Behind the Curtain: Riding Around with Don Felder and the Eagles

Behind the Curtain: Riding Around with Don Felder and the Eagles

“That’s a big concern of everybody—making  the best record and the best band. Without anybody getting on an ego trip of, ‘I wanna have another song on the record or I’m not singing enough onstage or I don’t have enough solos.’”

Don Felder is speaking. He is the newest member of The Eagles and on this warm August night in 1975 he is flying high. We are on a back road wending our way through the Colorado Rocky Mountains towards Canyon Boulevard. We are making our way back to manager Jim Guercio’s Caribou Ranch facility, a home away from home that includes a state-of the art recording facility as well as personal bunkhouses.

Don Felder (2)
Photo: Glen La Ferman

I have flown to Colorado from my home in Hollywood to interview The Eagles. I am sitting in the back of a very large black limousine with the newly-hatched Eagle and as we head back to Caribou Ranch on a narrow road that turns, dips and rises, I try to hear what Felder is telling me.

He is talking about the democratic relationship within the band—a situation that will ultimately change drastically and will leave the guitarist out in the cold—and how well everything is working. “Everybody’s willing to give what it whatever it…wait a minute, wait a minute…” Felder turns his head away for a moment.

He holds a walkie talkie in one hand—the ‘70s version of the cellphone—and an alcoholic beverage in the other. He turns back to me and then releases the squelch button on the transmitting device. Amid the white noise static, crackle and pop, he begins to mutter some cryptic Eagle-speak you could only understand if you were on the inside. I can barely decipher a word of what Don is saying but then again what he’s saying is not for outsiders’ ears.

The walkie goes quiet, he takes a gulp of alcohol and resumes the conversation without missing a beat. “…Whatever it takes. If I have to play acoustic rhythm guitar on some songs I don’t really get off on it, but if that’s the combination that makes that song then hell, I’ll play that all day long. That’s pretty much everybody’s attitude. When it becomes an ‘I’ trip and somebody starts thinking that all the money and all the applause and all the fame is because of me and not the guys in the band,  the music’s lost and gets real artificial. What art there originally was is lost and it gets gonzo.”

Photo: Henry Diltz
Photo: Henry Diltz

I tune into Felder’s final words: lost, artificial and gonzo. When I look out the side windows at the Rocky Mountains rising up on either side of me and then stare ahead at the road in front of us, I can only think, “Are we lost?” There is nobody else around and the pitch black night holds a sky so full of stars they look fake. I know we’re not lost because this is a professional limo driver and this is Don Felder sitting in this car and Eagles don’t get lost. At least not on this balmy, summer night in ’75.

Then I think about Felder describing the music as artificial. There is nothing fake or plastic about the music the band makes but this scene seems exactly that. Just hours earlier in a concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the band was singing about peaceful feelings and the spirit of the ‘60s and now here they are sitting in mile-long limos, drinking expensive alcohol from the most exquisitely cut glass tumblers ever made. It just seems hard to rationalize what they’re singing about with the reality. And finally, the guitarist described the situation as gonzo and certainly this moment is as insane and surreal as anything Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote about [Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, the book that defined what he called gonzo journalism, which was a haphazard mix of fact and fiction]. I feel like I’m in a Thompson novel and I must admit it’s pretty damn fun.

As I’m thinking about all of this, what I’m really wondering about is why Felder has a walkie talkie and who was he talking to. So I ask him. “Who the f—k are you talking to?” With a half-turn of his head, Felder motions to look behind us. There, spread out in the near distance are a half-dozen or so chauffeured cars staggered, caravan-style. Each of the other Eagles—Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, and Don Henley [bassist Randy Meisner has opted out of tonight’s craziness by staying with relatives living in Boulder]—occupy one of their own grand, gonzo, opulent mobile suites. They are truly as Pete Townshend noted, air-conditioned gypsies. Felder was relaying his mysterious message to each of his bandmates.

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Still, it seems strange that despite his cheerleading philosophy about the group adopting a team spirit and a one for all, all for one attitude, no two band members share the same limo. As much as Felder wants to believe he’s an equal partner in the band, he will come to find out he is not.

The Eagles have just ended an outdoor show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. This 300 million-year-old wonder has been carved naturally from red sandstone and now this geographic marvel is home for rock and roll shows. The concert is sold out and it’s not a surprise.  Their just-released fourth album, One Of These Nights, will top the U.S. Billboard charts for weeks on the strength of three monster hits: the title track, Take It To The Limit and Lyin’ Eyes. This current road trip will take in 59 cities and be seen by some 850,000 fans paying a combined $5 million for the experience. That’s how you can afford private limousines and crystal whisky tumblers.

Earlier this evening as soon as the final chord of Tequila Sunrise evaporated in the mountain air, the group shed their instruments, took their bows, and dashed towards the rear parking area. Felder had hurried me along and headed straight for the first of a row of identical black Cadillacs. There is some jockeying and jostling but tonight the Eagles’ newest addition will not be denied. He claims his prize: the first car leaving. We jump in the back and Felder introduces us to the bar. He is the leader of the flock.

