#389: Don Henley, "The End of the Innocence" (1989)

I’ve come to my parents’ house to write about Don Henley.

It’s not the house that I grew up in, even though the address is the same. They’ve recently purchased a new sofa and redone the carpet in the TV room, which was once a porch, then my parents’ room, then my room, then my brother’s room. The pictures on the wall are different, the little ceramic things that decorate various shelves have rotated through the years. Their record collection, though never very large, is now whittled down to a few college recordings that live next to the photo albums. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the First Edition, Simon & Garfunkel, Harvestall the records that once made me realize my parents were young, before meall gone. It’s their house now, though I’m still trying to find what I once knew here, something to cling to.

After a purge a few years ago, none of my things are here any longer either. I came to pick up a tub of mementoes, and proceeded to shove the tub whole hog into a closet in our new house, 40 minutes down the road, to be pored over in whatever free time I could muster. In it, I know, are multiple giant rolled-up posters from my walls, notebooks from various classes I took with scribbled doodles in the margins, band names gracing various surfaces. There are postcards from a trip to Europe, grandparents’ birthday cards from when I turned 10 (a nice round number), and a duck purse given to me in college by a famous DJ. The kinds of things that live in tubs in closets.

How do we decide what belongs to us as adults and what must forever reside in the closet tubs that are our youth? I’m constantly trying to contextualize music with memory. There’s no other way around it. I hear songs today that used to turn up at school dances of yore, when we curled and sprayed our bangs and wore puff-paint shirts and Guess? Jeans and lined the walls of a community center room, the lights dimmed, the DJ playing the hits, waiting to get up the nerve to ask Todd to dance even though you know he’ll probably say no.

I did get to dance with Todd once. It was an awkward song for dancingsomething a little bit fast, something like “The End of the Innocence.” It probably was “The End of the Innocence.” Difficult to slow dance to, but we had no choice: Todd said yes. Out of obligation and politeness, but yes. I was short, but he was short too, so I was able to reach my hands up just enough to link around his neck. I remember that his hands barely touched my waist as if he was merely holding his hands out to show the size of a fish he’d caught, and I happened to be there in between them. Instead of moving side to side as most people did at middle school dances, Todd’s legs simply bent at the kneeleft, then right, then leftwithout his feet ever leaving the ground.

It was magical.

What did that song mean to someone who was an adult back then? Was she out late, driving her truck home from her boyfriend’s house, window cracked to let out the smoke from a cigarette, while I was awkwardly slow-dancing in a community center with Todd? Was she ecstatic, or sad? What did those words mean to her?

I’ve come back to Ohio as an adult. I’ve tried to contextualize everything around me differently. It’s where I grew up, where my childhood memories took place, but I have to form new relationships with everything as an adult, with roads and restaurants and landmarks. Trying to find that space between my memory of something and my current experience of it.

I live here and watch my parents get older, watch them purge their things, the things that were my youth. I meet and befriend women who are younger than my mother, but older than me, and realize they could be that woman in the truck that I imagined. They were the ones those Don Henley songs were written for; they have a love of Don Henley from being there, not from remembering him in a nostalgic haze. But with this nostalgia comes a different love, the love of a romantic distance, of an imagined woman driving a truck late at night listening to these songs.

What does Don Henley mean to me? Back then he was an older guy in a suit who made songs that were just too fast to slow-dance normally to. I’d never heard of the Eagles; they weren’t a part of my parents’ record collection. To me he existed in the late 80s just as he was, hair long, as if held in aspic. It’s the same way we first heard David Bowie and Mick Jagger: two older dudes dancing in the streets in suits. They were all wearing suits and singing bluesy pounding power ballads over synths. We had no other context in which to understand them. We weren’t there for Ziggy Stardust. We weren’t there for “Satisfaction.” (To us, that was the Justine Bateman/Julia Roberts movie.) We weren’t even there for Hotel California.

Of course, after the suits came off in the 90s and we stumbled our way through adolescence and into high school, we came to Scary Monsters and Sticky Fingers, and then, probably more recently, like reaching full adulthood, we finally arrived at the Eagles. We’re all listening to it, eating up old concert footage on YouTube, dipping our toes in a lake of 70s nostalgia as if it can bring us back to a time when our parents were young, even as we watch them age. Listening to the Eagles is like looking at that photograph of your mom in an old photo album with a beer bottle in her hand, hair tied back in a scarf, tan, glowing, before you. Or your dad without a gray hair, loose-limbed, goofing off on a beach, before you. My generation and the generations that followed now call this music “Dad Rock,” it’s become associated so extricably with our parents, or with being a parent. But we have no memories of being there ourselves. Everything we know about Don Henley and David Bowie and Mick Jagger is in the context of hindsight. We know their full stories: their arcs. We came to them when they were already established, acclaimed. But the late 80s stuff: that was always part of us. Like The End of the Innocence.

I love this album now. I love that it’s nostalgic for me, even though I only experienced it liminally. I love how the lyrics of the title track describe something intangible in the past…

Remember when days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by

…how the soprano saxophone sounds like another time. How Henley sounds weary, his voice lived in. He sings the blues over broad new-agey synth chords. None of it made any sense to me back thenhow on earth is a thirteen-year-old supposed to understand “all these trumped up towers, they’re just golden showers” or relate to “there are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they let you down and hurt your pride”?but now it’s everything. At its heart, The End of the Innocence is an album about America’s false love affair with capitalism, which I understand much better now, but to me it’s also become an album about growing older. Because of the context in which I knew it then, because so much of the past is embedded in it, and yet because its lyrics require me to be older to understand them. It exists in a world between then and now, and is everything that I am: a combination of then and now and all the times in between. (And so goes a certain bridge: Time, time, tickin’, tickin’, tickin’ away…)

I can own it now, understand it. Life makes everything clearer the more we live it. We may offer up our best defenses, but we’re adults now. We’re getting older. Our parents are getting older. We own the past romantically, remotely, but it’s still a part of us, even when relegated to closet tubs. And, at the heart of the matter, that’s a good thing.

—Zan McQuade