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The Eagles' Greatest Hit

Alison Ellwood's epic documentary perfectly captures the rise and fall of a famous band

I never put much thought into the Eagles. In high school, my friends and I assumed they were just another famous ’70s band that splintered, then found an extended afterlife on classic rock stations. They stood out only because they sold a remarkable number of “Greatest Hits” albums. Everyone — and I mean everyone — had the first one. Their songs popped up consistently at our parties, but so did the Steve Miller Band and the Allman Brothers and 12 other groups from that era. I don’t remember arguing about the Eagles, debating the meaning of “Hotel California,” or even joking about Glenn Frey being pissed about Don Henley’s then-scorching solo career.

Did I know that music critics picked them apart for being more successful than they should have been? Absolutely not. I never knew the band abused their bodies and went through groupies like they were Marlboro Reds. I never knew three different Eagles guitarists left the band for stereotypically awesome reasons: jealousy, infighting, warring creative visions, credit jockeying, even a beer that was derisively poured on Frey’s head. I never knew when the Eagles split up, much less why, or if it mattered. That ubiquitous classic rock format kept every ’70s band relevant. The Eagles were broken up, but really, they weren’t.

Two years after I graduated college, they reunited for 1994’s “Hell Freezes Over” tour, a shameless money grab disguised as their long-awaited reunion. Nostalgia rock had been generating big bucks for every past-its-prime act. Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones sold out stadiums like it was 1975. Billy Joel and Elton John toured America together, even overlapping for a few songs every show. And now, the Eagles were freezing hell. I remember having a chance to see them and quickly passing. Take it easy, Eagles.

The Eagles

From that point on, I never thought about them unless Chris Berman was involved. That changed this spring, right after Showtime started showing Alison Ellwood’s documentary about them. I have watched The History of the Eagles, Part One five times, not counting all the other times it sucked me in for 15-minute stretches. I have participated in multiple Eagles-related e-mail chains that I may or may not have started. I have gone down Eagles-related rabbit holes on Google so cavernous that I once typed the words “Stevie Nicks Don Henley abortion.” (Yes, things come up.) Two different times, a friend e-mailed me just to say, “I was talking about the Eagles doc with [fill in our mutual friend]. I had no idea you loved it, too!”

Quick confession: This happens to me from time to time. And by “this,” I mean “obsessively watching and rewatching TV shows, movies or documentaries until I beat them into the ground.” My personal nadir happened in 1998, when I watched HBO’s Paradise Lost four times in a two-week span and did everything short of starting a “MARK BYERS DID IT” website. Whenever this happens, my wife dismissively calls it “binge mode,” as in, “Oh Jesus, you’re in binge mode again.”

But even my wife wasn’t against this Eagles binge. It’s not like the Eagles are intrusive. Wasn’t that the most appealing thing about their music? As Frey points out in The History of the Eagles, Part Two, people did things with the Eagles. They could join you for any road trip, any party, any breakup, any late-night hang. So why couldn’t they join you in 2013, in your living room, while you’re flipping through e-mails or reading things on your iPad?1 Their music is harmlessly timeless, and I swear, I mean that as a compliment.

You know what else? The Eagles were significantly bigger than I ever realized. Really, there wasn’t a more successful, popular or famous American band in the 1970s. Even today, their first greatest hits album (released in 1976, almost one year before Hotel California came out) is still battling neck and neck with Thriller as the highest-selling album of all time. That dumbfounding fact alone made the Eagles worthy of a documentary, even if a 215-minute treatment was unquestionably overboard. Part One handles their creation and ascent, their battles with fame and cocaine (since when were those six words anything but awesome?), every major fight they ever had (ditto), every possible reason they broke up (ditto), and then their actual breakup after an acrimonious concert highlighted by Glenn Frey repeatedly threatening to kick a band mate’s ass (even though Frey probably weighed a buck fifty at the time).

