Friday, August 22, 2014

Yeah, Well, I Just Saw A Don Henley Sticker On A VW Bus

There's a great passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter S. Thompson, clownishly stumbling through the bitter and jaded hangover of the '70s, describes his memory of San Francisco in the '60s:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" is the sound of that wave rolling back. Well, a couple of foamy droplets at least. It is an aching requiem for the lost dream of the '60s. Or maybe it's just a slightly mournful love song with a chic video. Either way, it is Henley's Yuppie Rock piece de resistance, although, to be fair, it looks like he benefited greatly from the assistance of Tom Petty's guitarist Mike Campbell. Maybe Henley and Campbell met up after one of the sessions for Bella Donna and thought to themselves, "Hey let's cut out the middleman (middlewoman?) and really go for the glory!" As AMG's Stewart Mason writes:
Upon its release in late 1984, after the prolonged and dispiriting end of the Eagles, a period of personal turmoil, and a somewhat unfocused solo debut, "The Boys of Summer" not only reestablished Don Henley as a major star, it accomplished something he'd never had before in his entire career: rock critics, uniformly, absolutely loved this song, even those who had spent years gleefully making sport of the Eagles' excesses. It's not hard to do, really. The tune -- written and almost entirely performed by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers -- is melancholic and gorgeous, and Henley wisely dials down his histrionic tendencies to deliver the most low-key vocal performance of his career, singing the verses in a quiet near-monotone that perfectly counterpoints the beseeching chorus.
Two points: 1) I actually like I Can't Stand Still more than Building The Perfect Beast, and 2) my sense is that "Hotel California," at the very least, is almost universally admired by those whose job it is to admire such things, but yes, "The Boys of Summer" does seem to be the go-to Yuppie Rock classic that's "OK" for critics to like these days. "The Eagles were shit, but man, that 'Boys of Summer' ... you've gotta give him that one." Here's how much rock critics love "The Boys Of Summer": Rolling Stone put it at #416 on their "500 Greatest Songs Of All Time" list, and even Pitchfork bothered to make room for it on the Pitchfork 500, sandwiching it between U2's "Bad" and Paul Simon's "Graceland." Of all the sleazy Yuppie Rock songs in all the former '70s country-rockers' solo careers in all the world, they walked into Henley's. Did they, like Henley, long for that elusive lover of the past, destined to never return? Did they yearn for an age when, as Lou Reed once put it, "poets studied rules of verse and ladies rolled their eyes"? Did they share Henley's Yuppie guilt and/or shame at having completely, utterly sold out to the Man? You wanna know something, taste-makers? Don Henley didn't need your belated praise. What he did need, however, was a pair of scissors, so that he could cut out all those gushing magazine clippings and surreptitiously slide them into Glenn Frey's mailbox.

Let's paint the scene: You're cruising down Sunset Blvd. The sound of faded dreams and festering memories echo across Laurel Canyon like a tacky drum machine. Out of the desolation, a bluesy guitar cuts through the suffocating air. Now the percussion starts to surround your sweaty, hungover skull like flies. A synthesizer hovers above you in the oppressive California heat, the guitar mocking your struggle, teasing your complacency. A couple of hideously inorganic bass notes later, and there's nowhere to hide:
Nobody on the road
Nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air
The summer's out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets
The sun goes down alone
I'm drivin' by your house
Though I know you're not home
Note to Henley's ex: might be time for a restraining order. Ah, but just as you're thinking Don's going to stick with this resigned, barren, Last Man On Earth vibe, he turns it on for the chorus:
But I can see you
Your brown skin shinin' in the sun
You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone
Oh smack. The man's digging deep. This chorus is like a hymn to all the lost loves that ever were and ever will be. More specifically, there's this great suggestion on the part of the singer that his love is somehow more powerful, more meaningful, and more heartfelt than the supposed "love" from all those boys his former flame is tearing through. "Baby, you can have your fun, but what we had was real." Yeah, he probably won't win her back by expressing that love, but at least he might win a kind of inner moral victory in an alternate dimension.

