Monday, August 19, 2013

The History of the Eagles, Part One

ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote this absolutely fantastic review of the recent Eagles documentary, the imaginatively titled "The History of the Eagles, Part One."

Simmons's love for the film is not only obvious—I mean, he pretty much declares a half-dozen times that he wants to run away to a desert island with it, so I sure hope it's obvious and he's not just a gold-digger—but infectious. I loved the docu too, but after reading the Simmons piece I'm even fonder of it. Reading Simmons gush about the film is like one of those old SNL sketches featuring Eddie Murphy that was already really good, but then Murphy starts to break, and that just makes it all the better. Simmons is so over the top with his love that it's almost irresistible.



(If you don't want to sit through the entire 3-minute preview, just check out Glenn Frey's face at the 0:07—that pretty much sums up the entire story right there. Oh, what the heck, I'll cut to the chase and post it:)


Simmons does get a couple things wrong, though—really, really wrong—which isn't entire surprising, given that he opens the piece by admitting he never really even thought about the Eagles until seeing the film, even though he'd been listening to their music (unintentionally, for the most part) for 35 years. He always knew them, they were always around, he'd just never given them a moment's conscious notice.

Which would explain why he missed so many key elements of the Eagles story.

Here's the gist of what Simmons got right: Don Henley and Glenn Frey are assholes. They had awesomely bad 1970s hairstyles. Most of their fellow band members had even worse hair. They had more drive than maybe any other comparable band. The Eagles created some enduring songs. Their story is the same story as pretty much any other band that makes it big, breaks up and then gets back together, only even more so—because of the egos involved and the massive success of the band and the decade in which it all happened, in fact, much, much more so.

Here's where Simmons really missed the boat: he think it's funny that Don Felder's bitter about getting screwed by Henley and Frey. It's not.

Simmons compares it to Chris Bosh not getting as many touches per night as Lebron James or Dwayne Wade. Except that a band isn't a basketball team—George and Ringo made as much as band members for playing each concert and record as John and Paul did (apart from songwriting), as do Larry and Adam v Bono and the Edge, because that's how bands work. There are similarities between rock bands and sports teams, yes. And there are differences, and those differences should not be overlooked or minimized for a good line. Basketball teams are assembled by billionaire owners, and the players are employees. Rock and roll bands are formed by individuals who collectively agree to work together under certain terms. And Felder's not unhappy because Henley got to sing more than he did; he's unhappy that Henley and Frey changed not just the verbal contract they all agreed to when he joined the band but that they in fact changed the literal, legal, written contract they'd all signed when he joined. I'm sure Simmons'd think it'd be highstairical if ESPN unilaterally decided to do the same to his contract. Also, too, Felder wrote 100% of the music for "Hotel California," which (overplayed though it is) is by far their best song ever, musically, an Escher-like circular chord structure with a pretty astonishing (especially given when it was written) combination of Mexican and Jamaican influences melodically and rhythmically.

Simmons rightly points out that Don Henley, for all he's a jerk (although not nearly as big a jerk as Glenn Frey, despite being far, far more talented), is one of the greatest rock and roll singers ever, with flawless pitch, a great range and perfect timbre. But he's, at best, a serviceable drummer, perhaps the least good drummer of any major band ever, and you cannot have a truly great band without a great drummer. (Bands have tried. Bands have failed.) There's a reason Henley was a guest vocalist on so many records but pretty much never a guest drummer. (Compare and contrast with Ringo Starr, Phil Collins, Max Weinberg, Dave Grohl, etc.) Most tellingly, Henley himself hired real drummers to play on his own albums when he went solo. He's good enough to know he's not nearly good enough.

Simmons also glossed over the defining characteristics of the Eagles's music. The first is that it's catchy. Good Lord is it catchy. Love 'em or hate 'em, you have to admit that them boys could write melodies, and then surround them with impeccable (some would say sterile, and those somes would be right) backing tracks. They talk in interviews about how they used to record their vocals not just line by line or even word by word but (they claim) syllable by syllable...and, bizarrely, they're proud of it.

But the other main characteristics of the Eagles's oeuvre is that they are the most misogynistic major American band ever. (And if it weren't for the Stones, we might even remove the nationality qualifier.) Are there other bands as bad or worse? Sure...but none that are in their league as a sales force. I mean, they've the #5 selling band/artist ever. They've sold more than Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Madonna, AC/DC, Van Halen...need I go on? The point's made, I trust. Love 'em or hate 'em, they've sold a trunkload. Which means taking a hard look at their lyrical content's entirely valid. And when you do...oh boy.

Well I'm a runnin' down the road tryin' to loosen my load
Got a world of trouble on my mind
I'm lookin' for a lover that won't blow my cover
She's so hard to find

Okay.

Well I know you want a lover
Well let me tell your brother
She's been sleeping in the Devil's bed

Whatever.

Ev'ry night when the sun goes down 
Just another lonely boy in town 
And she's out runnin' 'round

Man, they've sure got some bad luck.

