Like his literary heroes Thoreau and Emerson, Don Henley has emerged as one the eminent voices of his time.
“I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Those few lines from Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance, speak volumes about what makes a writer truly great – originality, conviction, passion and a total disregard for convention. Those are all qualities that have made Don Henley one of the most successful singer/songwriters on America’s musical landscape. Like his literary heroes Thoreau and Emerson, Henley has emerged as one of the eminent voices of his time.
Comparing one of this generation’s songwriters to the literary masters might seem presumptuous, but Henley’s songs transcend mere entertainment. His reflections on the country’s moral climate in “Dirty Laundry” and his poignant revelations on lost love in “Hear Of The Matter” are examples of how a songwriter’s personal thoughts and feelings can strike a universal chord with the listener, and as Emerson suggests that is genius.
Henley recently performed at the opening night celebration for Nashville’s Hard Rock Café. Following his performance he took time to talk to American Songwriter about the craft of songwriting.
“I keep a legal pad on the bedside table beside my bed. I try to keep them all over the house,” he says. “I’ll start three or four different songs on the same pad and write things on different pages. That’s why it takes me so long to make an album. It’s not writing the songs, it’s sorting out…I’ll write things on little bitty pads, like in hotels, and I’ll stuff them in a duffle bag. Then it comes time to make an album. I have to go back in my house and I’ve got dozens of duffle bags with little pieces of paper, sometimes maybe with just one little thing written on it. And it’s just a mess.
“I’ve got a computer now, but I don’t use it much. I’m afraid it will change something. That’s why I wouldn’t let them take my tonsils out. I was afraid it would change something. So I do it the hard way, but I don’t care. It seems to work and I’m going to keep doing it like that.”
Henley says he really doesn’t block out specific times to devote to his songwriting. “Glenn [Frey] is better at that than I am,” Henley says. “He’s much more disciplined. I sort of just wait for it to come to me. He likes to block out a certain amount of time every day and sit down and go ‘okay, we’re writing.’ Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. You usually have a day where nothing comes to you. Lyrics and songs usually come to me when I’m doing something else, like loading the dishwasher or gardening or riding the horses.”
When asked what makes a good collaborator, Henry replied, “Somebody with enthusiasm, somebody who is willing to carefully criticize and examine themselves, that’s where most people fall down on the job. Most people don’t take criticism very well from others or themselves. Glenn and I are very willing to criticize ourselves.
“You have to be critical of yourself. Now you can be overly critical. You can criticize yourself to the point of paralyzation. I know; I’ve been in that position sometimes. Nothing I did was good enough. You set too high a standard for yourself, especially on days when it’s just not happening. Be confident in the notion that it will get better. That this is the best you can do for now.”
Henley admits that rewriting and being overly analytical can be a tricky business. “That’s hard for me because once I commit something to paper, I’m afraid I’ll get it in my head and won’t be able to replace it or think of anything better,” he says, “and sometimes that’s the case. But oftentimes it’s not. Oftentimes I can come up with something better if I try. If I can’t, we always figure that it wasn’t supposed to happen anyway and we usually end up throwing the song away. If a song doesn’t sort of finish itself, if it doesn’t tell you what it needs or, or if you’re not enthusiastic enough about a song to finish it, then chances are there’s something inherently wrong with that song or your approach to it and it might be better just to scrap it and start over.”
Other songwriters previously profiled in American Songwriter have talked about how some songs they’ve written have become hits, yet when they heard them on the radio there were lines that still haunted them that they wished they’d written differently. Henley admits he feels that way about a couple of his songs. “The Long Run” could have been a better song,” he says. “The Boys of Summer” maybe could have even had a couple of lines be better. You know you do the best you can at the time. And in songwriters’ defense sometimes that’s just the best you can do. Every line can’t be brilliant. Every line can’t be a gem.”
When asked how he thought his songwriting had evolved over the years, he replied. “I don’t know if that’s for me to say. I think my writing’s evolved and has become more mature and wise…I think maybe I’ve gotten better at saying what I want to say, more clearly and concisely with a better choice of words. But I think there’s still room for improvement.
“There’s always plenty to write about. I write about the same things a lot. I just write about it in a different angle. One of the themes is relationships between men and women, of course, and how to reconcile that with work, how to make a relationship last while you’re trying to do whatever it is that makes up your career and your life’s work. And I write about politics some. I try to write about the environment a little bit and the value system, or the decline of the value system in America as it pertains to spiritual values and environmental values and people taking responsibility for their own actions. The song “Get Over It,” that’s really about people’s absolute refusal in this day and age to take responsibility for their own actions.”
In the songs Henley blasts people who go on tabloid television shows to air their problems. “You see all this whining every day on television,” he says. “It’s become an industry. I write about the press and the decline of journalism, the quality of journalism.”
To become a better songwriter, Henley advocates reading great literature and listening to great writers. He recommends Emerson’s essays, particularly Self-Reliance. There’s also a book titled Stranger Music which features selected songs and poems by Leonard Cohen. (Henley is one of the artists who is recording a song for an upcoming Cohen tribute album.) Henley cited a selection on page 287 titled “How to Speak Poetry” that he feels is valuable for lyricists.
“Listen to the greatest,” Henley says. “Try to figure out what it is about Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger and Randy Newman and people like that, who I consider to be great songwriters, try to figure out what it is about them that makes them great. It’s not just one thing either. It’s a combination of things. It’s the way they combine words with melodies. It’s the words they choose and the words they choose not to use.
“Be very careful about what words you use. Try to make your songwriting conversational and please, please please try not to emphasize syllables and words that are not emphasized in conversation. Use the notes to make the emphasis on the correct syllable in the word and make it graceful. Do not try to awkwardly cram lyrics into music that doesn’t fit.”
“Be brave, but also try to look at your own work objectively. Don’t write ten songs in one week and say ‘boy howdy, I wrote ten great songs this week’ because you didn’t. Maybe you wrote one, maybe you didn’t even write that much. Great songs don’t come that quickly. Work on it. Criticize your own work, but not to the point where you paralyze yourself. And don’t sit home and make tapes and send them to a bunch of people and say ‘Call me when I’m famous.’ Get your ass out to Hollywood or Nashville and suffer with the rest of us.”