The death of Glenn Frey at the age of 67 is an interesting event to experience.
He was, by normal life expectancy standards, still young at 67. The shock is magnified by the fact that most people of my age group who grew up listening to music have listened to and bought Eagles albums. Effectively, the Eagles formed part of the soundtrack of our early adult lives. The images of the members of the Eagles that predominate in our minds are of driven men in their twenties, West Coast cool, tight harmonies, and the rock n’roll lifestyle. Ironically, none of the band members were actually from California. Frey himself was born in Detroit, and like the other members, made his way to California in search of the musical holy grail.
Frey looked pretty much the same until quite recently, although recent images hint at both the onset of old age, and poor health. However, you always tend to remember younger versions of rock and roll royalty. The internet is full of images of the youthful rock and roll playboy Glenn Frey, not the haggard, older drooped-chin Glenn Frey. It is clear from tributes paid since his death that Frey was struggling for a long time with significant health issues. He had also discovered the virtues of family, having swapped the wild man of rock and roll lifestyle for a domestic existence that would have probably horrified his younger self.
The Eagles, for a while, certainly exemplified the rock and roll lifestyle. Frey himself once described the Eagles as “a great way for a man to spend his twenties”. The biographies of the Eagles confirm that the band members did indeed engage in all of the classic rock n’roll lifestyle behaviors of drink, drugs and many women to excess all through the 1970s as their fame and fortune grew massively.
Like many famous bands, the Eagles’ body of work comprises a relatively short period of time – an 8 year period from 1972 to 1980. The original core of the band – Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, recorded the first two albums and some of the third album before they added Don Felder in late 1973, in order to give themselves the heft to play rock n’roll.
Along the way, the Eagles also slowly lost members. Bernie Leadon, who had more practical band experience than the other members, and who had less tolerance for the rock and roll lifestyle, was the first to leave in 1975, after his suggestion that the band not continue with their punishing tour schedule was ignored. Randy Meisner, whose family life also suffered from the same tour schedule, quit 2 years later. (Both men would be financially secure for life; the LP “Eagles Greatest Hits”, released in the mid-70’s, on which they appear, has sold a record 42 million units). The Eagles, despite public appearances, were officially a 3 man corporation thereafter (Frey, Henley and Felder) with Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt as salaried members, until Don Felder was fired in 2001. In true Hollywood fashion, lawsuits were exchanged over his firing, and not settled until 2009.
Don Henley’s polite allusion to “family dysfunctionalities” in his tribute to Frey was merely a confirmation of what has already been revealed by autobiographies – the Eagles band members often squabbled, and occasionally got into both legal and physical fights. Being a member of the Eagles was akin to taking part in some endurance race, albeit one with large financial rewards. Felder’s rift with Frey and Henley after his firing was permanent, and his own biography paints a picture of a band that was not a happy place. Large egos, drugs, wild women, too much touring, pressure to deliver the Next Great Album – what could possibly go wrong?
The Eagles made a lot of money in the late 1970’s, but it is clear that they were burned out physically and musically by 1980. Ultimately, the combination of burning the candle at both ends and in the middle led to the band going on hiatus for the best part of 15 years. The second and third acts, starting with the “Hell Freezes Over” tour, were mostly the band operating in jukebox mode, with only a small amount of new material being recorded and released. The tours were immensely popular and profitable, but there was no new music to play, so the sets comprised The Eagles Greatest Hits, plus solo material from Frey, Henley and Walsh.
Frey worked as a solo artist in the 1980’s and expanded into acting and production, as he tried to answer the question “what next?” Shorn of the Eagles backdrop, he showed his love for straight ahead pop and R&B. He had hit singles, but it is fair to say that neither he nor Don Henley came anywhere near their achievements as members of the Eagles.
Frey’s songwriting was praised in obituaries, but he was often a collaborator, especially on the early albums. “Take It Easy”, effectively the Eagles’ signature tune along with “Hotel California”, began life with Jackson Browne, who conceived the song structure and the first verse and chorus, handing it off to Frey, who wrote the memorable second verse about the girl in the flatbed Ford. Browne’s version of the song is much more sophisticated musically than the Eagles’ version, which is more straight-ahead rock n’roll, albeit with the organic country edge that Bernie Leadon provided (Leadon’s dancing banjo can be heard starting under the guitar solo and through the rest of the song). A number of other Eagles songs on the first 3 LPs were collaborations, or from other songwriters.
Frey matured into a more confident songwriter when the band transitioned to a rock and roll focus in the 1974-75 time period, moving away from the country-influenced acoustic sound that marked their first 2 LPs. Frey seems to have been the primary instigator of the transition. The first two albums were recorded in London with Glyn Johns producing, but Frey was frustrated with the production approach, which he felt was holding back the rock and roll side of the band, so the band relocated recording to the USA and the transition of the Eagles to full-bore rock and roll began. Ironically, “Best Of My Love”, the first major Eagles hit single, was the last song recorded in London produced by Glyn Johns.
I was a fan of the Eagles starting from the time when their first LP was released, but, as a guitar player and lover of natural sounding music, I steadily lost interest as the band morphed into a pop-rock band, spending progressively more time and money on studio work. I came to realize that I lost interest in the band when Bernie Leadon left. His acoustic-first approach, country playing style, and quirky approach to songwriting was one of the main reasons that I liked the band in the first place. My favorite Eagles tune is “Bitter Creek” from their second LP “Desperado”, which is their least-selling album. The song, written in Drop D tuning, sounds different to most of the other Eagles songs as a result, and the subject matter, typical for Leadon, is also different – is an introspective warning message, totally acoustic.
“Desperado” is my favorite Eagles album, simply because it seemed to me to be a genuine attempt at assembling a song cycle based on the myths of the Old West and the outlaw pathology (rock trivia fans always like to check out the dead outlaw images on the cover photos, which comprise the band and most of their songwriting collaborators of the time). It also sounds more coherent than their first or third albums, which are more uneven in terms of songwriting. I found “One Of These Nights” to be way too polished for my taste, and in hindsight, it was clear that Bernie Leadon was signaling his estrangement from the band, with his two compositions, “Journey Of The Sorcerer” and “I Wish You Peace”, being essentially solo compositions and recordings that did not fit with the rest of the album . By the time of “Hotel California”, every song on that album spoke to me saying “bunch of guys wrote average rock and roll songs and spent too much time in the studio working on them”. I listened to a friend’s copy of the LP several times, resolved to not buy it, and that was that. You couldn’t fault the technical excellence of the band, the songs and the harmonies, but for me, something important had gone missing along the way. The band had lost its emotional and organic musical core, trading it for polished rock and roll glitz. Large dollops of fame and fortune were the result, of course.
How good a songwriter was Glenn Frey? It is a difficult question to answer, because most of his better-known compositions were actually collaborations. I regarded him more as a synthesizer of ideas and source of vision, both of which are important skills if you want to be a musical artist. He was not prolific, it seemed to me that he relied more on important virtues like crafting than on wells of inspiration. I see him less as a great songwriter and more as the source of focus and drive for the early Eagles, unafraid to work to kick the band along to bigger and better things.