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Music

Revisiting Don Henley's remarkable speech about The Byrds

Don Henley is a revered figure in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, and his work with The Eagles and as a solo artist are some of the most well-known out there. Be it ‘Desperado’, ‘Hotel California’ or even ‘The Boys of Summer’, Henley possesses a penchant for writing a classic song, and without his input, The Eagles may not have gone on to enjoy such massive success in the 1970s and beyond.

Growing up in Texas and playing in a few local Dixieland bands, it would be a concert Henley witnessed in his local area in 1965 that galvanised him, changing the direction of his life forevermore. The band was The Byrds, and after witnessing a short but spellbinding show of theirs, Henley would be set on his own path to stardom. 

Henley was lucky enough to deliver the speech and induct his heroes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and it was quite something. Evoking the spirit of the counterculture and the power of the era, his speech is one of the most touching ever given at the awards ceremony. Looking back on the period as a 40-something, the nostalgia he evokes is palpable, and at points, you feel a shiver run down your spine.

He describes a boy who: “Watched very attentively as five lanky young men with very tight pants and bangs that almost covered their eyes ambled out on stage and began to play. The boy sat mesmerised as the chiming strings of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ floated out through the auditorium, and he experienced new and unfamiliar feelings as they sang a song called ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’ about the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas”.

Henley went on to detail: “It was a sound that the boy had never heard before. It was distant, and yet it was familiar, and it struck a chord deep within him. This mysterious, charismatic band sounded British, they sounded American, they sounded like folk, they sounded like rock, there were jazz and country influences and even classical influences. They sounded pretty, and they sounded ominous. They sounded hard and yet they sounded soft and gentle sometimes. And woven throughout all this was a mystical quality that made the boy dream of faraway places and different kinds of people and a different kind of life.”

The Eagles man then recalled that the show was cut short after only three or four songs, as the stage was mobbed by the scourge of the day, ‘teeny-boppers’. However, the boy’s life had been changed forever. He wore out two copies of Mr. Tambourine Man that year. He’d play his cheerleader girlfriend the album track ‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’ only to be stared at blankly like he’d lost his mind. However, he was trying to tell her a message. 

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Henley admitted: “And the boy, if you didn’t notice by now, was me, and the group was The Byrds. The year was 1965, and the course of American rock ‘n’ roll had been changed, had been altered, forever. The Beatles had invaded America, a man named Bob Dylan was writing music that was much more challenging and thought-provoking than popular songs had ever been up to that time. There was now in the music something for the head as well as for the heart, and The Byrds were at the very centre of this new movement. The Beatles had influenced them, and they, in turn, had fascinated The Beatles, and Dylan had inspired both groups”.

Then, Henley really captured the hearts of the audience. He described the heady spirit of the day, and conjured up images of San Francisco, Martin Luther King and ‘The Summer of Love’. He opined: “We perhaps take it for granted now, but it was a wonderful, magical time. Music was playing, hair was growing. There were throngs of people in the streets, and the counterculture, which was the offspring of The Beat Generation, was being born, and the ethereal, mystical sound of The Byrds washed over them, washed over an entire nation and on to Britain and other parts of Europe. It was a wake-up call for a new generation and a new era in rock ‘n’ roll”.

Henley concluded by honouring The Byrds and discussing their pioneering impact on folk-rock and country-rock, and how he felt that in 1991, given what was happening in music and in global politics, the hopeful magic of The Byrds was missing from the airwaves. 

Don Henley’s speech will make you dizzy, a stellar tribute to his heroes. A remarkable speech showing great knowledge, it is the perfect take on the legacy of The Byrds. It needs watching, as I don’t think the wider musical community is aware of just how significant the legacy of The Byrds is. 

Watch Henley’s speech below.