In my humble opinion, it’s the finest documentary ever made about the rise and fall of a memorable rock band, as well as a superb commentary on the dangers of fame and excess. You’ll recognize pieces of Almost Famous in it, and that’s not by accident — Cameron Crowe covered them for Rolling Stone, eventually creating Stillwater as a hybrid of the Allman Brothers and the Eagles (with a little Led Zep mixed in). There’s more than a little Frey and Henley in Jeff Bebe and Russell Hammond.

The film should have ended there. But since the band wanted something covering their entire history from 1971 until today, Part Two sprawlingly covers their post-breakup careers and their reunion. It’s excessive, to say the least. I would have been fine with an eight-minute epilogue. Although I did enjoy Part Two‘s attempt to make Frey’s acting career seem successful, as well as any Eagle pretending they returned for any reason other than “gobs and gobs of money.” There’s one unintentionally hilarious part: Henley and Frey painstakingly rehashing the creative process for “Get Over It” as if they’re discussing “Hotel California” or something. I also enjoyed guitarist Don Felder bitching about reunion royalties; Felder believed he should be earning as much money as Henley and Frey when, again, he was Don Felder. It was like the 1993 Bulls reuniting, then Horace Grant fighting to be paid as much as Michael and Scottie.

Fine, you got me — I’ve watched Part Two twice even though it’s 70 minutes too long. I can’t help it. But Part One? Part One is magnificent. It’s one of my favorite documentaries ever. Without further ado, my 20 favorite things about The History of the Eagles, Part One.

Reason No. 1: The Magic of a Cold Open

The film starts with the band singing “Seven Bridges Road” in their Washington, D.C., dressing room before a 1977 concert: A pre-show bonding ritual that Cameron Crowe hijacked for Stillwater in Almost Famous. In Felder’s book (which I may or may not have devoured in two hours last month),2 he reveals they couldn’t pull off this tradition before their reunion concerts. Why? Their voices weren’t strong enough. That’s everything you need to know about the post-1994 Eagles. The 1977 Eagles? Really, really good. It’s a brilliant way to start the movie.

Hey, everyone, here are these five guys you may or may not know at the absolute apex of their powers. They were fucking famous for a reason.

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Reason No. 2: The Tao of Joe Walsh

In 1975, guitarist Bernie Leadon ditched the Eagles so he could spend the next 38 years kicking himself for being stupid enough to leave the Eagles. When they replaced him with Walsh (more of a rocker than a mellow/pseudo-country/harmony guy), many believed they were destroying the band. But Walsh brought an unpredictable edge that the Eagles desperately needed, a willing guitar foil for “Fingers” Felder (their “duels” were a highlight of every Eagles concert) and an addictive personality that made other Eagles say, “I know I’m drinking too much and doing too many bumps of coke, but at least I’m not as bad as Joe.”

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Walsh’s most underrated strength? He has a knack for capturing the band’s problems and pressures in the most Joe Walshian ways. For instance …

Joe Walsh on fame: “The first thing that happens is that you get some kind of label, and you gotta live up in it, and you just get caught up in that, and I forget what the second thing is.”

(Note to everyone entering senior year in high school: There’s your yearbook quote. You’re welcome.)

Joe Walsh on their big breakup: “So much stuff just happened. You know, there’s a philosopher who says, ‘As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.'”

(So many classic things about that monologue. First, he never names the philosopher — and as far as we know, that philosopher was some dude named Clyde who gave Walsh incredible coke on a Thursday night in, like, 1978. Second, there’s a 20 percent chance he stole the entire thing from Charles Dickens and just doesn’t remember. Third, THAT’S AN AMAZING QUOTE. Read it again. Starting with “As you live your life,” it’s 68 words of legitimate greatness. And he rattled it off the top of his head and credited some philosopher who may or may not exist. Can we give Joe Walsh a podcast called “The Tao of Joe Walsh”?)

