Henley was one of the driving forces behind the Eagles, but don’t hold that against him. In his solo career he did a couple of really nice songs, like this one, co-written with Bruce Hornsby, whose distinctive piano work supports the studio recording.
This is one of those “maybe you have to be of a certain age” sort of songs, a world-weary lament about the Reagan years in the 1980s, when Ronnie was both incredibly popular, and thoroughly terrifying to the great many who felt sure that his hawkish anti-Soviet rhetoric and vast military spending were going to push us into nuclear war. While viewed nostalgically these days, those were troubled times, as times most always are. The Cold War was at its hottest since the Cuban Missile Crisis; some previously obscure jarhead named Ollie North was selling weapons to embargoed Iran in a complex and thoroughly illegal scheme sponsored from within the White House to secretly fund anti-communist insurgents in Nicaragua, while buying back hostages held in Lebanon (worse by far than Watergate, I always thought, but even then we were already too jaded to care); the AIDS virus made its appearance, and tore through an oppressed and still widely reviled gay community in that terrible stretch before effective treatments emerged, when infection was tantamount to a death sentence; the “me generation” was making everything about money, greed, unbridled capitalism, and de-regulation, with disastrous effects that we still feel today; and we saw the first real instances of large scale fraud in financial institutions (look up the “Keating Five”). The prevailing ethos embraced cynicism, disillusionment, hedonism, and a slippery gaming of the system, often with the attitude that yeah, O.K., maybe we cut a few corners, but you know, we have lawyers for that.
Looking back it’s rather sad, almost quaint really, that we thought that was the worst things could get.
This song fits into a long tradition of yearning for a bygone America of decent folk living honest lives in small towns, a simpler time of working the land and honouring your parents, which of course never actually existed, it’s just that we need to believe in a golden era of yesteryear, if only so we can hope to one day recreate it. End of the Innocence stands as a bracing and perhaps unwelcome reminder that it isn’t true, because it’s never true, and what we remember now as a carefree decade of exuberant revelry was in fact an era when corruption was rife, and war clouds were gathering. We weren’t really happy. We were scared. I’d bet that anyone who was there watching the Reagan era build-up of nuclear weapons, even those who, like me, were fully steeped in the grim logic of deterrence theory, knew that sad, tired feeling of wondering if it would ever stop short of killing us all, and why it ever had to start in the first place. I was a hardened cold-warrior, at heart, but this really struck a chord:
How beautiful for spacious skies
but now those skies are threatening
we’re beating ploughshares into swords
for that tired old man who we elected king
But Reagan’s a demigod now, even to those who’ve warped his beloved Republican Party into something he would have found repugnant. After all, while mediocre and misguided in lots of ways, Ronnie can seem like Jefferson when viewed from atop the wreckage of this devastated post-Trump vantage point. Most of us would take the Gipper any day over the appalling frauds, charlatans, bigots, and idiots who now vie to lead an America that never was innocent, not really, but once had more to offer the world than the present spectacle of depravity, cruelty, and outright racist extremism. To that extent, I suppose there really was a better time, better than this one anyway, a thought that takes us about as close to romantic nostalgia as the unvarnished truth will allow.