It is 2019. Jeff Bridges tours between acting gigs with his band The Abiders. The name, of course, was lifted from his character’s oft quoted line in his 1997 movie The Big Lebowski, “The Dude abides” (‘The Dude’ being his self-bestowed handle in the movie). From what I have seen and heard, Bridges’ work with The Abiders straddles the musical line now called country rock (which probably explains why he didn’t name the band ‘The Trons’), a genre his Dude character loathes in The Big Lebowski. Sayeth The Dude, “I hate the (expletive deleted) Eagles” but that probably wasn’t Bridges talking. The movie hipster Coen Brother’s no doubt brought the line into their film because it was cool to thump on the biggest band in the land when their chips were down. Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 ranks #1 on the all time US Charts having moved 38 million copies. It became the first album to earn platinum level sales. The only other bands and artists to have exceeded The Eagles’ 150 million worldwide album sales are The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, and Garth Brooks. The problem was, by the end of the 1970s, the band was crumbling and perceived as more than a little arrogant. They were so successful, it was easy to hate them and revel in their millionaire misery.
One has to go back a little further in time to dissect exactly what happened to what singer-
songwriter J.D. Souther called ‘America’s band’ (a term drummer/vocalist Don Henley hates almost as much as the notion that they invented the soft California country rock sound). Henley told Classic Rock Magazine, “I think all of us were misfits in our own way, which is why we got into the business,” to remind everyone that the Eagles formed and evolved like many other bands. What the Eagles haters forget is they weren’t just anointed as ‘America’s band’. They worked for it and each misstep and/or success along the way contributed to both the myth and the reality of the band.
The story opens with Henley living a lonely life in Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1970s. Like many aspiring musicians, he left his small town Texas roots for the big glitz of Los Angeles. Like many other aspiring musicians, he filled his idle hours at the famed Troubadour club. It seemed to be the place where something was bound to happen and it was where he met a native Detroiter (and buddy of Bob Seger back in Michigan) named Glenn Frey. Frey had moved west to escape being sucked into a life on the auto assembly line. They were far from famous and life in the fast lane when they met, but they shared a work ethic had been formed on a Texas farm and in Michigan’s industrial belt. They had more than just musical talent; they had the will to work hard to become successful. As Henley continued his “misfit” comments, he mentioned that seeing fellow Texan Janis Joplin at the Troubadour less than a week before she died: “She looked sad and lonely sitting at a table with no one talking to her. She was another one who wanted to show everyone back home. She was bullied in high school because she was different. She was looking for acceptance and that is why a lot of us came to California; to find our tribe. The popular kids at school were the football players and they got the pretty girls. A lot of famous rockers were high school nerds.” From the release of their eponymous first album in 1972 and their ‘flame out’ sessions for their 1979 The Long Run LP, they struggled at times, but along the way (as Souther put it), “They wrote songs that evoked memories of the life you wished you lived.” It would be as hard to separate the Eagles from the fabric of America as it would be to removed The Beatles from the tapestry of England.
Playing in a bar band during the Eagles’ prime meant playing Eagles’ songs, but that wasn’t as easy as it sounds on paper. The craftsmanship displayed in their writing and performance made it difficult to do their music justice. If a band couldn’t do the music well, then it was best to leave it alone. It wasn’t until I was in my third band (Sledgehammer) that I got to perform the Eagles’ songs. We had four musicians who could play and sing plus our lead guitar player, Barry, was just beginning his studies as a vocal major in college. Barry would break down the harmony parts and put the right voice in the right place to make the music work. To perform it onstage, our bass player and budding electronic engineer Mike designed a new PA from scratch replete with stage front monitors. A few man hours in my dad’s workshop (and a little expert table saw help from dad) and we had the tools to make our on-stage performance better. Singing with monitors so one can hear how all the parts blend together gave us a great advantage. The difference in the vocals isn’t so obvious when cranking out three chord rock-n-roll (which was a good share of our set list), but we tended to erupt into smiles on stage when all the parts clicked on the Eagles’ material. I never had a dedicated monitor in the back line, but I certainly could hear the stage front monitors enough to make me wonder how I had ever managed without them.
As phase one of the Eagles career wound down (1972-1979), things were slowly coming unwound. Henley and Frey had taken charge of the band early on and it was their shared ambition that drove the band to keep moving forward. They ran the show, but they weren’t clones of each other by any means. Henley’s intensity and white-soul voice complimented Frey, the laconic, fun – loving R&B freak. They looked at other successful bands of the era (Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin being good examples) as competition. It was this ‘winner take all’ attitude that generated some of the ‘arrogant’ perceptions. Henley noted. “We were on good terms with everyone, but we’d take note of how other bands were doing, chart-wise. We wanted to be in the game. We had a competitive spirit.” They may have been living in the penthouse, but the foundation of their building was beginning to crack.