Reason No. 3: The Jackson Browne/Linda Ronstadt connections

After Glenn Frey moved to Los Angeles, he befriended Jackson Browne and ended up renting a $125-a-month apartment right above Browne.3 At the time, the ambitious Frey was just another wannabe musician who wanted to be famous, only he wasn’t sure how to get there. Then he started listening to Browne work every morning.

“Around nine in the morning,” Frey remembers, “I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off with this whistle in the distance, and then I’d hear him playing piano. I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ’cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.”

Throw in the opening of Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” and that’s a perfectly constructed documentary scene. What happens if Frey never lives above one of that decade’s best singer-songwriters during the formative stages of his career? Would the Eagles have even turned into THE EAGLES?

Frey’s other lucky break: In 1971, Linda Ronstadt was putting together a supergroup/backup band of musicians she liked from the Troubadour (a West Hollywood venue that had become THE spot to see up-and-coming artists). She hired Henley as a drummer and Frey as a guitarist; they spent the next few months touring with Ronstadt right as her career was blowing up, and eventually broke off to launch the Eagles.4 As John Boylan described her in those early years, “Linda was gonna be a star — that voice as big as a house, there wasn’t anyone in the room that cared about anything other than that voice.” The never-before-seen Troubadour footage in the documentary brings that back to life … and she’s playing with two guys who were about to form the Eagles. Crazy. Even if Stevie Nicks owns the “Enduring ’70s Music Babe With A Killer Voice” championship belt,5 in Part One, Ronstadt reminds you why she made the Finals.

Reason No. 4: Random Drug Stories

You have to love any rockumentary that includes this moment: “We had a bag of peyote buttons, a bunch of trail mix, some tequila, a bunch of water and some blankets. And the seven of us set out for Joshua Tree.”

Or this moment (that comes a little bit later): “I think everyone got higher than they ever imagined they could be.”

That reminds me …

Reason No. 5: The Eagles Liked to Have a Good Time

And then some. When they were making their second album, Frey remembers being bummed because producer Glyn Johns “had a bunch of rules that really didn’t suit me and some of the other guys, too: no getting high in the studio, no drinking in the studio … “

Come on, Glyn Johns! What is this, Nazi Germany??? By the third album, the Eagles had dumped Johns and started experimenting with a seemingly harmless drug called cocaine. Henley dances around this subject in Part One: “We were young men with raging hormones and something to prove … In the context of the times and the profession, the way we behaved wasn’t all that remarkable. The creative impulse comes from the dark side of the personality. So we worked it good, you know, we did a lot of stupid things, we said a lot of dumb things.”

Let’s be honest: “in the context of the times and the profession, the way we behaved wasn’t all that remarkable” might be the greatest excuse anyone’s ever made for anything. (Anthony Weiner, it’s not too late for you to steal this.) Leave it to Frey to say what Henley won’t say: “It was the ’70s. There were drugs everywhere.”

And a little later: “We’re on top of the world, we’re young … we were overdoing EVERYTHING.”

That’s when you know it’s coming: That’s right, it’s the inevitable black-and-white shot of a straw sucking down a couple of cocaine lines! Woo-hoo! THERE’S NO WAY THIS IS ENDING WELL! 

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Admits Frey, “When we first started snorting coke, it was like a writing tool. Do a couple bumps, kinda get started talking about stuff, get yourself going, and launch into some sort of idea for a song. But in the end, cocaine brought out the worst in everybody.”

If someone ever launches the Drug Channel, I gotta say, that’s a strong idea for its version of the 30 for 30 series: “Cocaine Brought Out the Worst in Everybody.” You could easily milk 30 installments out of that theme, even if you couldn’t get the series sponsored without extorting someone. But you know who’d definitely get his own episode in that series?

Reason No. 6: The Michael Jordan of Hotel Room Destruction

For a band dismissed as pretty-boy wannabe rockers from California, Joe Walsh was not any of that. And not just musically. As Frey explains, “Joe Walsh was the American king of room trash. He’d studied under the best.”

