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Saturday, 4 October 2008

Gods and Monsters... 'Heaven and Hell' (Don Felder, The Eagles)

Don Felder was the guitarist brought in by the Eagles after their 'Desperado' album to add a bit of rock bite (and, it was hoped, some better sales figures) to the country soft-rock which had at that time failed to make a major impact on the US public. The move was largely successful - the big hits started to roll in, The Eagles barely left the US charts for the next twenty five years, and as for the money, the only trouble was finding time to spend it. Don's contribution was undoubtedly critical - his was the final ingredient in what would be (with Fleetwood Mac) the defining sound of US FM radio, although his original contributions were few, his music and arrangement for 'Hotel California' were the cherry on the icing on an already very large and rich cake.

So why, you might ask, the long face?

Well let me leave Don to one side for a moment and, digressive though it may seem, just say that this book certainly changed my opinion of the Beach Boys' Mike Love. I'd always seen Mike as the most unpleasant and charmless man in rock's glorious history, but not any more, at least not while Glenn Frey lives and breathes. I mention this because, though Frey's main purpose in the band was, as far as I can see (at least after the creative juices ran dry in 1973 or thereabouts) to make Don Henley seem like a nice guy, it's his malign personality rather than Felder's that dominates this book, the poison that gives the the Eagles' superficially carefree songs their distinctive aftertaste.

Back to Felder though, and as for 'Heaven and Hell', I have to say that by far the most readable sections are those which describe the hapless Felder being comprehensively beasted by the tirelessly manipulative Frey and Henley, ably assisted by manager Irving Azoff. If misery-memoirs and rock & roll are your thing, you're going to love this; Felder's long-suffering wife Susan got it right when, after he'd finally been booted out, she observed that his departure from 'that abusive relationship' was long overdue, but he appears to have been the last one to recognise it and, right to the end, you sense that if Frey or Henley shouted 'jump', his only question would be 'how high?'.

The greater part of the book, unfortunately, is a v-e-r-y pedestrian account of a decent, workmanlike, not especially bright guitarist who got incredibly lucky, who had it all but always wanted more - more recognition, more love, even more money. Unfairly treated? Well, probably, but in truth he arrived late, contributed comparatively little that was memorable (other than the music for Hotel California), had some pretty good times along the way and walked away with both nose and fabulous bank balance intact, so it's hard to muster too much sympathy. The dominant note, particularly in the second half of the book, is of maudlin self-pity (never attractive) but in truth, the devils had the best tunes and, as demonstrated by the consistently admirable Bernie Leadon (in many ways the conscience of the book), the option to depart with dignity was always there...

Fundamentally a journeyman book about a journeyman player and I'd say for fans only; the less committed will find a better perspective in Barney Hoskyns' excellent 'Hotel California'.

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