A (Not-so) Brief Misery of the Eagles
VH1's Behind the Music is always fun to watch. You can revel in the personal struggles of the band and cheer on the comebacks, but the real reason we watch is simple. We love when the narrator begins the segment with, "and then it all went horribly wrong." That's the point when the featured band begins to implode, explode and generally go sideways into an oak tree. A pure case of schadenfreude.
Which brings us to The History of the Eagles: a three-hour music documentary exploring the same misery that most bands, even the not famous ones, go through. Short of a member overdosing, the Eagles' tale follows the typical misery flow chart:
1. The days of innocence. This is when founders Glenn Frey and Don Henley tell their tales of falling in love with music. Frey singing with a high school band. Henley taken to a music store by his mother for a brand new drum kit. Happy, carefree days.
2. Days of poverty and struggle. Blah, blah, blah, the bands Frey and Henley are in, separately, go nowhere, no one cares, maybe an album is made, but no one cares, etc. Frey lives upstairs from Jackson Browne who is renting a room for just $30 bucks a month. Happy, if not poor and aimless, carefree days.
3. Stuff is coming together. Frey and Henley end up in LA and start backing Linda Ronstadt. They realize they sound great together and ask Linda if they can split. She gives her blessing and off they go to Aspen.
4. Aspen is basically a commune and a place to learn their chops. The boys really aren't a band yet and they have no direction. Are they country? Are they rock? Bluegrass? Don't ask, because they haven't a clue. Amidst this confusion, they decide to get Glyn Johns- the guy who produced heavy hard rock thunder gods Led Zeppelin and the consummate bad boys, The Rolling Stones. Makes sense? Sure it does in the minds of the young and ambitious.
5. Go to England and work with a hard rock producer. Glyn Johns didn't get them at all until they were taking a break and decided to sing an a cappella traditional number. Johns saw the potential and encouraged them to pursue a more folky-country vocal harmony.
6. Two albums and the egotism grows. Frey and Henley, by some telling it, were not the original designated leaders. Randy Meisner (bass and vocals) and Bernie Leaden (instrumental wizard with Art Garfunkel hair) were the supposed musical leaders. But he (or they) who write the songs and sings them, rules the band. This is all very basic and these lads should have understood this, but what kind of story of misery would it be if youthful musicians made mature decisions?
Frey and Henley are now the despots and change is coming. Frey especially believes that the Eagles should embrace a hard rock sound. Glyn Johns scoffs at the notion. In the doc, Frey imitates Johns in a very Spinal Tap-like moment. "That's my bloody reverb," Frey delivers in a Nigel Tufnel faux British accent. Frey no like being told what to do. The monster needs feeding.
Truth is, Johns was right. The Eagles, even with Feldon and Walsh, were never a hard rocking band. I just didn't buy it.
7. Time to start throwing people out of the band, right? During the doc, watching the facial expressions of Bernie Leaden is very revealing. It's hard to tell whether he is annoyed by the cameras or the mystifying change of musical direction. In one continuous scene, Frey, a mediocre electric guitarist at best, faces Henley and tries to create a hard rock moment. Leadon looks so out of place. You see, the trouble with being the instrumental prowess guy is that egotism trumps all. Bluegrass is passé and is not the musical direction the Frenley monster wants. They wanna be gen-u-wine rock stars!
8. Add Joltin' Joe to be authentic rockers. Joe Walsh brought the band an authentic hard rock edge. They also added guitarist Don Felder. 1974-75 proves to be a profitable time for the Frenleys. Profitable and volatile.
The worst thing that can happen to a band is success.
What? Did he just write that? Yes, kids, I did. Money and success change everything about a band. As soon as money starts rolling in, as soon as crowds start rolling into stadiums, as soon as album sales hit astronomical heights, something has changed. For every gain, especially in a band, there is a loss. Innocence is the first to go. The stakes are higher, so now everyone makes a scramble for the gold, the girls and especially the spotlight.
When the ordinary musician arrives in circumstances that make him/her believe that they are among the chosen, the id is now the governing factor of their lives. All ordinary rules of behavior are off and bridges are going to burn.
9. A hotel that seals the deal (and sinks the ship). In the Long Run was the album that proceeded the initial breakup, but the mega-success of Hotel California was the beginning of the break.
It's time to throw people out of this well-oiled money-fame making machine.
Meisner first, because he wouldn't sing "Take It to the Limit,"- a song that featured his castrati-like falsetto in concert. Frey told him to get lost (I'm being polite here.). Later it was reported that Meisner was sick and felt he couldn't hit the high notes. You see, what King Frey essentially said was: "We're (I'm) in charge of this golden goose and you're not adhering to the the path to super-stardom. Get thee from mine sight." That's harsh even for Axel Rose who fired all the original G'n'R members to become even more of an egomaniacal idiot than he already was. (Read Duff's book.)