OK, so who was the best? That would be the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, one of rock’s all-time lunatics and the star of the phenomenal YouTube video “Keith Moon Collapses at Cow Palace.”

What happened to Keith Moon? He died exactly how you’d expect him to die, but not before taking a liking to our friend Mr. Walsh. Says the American King of Room Trash, “All those Keith Moon stories were true … this guy was full-blown nuts. And you never knew what was coming next. Keith was my mentor at chaos, getting arrested, practical jokes, pranks, room damage … “

Doesn’t everyone need a “mentor in chaos”? I feel cheated that I never met this person in college. Walsh learned well from Moon — so well that Henley says, “In those days, you didn’t know what [Walsh] was gonna do next. That was fun most of the time, although not all the time. It was fun depending on how much you’d had to drink to see a television go sailing off a 14th-floor balcony and into the pool, as long as nobody got hurt.”

To be fair — I’d want to see a television go sailing off a 14th-floor balcony into a hotel pool whether I was drunk or sober. But this section also includes Walsh telling a 75-second John Belushi story (it ends with $28,000 of hotel room damage), Henley admitting that the other Eagles once gave Walsh a chain saw for his birthday (yes, he used it to redecorate a hotel room), and one of their crew astutely pointing out, “Don and Glenn didn’t really ever approve of the room trashing, but they understood it. They wanted respect as rock and rollers, and Joe brought that respect.”

I’m gonna say this means they approved. But when Walsh finally overdosed in 19— wait … he’s still alive? And he’s still touring with the Eagles in 2013??? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?????

Reason No. 7: The Desperado Album

So how goofy of a creative choice was the second Eagles album? The next two quotes are presented without comment.

“Nobody expected there to be a concept album with Western cowboy music.”

“Their premise was that if they had lived 100 years ago in 1872, [the Eagles] probably would have been gunslingers.”

This picture is also presented without comment.

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Since follow-up albums are doomed by comparisons to more successful first albums, maybe this creative choice wasn’t as dumbfounding as it seems today. In 1975, Cameron Crowe even wrote, “Desperado established the Eagles’ credibility. The album’s low-key concept, that the rock & roll life is not unlike an outlaw’s, was an idea Henley, Frey, Browne, Souther and Ned Doheny had kicked around for years. Plus, we’re 20 years away from something called the Internet, which will absolutely mock the living shit out of this.” Fine, I made up that last sentence.

Reason No. 8: The Yoko Ono of the Eagles

It wasn’t Stevie Nicks or Linda Ronstadt. It wasn’t a blonde groupie who looked like Kate Hudson. It wasn’t a celebrity girlfriend or a wannabe singer.

It was this guy.

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That’s former California senator Alan Cranston. In 1980, just a few months after they released their last album (The Long Run), the Eagles appeared at a Cranston benefit and Felder wasn’t happy about it. After Cranston thanked him for coming, Felder said “You’re welcome … I guess.” Frey overheard and flipped out, dragging their bad blood into a concert in Long Beach that night. He spent most of the show berating Felder, threatening to beat him up after the concert, and making vows like “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you … I can’t wait.” Renowned producer/engineer Bill Szymczyk happened to be recording everything, almost as if he knew a documentary would be coming 33 years later that needed juicy audio exchanges like this.

Frey: “You’re a real pro, Don, all the way.”

Felder: “Yeah, you are, too, except the way you handle people. Except for the people you pay.”

Frey: “Fuck you, I’ve been paying you for seven years, you fuckhead.”

Again, they were onstage playing for a sold-out crowd in Long Beach at the time. As Tao of Joe Walsh says now, “Whoa — when that kind of stuff is onstage and you’re in front of people, you’ve got problems.” When the show ended, Felder stormed off and shattered his guitar — “his cheapest guitar,” as Frey sardonically points out now — then screeched off in his limo to avoid a slap fight with Frey. The end. The Eagles didn’t play together for another 14 years. Frey says wistfully all these years later, “Someone wrote that the Eagles went out with a whimper, not a bang … which was true.”

