled Road to Forever. This is only his second solo effort and first since Airborne in 1983. It captures the essence of Felder's forte -- razor sharp guitars, impassioned melodies, and those dry emotive vocals that were so essential to the Eagles' MO.
Those of us in the Sunshine State have special reason to take notice. While the rest of the universe knows him primarily for his tenure with the Eagles, many locals know him as a former Floridaian who actually got his start in Gainesville where he rubbed shoulders with other Florida homeboys -- Tom Petty and Duane Allman, among them. His first band, the Continentals, was co-helmed by Stephen Stills and also included Bernie Leadon, whom he later played alongside in the Eagles' first incarnation.
"Steven Stills was a friend of mine," Felder told me recently. "I've known him for, I don't how many years, at least how many I want to put in print. We lived down the street from each other and we still do. We play golf together and he comes to my kids' birthdays parties."
Growing up in Florida had a profound effect on Felder's future, although the conflicts and craziness that characterized his stint in the Eagles steered him away from his original ideals. "I was raised in the deep South," He reflected. "My mother was extremely religious, a Southern Baptist, and I think I still have the scars and calluses from being dragged into church and Sunday school for years. But once I was in the Eagles, I was drugged -- not dragged -- into all sorts of promiscuity and drugs and everything that was not part of my upbringing. I realized how that had influenced my life and turned me away from all the morals and ethics that I had been raised with."
He continued, "Part of the confusion when I left the band was wondering how did I ever get there? I wanted to go back into my childhood and understand the process that had taken place, from being raised dirt poor to becoming a multimillionaire, from the values of the church that my mother had tried so hard to pound into me, to living a life of sin and promiscuity and drugs and alcohol. So I really went back and looked back at those different areas of my life. I didn't find it difficult -- I found it very cathartic."
Indeed, once he had a chance to process the various forces that were tugging at his moral compass, it was his recollection of growing up in Gainesville that helped him re-center and refocus. "I was raised on a dirt road in a little white clapboard house with a tin roof that my father and two grandfathers built with their own two hands," Felder recalled. "Then I went through my music career in New York and Boston and L.A. and finally joined the Eagles. What had changed me in the course of all that was when and where I started doing daily meditations. Then I started writing my memoirs and it turned into a book and wound it up being a bestseller. Who would have ever thought that a poor English student would become a best-selling author?"
Felder's Florida ties would remain intact during his stint with the Eagles when the band repeatedly returned to Criteria Studios and Bayshore Studios in Miami to record some of their classics. Yet even outside of his Eagles activities, Felder became a regular at Criteria in particular, working on recordings by Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Diana Ross, Bob Seger, the Bee Gees, and others of their ilk -- thanks to his friendship with Bee Gee Barry Gibb and staff producer/engineer Albhy Galuten.
"Yeah, I really enjoyed that," Felder remarked. "Albhy and I became really good friends, and when Barry wasn't working on the Bee Gees records, he'd work on other artists' records with Albhy. So whether they were working on a Diana Ross record or a Barbara Streisand record, he would call me to come in and play guitar on these tracks. Not only was it great to be able to become good friends with these guys, but it allowed me to throw myself into these projects. Though they might not have been my rock 'n' roll forte, they forced me to adapt to many other styles, and so I learned bluegrass, jazz, country music, and everything in-between. When I'm thrown into those kind of situations, it forces me to not rely on things that I have in my arsenal, but rather to reach out for new fresh things that sound unique."
I congratulated Felder for his return to the spotlight and being back in the "high life" once again.
"You're being awfully gracious in using the words 'high life,'" he chuckled. "I love playing and that's what's compelled me since I was ten years old and that's what I'm doing today. I feel very fortunate to be my age and still playing music and to enjoy it and have a good time."