Just remember this, my girl, when you look up in the sky 
You can see the stars and still not see the light (that's right) 
And I'm already gone 
And I'm feelin' strong 
I will sing this vict'ry song, woo, hoo, hoo, woo, hoo, hoo

Huh. I'm guessing that the stars to which they're referring aren't only the constellations but also the stars with whom the "girl" in question's been privileged enough to sleep.

So, okay. When you look at a bunch of them one after another, a pattern starts to emerge. And then there's "Lyin' Eyes," which is simply toxic from stem to stern.



(That graphic is every bit as classy as the song deserves.)

God. The seductive, serpentine melody, the glorious harmonies—the harmonies! Good golly the harmonies!—the lush backing...it's all magnificent. As long as you don't listen to the words.

But let's take a gander at the open and close (and the middle's just as bad):

City girls just seem to find out early 
How to open doors with just a smile 
A rich old man and she won't have to worry 
She'll dress up all in lace and go in style

[snip]

She wonders how it ever got this crazy 
She thinks about a boy she knew in school 
Did she get tired or did she just get lazy? 
She's so far gone she feels just like a fool 
My, oh my, you sure know how to arrange things 
You set it up so well, so carefully 
Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things 
You're still the same old girl you used to be 
You can't hide your lyin eyes

Again, context is so important. So, at first, when you notice the casual sexism, you think, well, hey, it was the 1970s, it was rock and roll, no big deal. Besides, it's just one song—maybe the singer's in character. And then you realize it's a constant throughout their entire catalog. And you realize, hey, you know, the Who and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne (who co-wrote "Take It Easy," but not the quoted verse) and James Taylor and David Bowie, they were pretty big acts at the time, and they don't seem to have had such animosity, such malice towards women like that.

And, look, it's not like those are cherry-picked off some b-side or deep album cut—those are half the damn songs on their greatest hits album, the best-selling album in the history of albums.

Know what, though? They were just kids. Maybe it got better as they got a little older, a little wiser, a little more successful.

What kind of love have you got? 
You should be home, but you're not 
A room full of noise and dangerous boys still makes you thirsty and hot 
I heard about you and that man 
There's just one thing I don't understand 
You say he's a liar and he put out your fire 
How come you still got his gun in your hand? 
Victim of love, I see a broken heart 
You got your stories to tell 
Victim of love, it's such an easy part and you know how to play it so well

Guess not. Then again, that's only a well-known cut off their best-selling album. It's not like it's

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends

Oh.

The other thing, and this goes hand-in-hand with the misogyny, is the overwhelming sense of victimization. I'm staggered Simmons didn't bring this up, 'cuz it's all over the damn film. The Eagles are always the victims. Of their first producer, Glyn Johns who, sure, helped them become stars off the bat but (correctly) didn't think they could rock like the Stones or the Who or Zeppelin, all of whom he's worked with and therefore was in position to know. Of their first label owner, David Geffen...who signed them sound unheard and screwed them so bad that Henley later signed with him again as a solo artist. Of their bass player who suffers from stage fright. Of their guitarist, who unreasonably demands that the term of the contract they all signed be kept. And, in the lyrics, of seemingly every female they come across.

I like the Eagles—their music, that is. In small doses. Their hits are still enjoyable 40 years down the line. (For the most part, however, their album cuts are some of the most disposable filler of any major artist since the early 1960s.) But listen to too many of their songs in a row and the ugliness builds and builds, slowly at first, so you hardly even notice how nasty it is until you're suddenly ready for a Silkwood shower.

Which leads to one conclusion: the Eagles just weren't very good.

At the end of the day, for all they have more than their fair share of songs that stand up—and despite everything, the Hotel California album really is pretty good, and the lasting popularity of their Greatest Hits understandable and I even really like "The Long Run," despite the fact that they ripped off the Otis Clay song "Tryin' to Live My Life Without You" so blatantly that their friend and mentor Bob Seger felt compelled to cover the original to try to make amends for his protégés (note the way he emphasizes several times that it's an old Memphis song...not a recent SoCal smash hit)—the Eagles just were not a great rock and roll band.

They wanted to be. Oh, did they want to be. And that's the key. Because there's certainly no shame in being a good country band, or pop band, or reggae group or certainly jazz combo or whatever. But that's not what the Eagles wanted. They were very clear about it: they wanted to be a rock and roll band. And not just a rock and roll band—the rock and roll band. The best in the world. Greater than Led Zeppelin or the Who, bigger than the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. They wanted to be the best.

At first glance, they seem like they are. They have most of the ingredients to be. But it never quite jells. Henley is a fantastic singer but a lousy drummer and Frey's shallowness keeps Henley's lyrics with the Eagles from consistently hitting the reflective heights he occasionally obtained as a solo artist. Felder is a truly great guitarist, but he was constrained by Henley and Frey's perfectionism from cutting loose, resulting in songs that have a constricting sterility to them. I mean, these are guys who managed to tame Joe Walsh. (To be fair, possibly keeping him alive in the process, although that was far from their motive.) Their recordings are so perfect that they're virtually devoid of life. When you listen to the isolated tracks of the Beatles or the Beach Boys or the Stones or the Who or Zeppelin, you hear so many damn mistakes—bits of dialogue accidentally left, occasional clams, even editing mistakes. There's none of that in any Eagles record. And the things is? People like some humanity in their art. Otherwise, we'd listen to computer generated recordings. There's so little humanity to the Eagles—the exceptions being the vocals of Henley and Walsh, and some of Walsh's and Felder's guitars, and those human elements are one of the main reasons the band has lasted.

