When Don Henley was putting together his third solo album for release in 1989, he already possessed hard evidence of how beneficial it could be to put his words together with a piece of music pre-written by another luminary. He had done it five years earlier, taking a moody, synthesizer-driven backing track, written by Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell (that Tom Petty had turned down), and turning it into his mega-smash “The Boys Of Summer.”
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When he connected with Bruce Hornsby, who had scored big in 1986 with the soaring success of his debut single “The Way It Is” and the album of the same name with his band The Range, Henley hoped for similar lightning in a bottle. Hornsby talked about how the collaboration went down in an interview with Performing Songwriter.
“So, for whatever reason, he called me up in 1987 right around then and asked me to write with him,” Hornsby remembered. “I was really flattered by it, and I loved his solo work especially. I thought ‘Boys of Summer’ was just great and ‘Sunset Grill’ and ‘Dirty Laundry.’ So I was instantly in for this, and he was the first ‘big shot’ who called me to write. So he came over to my house, and we sort of instantly became friends, and I gave him this track that I’d had lying around. I’d written a song with this music but I didn’t think it was great, so I gave him the track and it seemed to spark something in him right away. He left the house and he was listening to the cassette in the car and I think he called me down the road. And ‘End of the Innocence‘ is the outside collaboration that I’m the most proud of.”
What Henley must-have heard in Hornsby’s plaintive chords was something both nostalgic and wistful, a fond remembrance of lost times and profound sorrow over what replaced them. Hornsby played piano on the track, which would go on to be the title song of Henley’s 1989 album. The finished version also benefited from a gorgeous, spiraling saxophone solo by jazz legend Wayne Shorter.
Henley’s lyrics begin by conjuring a time and place gone by with effortless grace: Remember when the days were long / And rolled beneath a deep blue sky. The rest of the verses are set up in contrast to this idyllic setting. But ‘happily ever after’ fails, Henley laments. And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales /The lawyers clean up all details.
In the second verse, Henley makes both patriotic and Biblical allusions to show easily they can be twisted by opportunists. O’ beautiful, for spacious skies / But now those skies are threatening / They’re beating plowshares into swords / For this tired old man that we elected king. It’s all that the narrator can do to find someplace of refuge, to get back to Somewhere back there in the dust / That same small town in each of us.
And yet he manages to do just that, bringing along his significant other to join him: I know a place where we can go / To wash away this sin. It’s in the chorus that he transcends all the broken promises and anguish and travels back to that simpler time, if only for a fleeting moment, with his lover in his arms: Offer up your best defense / But this is the end / This is the end of the innocence.
The combination of Hornsby’s music and Henley’s words proved to be irresistible to audiences, even with the downcast subject matter. “The End Of The Innocence” reached No. 8 on the pop charts in 1989. With two master songwriters bringing the very best out of each other, it’s perhaps not at all surprising that the end result was so haunting and timeless.