I used to believe Glenn Frey was pop music’s Antichrist…until it dawned on me, he might have been the Eagles’ (and my) savior.
I grew up fucking hating the Eagles.
It was for a lot of reasons and really none of them were about the band or its songs. To me the Eagles were the worst (see: most overplayed) group in my parents’ record collection. Just one glimpse of that blue greatest hits album cover with the painted bird skeleton and American Indian-type font was enough to make me want to go play outside.
As I got a little older, the Eagles crept into the limited music vernacular of most of my classmates and teammates. There was that cover again. There were those same 10 fucking songs. On bus rides, at dances and before pep rallies; blaring from cars squealing into the parking lot at lunch and crackling on the sad little radio in the teachers’ lounge after school; shaking car windows on Friday nights while headlights bounced over fields of patchy grass and rambling oak. Part of me blames Columbia House. Along with The Cars Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits – Steve Miller Band…and the Joshua Tree, Eagles’ / Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 was the box you had to check on the order form for your introduction to corporate fleecing.
It’s not that it was bad music. In fact, the stuff I tried to get my hands on at the time (Minor Threat, Black Flag, X, Fugazi and the Circle Jerks) was bad music. It was raw and disjointed and the message was muddled by the lack of production value. But there was a hammer-over-your-head sensibility in those punk albums I could relate to. It wasn’t polished or overproduced. It wasn’t pouring more booze over a hangover morning while padding around a Malibu mansion in a satin robe watching sun melt the ocean into the shoreline. That, I reasoned, was someone else’s life. Someone else’s time. Carving an A with a circle around it on my forearm but having it turn out looking like I got in a fight with a wet cat—that was what I was all about.
So while most of my peers checked into the Hotel California or dreamed of Life in the Fast Lane, I got angry in my room and moshed to Six Pack and Waiting Room with my stuffed animals and pillows.
Somehow, the Eagles followed me to college. My Freshman-year roommate grew up in Topanga Canyon and actually claimed to have done volunteer yard work (which consisted of bushwacking dense forests to find pot stashes) on the properties of Jackson Browne and Carole King and Steve Martin and James Taylor and Glenn Frey. He grew up seeing Southern California grow out of its sepia phase and transition into unforgiving-sun LA passed out with a needle in its arm. This ground-view city was scored by Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine. In spite of having evolved, the Eagles discography remained a part of him.
One day as I came back from the cafeteria bent over with stomach cramps from too much generic corn pops and orange soda, he had the B-side of One of These Nights rolling, I laid down on my bed to pretend to read something from comp lit and soon fell asleep to Lyin’ Eyes, Take it to the Limit, Visions, After the Thrill is gone and I Wish You Peace—the last track co-written by Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis after step-mother Nancy had disowned her for living in sin with guitarist Bernie Leadon.
It was heady material for sure.
I sat up after I let the final three tracks take me to the verge of slumber and there he was in his regular stance, strumming his Strat as he looked out the rain-streaked window.
“Who was that? Is that new?”
He turned to me, flipped his ponytail—and laughed. “It’s the Eagles man. This album came out the year we were born.”
Six years later in the spring of 1999, my buddy Paul picked me up from Hollywood to drive to Scottsdale for Spring Training. Somewhere between my third Keystone Light and him putting in his second pinch of Kodiak, we stopped in Kingman, Arizona to gas up and have a look around. He bought a couple dream catchers and I got a genuine replica Indian headdress from a roadside stand. When we got back in his Honda, he got out a tape he made for the ride. The first half hour was the A-side of Desperado: Doolin-Dalton, Twenty-One, Out of Control, Tequila Sunrise and the titular track. Once again, I had to ask who this was and he was like, “I don’t usually don’t put Eagles on a tape. You know it’s just Eagles right? No the. Anyway, they’re one of those bands that’s on the radio enough you don’t have to. But man, driving through Arizona—it doesn’t get much better.”
He was right.
My opinions of music began to evolve the deeper into the Eagles’ catalog I got. I learned what all therapists tell you when you sit on the wicker hot seat for the first time giving CPR compressions to throw pillows: What I really hated about the Eagles was the same stuff I hated about myself.
I wanted to be heard, but not misunderstood. I was tired of struggling. Here was a group of guys who had the same problem in their 20s, found each other, fought it—and won. But with that came a new set of problems: The ones that happen when something is created that you will never replicate or be better than as an individual—which is what led to the parties and the break-ups and ultimately, the reconciliation. The Eagles’ best songs are about their inability to be anything but a group of outsiders looking in: on the scene, on the parties, on the genre they came to define.
Founder/guitarist Glenn Frey possessed a Michigander’s sensibility along with a heavy brow and square jaw of the guy who comes over and helps your dad with the car on the weekends. Co-founder Don Henley positioned himself as the cerebral one complete with songs laden with metaphor and later garnished with all his grandiose efforts to save Walden Woods—smug and towering in his adopted black overcoat look. Frey, meanwhile, was the quarterback scribbling poetry on the back of his playbook; the lovable fool who was still up at the end of the night clinking around the kitchen looking for a bottle that wasn’t all the way empty.
His song, Most of Us Are Sad on the Eagles’ self-titled debut, helps define this role:
Most of us are sad
No one lets it show
I’ve been shadows of myself
How was I to know?
Speed it up and throw in a standard punk progression and, you know, skip the harmonizing and you’ve got one of best songs about alienation and the difficulty of living even when the living’s OK ever written.
As with most backbones, Frey was a bit overlooked or at least underestimated while he was around. Or maybe the older I get, the more my tastes slip into the mainstream—and that’s why I’ve only just started to admire him. What matters is I know now my opinions don’t really matter. The Eagles’ catalog will outlast me or you or this or them, and that’s great.
And Frey’s lyrics (see: Certain Kind of Fool, Take it to the Limit, Witchy Woman, Heartache Tonight) make me realize how narrow-minded I was, even while trying so hard to think differently.
…Then again, maybe that’s all bullshit. Maybe it boils down to everyone needs a soundtrack when driving through Arizona with an old friend.