With David Bowie and Glenn Frey both dying unexpectedly this week, social media and the news have been abuzz. And rightly so. Both, Bowie especially, made huge contributions to popular music. Of course, you can’t really compare the two because (as the cliché goes), it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Yet, Bowie and Frey – or, more specifically Frey and his band the Eagles – had an undeniably large influence on other musicians, and produced music which resonated with a lot of people. [aside – it’s a little known, or cared about, fact that the band name really isn’t “The” Eagles. It’s actually just “Eagles” – go ahead and check any of their album covers. In the interest of not being too anal retentive, though, I’ll just stick with “the” Eagles).
I was never a huge Bowie fan. Sure, I liked some of his music. In fact, I loved (and still love) “Heroes”, but in my teen years, when I was at my most musically impressionable and exploring Bowies’ and the Eagles’ discographies, the urban, glam, alien persona evoked by Bowie didn’t connect with me as much as the Eagles’ evocation of laid-back times, desert sunsets, the open road, and beguiling ladies who (in my mind at least) all looked like Stevie Nicks or Linda Ronstadt circa 1976.
Which all makes me think of an outdated music media format: the cassette, and one in particular. I got rid of most my cassettes (accumulated in the 80’s) a long, long time ago. I replaced some with CD’s or digital versions, or just donated or threw others away. I kept a small handful, however. Those that I felt a special attachment to. Those that, even though I now had the music in another, more modern format, the physical artifact itself had significance in my history. Yes, I know, attachment to physical things is the antithesis of enlightenment. But, some “things”, especially from our youth, we hold on to. A favorite toy, a book (dented and maybe scribbled in before we knew better), or in this case, the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 cassette.
A perfect encapsulation of all that was good about the band in its pre-Hotel California years, the compilation traces the music from their first, more-country rock album through One of These Nights, when the sound was starting to get more polished (but not top heavy yet). I played that tape so much- in the car, at home, and in the cheap Walkman I had for a while – that it began to get stretched out and the song titles started fading from the plastic.
A lot of that play came down to the first song: “Take It Easy” (sung by Frey). From those opening chiming guitar chords, I was sucked in every time. It was one of the first songs I learned on my beat-up old used nylon string guitar, as well. Learning those chords (G and C, if I remember right…nothing too complicated at any rate) wasn’t that hard, but damn, it sounded good when I strummed them like the song…over and over…(I’m sure anybody who had the misfortune of listening to me hopes to never hear “Take It Easy” again.) Later, Tom Leadon (brother of Eagle Bernie Leadon) taught me a few of the more intricate guitar parts of the song. By then I had a new steel string guitar, so it sounded quite a bit better.
About 10 years ago I found myself in Winslow, Arizona. Like every other tourist passing through that town, I had to stop and do the “standing on a corner” thing. How could I resist? It struck me as a little desperate and hokey, though, that the town had a statue of a guitar player at their main corner with a sign quoting the song above his head. And the store on the opposite corner had a similar set up. Plus, the Winslow stores sold an array of bumper stickers, shirts, hats, and postcards all referencing the song. But, I bought a bumper sticker and some postcards anyway. Call me hokey.
“Take It Easy” is as much (maybe more) a Jackson Browne song (he co-wrote it with Frey). There’s an old 90s Browne documentary that aired on a series called Going Home on the Disney Channel. In it Browne talks about the song, mentioning that the Eagles’ version really took off, compared to his, with that multi-voiced harmony of the band on the chorus. Browne’s and the Eagles’ recordings of the song are similar, yet feel different. The Eagles’ is big panoramic pop, while Browne’s is a bit more understated, the narrator more mellow and road weary. Plus, it’s got Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel, which adds a whole other dimension, and a lovely extended fade out coda which joins into “Our Lady of the Well”.
Glenn Frey in the 80s and beyond….I’m not as sure about. He had a few mega-hits (“Smuggler’s Blues”, “”You Belong to the City”, “The Heat is On”), but I liked Henley’s solo stuff better, overall. And then there was the ad for the fitness club that he did (remember that one?) – a picture of him in 1976, next to a 1989 picture with the caption “Hard Rock / Rock Hard”. Never mind that the Eagles weren’t hard rock, but it seemed uncool that he was seemingly disavowing his 70s country rock heyday. Looking back now, I see that it was probably more a stated break with his drugged out 70s lifestyle and not the music per se, but I can’t have been the only one who was a bit nonplussed about the appearance (intended or not) of the ad.
Sometime in the early 90s, I saw Frey and Joe Walsh on a double bill. Walsh did the first set – I think he wore a hat made of balloons, but I could be imagining that – and he was disappointing. He was reportedly at that time still an alcoholic and the music was suffering a bit. I don’t remember much about Frey’s set at all, except that I felt it was competent, but uninspiring.
A sidenote – I thought I was familiar with the entire Eagles discography, but noticed online today the cover of the “Take It Easy” single shows a b-side called “Get You in the Mood”. Finding it on YouTube (where it has a surprisingly low number of views), I hear that it’s a Glenn Frey song. Only, it becomes pretty obvious why it didn’t make the album. Not everything Frey touched was gold (he was only human, after all), and this song, with lines like “I get so wasted in the city / Last girl I hit on wasn’t very pretty” is a good example (if I’m not mistaken, “Chug All Night” was by Frey also…)
But then you go back and consider the rest of the songs he wrote or co-wrote. “Lyin’ Eyes”, “New Kid in Town”, “James Dean”, “Tequila Sunrise”, “Heartache Tonight”, the lesser known “The Girl From Yesterday”, and many more. Not to mention his guitar playing. The Eagles’ had a surfeit of talented guitarists – Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon – but it’s Frey who played a lot of the leads on songs such as “On the Border” and “Already Gone”.
The Eagles’ and by extension Glenn Frey, provided a lot of enjoyment to me when I was first getting deeply into music. I don’t listen to them much anymore, and part of that is due to reading too many sordid details about the band’s interpersonal dealings with each other. Sometimes you can know too much! But you have to take that stuff with a grain of salt anyway. The music is what lasts, and we can be thankful for that, and thankful that Glenn Frey (and David Bowie, for that matter), have given us these songs.
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Y’know what, the bigger deal all week for me was not the deaths of Bowie or Frey, but the death of Giorgio Gomelsky.