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Nine years after his Eagles chose separate flight paths, Don Henley finally has found acceptance.

``Painters and novelists are supposed to get better with age, and I think I'm still getting better,' Henley, 42, told the Denver Post in September. ``I'm looking forward to doing my best work in my 40s. I'm getting more concise in what I want to say, making it clear so that others can understand. I'm starting to look back and see that I have a nice legacy of tunes, but I'm not done by a long shot. I want to keep writing songs for a long time.'In 1990, few rock critics would argue with Henley's assessment. It wasn't always that way, though.

Once the drummer and a key singer and songwriter for one of the most popular - if critically reviled - bands of the 1970s, Henley established himself in the '80s as a tremendously popular solo artist hailed by fans and critics alike as an elder statesman of rock 'n' roll.

Like the legendary Phoenix, this ex-Eagle rose from the ashes of a band viewed, in the words of MTV's Kurt Loder, ``as sexists and millionaire misanthropes' to gain praise as one of the most sensitive, insightful surveyors of contemporary America.

``Somehow, through all the high old times, he managed to keep his brain intact,' Loder said as he introduced an MTV ``rockumentary' on Henley earlier this month. ``He has become one of America's most literate rock stars.'

Of course, a rock star as elder statesman isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Reviewing a Henley concert last fall, San Francisco Examiner critic Barry Walters described the singer as stuffy and boring.

``Henley resembled an 18th-century president, and had the stage presence to match,' Walters wrote. ``His first few songs were sandwiched between lengthy speeches against Reagan, Bush, Exxon and Woodstock nostalgia.'

But then Henley readily admits he's never been comfortable as a front man, insisting he preferred hiding behind the Eagles' drum kit. Now the Eagles are talking about getting back together, a move sure to delight fans and confound critics.

The Eagles grafted hard-rock guitars atop a softer country-rock backbeat in the early '70s, mixing rockers and ballads to create a more commercial version of the sound pioneered in the late '60s by other Southern California groups like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Lyrically, the group moved from Western themes to the hedonistic L.A. lifestyle at the height of the Me Decade.

The group disbanded in 1981 amid a crush of personality conflicts.

Suddenly, Henley was on his own.

``I hadn't ever thought about what I was gonna do,' he told MTV. ``I like being in bands. I was totally unprepared to be a solo artist.'

But Henley found success mining a variety of musical styles and tapping a social consciousness that was largely absent from the Eagles' work.

His impeccable reputation as a solo artist is based on the strength of only three solo albums released since 1982: ``I Can't Stand Still,' ``Building the Perfect Beast' in 1984 and last year's ``The End of the Innocence.'

Each has spawned at least one Top 10 single, including ``Dirty Laundry' and ``The Boys of Summer,' and each has been met with almost universal critical acclaim.

``This album is so good it's ridiculous,' Greil Marcus wrote of ``The End of the Innocence' in the Village Voice in August. Twice Henley's distinctive, soulful rasp has earned him a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

Henley's solo career has been a stretch into more diverse musical territory than the Eagles' country-rock, from the New Wave feel of ``Johnny Can't Read' in 1982 to the jazzy overtones of ``New York Minute' from his most recent record.

Lyrically, the themes found on ``The End of the Innocence' touch on everything from the Iran-Contra affair (the title track) and sleazy televangelists (``Little Tin God') to forgiveness and acceptance of loss at the end of a romantic relationship (``The Heart of the Matter').

``It took me 41 years to write that song, to get to the place where I could say that,' Henley told Musician magazine in October. ``My songs do grow out of personal experience, by and large.'

One experience Henley discussed on the MTV special was reading Henry David Thoreau's ``Walden' 25 years ago, which helped prompt his participation in a Massachusetts benefit concert April 24 and 25 to save Walden Woods.

That show brought the first part of what has been rumored to be a full-scale Eagles reunion when Henley, songwriting partner and Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, and bass player and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit took the stage together for the first time in years.

An article in the July issue of Musician says the Eagles will record a few new songs for a compact-disc reissue of the group's greatest hits. A full-scale album of new material and tour have been rumored.

What does Henley say about all this? Depends on when you ask him.

When the Detroit Free Press asked in August if there would be an Eagles reunion, he said, ``I seriously doubt it. ... You really can't go back and recreate that. Plus, I've really been enjoying my own albums.'

But when asked about an Eagles reunion by MTV earlier this year, he changed his tune completely.

``One good reason to get it back together is so people will stop asking us, 'When are you gonna get it back together?' or if we're gonna get together,' Henley said.

``I get the question every day, every week, every year. And that's nice - it's nice that people are still interested. We must have done something right, you know?'

DON HENLEY DISCOGRAPHY With the Eagles: ``The Eagles' (1972) ``Desperado' (1973) ``On the Border' (1974) ``One of These Nights' (1975) ``Hotel California' (1976) ``Greatest Hits' (1976) ``The Long Run' (1980) ``Eagles Live' (1980) ``Greatest Hits Vol. 2' (1982) Solo: ``I Can't Stand Still' (1982) ``Building the Perfect Beast' (1984) ``The End of the Innocence' BOX: Want to go? Don Henley plays a solo concert with his band at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Charlotte Coliseum. Good seats remain. Tickets, at $19.75 apiece, are available at the coliseum box office or through Ticketron outlets. Call (704) 357-4700 for more information.


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