Then Felder next, after sassing a senator at a benefit. There's actual audio of Frey and Felder on stage threatening each other. Lovely, boys, lovely. Felder had taken a couple of artistic blows anyway and I think he was just sick of the Kingdom of the Frey and Henley. According to King Frey, no fisticuffs were exchanged, but Felder just ran off, busted up a cheap guitar and hit the limo.
What happened to the joy of music making together in a communal, democratic and brotherly way? That's goneski, baby, goneski.
10. I hate you, you hate me.
Are we getting a clear picture of what a jerk Glenn Frey has become? If Henley was just as much a monster, he's careful not to reveal it. The album had to be mixed. Frey and Henley did it, but ins separate studios on different coasts. Methinks the nerves were raw and frayed at that point.
11. A Fourteen year vacation.
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. A little "break" is needed. The toxic twins are separated and all others scatter to the wind, but then something happens.
Time happens. Lots of solo albums, MTV plays videos, awards are given and time softens all the animosity that once destroyed the band. Perhaps it's maturity or maybe it's a desire to ride the golden pony once again. After all, there's money to be made, old glories to be resurrected and let's face it: Eagles are bigger than the solo stuff by a long mile.
You see, a band is really a full-time thing. It's more time consuming and requires more dedication than a marriage. A marriage has breathing room - a band does not. In fact, a band demands more loyalty, dedication and work than just about anything. It takes over every aspect of your life and you begin to see your life, all relationships and the world through this distorted lens.
Sidebar: How do I know? The local band I was in experienced just enough success to become overwhelming and this cautionary tale is my tale in miniature. But it was enough for me to walk away from bands for the last twenty years.
Once a record company sees a "multi-platinum unit"- The Eagles' Greatest Hits sold more units than any album of the last century. Now there's blood in the water. And where there's blood, sharks are sure to be. You can see the execu-sharks, wringing their hands and whispering, "Get back out there. Your fans adore you! You guys are the greatest."
12. I don't hate you anymore. Oh, and one for rehab, please. When Joe Walsh joined the group, he brought with him many good things: wicked good guitar riffs which could be turned into gold, songwriting, singing and a comprehensive knowledge of how to live like a true rock star. Rock star 101 involves knowing the proper way to trash a hotel room. One incident cost the band $22k. That's pretty good even by Keith Moon's standard.
Joe's affable and easy social commerce, combined with his madcap sense of humor, made him a good fit for the Eagles. Joe Walsh also liked his booze and coke; of which there was plenty during the salad days. Walsh is very candid about his substance abuse. He says that cocaine works great when you're young, but as you mature, to get that same level of pleasure, you must "chase it." The cost, not just monetary, of chasing is self-destruction and destruction of all social and professional relationships.
The pictures of Walsh that accompany his confessions are really shocking. Here is a man who is clearly killing himself. Death is written all over him. He nearly checked out of the Hotel California. He knew he "was on the verge of losing everything."
After hell froze over, the Frenleys knew that Walsh needed rehab, but unlike the Lohans of the world and their fashionable, temporary mea culpas, Walsh made a real commitment to sobriety.
13. Happiness is predicated upon your acceptance of the hierarchy. They get the band back together and start the big tours which are huge and beyond anyone's expectations.
All seems well: Walsh is sober and even has Felder back with him for that Eagles' two-guitar interplay. But some people, Don Felder, are not happy about the Frenleys requesting more money than the rest of the band. Good move for peace, love and understanding, boys.
You see, it's not about the music, band camaraderie, nostalgia or any Peaceful Easy Feeling: It's about the money, honey. Frey argues that that he and Henley, in the breakup interim, were the only ones that kept the Eagles alive in the hearts and minds of fans through their solo projects.
Huh? Run that by me again? You mean your solo projects were altruistic allegiances to sustain the legacy of a band that you said would never reunite?
14. Reunions can be quite profitable. Let's keep doing them. The Police 2007-2008 reunion tour grossed over 340 million dollars. Though the band numbered three, Sting, Summers and Copeland had separate dressing rooms. Why? It's easy.
While on tour, old wounds are remembered. Sting and Copeland still wanted to smash in each other's skulls, even though decades had passed. Sting holds the reigns and Copeland still fights against that. Maybe that's why they had such fury when they played. The music was channeling an inner rage.
Bands are not democracies. They may pretend or appear to be an equal partnership, but in the end there's someone in charge, acknowledged or not.
In short: If you're a fan of the Eagle's work, you're going to love the insights. If you are lukewarm to the Tequila sunrises, then this is a good study in human nature and the dramatic nature of bands.
PS: Bill Lynch told me of a tell-all book where Henley is revealed as more of a monster than he comes off in this documentary.