The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #95: The Boys of Summer by Don Henley (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #95: Boys of Summer by Don Henley.

Don Henley released, “Boys of Summer” in the early 1980s on his debut solo album called, “Building the Perfect Beast”. Just prior to this album coming out, Henley belonged to one of the most successful rock acts of the 1970s, The Eagles. He was their drummer and wrote some of their biggest hits; especially, taking a star turn on the greatest hit of them all, “Hotel California”. All through the 1970s, Henley was immersed in the Southern California music scene. He began as a session player, along with the likes of Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner, performing back up roles for the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and, most notably, for Linda Ronstadt. The California music scene was very vibrant and close-knit, with many collaborations occurring between members of different bands and/or between band members and solo artists. The Eagles had a string of great hits and enjoyed much success all throughout the 1970s. Those were heady times to be a musician like Don Henley. But, after the experience of having a mega-hit like, “Hotel California”, the members of The Eagles found it impossible to follow it up in a manner that allowed them to remain a cohesive unit. Instead, internal conflicts arose; particularly between Glenn Frey and guitarist, Don Felder and, as the 1970s drew to a close, The Eagles decided to break up. Each member of the band set out on solo careers. For Don Henley, his solo career began with an album called, “Building the Perfect Beast” and a song called, “Boys of Summer” which, in a nutshell, is a song about Henley taking stock of his life and the lives of his generation. Here is the story of “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley.

Don Henley was always a good songwriter. What he liked to do best was work with someone who would create a musical score and then, Henley would take that music, go for long car rides along the Pacific Ocean and allow the notes and chords to flow over him and into him until such time as lyrics began to form in his mind. The music for “Boys of Summer” was created by Mike Campbell, who was the guitarist in the band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Campbell shared his musical idea with Petty first but, because it didn’t quite fit, musically-speaking, with the songs they were working on for their own album, “Southern Accents”, Petty turned the song down. Campbell shared the song with Henley next. Henley took Campbells track and went for his famous car ride along the coast and came back with a rough outline of a song that became “Boys of Summer”.

Henley built his lyrics upon a foundation that is the mythology of California; sunshine, summer vibes, beaches, driving with the top down, etc. He used the idea of how summer feels to describe the fondness with which he viewed life and love in the recent past. He lets the listener know, right away, that that feeling of “summer” was changing. His opening lines go, as follows:

Nobody on the road.

Nobody on the beach.

I feel it in the air

The summer’s out of reach.

Empty lake, empty streets,

The sun goes down alone

I’m driving by your house

But I know you’re not home.

What was, is not what is, anymore. When I first listened to this song in the 1980s, I always felt he was singing about The Eagles and was putting a formal nail in the coffin of that relationship he used to enjoy and that treated him so well. But, according to Henley’s own words, the song is more about the changing way life was being lived in California. Like The Doors with “L.A. Woman”, Henley was sensing that things were shifting and that the attitude of living on the west coast was transforming into something that he might not agree with. But, before moving on, Henley stopped to take stock of where his generation stood and what the future might hold for them all as a result. What he sees does not please him. His displeasure and sense of unease manifested itself in one of the best lines from any song in the 80s:

Out on the road today,

I saw a “Deadhead” sticker on a Cadillac.

For anyone who doesn’t get the reference….”Deadheads” were what fans of the band, The Grateful Dead, were known as. In their heyday, The Grateful Dead were one of the most famous counter-culture bands in the world. So, to see a Grateful Dead fan driving a Cadillac meant, to Henley, that his generation had sold-out their ideals and compromised their integrity. But, as the song closes, Henley rallies and declares that he will stand strong:

I can see you

Your brown skin shining in the sun

You got your hair slicked back, wayfarers on, baby

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong

After the boys of summer have gone.”

The phrase, “Boys of Summer” refers to baseball players and, in particular, to a book of the same name by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s book was about the story of how the Brooklyn Dodgers broke many hearts in NYC by leaving town and transforming themselves into the Los Angeles Dodgers. By Henley comparing himself to this sports story, he is declaring that his new career will yield great results, too. I suppose it is always a good thing if you can examine the whole of your life and declare, with confidence, that the future will be bright. That is what “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley is, basically, all about.

So, without further delay, here is Don Henley with his first big solo success, “Boys of Summer”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, can be found here.

The link to the video featuring Don Henley discussing how he wrote, “The Boys of Summer”, as seen on the Howard Stern Show, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Don Henley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.