Choreographer Twyla Tharp recommends in her book The Creative Habit that when reading an author who has more than one book, starting with the most recent one and then working backwards is the most effective as regards understanding just how that author’s thinking developed. That idea came to mind when reading the postscript to the recently published Da Capo Press edition of To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles by Marc Eliot. The book originally appeared in 1998. This paperback edition includes some further observations from Eliot about, primarily, Don Henley. No, I didn’t start contemplating reading Eliot’s earlier works on Walt Disney, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, and Cary Grant. While a reasonably good writer, Eliot is prone to flights of metaphoric excess, with the excess loading the thing down such that the flight is bathetic. To wit: “For what had first made them so great was also what had always driven them so crazy, from their first downshift in the speed zone to the final gassy rev down memory lane. Inevitably, it seemed, no matter how fast they drove, they could never quite lose the reflection that tailed them in the rearview: the image of their own heated youth, already exhausted by their high-speed, chrome-dipped, supercharged, and eternally conflicted souls.” Sounds like Dante morphed by the writers of a Mazda commercial. Zoom-zoom.
No, what occurred to me is that the postscript sheds light on all that was foregoing in the book. While the preceding pages have a whiff of hagiography about them, especially as regards Henley, when Eliot pounds out the postscript he reveals that the book as it first appeared was one that was, in effect, compromised. Briefly, the original publisher of the book, Little, Brown, had been purchased by Time-Warner before the book was printed. Don Henley’s lawyer let the publisher of Warner Books know that Henley was unhappy with what he knew about the forthcoming “unauthorized” rendition of the band’s story. It just so happened that in 1997 Henley was, in Eliot’s words, Warner’s “most commercially successful client.”
Henley had apparently claimed that there were numerous mistakes in the manuscript that he’d read. And he wasn’t happy. A meeting was set up. Henley, Eliot relates, said that he’d provide Eliot with a tape of a meeting he’d had enumerating all of the errors “if I [Eliot] were willing to remove the one brief passage from the book he most objected to (not on the grounds that it was wrong, he admitted, but because his eighty-two-year-old mother was still alive and he didn’t want to upset her).” Later in the postscript, Eliot describes the substance of what was in the deleted passage: “arrested in 1980 for being caught with an under-age girl who had overdosed on cocaine and Quaaludes, brought before a judge, and offered probation.” That event is not contained within the main body of the book.
What occurred after that original phone meeting between Eliot and Henley was that the two met: “I wouldn’t say Henley and I became friends, but we did go out for an occasional drink at night after a session [with the sessions including “going over every page of the manuscript”] and talk about everything that wasn’t on the record: women, cars, booze, drugs, and Los Angeles in the seventies.” There was the author, hanging out with an Eagle. No, they probably didn’t become friends. But imagine how Eliot must have felt, having his words assessed by his subject. “I eventually finished the rewrite,” Eliot relates.
Think on that for a moment.
The man had written a book about a subject. The subject finds out that there are some unflattering and erroneous things said. The book had been written without the cooperation of the subject. So the opportunity for error most certainly exists, especially as some of the people who were sources undoubtedly had memories that were potentially affected by frequent recreational drug use. So page by page, author and subject go over the manuscript, then retire to bars where there are, for example, “a young, buxom blond bartender in tight, short cut-offs.” Eliot became smitten. And not necessarily with the bartender.
What transpired, however, is that after the adjusted book was published, Henley was still unhappy, and so he went out trying to convince bookstores and record stores that they really didn’t want to be aggressively shilling To the Limit. As Eliot describes this campaign, it does sound a bit like using a weapon of mass destruction to crush an invertebrate. Imagine: a bona fide rock star of a huge magnitude telephoning the manager of a bookstore asking him to cancel a scheduled book signing. Eliot, as one can well imagine, undoubtedly felt betrayed by his almost-buddy. To say nothing of the fact that his income, predicated in part by the number of books being sold, was undoubtedly negatively affected by Henley’s actions.
But if it wasn’t for the additional pages added by Eliot in this new version of the book, there would be no way of knowing of Henley’s ostensible influence on the book as originally published.
Which in some ways is in keeping with a motive ascribed to the band that sold record number of discs. Describing the genesis of the band, Eliot writes:
It was naturally assumed by everyone that Frey was the new group’s leader. After all, he’d been the one who’d approached Henley about forming their own band, and the one who had convinced the others. The most important thing, he kept insisting, was not to make the same mistakes as groups like Poco—letting individual egos get in the way of the groups primary goal. The idea was for them to make great music together, as a unit, and lots of money doing it.
Henley agreed. ‘Money,’ he said, ‘was a much saner goal than adoration. They’ll both drive you crazy, but if I’m gonna blow my brains out for five years, I want something to show for it.’
And near the conclusion of the book, he writes:
The band offered no apologies for the money it made. ‘If you’re going to be in the business,’ according to one Eagle, ‘if you’re going to play with the big boys, then you have to learn the game. If we were money conscious, we still made a hell of a lot more money for the record company than for ourselves.’
The money consciousness is pervasive on all sides.
A few years ago, there was a print ad for a furrier. Blackgama. The campaign had the headline: “What becomes a legend most?” And then there would be a picture of a famous actress wearing a Blackgama mink. A variant of the ad as applied to the Eagles would answer “What becomes a legend most?”—for certainly the band did achieve that sort of stature—with a single word: “Absence.” The band’s returns and repackagings boosted their bottom lines but probably had a deleterious effect on the way that they will ultimately be perceived. The stuff of enduring legends isn’t made of imitations of things past.