Henley recalls the 1970s as a time when their extravagant behavior (like spending both an eon and a fortune in the studio recording The Long Run) was fueled by their success. He told CRM, “Everybody gets frightened when success hits and you’re in your twenties and suddenly you’ve got all this notoriety and money being thrown at you and you don’t know what to do with it. Everybody has that insecurity: ‘Am I worth of all this attention? Am I good enough?’” When asked if the success should have made the band more bulletproof, Henley explained, “No. During the seventies, every morning I woke up and thought: ‘This could end today.’ We all did. Sometimes we’d do a concert and have a really bad night or get a bad review and I’d go: ‘Okay, that’s it. That’s the end.’ You question it. So you turn to drugs or you explode your career somehow.” It seems that the Eagles proceeded to try both routes.
The first sign of trouble in a band is the “we changed out a a band member because we had creative differences” cliche. Multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon was the first tire to be swapped out. It is hard to say exactly what friction brought about Leadon’s departure, but bassist Randy Meisner wasn’t too far behind. Leadon was replaced by Don Felder whose Hotel California guitar work helped propel yet another strong album to the top of the charts. Meisner was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit, late of the band Poco, who brought his crystal clear high voicals into the mix. Ex-James Gang member and quirky solo artist Joe Walsh expanded the band to a sextet and to quote one his own lyrics, “The band played on.” Some questioned why the band even needed to add Walsh to the already solid line up, but the dividends of having him on board were evident in their live shows. It also never hurts to have another songwriter (and fun guy) in the band.
It is hard to say what precipitated the big break up; it takes many drops of water to fill a bucket but it only takes the last one to make it overflow. Legend has it that the band officially ended after a benefit show for Democratic Senator Alan Cranston where a mixing board recording picked up Frey threatening to kick guitarist Don Felder’s ass. He even counted down the number of songs that would be played before he would do it and later camera footage captured the furious Frey chasing Felder’s limo after the show. Schmidt called Frey to ask if it was true that the band was done only to be told, “That’s it, it’s over.” Schmidt and Henley both confessed that they were deeply affected by the abrupt end, Henley recalling, “I was just lost.” Henley spent the 1980s as a successful solo artist and famously quipped that the Eagles would reunite, “When hell freezes over,” yet being a solo artist was a different kind of success. He later corrected himself about the ‘hell freezes over’ comment: “I missed the good parts of it. I didn’t miss the bad parts. [As a solo artist] once in a while I got tired of making all the decisions, having the weight and the criticism all fall on my shoulders. I had a great solo band…but sometimes I would long for a band where the spotlight isn’t just on you.”
When Ohio’s M105 radio began marketing itself as “Cleveland’s Classic Rock” station in the 1980s, the new genre spread like wildfire and in the absence of the band, the Eagles’ music was in constant rotation on the nation’s airwaves. Frey had bailed on the first attempt at a reunion in 1990, but by 1994, they were ready to put the old animosities aside and recorded an album that could only be called Hell Freezes Over (which also became the name of the subsequent tour).
This became the template of the massive world tours that followed and surely would have continued if Frey had not succumbed to a host of illnesses and passed on in January of 2016. The Eagles haters would finally see the band come to an end, but their music would continue to be heard on many different platforms. Following Glenn’s death, a February Grammy Award performance of Frey’s signature song Take It Easy (with old friend Jackson Browne covering the lead vocal) was supposed to be the exclamation at the end of their story. Everybody knew that this was the end of the band, until two years later when Henley made another hard career choice: it was time to resurrect the Eagles, but would they be accepted? The band drafted Frey’s son Deacon and country star (and former member of Pure Prairie League) Vince Gill to fill out the line up. They began the resurrection tour in March of 2018 and by July, it was already the sixth-highest-grossing tour of the year. The tour will close with six final shows in the UK (including the famed Wembley Stadium) in June of 2019. “F.Scott Fitzgerald once famously said that there are no second acts in American life,” says Henley. “I think we’ve proved that not only are there second acts, but there are third acts, too.” The band may have been unsure of how they would be received, but rather than book a few smaller warm up gigs, they played their first shows with the new line up in front of 56,000 at Dodger Stadium and 41,000 at New York’s Citi Field.
Henley recalls that they were surprised at the warm reception that they received on both coasts: “It surprised all of us. That is when we knew we might be able to do this, we might be able to continue.” Take THAT all you Eagles haters!
Top Piece Video: The ‘new’ Eagles perform ‘Take it to the limit” in October of 2018