The Eagles made great music.
That’s something many critics had a tough time saying. Early on, the Eagles had a California punk attitude. Mix that in with infectious, harmony-rich country-rock and huge chart records, and they suddenly had four targets on their backs.
It didn’t help when, at a concert in New York, they bashed the New York Dolls and lectured the audience about real music.
But Glenn Frey and Don Henley, along with guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist Randy Meisner, delivered the goods. Glenn and Don were the Laurel Canyon, mid-’70s answer to Lennon and McCartney. They concocted songs, hip and clever, that reflected their times, their surroundings, and their rapidly developing lifestyle — that is, life in the fast lane.
That life led to dysfunction. But through their breakups and makeups, I thought of Glenn Frey as the backbone, the strength of the band, the main force in keeping the Eagles in the public consciousness. The band credited the rise of classic rock radio in the ’80s for giving them and their music a new life. “I couldn’t get away from the Eagles even after I left,” Frey told me. “It was like the band broke up, but we were still around.” Don Henley’s solo efforts also helped, as did Frey’s work, both in music (“The Heat Is On,” “You Belong to the City”) and on screen, on Miami Vice and other shows.
I met him only a couple of times, once at the legendary Eagles vs. Rolling Stone grudge softball game in Los Angeles in 1978, when Gov. Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt were among those in the stands rooting against us rock journalists. The band killed us, and we learned later that they’d been practicing for two weeks. We were at our typewriters. Afterwards, Glenn and Don wrote a piece about the game for the magazine. Sure, they still hated us, but ink is ink.
Many years later — it was 2005 — I saw them at Madison Square Garden for a magazine piece and spoke with each of them. Glenn struck me as the most serious; the Jagger of the Eagles. The band was big business, and he took care of it. On stage, the band played their parade of hits, note-for-note, covering themselves perfectly, even coolly. Joe Walsh was the comic presence; Glenn, the host, with practiced lines like, before launching into “Lyin’ Eyes,” “This goes out to my first wife: Plaintiff.” He joked about the band’s never-ending farewell concerts. They were on “Farewell Tour 1” at the time, and Frey told the audience, “It’s a clever ploy by our management. He’s plotting ‘Farewell VI’ right now.'” Off stage, when I asked about that sixth “Farewell” run, he laughed. “I wonder who’s going to be playing my part!”
Besides the tours and the record royalties, the Eagles were making big money by playing corporate gigs. I’d heard that their fee could be as much as $2 million for a show.
Frey did not argue. “We get paid a lot of money,” he said, “but I feel we’ve earned it by virtue of how long we’ve survived.” He continued: “We didn’t set out to be a band for all times. We set out to be a band for our times. And sometimes, if you’re good enough to be a band for your time, you become a band for all time.”
Ben Fong-Torres is a veteran rock journalist and author (Gram Parsons biography Hickory Wind, top 40 radio history The Hits Just Keep on Coming) who has worked as an editor at Rolling Stone and the San Francisco Chronicle.