It starts with a phone call. An “old, true friend” was enlisted to break the news, news he knew deep down anyway, but news which hadn’t yet been broadcast to him. So he hears about it on his chunky, late-’80s Zack Morris phone (probably), which nevertheless doesn’t undercut the fact that his stomach is eating itself, and breathing just became so much harder. Don Henley’s ex-lover has found another.
I’m always a sucker for songs where someone knows they are to blame for the dissolution of their relationship. Someone feeling wronged or cheated by another is too clean cut for any real murkiness; there is the white heat of anger to melt any sadness, thoughts of revenge to fill the empty spaces. “You did this to me” is an effective beta-blocker, but blame makes for a boring song. Being the architect of your own demise, and then seeing with crystal hindsight all the ways you did someone wrong is a much juicier tale. Sadly, it’s way more relatable, too; it’s much easier to forgive someone else than yourself.
The chorus is so stark, a portrait of a man slowly working his way through heartache. It’s all so elementary; a broken man rebuilding himself without a reliable guide. It’s small and simple, and never angry. “But I miss you sometimes” hits all the harder for not being obscured in metaphor. “The things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.” There’s a lot of trying, and learning, but also a complete surrender to things outside his control. He misses her, his will gets weak, his thoughts scatter – she doesn’t love him anymore. He can’t steer any of it. All he can do is try, and learn. It’s beautiful.
The second verse finds Henley doing what so many have done before upon finding themselves boxed out by a younger generation: he laments the way society is going. The ’80s with its crass packaging of music, homogenised production techniques, and the rise of MTV, must have seemed like the antithesis of the warm previous decade, which Henley spent in the leafy hills of Los Angeles when he wasn’t performing for adoring crowds. Even for an Eagle, a band constantly lambasted for their commercial ambitions, the ’80s must have seemed like a cold, confusing time. He equates his own work ethic with the discomfort he sees bubbling around him – aware that it all leads to muddled priorities. “How can love survive in such a graceless age?” he asks. “These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.” Henley, like so many, realises too late that his own competitive drive and work ethic killed something much more vital, landing on some hard truths. “The work I put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”
‘The Heart Of The Matter’ was released in 1989 on Henley’s album ‘The End Of The Innocence’ (which also features ‘New York Minute’, another Henley heart-stopper). The song was revisited by Eagles in 1994 on their spectacular ‘Hell Freezes Over’ live album, which is by far the superior version, stripped of any lingering ‘Boys Of Summer’ production, and infused with those soaring Eagles harmonies. Henley’s vocal is more raw too; the heartache still seems new, which is a testament to how emotive a vocalist he can be. Or maybe five years still wasn’t enough time.
Henley lived in the fast lane, sure, but he didn’t realise he was speeding in the wrong direction. By the time he bothered to look in the rear-view mirror, she was gone.