LOS ANGELES -- The long run of the Eagles began with a sad, funny little gig at the Westlake School for Girls and nights spent in the dingy confines of the Troubadour, where their crystalline harmony -- at least on stage -- would define the "Southern California sound."
Now, in fact, it's hard to think of Los Angeles without thinking of the music of the Eagles, and it's impossible to consider the band without Los Angeles as a frame.
The L.A. story of the Eagles is on the first page of the final chapter. The band has a new album in stores for the first time in 28 years, and the members seem to know their own swan song when they hear it.
"It was painful birth," lead guitarist Joe Walsh said of the struggle to finish "Long Road Out of Eden," which ended up as a double album. "I can't think we have another one in us. I really can't."
The first Eagles album since the Carter administration had a first-week total that looked to be about 700,000 copies, according to the band's manager, Irving Azoff . That makes "Eden" one of the fastest-selling CDs of the year, even though it was not released by anything resembling a traditional record label.
"I'm not even sure what the recording industry is anymore," said Don Henley, who with Glenn Frey is the most familiar voice in the Eagles. To add to the sense of strangeness, the band finds its new music getting its most significant radio airplay at country stations. Embracing that, the Eagles recently performed on the Country Music Association Awards on ABC , which, shockingly, marked the first time the band had appeared on an awards broadcast.
"Eden" is an epic album (many critics, in fact, say it's too long, although the reviews largely have been positive) and all four members -- Henley, Frey, Walsh and bassist Timothy B. Schmit -- get a turn in the spotlight. It's almost like they are taking their bows. The 20th and final song on "Eden" is a farewell tune, "Your World Now."
"It's a sort of a passing-of-the-torch song, it's an adios song," Henley said. "It works on that level for our children and also on the band level."
The Eagles recently were back at the Troubadour to sit down for an interview with "60 Minutes." Frey found the experience heartwarming -- and somewhat claustrophobic.
"It was like walking up to a house you used to live in and knocking on the door -- 'Do you mind if I came in and looked aroundfi' " Frey said. "The place seemed so big to me once, and they are really so small. I don't know what made the Troubadour feel like a giant place. Maybe it's because, for us, it was an open road."
Frey had come west from Detroit and was living in a shabby apartment upstairs from a young songwriter named Jackson Browne. Frey would hitchhike to West Hollywood to soak in the pulsing scene at the Troubadour even though he was so broke he sometimes nursed one beer all night.
Another young singer on the scene was Henley, fresh from Texas. Henley and Frey became roommates and part of Linda Ronstadt's band, along with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. The four then went their own way, called themselves the Eagles and signed to a start-up label called Elektra Records. The label was run by a young manager named David Geffen.
They didn't have to wait long for fame. Their first album, " Eagles," yielded three hit singles: "Take It Easy," "Witchy Woman " and "Peaceful Easy Feeling."
"We came up," Henley said, "at a 45-degree angle."
Their second album was the 1973 Old West concept album "Desperado." "We didn't have any hits on the second album," Henley said. "We made sure of that. We were afraid of commercialism. It was a bad thing."
The years would disabuse the band of that notion.
The next three albums -- "On the Border," "One of These Nights" and "Hotel California" -- moved away from country twang and toward a dusty, Western sort of rock with more guitar sinew. A lot of that came from the addition of guitarist Don Felder in 1974 and then Walsh in 1976 . These changes were not made gently. Leadon, frustrated with the rock direction, announced his resignation by pouring a beer over Frey's head. Bass player Meisner, sick of the chaos, left in 1977. The Eagles recruited Schmit, who was stunned by the backstage strife.
"I thought at first it was just the normal tensions, you know, but these were really intense," Schmit said. "And then came that night in Long Beach."
The "Long Night in Wrong Beach," July 31, 1980, found the Eagles muttering dark threats to each other between choruses. After the show, there was a brawl backstage. Schmit watched it all in shock. "I remember after weeks it sank in: This really was the end of it all."
The band members went their separate ways, but they came back together for the kids. The fan appetite and the big money it represented led to a 1994 reunion with a delicious name: the Hell Freezes Over Tour. The group was Henley, Frey, Walsh, Felder and Schmit, and they broke records. A concert album (along with a few new studio tracks) sold 8.5 million copies, and in 1998 the Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The band circled the world twice on tour, but there wasn't a lot of warmth backstage. The five members played together for the last time on New Year's Eve 1999 in Los Angeles.
A few weeks later, the band fired Felder, and lawsuits followed. Felder claimed Henley and Frey wanted to hoard the band's money. The two founding members countered that band chemistry would improve without Felder. (There was a settlement, but legal subplots remain.)
The Felder affair reinforced the nagging image of the band as a sour, mercenary collective. One way to measure the ubiquity of the Eagles is to gauge the bile they inspire. Punk rock was, to many observers, a direct response to the Eagles , and hating the Eagles even made it to theaters as a recurring gag in "The Big Lebowski." The new deal with Wal-Mart brought hectoring. Henley said the impetus for the deal was the environmental initiatives by the world's largest private employer, but Frey said it was simple math: "If this is our last album, I wanted to sell as many copies as possible."
The band members stopped listening to their detractors years ago, but even they said they were ready to retire the franchise at the start of this decade.
"The old songs are part of the cultural lexicon and they have been good to us, but at some point singing them over and over just isn't any fun," Henley said.
In summer 2001, the band was in Europe on tour when a funny thing happened. With Felder out of the picture, the band found it was acting like, well, a band again.
"We didn't just play, we started hanging out again," Frey said. "It was a pleasure to go to sound check. There was a lot of fun and lot of laughs on the charter flights from country to country. "
Steuart Smith, Felder's replacement, became "a catalyst, a source of rejuvenation for us," Henley said. The band decided to go into the studio and chose a fateful date: Sept. 11, 2001. World events seeped through the studio walls. One of the first pieces of music they worked on was an extended jam that coiled with ominous power.
"I remember thinking: We're never going to write the lyrics to this thing, it's just too long and too scary," Frey said. But Henley, who had written the epic Eagles song "The Last Resort," responded with another "magnum opus," as Frey called it.
That forlorn rumination on the Middle East and geopolitics became the title track of the new album, even though much of the CD is relationship songs and honeyed harmonies. In fact, the album covers just about every Eagles musical territory.
"We were done with the album a few times," Walsh said, "but it wasn't done with us."
Maybe so, but the famously dour Henley frets that the album should have been leaner. "I think there are only a couple of superfluous things on there." To elaborate, he said, "would break the band up. Again."
The most likely thing to break up the Eagles is time, distance (Henley lives in Dallas, the others in different parts of California) and the tug of family.
Last summer, when Henley was the first Eagle to turn 60, he celebrated by surfing in Malibu with his 9-year-old son and pal Jimmy Buffett. Smiling as he recounted the experience, Henley seemed just as interested in being a beach boy as carrying on as an Eagle.
"This is the final statement . We got back together and went around the world twice on tour, but then there was nothing left to do without new music. Now we have this album that fits in with our body of work. There won't be another Eagles album after this. That's what I think today."