Here’s my question: How did this entire story not make Alan Cranston’s Wikipedia page?

Reason No. 9: Glenn Frey, Secretly Temperamental Dick

I know, I know, it’s hard to imagine Frey bullying band members, clashing with producers and threatening to murder guitarists — after all, he’s the “Take It Eaaaaaaaaaaaasy” guy who spent the ’80s telling you the heat was on. But Frey quarrels with just about everyone involved in Part One: Not just Felder, but Glyn Johns (fired before their third album),6 Meisner (Reason No. 10 — we’re getting there) and guitarist Bernie Leadon (who dumped a beer on Frey’s head before quitting).7

Explains Tao of Joe Walsh, “Glenn said to me one time, ‘I get nuts sometimes, and I’m sorry.’ But that tension had a lot to do with fanning the artistic fire. Having that dynamic was important in making the music.” Ohhhhhhhh-kay. Here’s my question: Who didn’t Glenn Frey fight with? Why do I have a feeling they cut the story when Frey yelled at Jackson Browne, “CAN YOU SHUT THAT FUCKING TEAPOT OFF PLEASE?!?!?!?”

The Eagles

If there’s a flaw in Part One, it’s everyone sidestepping the pink elephant in the room:8 The Eagles actually broke up because of an alpha-dog battle. Frey and Henley started out as equals in the Eagles, but by Hotel California, Henley had quietly assumed creative control. There was no way around it. By 1977, everyone knew that Henley wasn’t just the band’s best singer and songwriter, but one of the decade’s best musicians, period.

Frey understands this now. Or so it seems. Part One includes a great anecdote about Felder writing “Victim of Love,” then singing lead vocals for it and failing miserably. Eagles manager Irving Azoff9 then took Felder out for a meal so Henley could clandestinely put his own vocals over it (that version made the album). Henley explains this ploy in his typically awesome Don Henley way …

“We did let Mr. Felder sing it, he sang it dozens of times over the span of a week over and over again. It simply didn’t come up to band standards.”

(Notice the condescending “Mr. Felder,” as if he’s talking about an old eighth-grade science teacher he hated. I love when Don Henley gets churlish. I mean, MORE churlish.)

“Felder’s demand to sing that song would be like me demanding to play the lead guitar on ‘Hotel California.’ It just didn’t make sense.”


Here’s how Frey defended that Felder screwjob: “If you look at my vocal participation over the course of the ’70s, I sang less and less. It was intentional. We had Don Henley.” But late-1970s Frey wasn’t nearly as happy about this reality. The Eagles took forever to finish their last pre-breakup album, The Long Run, for three reasons …

A. Frey and Henley had grown apart (as Henley admitted to Cameron Crowe in 2003).10

B. Frey wasn’t happy about being 1977’s version of 2013 Dwyane Wade, even if he didn’t know who Dwyane Wade was at the time.

C. Everyone was doing enough cocaine to clean out a small town in Colombia.

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But you could see the writing on the wall as early as 1975, when Frey admitted to Crowe that “We’re the Oakland A’s of rock & roll. On the field, we can’t be beat. But in the clubhouse, well, that’s another story. Sure, Don and I are a lot more into it than the others. We’re completely different people. We rarely even hang out together.” It would only get worse. I wish Part One had tackled those Henley-Frey issues in more depth. Then again, I’m a weirdo who loves alpha-dog battles.

Reason No. 10: Frey’s Explanation for Randy Meisner Quitting the Band

You know the guy who sings “Take It to the Limit” while sounding like someone is squeezing his testicles in a vise?

That’s Meisner. And that was his signature Eagles song. As the years passed, Frey bristled anytime Meisner ducked out of singing “Take It to the Limit” in concert, leading to the following moment.

