Glenn Frey & Eagles Biggest Hits
Lest you attribute the immediate brickbats to the knee-jerk nature of social media, consider how eager actual news media can be to get in on the grave dancing, too. New York Daily News doubled down on the mainstream trolling by publishing an essay titled “Glenn Frey’s death is sad, but the Eagles were a horrific band.” The paper ran a similar headline for that piece right under the banner on Wednesday’s front page (right above the equally baiting “I’m With Stupid” Trump/Palin photo illustration). In his op-ed, Gersh Kuntzman wrote, “No disrespect to Glenn Frey” -- naturally -- “but the Eagles were, quite simply, the worst rock and roll band. And hating the Eagles defines whether a music fan is a fan of music or just a bandwagon-jumper.” Inevitably, the Daily News capped their hit piece by citing the Dude’s disdain for the Eagles in The Big Lebowski, because there is no greater critical backup than a fictional stoner who spends an entire movie tripping over things.
How is it that a group tied for the best-selling album of all time in the U.S. --Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is 29 times platinum in the U.S. -- inspires such bloodshed? Even non-fans must concede they have one of the most finely-crafted songbooks of the rock era. Here's a primer on some of the ingredients that go into the Eagles hater-ade:
It’s partly an east coast/west coast thing. L.A.-vs.-New York biases: They’re not just for hip-hop. If you lived on the west coast during the 1970s, you probably assumed the Eagles’ critical reputation was just fine, and that they were as lauded as Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, or any other act of the time. The group had no bigger champion than Robert Hilburn in The Los Angeles Times, who called the Eagles “the most consistent makers of quality hits of any American band since Creedence Clearwater Revival.” He lauded how 1976’s Hotel California “chronicled the attitudes of a generation trapped between the fading idealism of the '60s and the encroaching greed of the '80s.” After moving to L.A. from Texas and Detroit, Frey and Don Henley “wrote about the state of the American Dream,” Hilburn wrote, “using their experiences in rock to convey the innocence, temptations and disillusionment of that pursuit.”
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Contrast Hilburn’s ardor with the sniffing contempt of Robert Christgau, writing in Newsday in 1972: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them... The Eagles are the ultimate in California dreaming, a fantasy of fulfillment that has been made real only in the hip upper-middle-class suburbs of Marin County and the Los Angeles canyons.” Chuck Klosterman cited their home geography, too, decades later: “They are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California, not counting Ronald Reagan… They effortlessly represented what people do not like about Malibu.” The warm smell of colitas: it’s just no match for turnpike musk.
They weren’t irreverent enough. The New York Daily News troll piece had its most recent click-bait antecedent in a much-forwarded 2013 Salon article titled, “Quit defending the Eagles! They’re simply terrible.” In the Salon essay, Stephen Deusner wrote, among many other complaints, “They come off as deadly serious, with no sense of humor about anything, least of all themselves.” Salon did not attempt to explain “The Greeks Don’t Need No Freaks.”
They reportedly indulged in mass quantities of drugs and groupies in the 1970s. As opposed to, say, the universally eulogized David Bowie, lauded upon his death for having been so abstemious in the ‘70s on both those counts. (Sarcasm intended.)
They wrote about that hedonism without totally forswearing it. The band recorded songs examining the pitfalls of decadence -- “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Hotel California,” “The King of Hollywood” -- while not yet adopting a Puritan lifestyle. This was outrageous, because there has never been any literary tradition of men of letters and indulgence chronicling their own possible doom. (Sarcasm intended again.)
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They weren’t punk. The Daily News slam characterized the Eagles as “easy listening… even too soft for an elevator… the music your mom and dad would let you play on the living room hi-fi (you could go upstairs and listen to the Clash after dinner).” The entire punk movement is oft remembered as a reaction to the Eagles and prog-rock… but then suddenly prog got cool with the kids again, leaving the Eagles to twist alone in the wind for the last decade or two, with a newly redeemed Yes smirking up from below.
Hating the Eagles: a generational duty. Some Generation X-ers and other post-boomers have begun examining exactly why they were expected from puberty to reject the Eagles. In his 1972 Newsday essay, Robert Christgau praised the band’s musical prowess, then famously shifted gears with the line, “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them.” Chuck Klosterman alluded directly to that Christgau sentiment when he wrote a book chapter titled: “Another Thing That Interests Me About the Eagles is That I [Am Contractually Obligated to] Hate Them.” In his book I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), Klosterman treated the group as one of those villains, saying, “I hated the Eagles, too. After spending the first 25 years of my life believing they were merely boring, I suddenly decided they were the worst band that had ever existed (or could ever exist)... I saw The Big Lebowski and decided the main character should become the model for all human thought. Electronica was on MTV… Even grandmas were temporary postmodernists. Aspirant Urban Outfitter employees were excited about technology and really into Neutral Milk Hotel. It was the logical time to believe Glenn Frey was Pol Pot.”
And then, as if prompted by the Eagles’ song “Get Over It,” he got over it. Coming to a “realization about who I was and how I thought about art,” Klosterman came to see the Eagles as “just an old rock band who made music that was significant and relaxing and inevitable." He admitted “only an idiot would argue that ‘Take It Easy’ is poorly written or badly executed,” and decided he could “appreciate ‘The Disco Strangler’ with a complexity I cannot pretend to understand.”
If Chuck Klosterman can learn to love (or at least begrudgingly like) The Long Run and to downgrade Frey from genocidal dictator status to seeing him as an actual musician, is there hope for others trained to see the Eagles as the anti-indie enemy? Probably not, given how entrenched both sides are. Ken Burns should probably prepare a montage on the Eagles-related Facebook status updates tearing friends and families apart, with detractors claiming the Eagles represent the sum of all human evil and defenders lamely replying that those 150 million records didn’t sell themselves.
The thing that gets argued least, of course, beyond the personalities and supposed smugness or cynicism, is the actual content of those original six albums. It’s not difficult to understand how ears accustomed to edgier fare can get hung up on their essential smoothness without even listening to the songs. Sometimes it takes something like co-writer J.D. Souther doing his own version of the Frey-sung “New Kid in Town” to awake you to the greatness of material too easily absorbed and rejected as wallpaper. Now, more than ever, there may be a misunderstanding that a cacophony of emotions has to be expressed with a cacophony of sounds.
In fact, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” isn’t really about having a peaceful, easy feeling -- it is, as songwriter Jack Tempchin said, a “song about not getting the girl.” If the prettiness in Frey’s voice didn’t immediately betray that uneasiness, its loveliness was no sin. “The Best of My Love” was not, contrary to immediate appearances, a sticky valentine, but a rueful ballad of regret. Much of the Eagles’ catalog takes place in the “Sad Café,” where, aural finesse aside, no one’s really taking it all that easy. The band’s lyrics were mostly about restlessness, not the complacency the haters think they hear as a result of all that musical exactitude.
If hating the group has become a default position for so many people of a certain age or attitude, as so many of these social media messages and op-eds seem to suggest, then maybe reclaiming the Eagles is about the most punk rock thing anyone can do in 2016. Rest in peace, Glenn Frey -- quadrillion seller, and now, outlier icon.