Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eagles: My First Favorite Band

Don Henley, Don Felder, Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, Governor Jerry Brown, Randy Meisner, Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, and Jackson Browne circa 1977.  All these people seemed very cool to me at that time in my late teens.
My musical freedom began when my mom and dad decided to move their old console stereo out of the living room and into my bedroom. I was 12 or 13 at the time. We didn't have a lot of money so my record collection was rather sparse. The first two albums I ever bought were Don McLean's American Pie (because I enjoyed the hit song American Pie) and Yes' Fragile (because I enjoyed the hit song Roundabout and liked the cool album artwork). I was too young to recognize the strange dichotomy. Seems I was eclectic in my tastes from the beginning.

Growing up in a rural Georgia small town, my exposure to music was limited to Top 40, gospel, and traditional country music.  My musical awareness would not broaden until I went away to college. With a limited budget, my music collection remained small until I got my first job at age 16. That was in 1975. In 1976 I purchased Their Greatest Hits LP from Eagles. That album would eventually outsell every other record in the United States during the Twentieth Century.

Side note: The band was never officially known as the Eagles. They were, and still are today, simply Eagles, which makes it awkward to talk about them in English. We use the Eagles as a matter of convenience.

When I bought a new album it was not just another hoarded consumer purchase as is commonplace in today's pathetic squalor of materialism. Back then, I had to give serious consideration to my purchases. $6-$7 for an album in the 1970's was a good chunk of change out of my $25 or so weekly salary earnings. When I bought something new during my high school days it was always special. I played whatever I purchased over and over and over.

Their Greatest Hits album was incredible. I loved every song on it. That album introduced me to Desperado, which seemed to speak directly to my adolescence and became a favorite tune of mine. I did not know about most early Eagles material so this was a great discovery. Don Henley's soulful vocal rendition really got to me and I learned to sing a bit of harmony to his lead vocals.

Lyin' Eyes was another early favorite; a wonderful country rock ballad I could sing along with Glenn Frey and the five-part vocal harmonies that were a hallmark of the rapidly becoming mega-band. I fell in love for the first time on a school trip to Jekyll Island, slow dancing with a girl while Randy Meisner sang Take It To the Limit. It seemed incredible that this one group had put together essentially 9 solid hit songs (among other noteworthy studio material) including a few number one singles in the space of a mere four albums. Eagles were on fire, enjoying success beyond any other band I knew about at the time.

Then, within a few months, still riding the highs and playing the crap out of Their Greatest Hits LP, they came out with Hotel California. This was Christmas time, mid-way through my senior year of high school. I was still dating my first love and everything in life seemed fun and magical. Hotel California became something more than just background music to gatherings with friends. It was insisted that we cruise around listening to this specific album, usually on 8-track of course. We all sang the songs. It was an artistic and existential watershed of my youth. I have rarely been better prepared to receive and experience an album the way the cards all lined up for Hotel California.

Eventually I bought all the early Eagles albums. I became familiar with the band members, the song writers, the side musicians. I learned that Bernie Leadon was an original Eagle who left the band before I became a fan. That was no biggie with me because, with the exception of Witchy Woman, none of my favorite Eagle songs were heavily influenced by Leadon, though I did like his banjo playing. Leadon's buddy Don Felder had joined the band in 1974 and was part of the regular line-up when I first got into them. Felder was an awesome guitarist. He wrote the opening and closing riffs for the song Hotel California. After the fantastic One Of These Nights record, the band added the already famous Joe Walsh to replace Leadon, just in time for the Hotel California album. The Felder-Walsh guitar collaboration transformed the band musically into a legitimate rock and roll group instead of just a country rock band, though both styles co-existed comfortably in their performances.

So, as I entered college, there was no question who my favorite band was. I ultimately saw them three times in concert. The first time was in 1976 when Fleetwood Mac was their opening act. I remember that concert vividly. It was one of the best I ever attended. And because of Eagles I expanded my Southern California musical horizons. I was into Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg, and John David Souther. This was the music of my life before college experiences began to make me aware of other aspects of myself.

By the time that The Long Run came out in 1979, Meisner had left the band. I didn't enjoy his replacement, Timothy B. Schmidt, as much. Not that Schmidt wasn't talented. He could vocally hit the high notes like Meisner but his voice was just too soft and sweet compared with the distinctive edge and power Meisner featured. Listen to Meisner sing Try and Love Again to sample the quality of his voice. Nevertheless, the core of the band remained. The Henley-Frey songwriting skills were still solid, the overall harmonies were intact, and the Felder-Walsh guitar combination was among the best in all of music.

Still, The Long Run struck me as anti-climatic to Hotel California. The music was decent but it wasn't something I went around singing anymore. By this time, I was more likely to sing along with Neil Young on his Comes A Time or Rust Never Sleeps records, and I was playing a lot of Pink Floyd material. The Wall came out the same year as The Long Run, making the differences even more pronounced in my mind. The former was a brilliant album, the latter was enjoyable but nothing really new. I was also exposing myself to the very early Athens music scene, which was more punk and alternative oriented. In short, I was changing though the "Eagle sound" remained essentially as good as it had ever been. It just wasn't my taste anymore.

Which was just as well. The band broke up shortly thereafter and, though all their great songs continued to receive frequent airplay on classic rock radio stations, they faded from my musical experience. They popped back into my life again (along with many millions of other lives) in 1994 with Hell Freezes Over. I didn't actually purchase that CD when it came out. My brother gave it to me as a Christmas gift, which was very thoughtful. I was more into Pearl Jam's Vs. album and the Floyd's The Division Bell at the time.

