Book review of Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles
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Don Felder with Wendy Holden
Label
Wiley
Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001)

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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hey’ve never been properly codified, but there are, nonetheless, a series of laws governing rock & roll. Though it would take years to write them all down, there are a few major, easily identifiable rules, such as:

1. If your parents like it, it probably sucks.
2. Concept albums about armadillo/tank creatures always suck.
3. Glenn Frey is an asshole.

That last item is explored in heartbreaking detail in Don Felder’s recently published memoir, “Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001),” originally scheduled to reach shelves last fall via Hyperion but – wouldn’t you know it – spiked at the last minute thanks to legal pressures exerted by Felder’s former bandmates. That the book had a hard time gaining release is hardly surprising, given that Felder was fired by the Eagles (or, more appropriately, “Eagles, Inc.”) in 2001, sparking a wrongful termination lawsuit that was only recently settled. Though Frey and Don Henley have rarely wasted time trying to get anyone to think they’re the type of guys you’d want to knock back a few rounds with, they’ve always jealously guarded their privacy, and early in their careers, they both set new standards in rock music for paranoid, minutely managed interactions with the public and the press. This book was originally scheduled for publication right around the time that the first Eagles album in nearly two decades was arriving on Wal-Mart endcaps around the country; having to face Felder’s accusations while trying to spin their status as weathered rock & roll statesmen could not have been a welcome prospect.

Felder’s had a long career, but the bulk of it was spent in the Eagles, and given that his tenure in the band was ended unwillingly – and given, again, that Glenn Frey is an asshole – “Heaven and Hell” is being presented, understandably, as a juicy tell-all. Though this will certainly help sell copies, it isn’t really accurate; for one thing, the book is nearly a third over before Felder even joins the Eagles, and for another, “Heaven and Hell” gives every impression of a band whose members rarely interacted on a meaningful personal level. This lack of camaraderie will hardly be surprising to anyone who’s read any of the dozens of infamous Eagles tales – most of which are confirmed here – or spent any time listening to the band’s bloodless later albums, but it keeps Felder from delving too deeply into the backstage bullshit, because the band members were always in separate orbits.

Of course, this doesn’t keep Felder from pulling back the curtain one more time on noted misanthropists Henley and Frey – particularly Frey, whose cartoonish greed and stunningly casual cruelty are every bit as horrible as you’d expect from the man whose musical manifesto was outlined in the perfectly titled No Fun Aloud. Henley’s dour liberalism (and hit solo albums) made him an easier target in the ‘80s, but he comes off here as mostly reasonable, if a bit high-strung; it’s Frey who gradually steered the Eagles away from a band of equals and toward the purse-lipped duopoly that’s been soaking its fans with astronomical ticket prices for the last 14 years. His motivations are never clear, but Felder succeeds in driving home the grinding pressure of being in one of the most popular bands in the world – and how badly a lack of brotherhood behind the scenes can compound that pressure.

No, “Heaven and Hell” isn’t really an Eagles exposé. Felder couldn’t have gotten a book deal without tossing in some dirt, but what he really sets out to do here is tell the story of how a poor kid from Gainesville managed to turn a love of music into a very comfortable life for himself and his children. In fact, it’s the non-Eagles bits that are some of the book’s most interesting; throughout his career, Felder has been a sort of guitar-wielding Forrest Gump, casually crossing paths with a succession of superstars. He gave guitar lessons to Tom Petty, jammed with Peter Green, hung out with Stephen Stills… you get the idea. Before being invited to join the Eagles, Felder was playing with Crosby & Nash and David Blue, and having a great time doing it; you can’t help but wonder where his life and career might have gone if he’d stayed on that path.

Frey apologists will no doubt accuse Felder of portraying himself in an unreasonably positive light here, but he isn’t shy about revealing his own insecurities and shortcomings as a husband and father – or his repeated longing to be on better terms with Frey. He’s a guitarist, not an author, and despite whatever influence his co-writer Wendy Holden had on this manuscript, Felder’s literary voice is a little too dry to really make the reader feel what he felt – but he’s still lived a fascinating life, and whether or not you really care about the Eagles as a band, “Heaven and Hell” is an absorbing read, if for no other reason than it provides a first-person account of how the rock-obsessed kids of the ‘50s grew up to follow their idols onto the charts, acquiring more wealth and fame that they could have imagined in the process – and ultimately losing sight of what made them want to be musicians in the first place.

It’s almost enough to remind you that the unctuous middle-aged creep who’s charging fans $200 a ticket to watch him sing “The Heat Is On” was once a kid with real dreams. Almost.

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