Felder has only been in the Eagles a little over a year at this point and for him, everything still feels like a game. However, he’ll come to realize that Henley and Frey define the boundaries and that questioning their authority is not up for discussion. He will find out there are rules and consequences and damned be the man who doesn’t understand them.

Felder sends out another message to the cars behind us and tells me we’re not far from the ranch. Caribou is situated on 3,200 acres of extraordinarily beautiful headlands, located in Nederland, an official ghost town, in the foothills of the Rockies. Combining a recording studio with private cabin living quarters, there’s a 24-hour mess hall and a lake to go fishing in.

As soon as we arrive, the band fall out of their respective mechanical chariots—literally—and immediately disappear together. Obviously whatever has passed amongst them on the walkie talkies has been deciphered by everyone but me. I retreat to my cabin and go to sleep.

The next morning, I wake up early and worry about being with the band for over a day and only having met Felder. No interviews; nothing substantial on tape save for a few backseat comments. Making my way to the food hall, I find a private sous chef whipping up custom soufflés amid the smell of sizzling bacon, browning flapjacks and ground coffee.

I feel like I’m in a western movie when the cattle drive is over and the cook bangs on the big, metal triangle and all the cowboys come running for their grub. Grabbing a huge, steaming mug of heavy-duty coffee, I glance around the room to see Frey and Henley occupying a corner table. I know I should at least make an attempt to say hello—though they should have made the introduction—and amble slowly towards their table.

I try and explain who I am but only receive perfunctory, early-morning grunts. They remove themselves from my presence and reassemble at a distant table. I’ve barely been acknowledged and am greeted with a look that implies that not only am I not invited to share their table but am not welcome anywhere they happen to be.

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Finishing breakfast, I go off to track down Felder again. I find him fishing down at the lake with Bernie Leadon. Don is casting out into the clear blue waters while Bernie has snagged his line and can’t seem to free himself from the trap. He will undergo the same struggle when he leaves the band in a few months time. Felder motions me over, pulls a huge trout from the stream, and smiles. Several hours pass at the lake before the fishing tackle is stowed away. There is a second show at Red Rocks and the line of star cars pull into position outside the ranch. For all his gospel about working as a team, Felder once again occupies his own vehicle. We make the hour-plus drive back to the outdoor venue.

Once we arrive, I’m left on my own. I watch as opening act Tom Waits is greeted with catcalls and boos. I stand on the side of the stage and try to look as innocuous as a stagehand. Killing time before the Eagles start their set, I’m suddenly approached by a menacing-looking security guard.

In a voice that sounds like a demented ogre, he barks, “What the f—k are you doing up here?” At first, I think Felder is playing a joke on me. I hope he has. I think, “Oh, he’s had one of the crew guys come over to scare me.” I tell this monster that I’m a writer doing a story on the band. I point to the laminate around my neck, the satin sticker on my jeans and a special marker pen design on the back of my palm. I figure I’m covered. I’m not. This giant out of mythology places a paw on my shoulder and physically escorts me offstage. “Leave immediately,” he says. It is not a request.

I look around for a familiar face but see no one. The band is backstage and anyway the only person who would vouch for me anyway is probably doing some guitar warm-up exercises. Felder is nowhere to be found. Suddenly I see manager Irving Azoff and think, “I’m OK. He’ll straighten this out.” He saunters up to me and asks, “What the f—k are you doing on my stage?” Didn’t I just go through this? I stutter and mutter and tell him I’ve been with the band for the past couple of days and I’m staying at the ranch. I’m writing a story about them. He has seen me several times in the mess hall and walking around the compound and certainly he would have had to sanction any journalist coming to interview the group.

Still, he looks at me like I’m a worm. “If you are not off this stage in the next 30 seconds, I will throw you into the rocks myself.”

Compared to Azoff, the guard is a lamb. I am now being virtually shoved down the back stairs of the stage. Thankfully, one of the crew identifies me. Azoff doesn’t offer a single word of apology and if anything he seems even more hysterical than before. He doesn’t get the chance to kick me off his stage and this upsets him. It is a strange way to end a strange weekend.

The Eagles do their show and the second Tequila Sunrise is over, everybody scrambles for the awaiting line of cars. Gladiators and their chariots. For the second night in a row, Felder has snagged the lead car. I climb in beside him. With the walkie talkie firmly in hand, he reaches for the in-house bar and mixes a couple drinks. The rest of the cars fall in behind us as we scream down the deserted highway and head for home.

One Response to "Behind the Curtain: Riding Around with Don Felder and the Eagles"

  1. Kathy   September 27, 2017 at 6:26 am

    DON FEDLER WOULD GO TO THE EAGLES MAKE MORE MUSIC WITH THEM RIGHT NOW LIKE WHEN YOU WHERE IN THE BAND AND WHEN YOU WHERE HELL FREEZES OVER
    THANK YOU DON FEDLER

    Reply

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