The success of the Eagles is largely—although far from entirely—due to Henley and Frey. The failure of that pair to see the forest for the trees is what also kept the band from truly achieving not just the commercial success for which they worked so hard, but also the critical acclaim and lasting greatness they desired so desperately. They missed the forest for the trees. They wanted so bad to be the greatest rock band ever that they forgot to actually rock. And they committed a fairly unforgivable rock and roll sin, a denial of the very origins of rock and roll: they punched down. And then they blamed everyone but themselves.

I turn on the tube and what do I see 
A whole lotta people cryin' "Don't blame me" 
They point their crooked little fingers at everybody else 
Spend all their time feelin' sorry for themselves 
Victim of this, victim of that 
Your momma's too thin; your daddy's too fat 
Get over it 
Get over it 
All this whinin' and cryin' and pitchin' a fit 
Get over it, get over it

On that one, they were right. It's just that, as usual, they were blaming the wrong people. They looked, sneeringly, in every direction, except the correct one: towards the mirror. Oh, the irony.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting read.

    Way off the mark with your 'misogyny' fascination & your vendetta against them is laughable, but all in all worth a look, albeit for no longer than a minute or two.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What can I say, Glenn? Your detailed, cogent, incisive rebuttal has utterly swayed me. I'm sorry for any distress caused to you or Mr. Henley.

      Delete
    2. FWIW, I had the same reaction ... the beginning was interesting, but my interest wanted the deeper you got quoting lyrics hunting misogyny, and then at some point I just skipped down here to see if anyone else found that just-this-side-of-obsessive.

      Take that or leave it as you wish, insult me or not (and call me Don Henley if you wish, lol). Regardless it was intended as honest, constructive feedback.

      Delete
    3. "just-this-side-of-obsessive" — well, I mean, yeah. You're on a music blog. That's kinda the point of a music blog. People who aren't obsessive generally don't spend hours per week (or sometimes per day) on things they're not obsessive about, unless they're getting paid for it (work) or have no choice (traffic), do they?

      And, I mean, this particular blog has, as of the writing of this comment, 20 blog posts on just Bob Dylan. The same on The Replacements. 24 on R.E.M. (Soon to increase by approximately 50%) 54 on the Beatles and 69 on Bruce Springsteen. I mean, sure, we've got 7 on Warren Zevon but we also have 3 on The Doors...and we think the Doors SUCK. (Because they do.) Obsessive? Absolutely.

      But we make no apologies for being obsessive about music. I think it's one of humankind's highest achievements and more than worthy of obsession. Not to mention it's (often) just plain groovy, has a good beat and you can dance to it.

      Which brings us to the Eagles. I admit, the first time I heard someone say they were misogynistic, I dismissed it too. Both because I liked them and didn't want to believe but also because I just didn't hear it. Even once I started paying attention, I was a bit skeptical. A lot of that is because I'm a middle aged white guy, like them (only not fabulously wealthy or nearly as talented or driven), and therefore aren't as naturally attuned as other people from different socio-economic backgrounds. But their greatest hits album has sold nearly 50,000,000 copies. That makes it a subject fully worthy of intensive study, every bit as much as The Sun Also Rises or The Other Side of Paradise or whatever. And once you do that, you see that, again and again and again, their lyrics are filled with sneering, dismissive portraits of women, that these poor beleaguered rich white guys are always always always the damn victims, the poor dears. You see it again and again. And even if you don't know that, for instance, Don Henley was arrested when police found a drugged, naked 16-year-old girl at his house, the lyrics, when looked at with any kind of serious study, show a nasty streak and consistent victimization from their first album to their last. (Well, the last that I know of: I haven't heard any of their reunion album.)

      And, again, the context matters. They were writing and recording at the same time as their pals James Taylor and Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, and none of those artists have anything like this kind of vitriol in their catalogs, much less over and over. If you can listen to "Lyin' Eyes" and not hear it, especially in the context of almost every other one of their greatest hits, well, I don't know what to tell you, Donald. Also, if you really did skip once you got to the lyrics, well, no wonder you weren't convinced. You didn't stick around for the argument! Nor the bits where I point out that, musically, they suck compared to their peers. You missed a lotta good stuff, man!

      Ultimately, I guess, as the bard once wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

      Oh, and also? You're a shitty drummer and you totally ripped off Otis Clay. But GOD you've got an awesome voice. Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  2. Loved the article. Although I wonder if instead of "the exceptions being the vocals of Henley and Walsh, and some of Walsh's and Frey's guitars" that you mean "the exceptions being the vocals of Henley and Walsh, and some of Walsh's and FELDER'S guitars"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. D'oh! You are, of course, completely correct. Fixt! (Thank you!)

      Delete