I listened to Hell Freezes Over, completely aware that it was a big deal for these musicians of get back together after 14 years. But, it did not make any tangible impression on me. I filed it away in my CD collection and pretty much let it sit untouched for years. When my local Walmart featured large displays of a new Eagles album, Long Road Out Of Eden, in 2007, I was unaffected and ignored the double CD set completely.

Truth is, I was a bit pissed at this “newer, improved” version of the band. After long-running (pun intended) disputes, Felder was fired in 2001. He subsequently sued Henley and Frey. The duo sought to own the brand name of "Eagles" all by themselves. The litigation was settled out of court. The new Henley-Frey co-dictatorship milked the consumerist world with various versions of "greatest hits" albums in 2000, 2001, and 2003. What could be more kitsch than that? I was totally put off by it. Their harmonies became passé to me, their sound but a relic of my past.

All that somewhat changed recently when I got the chance to see a Showtime documentary on the band's history thanks to some help from my friends and the wonders of DVR. (As long-time readers know, I don't have cable or satellite. I will not pay for TV. Programming is generally too stupid.) But this 3-hour documentary is very well-made and I learned several things I didn't know (or had forgotten) about the band.

Watching it inspired me to hunt down my old Hell Freezes Over CD - it took awhile to find it - and give it another listen some 19 years now after it was given to me. I also familiarized myself with their 2003 single, Hole In The World, as well as a used copy of Long Road Out Of Eden. Listening to this newer material did not generate any renewed enthusiasm for the group, they remain something from my past, a special part of my youth, but I have to admit that some of the material is worthy of note.

From the Hell Freezes Over CD I found the new (at the time) song Learn To Be Still to be that classic Eagles sound I fell in love with. It is great to appreciate the band's longevity (despite the obvious internal turmoil) with this piece of music. Most of that album features live tracks (the beginning of greatest hits ad nauseum) from their famous MTV reunion concert. But two tunes in particular caught my ear. The unplugged retooling of Hotel California was not as good as the original (nothing could be) but it was different enough to justify recording it. I found it very inventive and recall appreciating it when I originally listened to the CD during the Christmas season in 1994. But, the tune that really stood out to me this go-around was Pretty Maids All In A Row (this link is not of the greatest quality, but it is the only one I could find of this specific, excellent performance). Joe Walsh does a fabulous job on vocals and the whole band made this version of the song better than the original.

Hole In The World is the band's response to (commercialization of?) the September 11, 2001 attacks. This is standard Eagles stuff. The harmonies and passion are all still there. But, my listening to Long Road Out Of Eden yielded mixed results. Most of the songs on the two CDs are mediocre material. That's ok, but it is definitely background music, nothing particularly remarkable with a few exceptions.

How Long is a cover of an old Souther tune that sounds fresh and vibrant. No More Walks In The Woods is a poignant harmony piece that is certainly something I can intimately relate with. Busy Being Fabulous is a bona-fide Henley-Frey classic, directly connecting this album with where the band basically left off at The Long Run. Walsh helps the band deliver a really distinctive track with Last Good Time In Town. But, the most noteworthy piece on the record is the 10-plus minute title track. Its composition, instrumentation, lyrics, and harmonies remind me of The Last Resort, one of my favorite Eagles efforts. This track alone justifies their continuing creative endeavors even if the whole thing does not really work very well as a two-CD set.

The group might not be able to crank out the hits like they did in the 1970's but very few bands have enjoyed this kind of demand for their songs for this length of time. Even though they do not speak to me as they once did, I can appreciate these guys getting out there and still being energetic and creative after all these years. Longevity is something I definitely value at this stage of my life and it is nice to have these old friends around, even though I only catch up with them sporadically and even though Henley and Frey have trashed some good band mates and whored their core material to the musical world.

I noticed they're repackaging all the original studio albums for 2013. This new Eagles outfit has yet to get a dime out of me (the last dollar I paid them was for my 1979 concert ticket)...and they still won't. I know that will just give Mr. Henley and Mr. Frey a heartache tonight. Thanks for the memories guys but screw both of you.

Late note:  Upon further listening, I think Waiting In The Weeds and Business As Usual are also worthy songs on Long Road Out Of Eden.  The first tune features some really nice vocals and the song's arrangement is top-notch, back toward their country rock origins.  The second song is a nice steady rocker with typically tough, dark lyrics by Don Henley.  Frail Grasp On The Big Picture is not great but it is acceptable.  I think I could put together a nice 10-11 song mix of this 20-tune 2-CD set.  By trimming its 90-plus minutes of music down to about 52, Long Road would have been a strong single album.  There's too much "filler" material on it.  But I can't be too critical, I guess, Henley, Schmidt, and Walsh turned 60 the year the album came out.  Frey was 59.  So, today they are six years older than that and still touring to large venues.  That's impressive.  Plus, the album won a couple of Grammies.  Not bad for old farts. 

Also, to clarify, my beef with Henley-Frey has to do with their greedy business tactics and the recycling of their old material.  (They have become the very thing they criticize in many of their songs.)  Eagles live performances are apparently a bloated, excessive, imitation of themselves, far removed from their simple country rock origins.  That strikes me as more simulacra perhaps than the featuring of "golden oldies."  Nevertheless, my criticism of Henley-Frey is not artistic in origin.  Some of the newer material mentioned in this post, as I stated, is worthy of their continued artistic expression.  Maybe they have another great song or two up their sleeve even at this late date.

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