When did you first know songwriting was your thing?
I started playing in the coffee houses. I was never a very good player or singer, and so I just started writing my own songs. I just wrote a couple songs a year for the first little while. The first or second song I wrote, a guy in the coffee house started performing it, and he was performing it all over town and people were coming up to me and that gave me the idea that maybe I could write songs that other people could perform.
So you started to get some confidence then. As you think about your songwriting through the years, do you tend to write in a similar way as you did back in the coffee house days?
I probably do. I spent so many years in the coffee houses playing to small audiences, it helped me to connect songs with an audience, and read how the song was being accepted moment to moment by the audience. I think a lot of people miss that because they just sit in their room and write songs and record them, and they don't feel that connection. I write more now than I used to, so it's changed a bit, but I think the basic thing to me is, a song starts with an idea for a song. Like, I'm going to write a song about a guy and his dog. I try to write songs where people can understand exactly what I'm talking about.
What was it like meeting Tom Waits and eventually collaborating with him?
The best place in town—the Heritage Coffee House—wouldn't let me play there because I wasn't quite good enough. They finally let me play there, and Tom Waits was the doorman. He didn't even play there, he was just the guy collecting money at the door. He was a pretty cool guy. He was into photography; he would go down to Skid Row and take pictures of the people living there. At some point the club got a piano and after the Heritage would close every night, Tom would sit there and play the piano. And eventually he told me one by one he sold his cameras to pay for piano lessons, and then he wrote these songs, all these songs on his first album – "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You" – all these incredible, wonderful songs, were written there. We started hanging out and we wrote a song, "Tijuana," but mostly I was just enjoying all his work and hanging out with him. And then he went to L.A. and we used to see each other a bit.
You went to L.A. after you finished school in San Diego, and you were a regular at the Troubadour.
Yeah, Monday nights. First I had to line up, then after I played a couple times they said, "You don't have to line up, you can just come back we'll put you on," and then I met Glenn Frey and JD Souther—they were playing for a duo called Longbranch Pennywhistle – and they played the Troubadour and I was the harmonica player. That was a big thrill.
What were those days like? They just seem fun and creative and so perfectly southern California.
It was all of that and more. The Troubadour was the central spirit and the place for folk music, it was the biggest folk music club in the country, so people came from all over. I saw Elton John play there, his first gig in the United States. I saw Gram Parsons when he came back from England after hanging out with the Stones, he played there. I saw Joni Mitchell. It was an extremely exciting time, and we all felt and knew something incredible was happening with the music. I had met Jackson Browne, and he helped me hook up with David Geffen and get my career going, and so did Gram and so did JD. So it was just a wonderful thing.
A real moment in time, culturally and musically.
We all just ride the wave of whatever's happening in our culture. Suddenly there were love-ins and the hippie movement. No one created it, it just sort of happened, and every cultural wave that happens has certain kinds of music that goes with it. If you look back at history, mostly it's never repeated again. The coffee house era was a glorious time, and there were so many great songs going around, and then I noticed in 1972 all the coffee houses in San Diego closed. It was the end of that. And then some of the folk movement became part of the big-time commercial music scene.
Of course you and Glenn sparked a particularly magical friendship. Was that an immediate bond?
Oh yeah. I first saw Glenn and JD play together at a place called the Candy Company in San Diego, a folk place, and I invited them to stay at my house. I had a big hippie pad, and we would jam. So every time they came down to San Diego, which they did pretty frequently, they stayed at the house and we all became really good friends. And when Glenn put the Eagles together he did two of my songs, which was just fantastic, but I didn't start writing songs with him until the Eagles broke up for a while in 1980. So from '80 to '94, 14 years, Glenn and I wrote songs together for all his records. We were just the best of friends, from the day we met until the day he died.
What do you think the magic of your songwriting together was?
We were very good friends for 10 years before we started writing, so that was one element. When you write you have to be very comfortable, and we would blurt out anything and not be afraid the other guy's not going to like it. And if the other guy says he doesn't like the line, and you do—you have to be wiling to throw the line away because it's got to be what's best for the song. So we didn't have any issues with all that. Plus the fact that just my buddy (chuckles), my buddy, I didn't expect it, but he just turned out to be one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Glenn had a broad range of talents. He could arrange, he could sing, he knew how to make records, and he also knew every kind of American music from bluegrass to Philly soul, every type of R&B, every kind of folk music. Glenn knew all about all of it. He also knew what he wanted. He could envision the record in his head, what he wanted it to sound like, and he'd come over and we'd write a whole bunch of titles and try to get some great ideas behind the songs. It was just a fantastic thing for me to have a songwriting partner like that.
What do you think Glenn got out of writing with you?
