When Don Henley Waged War on the Media With ‘Dirty Laundry’
Following the bitter demise of the Eagles, Don Henley proved he hadn't lost his knack for a pop hook — or one ounce of cantankerousness — with his scathing Top 5 hit "Dirty Laundry."
The singer and drummer was apprehensive about being thrust into the spotlight as he embarked on a solo career, and he knew he couldn't do it alone. Henley teamed up with session guitarist and former James Taylor collaborator Danny Kortchmar to begin writing material for his debut solo album, I Can't Stand Still.
Henley, by his admission, was not in the healthiest frame of mind following the dissolution of his world-conquering band. "For a while, I was pacing a lot in the house and I was drinking a lot," he told GQ in 1991. "That was a really rough time for me."
It would get even rougher on Nov. 21, 1980, when Henley called the Los Angeles Fire Department to help a guest at his house who appeared to be having a seizure. When they arrived, they discovered the guest was a 16-year-old prostitute who was suffering from the aftereffects of cocaine and Quaaludes. Police arrested Henley later that day for drug possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. (He was ultimately fined and given two years' probation.)
Henley told GQ that the firemen "just flat-out lied to me. They said, 'Well, by law, we're supposed to take this little girl to the hospital, but if you'll take care of her, we'll leave her here. We're not here to get anyone busted.' She was fine by the time they got there. I had no idea how old she was. I had no idea that she was doing that many drugs; I didn't have sex with her, you understand.
"Yes, she was a hooker; yes, I called a madam; yes, there were roadies and guys in my house — we were having a farewell to the Eagles," he continued. "I got all of them out of the house; I took complete blame for everything. I was stupid; I could have flushed everything down the toilet. I didn't want this girl dying in my house; I wanted to get her medical attention. I did what I thought was best, and I paid the price."
The bust caused a media frenzy, and Henley channeled his contempt for the press into "Dirty Laundry," a damning takedown of the sensationalist reporters featuring zingers like "It's interesting when people die," "We all know that crap is king" and a maddeningly catchy, singsong chorus: "Kick 'em when they're up / Kick 'em when they're down / Kick 'em when they're stiff / Kick 'em all around." At least a few networks could appreciate the fine songcraft on display: Toronto's Global News made a parody video for "Dirty Laundry" in 1985 starring the News Brothers.
Watch Global News' Parody Video for Don Henley's 'Dirty Laundry'
It wasn't just his headline-making antics that frustrated Henley. "I'm a news junkie. I watch the news a lot - local news, national news," he explained in a TV interview years later. "And I got tired of seeing these talking heads up there stripping people of their dignity. I got tired of the sensationalism of the death of certain celebrities. You know, John Belushi, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis. I just got sick of reporters running up to some grieving Mexican woman down in the barrio whose child had just gotten shot in a gang fight and saying, 'How do you feel about that?' If that isn't the most absurd question you could ask … . So I decided to write a song about it."
Henley recruited an all-star cast of musicians to record "Dirty Laundry," including former Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit and guitarist Joe Walsh and Toto's Steve Lukather and Steve and Jeff Porcaro. Walsh and Lukather both laid down scorching guitar solos, keeping the song firmly rooted in the rock realm as its dance-ready drum beat and peppy keyboards brought it into the world of slick, contemporary pop.
"It was a great honor for me to play on the same track as Joe Walsh, one of my heroes and a friend – but at the time it was mind-boggling," Lukather told Ultimate Classic Rock Nights. "Here I am hanging with Henley and all these great cats. The music, and that voice, come on." The guitarist also recalled the session being much smoother than he anticipated, despite Henley's perfectionistic tendencies. "Don ... wanted to take more time, but ironically the solo I'd done on 'Dirty Laundry' is my first take – which is unheard of in Don's world," he said. "He goes, 'Done!' and I went, 'Really?' I expected it to be painful!"
Henley released "Dirty Laundry" as the second single off I Can't Stand Still on Oct. 12, 1982. It peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming his highest-charting solo hit, and it helped propel the album to gold status. "I sold 650,000 copies or something, which is respectable, I guess, for a first album," Henley told Analog Planet. "I had a gold album and a gold single. ... I was moderately satisfied."
He would be much more satisfied with the release of his 1984 sophomore album, Building the Perfect Beast, which went triple platinum and spawned the massive hits "The Boys of Summer" and "All She Wants to Do Is Dance." Both songs are indelible slices of adult-contemporary pop, highlights of both Henley's career and '80s pop-rock at large. Still, none of his future mega-hits ever cut to the bone quite like "Dirty Laundry."