Suddenly, around 2:44, Henley and Campbell are attacked by what sounds like a flock of vengeful seagulls. I hope they found a phone booth nearby. But then comes arguably the most infamous line in in the storied annals of Yuppie Rock: "Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said, 'Don't look back, you can never look back'."

A Deadhead sticker! On a Cadillac! It's like seeing mayonnaise ... on a hot dog! It's like seeing a black person ... at a Republican rally! It simply beggars belief. Given that no other lines in the song are quite so humorous or so culturally specific, one might be tempted to believe that Henley simply tossed it off or didn't mean very much by it. But this is Don Henley we're talking about.

First of all, I always assumed the line had no basis in tangible reality, but according to Wikipedia, Don claims to have actually seen an actual Deadhead sticker on an actual Cadillac, telling the NME in 1985, "I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the Right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead 'Deadhead' bumper sticker on it!"

Were they blasting "Touch of Grey" inside? But hold on, the man wasn't finished insulting his own generation. Here's more from a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone:
Kennedy was president and everybody thought it was Camelot, but look at what we did. We raised all that hell in the Sixties, and then what did we come up with in the Seventies? Nixon and Reagan. The country reverted right back into the hands it was in before. I don't think we changed a damn thing, frankly. That's what the last verse of "The Boys of Summer" was about. I think our intentions were good, but the way we went about it was ridiculous. We thought we could change things by protesting and making firebombs and growing our hair long and wearing funny clothes. But we didn't follow through. After all our marching and shouting and screaming didn't work, we withdrew and became yuppies and got into the "Me" Decade.
Yep, the Boomers sold out. They sold out big time. Ah, it's always fun to pile on mangled corpse of Baby Boomer idealism.  Let's do this again some time. Also, keep in mind these words are coming from the man whose own band almost single-handedly created late '70s corporate rock, but that's neither here nor there, because ultimately, "The Boys Of Summer" is about so much more than cultural regret. As Mason writes, "Although much was made of the yuppie-baiting line about a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac (although one rather doubts that Henley was driving a beat-up Datsun at the time himself), the song's overall feel is much more personal and intimate than that soundbite suggests." Arguably the most poignant moment in the song comes, not with the Deadhead sticker, but a few seconds later, when Henley sings, "I thought I knew what love was/What did I know?/Those days are gone forever/I should just let 'em go but..." But what, man, but what? Just say it. "I can seeee yew.." The dude just can't let it go! She's still got the brown skin shining in the sun, Wayfarers on, the whole works! And so, like Orpheus and Lot's Wife before him, despite being commanded not to look back, he does it anyway.

And of course, there's the video, consisting of stolen footage from a Chanel No. 5 ad, with Henley's image spliced in via editorial magic. Nothing screams out "art" and "sophistication" like black and white cinematography, but while that directorial choice might earn snark from bloggers such as myself, it was probably the right call; like Duran Duran's "The Chauffer," this is one '80s video that has aged quite nicely. And here's how you know the Yuppies in this video are rich: their sliding glass doors and bedroom walls can double as projector screens! There's even a post-modern denouement that will make you question every imitation Fellini shot that came before. Just as guilt-ridden Baby Boomer critics lined up to kiss Henley's feet, MTV drooled all over this clip:
The video won the Video of the Year at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards (leading Henley to comment at the Awards the following year that he had won for "riding around in the back of a pickup"). It also won that year's awards for Best Direction, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography. The Best Direction award was presented to [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino by Henley's then-former Eagles bandmate Glenn Frey.
"Oh, hey Glenn, how nice of you to make it."

1 comment:

Herr Zrbo said...

This is one of the first music videos I remember seeing, though my pre-teen self had no idea what the song was about or what I was even watching.

Also, here's a euro-dance cover that was big when I was living in Germany:
DJ Sammy - Boys of Summer