"The Boys of Summer" by DON HENLEY
Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" is a song for what summer leaves behind. The song itself is one Tom Petty left behind.
Those days are gone forever. I should just let them go but…
Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell and Tom Petty were in the studio mixing “Don’t Come Around Here No More” when they decided to honor the tradition of listening to the mix in the car. It’s one thing to listen to a song on very precise studio monitors; it’s another to hear it as your audience will. Campbell switched on the car radio, and before he could push in the cassette, the moody synths, clattering drum machine, and shimmering guitar of “Boys Of Summer” poured out of the car speakers. Campbell quickly changed the channel, only for the next station, too, to be playing the Don Henley hit. The song could have been Petty’s.
Campbell brought the song to Petty as an unnamed demo, which he had done since his rough demos of “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl” led to hits. Producer Jimmy Iovine was also there that day, and he and Petty appeared to be more or less grooving to the song until it got to the minor chord that ended the chorus. Iovine said, “eh it sounds like jazz,” which seemed to sum up their indifference to the tune. Iovine did call Campbell later, however, and as a favor to Henley, asked that he go play the demo for the Eagles drummer, who was looking for songs for a new solo record.
“The Boys Of Summer” went to #5 on the Pop charts and topped the Rock charts as the lead track for Henley’s 1984 Building The Perfect Beast album, which went 3X Platinum. The song would also win Henley a Grammy for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance. This version of the song has one key change from the one Petty heard: Before playing it for Henley, Campbell took Iovine’s feedback and changed the chorus so that it ended with an uplifting major chord. If that or anything moved Henley, he couldn’t tell, because, as Campbell recalls, Henley just sat at the other end of a big table “like a judge”1 listening in silence with his eyes closed. He left having no idea if Henley liked the song or not. When he got home, he got a call from Henley, who said “I just wrote the best song of my life to your music.”
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
Though I know you're not home
Henley wasn’t just blowing smoke. His lyrics for Campbell’s song evoke the lost promise of summer. “The Boys Of Summer”2 is a long way away from the cliche of unalloyed fun in the sun. Henley’s summer is one of long shadows, a metaphor for lost youth, lost relationships, and the loss of a generation’s ideals — and it still feels more personal than didactic. In just three verses and an increasingly affecting chorus, he makes us feel two essential truths about summer: it’s never what we think it should’ve been, and that it ends.
The story goes that Henley wrote the song listening to Campbell’s demo while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, and the lyrics’ pastiche of observation and nostalgia certainly feels how new stimuli spark reveries behind the wheel. It’s also the source of one of the song’s most memorable lines. Henley told NME in an 1985 interview:
“I was driving down the San Diego freeway and just got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville3, the status symbol of the Right-wing upper-middle class… and there was this Grateful Dead ‘Deadhead’ bumper sticker on it!’
Henley also made a key change to Campbell’s song, in that he raised the key to better suit his vocal. This forced Campbell to relearn the song in order to redo it. In the course of teaching himself to play a part that had just come to him in a flash of inspiration, Campbell thought to add something else on the end, which is when he came up with the guitar hook that ends the song. It’s a simple piece that spirals a bit, but it’s catchy, and it cements that feeling that the song — and metaphorically, more— is coming to an end because something new is here to guide us out.
“Boy, you were really lucky with that,” Tom Petty told Mike Campbell that day when Don Henley’s “The Boys Of Summer” was unavoidable on the car radio. The two had been in bands together for 15 years and had written hits that made Petty a rockstar, and there they were sitting side by side hearing Campbell’s song made into the kind of hit that would pay his mortgage. It was a moment that could have frayed their relationship, but instead deepened it4, as Petty said with honest humility, “I wish I would have had the presence of mind to not let that one get away.”
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Mike Campbell Interview
Much of the story of “The Boys Of Summer” comes from the 10/27/20 episode of Brian Koppelman’s podcast, The Moment. I couldn’t get the individual Mike Campbell episode to embed, so here’s the show page. You can find the Mike Campbell episode here, and I do suggest giving it a listen. Campbell is a great interview and has an inspiring perspective on his life and career.
11 Song Playlist
Songs Mike Campbell wrote, including two big hits for Don Henley and a few great ones with Tom Petty and more. Yes, I did put “You Got Lucky” directly after “The Boys Of Summer.”
Thanks to the recent subscribers to The Best Song Ever (This Week). Welcome. I hope you like it here. And a special thanks to Lauren for reaching out after reading the “Flections” piece. She’s right that the song served as the theme for the TV show China Beach, which I should have included at least in the footnotes. But she’s usually right, and I don’t just say that because no one has done more to make me a writer than she has.
This quote and the real story of how the song got to Henley come from Campbell’s interview on the podcast The Moment with Brian Koppelman. You can hear it here.
The name comes from Roger Kahn’s classic book about the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers and what became of the players after their 1950s heyday. Then again, Kahn got it from Dylan Thomas, and Henley is a well-read guy.
Respect to Henley knowing the MSRP of an ‘84 Cadillac Seville. Its role in the song as a symbol of how boomers sold out aside, the Bustleback Seville also one of the more controversial designs in Cadillac’s history. In a move toward fuel economy, designers kept a traditional Caddy front end but lopped off the trunk so that the front-wheel drive car was a mere 17 feet long.
It was “a ‘brother’ moment,” as Campbell put it.