Well, let's see… I don't have trouble coming up with ideas and letting them stream out, so we were never stuck for anything. I had a constant stream. We would stream out a lot of stuff, and then in the morning, we'd call it "yellow pad work," with a yellow pad and a cup of coffee. You'd have all the stuff you made up, and you'd condense it. I was very good at both of those things, and so was Glenn. And then if you could write a song with two people that works for both people, then you've expanded like a common denominator. Like, maybe if two people can dig it, it's more likely that millions of people can dig it.
That's my kind of math…
If you just write something for yourself, you might really like it, but if you have to expand it to two people, they both have to like it. So we always had someone there to say, "Wait, what does that line mean?" and then, "Oh yeah, I guess you could take that a different way." We both wrote the words and the music. It wasn't a partnership where one of us wrote the words and the other one wrote the music. We both did both. It was really just a completely magical thing.
A few years ago you released tour songbook Peaceful Easy Feeling, which very much was a tribute to your time with Glenn. Can you share the story behind writing "Peaceful Easy Feeling"?
I had a gig in El Centro, California, where I'd never been, and there was a folk music place called the Aquarius. I was single, I'd made it big with the waitress, she was gonna take me to her place, so I told the guys I didn't need a ride to the place we were staying, I was gonna be fine. But then she left and she never came back. So I'm in a strange town and I ended up sleeping on the floor of this coffee house and that's when I started writing "Peaceful Easy Feeling." I had been let down. My friend was really into Zen and he was always talking about the magic of when you let go. A lot of times that's when you find it, because you were looking so hard you were getting in your own way. That's kind of the thought behind "Peaceful Easy Feeling." He's going, "Yeah, the girl didn't show up. It may happen or it may not happen, but either way, I'll be fine. It's all OK."
Did you know at the time you wrote the song it would resonate with so many people?
I did not. It was something I wrote for myself and because, I thought, it's not actually a love song, it's just kind of different idea. It didn't occur to me. Some other songs I wrote, I wrote a song called "Slow Dancing" that was eventually a hit for Johnny Rivers. When I finished writing that song, I thought, "Yeah, I really nailed what I wanted to say. It's a love song." And I thought it could be a hit. But "Peaceful Easy Feeling"—I didn't think that. A lot of it is the way Glenn arranged it, the feel of the music. The record that they made just had a magical feel, so that helps a lot.
With "Slow Dancing," you knew you were on to something…
It was a love song I wrote when I met my wife, who I'm still together with now. I recorded it with a band I was in at the time called the Funky Kings. We were signed by Clive Davis and produced by Paul Rothchild, he produced for Janis Joplin. Johnny Rivers heard it and he recorded it and made it a hit. But when I wrote the song, it was a love song and I just felt that I had focused and said what I wanted to say.
It certainly seemed like you knew what you wanted to say with "Already Gone," another hit for the Eagles.
Now "Already Gone," I wanted to write a country song. Robb Strandlund, he was a country singer, he and I were in the back room of the club drinking some cider and within about 20 minutes we wrote that song. I didn't even keep playing it really, although I do have a take. I went a coffee house called The Alley in Escondido, and I had just written the song "Already Gone" and Jackson Browne was playing there, and I didn't really know Jackson very well at all but I just went up to him and said, "Hey man, you've got to play this song with me on stage." He was really nice, I kind of forced him, and we played the song. And then years later it turns out they have a tape of it, so there's me and Jackson playing "Already Gone." And then a few years later Glenn Frey called me from the studio and said, "Hey that country song… I think it's a really a great rock n' roll song." And he held the phone up to the speakers in the studio and there was "Already Gone."
What a moment. Do you still get a kick hearing your songs on the radio?
Absolutely. I was listening to the Margaritaville channel on XM Radio and "Already Gone" came on, and I was just dumbfounded at how incredible the record is. It's got so much energy.
You've written with so many partners through the years. Anyone left who you'd like to write with or for?
I've written with a wide variety of people. You sit down with them, you don't know what's going to happen. All their 20, 30, 40 years of songwriting experience, plus yours, and you come up with an idea together. There are people I'd like to write with—they don't need me, though. Mark Knopfler is one. Bob Dylan doesn't need me to write with him. Rodney Crowell is a great writer. I'd love to write with Willie Nelson. Those guys, so many great pieces of song work that have become part of my life. And then there are the people in the [Songwriters] Hall of Fame induction. I'd love to write with Cat Stevens or John Prine or some of the others. I've never met any of those guys.
And now you have a new deal to release music on Jimmy Buffett's Mailboat Records. How did it come about?
I've been on a great label for a bunch of years, but I contacted Mailboat Records and they said, "Well the way it works here is you give us a couple of songs and we send them to Jimmy and he's the one who decides if you get on the label." And I thought, "Well this isn't going to work. He doesn't know me, and that guy's really busy. It's going to be six months before he listens to my songs." But we sent them three songs and three days later I got an email back and they said Jimmy likes it and he wants to sign you to his label. So it's just incredible.