When Glenn Frey died on Monday, he left behind a wife, three children, legions of fans and a Hall of Fame band that must now consider a future without him.
In the days after his death, friends and colleagues recalled stories about Frey, including the time he was nearly late for the start of an Eagles concert because he had flown home to attend one of his children’s graduations.
“That makes me father of the year,” the group’s co-founder supposedly said. Or at the very least, a rock star with his priorities straight.
Frey’s death prompted the telling of such stories and widespread expressions of sadness and sympathy for his family, but it didn’t stem one cold sentiment: Lots of people hate the Eagles, a band that inspires as much resentment as it does love.
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It’s a sentiment most notoriously expressed by the Dude, Jeff Bridges’ character in the film “The Big Lebowski,” who gets tossed out of a cab after begging the driver to change the radio station because “I hate the (bleeping) Eagles, man.”
A day after Frey died at 67, the New York Post indulged in some Eagles hate, running a column under the headline: “Glenn Frey’s death was sad, but the Eagles were a horrific band.”
The writer then goes on in great detail to explain why: Mostly because he doesn’t like their music.
Well, the Eagles weren’t the greatest band in rock ’n’ roll, but they sure weren’t the worst band, either. And they don’t suck. They were accomplished musicians and skilled songwriters.
A lot of their music is easy to like instantly because it was written to be. Pleasantness may be a dubious destination, but it’s one lots of music fans pursue, perhaps because there’s enough chaos and anxiety in life already.
At its worst, the Eagles’ music is innocuous and derivative, a mainstream puree of rock, pop, country and, occasionally, a dab of soul.
I was in high school when “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” was released and its music was soon on every jukebox and nearly every radio station, and they became the soundtrack to my senior year.
It is by far their best-selling record; sales are now approaching 30 million copies, nearly double sales of its most successful studio album, “Hotel California,” which now exceed 16 million.
From that point on, the Eagles were blockbuster rock stars. And that, it seems, is where resentment for the band was born. So perhaps success, not the music, is why so many people hate the Eagles. If it’s the music, why not the same disdain for similar country-rock bands bands like Poco and Pure Prairie League or soft-rock acts like Seals and Crofts, America or Bread?
In an incisive essay he wrote in 1972, music critic Robert Christgau put their music into perspective: “The Eagles are a culmination of the vaguely country-oriented mainstream of American rock. Building its following from a core of white college and pre-college males, this music extends from electric citybillies like the Flying Burrito Bros. at one extreme to thrice-removed folkies like America at the other.”
But he distinguishes the Eagles from most of those other bands: “The Eagles have a basic commitment to rock and roll, probably by way of Frey, who grew up in hard-rock central Detroit. Commercially and aesthetically, this is a big plus.”
Then Christgau lays down the wood: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them,” a sentiment, he admits, is meant “to convey an anguish that is very intense, yet difficult to pinpoint.”
But he tries to pinpoint it: “Do I hate music that has been giving me pleasure all weekend, made by four human beings I’ve never met? Yeah, I think so. Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love.” He then charges the Eagles with representing “a new, hedonistic brand of American individualism.”
There’s something to that, both in their music, most of which delivers poetic but superficial ruminations about pursuits of love, romance and sex and, sometimes, the pain that ensues; and in their lifestyle, which glorified rock stardom.
Watch “History of the Eagles,” which documents the Eagles’ formation and rise from obscurity to rock super-stardom. Along the way, it seems, wealth and fame and post-show debauchery become the goals as much as creating and playing good music. That may be true about every rock band, but the Eagles weren’t Led Zeppelin or the Who or the Stones, and their lifestyles, it seemed, were writing checks their music couldn’t cash.
It’s easy to write nice things about the Eagles’ early albums, which were generally solid, filler-free and well-produced. But starting with “Hotel California,” I lost interest. The title track had something to do with it, more than six minutes of laborious excess — the “Free Bird” of West Coast rock (but not as interesting) — that was all over the radio for years, it seemed.
The “Hotel California” album coincided with adding Joe Walsh to the band, a calculated move it seemed: installing hot-shot guitar slinger to up the rock-star ante. The album included the song “Life in the Fast Lane,” a song that glorifies the kind of lifestyle it seems to be wagging its finger at. It was co-written by Walsh, who would later release on a solo album the hit single “Life’s Been Good,” a parody of rock-stardom.
The Eagles infamously broke up in 1980, unable to withstand the acrimony and ego clashes within the band. Their reunion 14 years later was widely celebrated.
But that was also the year that ushered in the $100-plus concert ticket, and the Eagles were one of several acts demanding those premium prices. Tickets for the best seats to their 1994 Hell Freezes Over Tour approached $120, which is nearly $200 in today’s money.
In a Chicago Tribune article from May 1994, a fan said: “The only reason we’re paying this kind of money is because it’s the last time you might be able to see the band. If they started doing reunion tours every year, I would get the idea it’s just for the money.”
Well ... that tour would stop at Sandstone Amphitheater for two nights in the spring of 1995, and the Eagles would return to Kansas City four more times after that, most recently in October 2013.
So the Eagles reunited and never went away. They just kept touring and ringing up ticket sales. Their three-year Long Road Out of Eden Tour, which comprised 155 shows (and stopped in Kansas City in November 2008 and March 2009), grossed more than $250 million, the 16th-highest of all time. I suppose it’s easy to resent someone’s fortune if you don’t like the means to it.
Frey, it seems, tried to keep himself grounded, especially after he started raising a family. In addition to its Eagles hate piece, the New York Post ran an article titled “After life in fast lane, Glenn Frey was a devoted NYC dad.”
In its tribute to Frey this week, Rolling Stone recalled this from a 2012 interview: “As long as I keep taking out the garbage and cleaning up after the dogs and taking the kids to school, I’ll have perspective,” he said. A statement at the time of his death related it to rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia.
So he leaves behind a reputation as a devoted dad, a family that loves him, fans who will miss him and lots of enduring music that will be replayed and remembered for a long time. Nothing about that sucks.