“I confronted him,” Frey remembers. “I said, ‘Randy, there’s thousands of people waiting for you to sing that song. You just can’t say “Fuck ’em, I don’t feel like it.” Do you think I like singing “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” every night? I’m tired of those songs.11 But there’s people in the audience who’ve been waiting YEARS to see us do those songs.’ We just got fed up with that. ‘OK, don’t sing it. Why don’t you just quit?'”

Things got heated. And more heated. And here’s where it turns into a deleted scene from Almost Famous

“There were police officers standing backstage,” Frey remembers, “and when they saw us about to go at it, they started to move in, and Henley turned right to the cops and said, ‘Stay out of this! This is personal, and it’s private. Real fucking private.'”

Even if that story was probably embellished, I loved it. Just once in my life, I want to shoo cops away by telling them, “Stay out of this! This is personal, and it’s private. Real fucking private.”

Reason No. 11: The Hairdos and the Facial Hair

Always the hidden benefit of any ’70s rockumentary. Counting down my top-five favorite looks from no. 5 to no. 1.

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Henley’s extraordinary Afro-beard combo was one for the ages, and it’s a shame we didn’t end up naming it after him. Nobody wore it better. When James Brolin tried to rip off the Henley in Amityville Horror, his career immediately went into a five-year tailspin. YOU DO NOT MESS WITH THE HENLEY!

Reason No. 12: This 1977 Frey-Henley exchange in a limo

An Eagles backlash started before the band even peaked, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because Frey and Henley were perceived as articulate, grounded thinkers (if you liked them) or arrogant assholes (if you didn’t). Does the sight of them climbing into a limo after a 1977 show, grabbing two clichéd beers and thoughtfully assessing the best year of their careers just because there’s a camera pointed at them … I mean … does that make them arrogant assholes milking the moment, or two hardworking artists who appreciated the ride and wanted it to keep going? I don’t know.

But here’s what I do know: You won’t find a better in-the-moment exchange about a band that’s peaking and understands that, for many reasons, their joyride definitely can’t last. My adds are in parentheses.

Henley: “The thing now is to try and see how long we can stay on top of the mountain. It’s very narrow and windy up here.”

(Even though that sounded like a rejected Eagles lyric, I kinda loved it. How many people have been knocked off the top of that mountain because it was too narrow and too windy? No, I wasn’t referring to you, Jay Mariotti.)

Frey: “We can probably continue doing what we’re doing as long as the songs keep coming.”

Henley: “That’s the only thing that frightens us— “

Frey: “If we go to the well and nothing comes up, we’ll be in trouble. So far, so good.”

(Don’t sleep on Frey interrupting Henley there, then Henley getting pissed for about 0.273 seconds before remembering cameras were rolling. But here’s another reason I retroactively enjoy these guys: Even in the moment, the Eagles were painfully aware of their own creative mortality,12 that their success brought with it an accompanying shelf life of sorts. Like so many other writers, I worry about my own mortality all the time. What happens when I’m staring at an empty Microsoft Word doc someday and nothing comes out of my fingers, and that’s it? Tony Kornheiser told me once that, when he turned 43, suddenly he couldn’t write the same way anymore. He went to the well and nothing came up. From that point on, he never wanted to write anything. “It’s going to happen to you, too, Simmons — someday,” he told me. I hate that he told me this. Anyway, I identified with this part.)

Henley: “I think we can maintain this for a few more years. I don’t see why not. Other people like the Stones and the Who and … Led Zeppelin have done it. Chicago’s done it. Groups last longer than they used to, you know. [Dramatic pause.] Shit don’t float.”

(This part reinforces the whole “When you’re discussing the most arrogant musicians, just make sure the conversation starts with Don Henley” argument that was definitely percolating in 1977. I’m in the minority here — I think people resented Henley for being so sage and earnest, and because he was the stereotypical handsome, philosophical musician who could calmly steal your girlfriend in 27 seconds as you were taking a piss. All guys instinctively resent people like this. That’s not Henley’s fault, even if he absolutely WOULD have stolen your girlfriend in 27 seconds.)

