Glenn Frey: Already Gone
I stopped listening to the Eagles, one of my favorite bands in the early and mid-70s, when Hotel California came out. Maybe it was the loss of Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner and the addition of Joe Walsh—whom I had seen in the early ’70s when he opened for Eric Clapton at the Palm Beach International Speedway; Walsh was post-James Gang and a few years pre-Eagles—or maybe it was the oversized egos, especially Don Henley and Glenn Frey, always at odds back then, or rumored to be so, or maybe it was that droning title track, which was, for me, the death knell of the Eagles’ music, a song I now call the band’s version of “American Pie,” long, overstuffed, repetitive; the song’s lyrics best described the anomie and airless claustrophobia the song induced: “you can check in, but you can never leave.” Whatever the case, my love affair with the Eagles came to an end with that album, and The Long Run seemed to be just that, a marathon of overproduced music that betrayed somehow the promise of the harmonies and the lively instrumentals of the band’s first four albums. If I listened to the Eagles after 1977—the last time I saw them live, at the now-defunct Omni in Atlanta, where Glenn Frey and Don Henley were in fine voice, indeed—it was to those first four albums and very likely because on those albums there were four voices emanating from four musicians who had created a sound that carried along some of the best of a new strain of music coming out of southern California, at the time called country rock.
Back then, that first Eagles album touched me in ways I can’t exactly name today. I do know that when I dropped the needle on the first track, “Take It Easy,” I heard a sound I hadn’t before; driving guitars, soaring vocal harmonies, and a lead guitar solo backed by, of all instruments, a banjo. As a young lead guitarist, I had already worked hard to master—not nearly as successfully as I would have liked, then or now—the riffs of Alvin Lee of Ten Years After and Johnny Winter. I spent the mid-60s playing rhythm on songs by Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Isley Brothers, and others. When the Eagles’ first album dropped, though, I quickly learned the lead solo to “Take It Easy” and added that song and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” to our band’s sets. We’d always kick off any night’s gigs with “Take It Easy”; the song set the right tone for the rest of the evening somehow. When Jackson Browne’s second album, “For Everyman,” arrived, the first song happened also to be “Take It Easy,” his and Frey’s co-write, in a version I came to prefer.
I bought Desperado as soon as it came out, and followed up with On the Border—though by then you could hear some changes in the band’s sound; it was harder, more guitar driven than ever—and One of These Nights, which I think of as the last good Eagles album. I’ll admit to buying Hotel California and The Long Run, and each has its moments—many of which thanks to songwriting collaborations between J.D. Souther, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, such as “New Kid in Town,” and “Sad Café”—but those albums simply don’t say “Eagles” in as loud a voice as those first four albums.
Glenn Frey died today—January 18, 2016—exactly one week after another monumental rock and roll innovator, David Bowie. Frey’s death, though hit me harder than Bowie’s, maybe because we were closer in age, maybe because I wore on Ol’ 55 football jersey every time I performed (Frey wore such a jersey when I saw them in concert in 1975, and since that was my theme song at the time, I had one made and wore it, and can wear it still), but mainly I think it’s because Frey was the Eagles to me. Of all the Eagles, Bernie Leadon was probably my favorite because he’s such a multi-talented musician and can play any stringed instrument, but Leadon never commanded much attention as a front man (nor did he want to), and Frey was the guy who was always out there, playing the guitar, singing the song, and getting the audience engaged in the show. To me, Henley was always the dour one, a little too serious for his own good, with an ego to match, and even when, in later years the five of the them would come out on guitar and start the show with “Seven Bridges Road,” Henley never seemed to be having too much fun. Frey, on the other hand, carried on like the quintessential rocker, and he’s the one folks remember after a night with the Eagles, at least before Hotel California, when the Eagles ceased to be a band in their live shows and functioned more as individuals showcasing their solo work to the detriment of their work together. (It’s a sad commentary that when Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good to Me” comes on the radio, some folks have said out loud that it’s an Eagles song.)
Frey’s death hit me as hard as Levon Helm’s, Jesse Winchester’s, Alvin Lee’s, and Johnny Winters’ (not to mention Rick Danko’s and Richard Manuel’s), I think, because his music, and his music with the Eagles, planted itself deeply in my soul and often transported me, either through his lyrics or his singing, but most often through the music itself. “Take It Easy” is an anthem for the early 1970s and named the feeling many of us had as we navigated the choppy waters of the draft resistance and the politics of rebellion in our newly minted freak selves—hippies to our parents—searching indeed for a moment when peace and love might really take hold. The song spoke to our wanderlust (and we embraced each part of that word fervently), and became that hackneyed cliché—the soundtrack of our lives, at least for a moment. “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” which Frey co-wrote with Jack Tempchin, held its own attraction, and if we read enough into that final verse—”I get this feeling I may know you/as some lovers and some friends” (the band sang these latter phrases, “some lovers and some friends,” in their live shows replacing the original “a lover and a friend”)—we could convince ourselves that the song echoed our desires for the unity a like-minded community might bring. On the albums that followed, songs like “Desperado,” Saturday Night,” “Outlaw Man,” “My Man,” “Already Gone,” “Ol’ 55,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Hollywood Waltz,” and “Take It to the Limit”—schmaltzy as they sometimes sound now—delivered that moment of transcendence when the music itself took us to a place outside of ourselves and maybe of this world and created a memory that we still recall today. Frey recognized that the Eagles of the early and mid-70s were somehow more enduring than the later Eagles, and the group’s collection, Their Greatest Hits, 1971-75, went platinum 29 times.
In many ways, the Eagles ceased to be the Eagles after Hotel California; they became, as I’ve indicated, an aggregate of superb individual musicians, each seeking his own way, rather than the band they were in their early days. But not only that: it was Frey’s harmonies with Meisner and Henley that made the Eagles the band they were, and with Meisner’s departure that magic was gone. It was Frey’s songwriting—often co-writing, of course, with Henley and others—that drove the sound of the band. It was Frey’s guitar that helped drive the band to its sound in those early days; and, it was Frey’s vision of the fresh sound of this new, young band of musicians that allowed them to take it to the limit.
Frey’s death also leaves me wondering why I feel sad, at a loss, at his or Helm’s, or Bowie’s death. After all, I never met Frey, didn’t know him as a friend, wasn’t close to him, and likely never would have the chance even to chat with him on the phone for an interview. What is it about the death of musicians—in this case, though you could likely ask the same question with writers, painters, actors, or other artists—that feels so personal to us, as if we’ve lost one of our best friends? Is it that we’ve wanted to live their lives, or imitate their lifestyle, and now we no longer have a model for doing so? Is it that he or she has shown us a style of music that has so touched our lives that we are forever grateful for it? Or, is it not the musician at all, but the music? Isn’t the music, after all, what endures in our lives? Surely, it’s some combination of musical vision and the music it produces. We’ll miss Glenn Frey, but every time we cue up “Take It Easy” or “Already Gone,” he comes back to life. Music imbues our hearts and souls with the beauty and power of the departed spirits it continually resurrects. Frey lives on through his music, and his music enables us to make new memories, recall old memories (good and bad), and take us out of ourselves to a place and time when, for a moment at least, we could feel that the universal spirit of music might just save the world, allowing us all to take it easy with a peaceful easy feeling.