The Meaning Of Don Henley’s ‘The End Of The Innocence’

On last night’s episode of The Two (myself and Pam Corkery, Newstalk ZB, Sundays 9pm-midnight) we ended the show with Don Henley’s melancholy masterpiece, The End Of The Innocence. The reason being was Henley’s 65th birthday and the fact it has always being my favourite of his solo works, but there’s also something about The End Of The Innocence which I was only reminded of when Pam and I turned our mics off and just listened to the song. For not the first time in my life, the song seemed perfectly appropriate.

Sometimes the stand-out line of a song can be misleading, especially if set to major chords with somber lyrics, or vice-versa, upbeat words to a minor-chord melody. You have couples getting married to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You presumably unaware the song is explicitly about “bittersweet memories,” of loving someone but letting them go, just as you had Ronald Reagan thinking Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA was a fist-pumping ode to all that’s great in the good ol’ US of A.

In the case of Reagan (and probably at least half of Springsteen’s audience) the thunderous chorus obscured the verses’ description of a man who commits a crime, is faced with a choice between jail or Vietnam, chooses ‘Nam and alongside his brother, fights for his country in a war he doesn’t understand; his brother dies, the narrator comes home and his country doesn’t want to know about him and he can’t find work. “Born in the USA?” he thinks to himself, angrily, and with irony lost on a President who thought it might make a good campaign theme song.

The End Of The Innocence is luckily not one of those songs. It sounds reflective, even sad and if you just hear the chorus line and Bruce Hornsby’s (who co-wrote the song) unforgettable piano, you know that this very much is a song about innocence lost. Music fans have been analysing the lyrics ever since it hit the US top 10 back in 1989 with its themes of middle-age disillusionment, divorce and politics. To mention Reagan again, he is referenced in the line “…they’re beating plowshares into swords, for this tired old man we elected king.”

So there are the particulars of the lyrics which flesh things out, but the song’s structure with the repeated  “end of the innocence,” line and the extended instrumental fade-out reinforce that this is a song about mood. And the mood that losing innocence evokes is timeless.

Just days after the mass-shooting at a cinema-screening of the new Batman film in Colorado – an event which moved President Obama to tears and an act of evil which killed 12 people, the eldest of whom was 51, the majority much, much younger – this song seems right for the moment. The rest of us will undoubtedly move on and maybe even forget what happened, but for those folks who survived, originally there excited to partake in something which has been one of life’s pleasures for almost 100 years – a trip to the movies – it may forever be the end of their innocence.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. So Simple says:

    Thanks for posting this Tim. Loved Bruce's piano. So distinctive. A sad day yet again for America

  2. Thanks so much for writing. This really is one of my all-time favourite songs, even if it is a piece of music I find genuinely sad. All the best.

  3. Bobby DiCapua says:

    Way too political here- you ruined an excellent essay about a song that many folks love and identify with by assailing one president and lauding another. Music should be immune to this type of partisan discourse .

    1. timroxborogh says:

      Why should music be immune to partisan discourse? If the song wasn’t political then sure, but The End Of The Innocence references Reagan in that line, “this tired old man we elected king”. If the song is political, then the discourse can be political too. All the best.

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