Anyway, in a scant 45 words, Henley unironically lumps in Chicago with the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin,13 calmly assesses exactly where the music industry is headed, then milks the moment by pausing before saying, “Shit don’t float.” (Totally clichéd and totally awesome — they should have called the ’94 reunion tour “Shit Floats.”) Sitting in that limo, did Frey and Henley know they had only three years and one album left in them? Kinda seems like they did, right? While we’re here …

Reason No. 13: The Rock-Basketball Connection

We tackled this in April’s Trade Value column (the Chris Bosh section), but let’s go deeper. Successful NBA teams and successful rock bands need to avoid what Pat Riley calls the “Disease of More”: when you make it big and suddenly everyone wants more money, more minutes, more songs, more shots, more credit, more everything. Unless talented people slide into the right roles, make each other better and stay happy in those roles, it’s nearly impossible to keep chugging along.

So when Henley explains the Eagles’ breakup by saying, “We had driven ourselves really hard for almost a decade and we were just fried,” you know it’s more than that. Think of the ’77 Eagles as the 2013 Heat and it makes more sense: Henley as LeBron (the alpha dog), Frey as Wade (the overqualified second banana), Felder as Bosh (the third banana, someone who knows he can’t get as many touches as the top two guys), Walsh as Ray Allen (hired specialist, savvy veteran), and the Randy Meisner/Timothy B. Schmit spot as Mario Chalmers (happy to be there, needs to carry two songs per concert). Everyone below LeBron accepts that hierarchy in Miami — at least so far, anyway. But it didn’t go as well for the Eagles. My favorite parts of these next four takes are in bold.

Henley in Part One: “Glenn and I saw ourselves as the leaders of the band, but other people saw us as dictators. You just cannot have five leaders in a band, it just doesn’t work. People have to do what they do best.”

Frey in Part Two (sorry, we’re cheating): “A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.”

Henley on the late-’70s Eagles: “The band at that point had begun to split up in factions … so much of the time it was Felder and Walsh against me and Glenn. And at that point even Glenn and I were beginning to have our differences. And it was tearing the band apart.”

Tao of Joe Walsh’s take: “You work, work, work, work, you get up to a peak, and then, invariably, people head-butt, and whose band is it, and I’m in charge, and no you’re not, and there you go.”

In four crisp paragraphs, we just covered the reasons why just about every successful rock band implodes (and some killer basketball teams, too). It’s always the same beats, right? When Henley says, “It reached a point where we were just tired of each other. Tired of the hoopla, tired of touring, tired of pretty much everything. At that point songwriting was becoming very difficult,” he easily could have been talking about 200 famous bands, as well as the 2003 Lakers, 1991 Pistons, 1976 Warriors, 1968 Sixers or 1989 Celtics.14 Tao of Joe Walsh sums it up best: “We were beat, and it was really affecting the foundational core, the soul of the band … we hit the wall.” You gotta protect the soul of the band.

Reason No. 14: Glenn Frey, Raconteur

Actual excerpts from two stories Frey tells during Part One

1. “We decided we’d go to the Bahamas to gamble. Everyone but Don was holding. I had like four joints in a baggie stuffed down my sock down my cowboy boot. Dirk the pilot has a joint. Irving had about 30 Valiums and a sugar pack … “15

2. “I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game. And the next thing I knew we’re going about 90 miles an hour, holding big time. I say, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing?’ And he looked at me and he grinned and he goes, ‘Life in the fast lane.’ And I thought, immediately, Now there’s a song title.”

(Please read Story No. 2 another 10 to 12 times, then answer this question: Of the kajillion times someone has ever been interviewed for a documentary over the past 50 years, has any story ever been a bigger in-the-moment lock to make the final cut than Frey’s “How I came up with ‘Life in the Fast Lane'” story? It’s incredible. I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game … WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?)

