Okay, unlike the Dude, I don’t actually hate the fuckin’ Eagles. Then again, I wouldn’t really call myself a Greatest Hits fan, either; though I know the same songs as everybody else and like a few of them, I’ve never really paid them much attention beyond that. But I have a reputation as an intrepid musical explorer to maintain, in my own mind if nowhere else, so a recent viewing of the documentary “History of the Eagles” on Netflix makes this as good an opportunity as any.
I’ll pause for a sec to state that, whatever you may think about the Eagles, the documentary – at least the first part, up to their breakup – is excellent. (The second part is less so, but still revealing.) There’s some behind-the-scenes footage from around 1977 with shockingly good video quality. Well-produced, balanced, compelling, skillful editing of interviews with vintage stuff. And while the opportunity might have been taken to be excessively hagiographic, it avoids this. But I digress.
It seems that the Eagles are a polarizing band, though frankly it’s difficult to see a current new listener getting particularly excited about them one way or another. To me, overall they’re the epitome of “safe” music, with nothing terribly offensive or edgy happening one way or the other. In their heyday they weren’t a pain in the establishment’s ass the way others among their contemporaries were; there was seemingly little concern with their offstage rock musician activities, though supposedly the band were just as guilty of those excesses as the rest. I suppose that if you can readily imagine the President of the United States listening to your music without him needing to hide or downplay the fact, that means something. It’s probably part of the reason why somebody like the Dude would hate them — they weren’t asking for revolution, and there was no pretense that they were. They stood for basically nothing except chilling the fuck out, takin’ it easy, finding a peaceful easy feeling, etc. There’s no doubt some sonic connective tissue between the Eagles and the Dude’s beloved CCR, except that the Eagles lacked even a shred of CCR’s counterculture appeal. Let’s face it, the Dude was never going to have his shit sufficiently together to start much of a revolution on his own, but he needed to feel like, once, maybe, he could have (occupying administration buildings, co-drafting the original Port Huron statement, railing occasionally against fucking fascist sheriffs), and that his interest in the idea was still there.
Henley and crew, meanwhile, had none of that. I said a moment ago that they’d never even had any pretensions about really being rebels, and it’s true — they left that for Bon Jovi to try on a decade later. The outlaw look they went for on their second album, Desperado, in 1973 didn’t remotely reflect their music in terms of sound or subject matter. One might think they were trying to be badass and failing, except that one of the album’s cover photos features them all lying “dead”, presumably at the hands of their behind-the-scenes guys glowering behind them. They knew they weren’t rebels at all, and were thumbing their noses at the very idea. Yet another reason for them to be squarely in the Dude’s black books, presumably.
Now that I’ve taken the time to actually listen to all their albums from 1972-1979, do I have a greater liking for their music? Nope. I have a greater understanding of their place in Americana and in rock and how it came to be, but I don’t see myself listening to their stuff much more than I did before. I imagine I’ll hum along to their stuff when I hear it as much as I ever did previously; an earworm is, after all, still an earworm.
I make two exceptions, both from 1976’s Hotel California. The first is that the song “The Last Resort” actually is a bit of a call to arms, which I refuse to believe undermines my premise since it’s pretty much alone in their repertoire. The other is “Pretty Maids All In A Row”, for which I’ve long had a bit of a soft spot, but which I actually do enjoy and appreciate more now. The reason is that I didn’t know until recently that Joe Walsh sang lead vocals on it. And if there’s another positive this exploration of the Eagles has brought me, it’s a much greater appreciation for the work of guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh. Frankly, thank God for those two…. before they came on board, the band was firmly on the meandering road to easy listening Hell. Walsh in particular had an impressive body of eclectic work before the Eagles reeled him in, and he gave them a slight bluesy swagger they otherwise lacked and which melded beautifully with Felder’s technical skill. It didn’t hurt either that he was a genuine character, a goofball, or as Glenn Frey describes him in the documentary, “an interesting bunch of guys.” He also seems to have an excess of humility; he claims to have been in awe of Henley and Frey and somewhat intimidated by them, because they wrote songs that were way better than anything he could write. Yet it’s clear from his solo work that he sells himself short, while Felder does not; the documentary makes this even starker by its portrayal of the onstage fireworks between Frey and Felder that helped break up the band over thirty years ago, and which led to Felder’s ultimate expulsion from the reunited band in 2001 when he objected to Frey and Henley’s shamelessly stated intention to take a disproportionate share of the band’s income. Walsh, by comparison, was evidently okay with that arrangement and has stuck with the band ever since.
So, having said all this, there’s no denying that the Eagles hit the zeitgeist with their music; hard to argue otherwise with tens of millions of albums sold in the Seventies alone. And it’s clear that they worked a nerve during that period not being exercised by funk, glam, punk, or prog rock. In an America still mired in Nixonian cynicism, there was quite legitimately a place for soft rock with pretty harmonies that didn’t challenge either one’s ears or beliefs. Indeed, “sometimes there’s a band, and, well… they’re the band for their time and place. They fit right in there.” That was the Eagles.