When I was 16 I was on fire for music, for rock’n’roll. I was in a band with Stephen Stills. I didn’t have a driving licence so my mother would drive us around little shows, little fraternity parties, that kind of thing. I loved the enthusiasm and energy of playing live for people. I had been playing guitar since I was 10 so I had developed some skills by the age of 16 and I had admiration for a lot of the musicians who were playing in that period.
We were very poor. My dad was a mechanic, my mother worked in a laundry. But my dad loved music. He would come home after 10 or 12 hours of work, take a shower, then go sit in his big chair and put on Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller. He was very supportive. He taught me to wire equipment, took me around, bought me my first electric guitar. I think his love of music inspired me to play music, because I wanted to please him. After years of therapy I figured that out.
My brother was a high achiever – he got a scholarship to college, a scholarship to law school. There was no way I could compete with that. So I fell in love with music and went down that road. And I did please my dad. Underneath I think he would have preferred me to be an academic scholar but that just wasn’t my calling. And I think he eventually recognised that, when I went on to have success in the Eagles and I went back to visit him in 1974, just before he passed. I think he caught a glimpse of what my life was like. He never got to see us play live. He got very sick, he retired at 65, and he passed away within a year. But I still hear his voice acknowledging my success. I think he’s following me around day-to-day to be honest.
The thing that really propelled me through those early years, growing up in poverty, living on a dirt road in north central Florida, starving on the streets of New York after I moved there with a suitcase in one hand and a guitar in the other, then moving to Boston to get paid $50 a week to work in a studio… it wasn’t about the money or the success or the stardom or the women. Well, maybe it was a little about the women. But really it was about the sheer love and joy and excitement of playing music. Even today I don’t need to make another dime by playing a show. But I love to do it. And that’s what’s been driving me since day one. When you grow up with absolutely nothing, no money, you have nothing to lose. So you might as well chase the biggest dream you have in your heart. So I was very contented, happy with the little I had. I still don’t feel the need to be surrounded by big houses or fancy cars. I have a very humble, low-key kind of life. I’ve had that other life, and it’s a hollow dream.
I think I lost my long-term vision in the Seventies, when I got involved with alcohol and drugs. It’s an easy downfall for people who come from humble beginnings and are overwhelmed by the tsunami of wealth and fame and admiration. I’ve seen it and seen it and seen it. I was fortunate though. There was a night – by then I was married, and I had four kids – I came home at one o’clock in the morning after a month away. I woke up hungover, and there was my little two-year-old daughter tapping on my arm, saying, daddy, daddy, wake up! And I felt horrible. That was a lifesaver for me. It wasn’t just a tap on my arm, it was a tap on my psychic shoulder saying, you can’t do this. So after that I really pulled in my consumption. I stood and watched the rest of the band go absolutely overboard with it all, and I’d just go to bed. I had something more valuable to me than getting high, and it was my family. I saw myself standing above the rabbit hole I’d seen so many people fall down, and if I hadn’t pulled it in I could still be down there now.
The year don turns 16
• Writer Sylvia Plath takes her own life
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I think the happiest time the Eagles ever had was when we were making Hotel California in the studio. That whole album. Those five guys – Don [Henley], Glenn [Frey], Joe [Walsh], Randy [Meisner] and myself – we had two of the greatest guitar players in the business, the best vocal harmonies you could find on record, the best lyric writers. It was a magical combination. And the more we worked, the more miraculous it felt. As we went up the ladder, had that amazing worldwide success and adulation, the more the lifestyle took over, the pressure to repeat that grew. In the end we had to stop working together. In 1981, Henley and Frey had a falling out and couldn’t write together, Glenn and I had a scuffle. It was all due to partying, drink and drugs. It was crazy, we were exhausted. Before he left the band [founder member] Bernie Leadon said we should take a month out, go to Hawaii, relax, recoup, then get back together again. But Don and Glenn were like, no! We got this thing, we gotta push it uphill, we can’t back off. To me that was the biggest mistake we ever made.
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I think my wife and I would still be together today if the band hadn’t been on the road between 10 and 11 months a year. When you’re away all the time, and every room is an empty hotel room, and there’s a lot of partying going on it’s easy to forget what’s going on at home. All sorts of things can happen on the road. I don’t use that as an excuse – I accept I did that, and I suffered the consequences. I deserve everything that happened to me. And sadly, my children grew up with mostly an absentee father. When the band broke up I tried to make up for that. I made a solo record but I didn’t tour. I stayed at home, I became the school soccer coach. I felt I owed them that time.
If I could go back to relive any moment in my life it would be me sitting on the couch on a rented house in Malibu, strumming my guitar, looking out of the window, watching my one-year-old daughter and her two-year-old brother playing in the sand on the beach. And I looked down to the gorgeous Pacific Ocean and the California sunlight glistening on the waves. And out came rolling on my guitar that chord progression for Hotel California. Out of nowhere. I played it, then I thought, I gotta play this again. I played it four or five times then I recorded a little snippet of it. And that was the birth of that song. That moment was an absolute surprise. It just flowed out of me, I don’t know why or how. But I look back to that moment and I say, thank you.
Don Felder’s new solo album American Rock ’ N’ Roll is out now on BMG