Reason No. 15: Glenn Frey, Guy Always on the Lookout for a Song Title

We just saw how he came up with “Life in the Fast Lane.” Earlier in Part One, he remembers coming up with “Tequila Sunrise” after a moment that includes, yes, tequila and a sunrise. Later, a friend remembers eating at a place called Dan Tana’s once with Frey and “looking at some young girl with some older guy at the bar, and Glenn says, ‘Look at those lyin’ eyes.’ Just like that, there’s the song.”

Come on, nobody could have been THAT good at coming up with song titles, right? Wasn’t there a time when Frey and Henley were getting massages from two hot masseuses, and Henley said something like, “Nothing like washing away a hangover with strong fingers and body oil,” then Frey wasted the next three weeks writing a song called “Strong Fingers and Body Oil”? I refuse to believe Frey’s batting average was that good.

Reason No. 16: The Entire “Hotel California” Section

Felder created the music, Henley wrote the lyrics with a little help from Frey … and the rest was history.

Eagles – Hotel California (1976, Music Hall… by SubPop69

That song became the hook for their best album and their best song. As Frey says now, “Not unlike Desperado, ‘Hotel California’ was our reaction to what was happening to us.”

Um … I need more. We’ve come this far. So what the hell was that song about, anyway?

Frey: “Don and I were fans of hidden deeper meaning. You write songs and you send them out to the world16 … and maybe there’s some stuff in that song that’s just yours, that they’re never gonna figure out.”

(Come on, Glenn Frey, that’s an absurd explanation! Nearly every Eagles hit was blatantly easy to figure out. “Take It Easy”? “Witchy Woman”? “Peaceful Easy Feeling”? “Already Gone”? “Take It to the Limit”? “Tequila Sunrise”? “Heartache Tonight”? “Life in the Fast Lane”? “After the Thrill Is Gone”? The titles did everything but walk you through those songs while holding your hand. This was the one time you guys got wonky on us. Just spill it, fellas.)

Henley: “My simple explanation is that it’s a song about the journey from innocence to experience. That is all.”

(OK, now we’re getting somewhere. I know you want to tell us, Don Henley. You’re in your mid-sixties. Just spill it. There’s a reason you won five Arrogant Musician Douche-Off championship belts over the years. You were an English major in college. You want to go there. Come on.)

Henley: “The hotel itself could be taken as a metaphor not only for the myth-making of Southern California, but for the myth-making that is the American dream. Because it’s a fine line between the American dream and the American nightmare.”

(BOOM! I knew he could do it! By the way, there’s good stuff here about the Eagles refusing to cut down the song’s length for American radio airplay — and being vindicated — as well as how they kicked off every concert with “Hotel” just to blow the audience away, and how much Felder and Walsh loved having their dueling guitar battle onstage. It’s the most music-y part of the film. Really good. I’ll shut up.)

Reason No. 17: Frey and Henley, 35 Years Later

I loved the way they handled this: Frey and Henley staring confidently into the camera, both in their sixties now, calmly assessing the history of their band with incredible candor. It’s almost like they said to director Alison Ellwood, “For the past 40 years, everyone thought we were cocky dickheads — let’s own that brand in the doc, OK?” So they stage something of a Pretentious Douche-Off, with Henley earning a split-decision victory thanks to his facial hair and condescending gaze.17

The Eagles

At the same time, I came out of this admiring both guys even more. The right kind of Pretentious Douche-Off yields real insight, especially with two supremely intelligent guys who have the right perspective on everything. My favorite moments …

Frey: “Ninety percent of the time, being in the Eagles was a fuckin’ blast. I was livin’ the dream.”

Henley: “There was turmoil within the band. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Glenn used to say ‘We made it, and it ate us.’ It’s hard to be in a group. It’s a bit like being in a marriage, if you quadruple it or quintuple it.”

Frey: “They asked Don when the Eagles broke up, ‘What was that like for you?’ And he said, ‘It was a horrible relief.’ And I think that clocks it pretty well.”

To recap: Fuckin’ blast, livin’ the dream, we made it and it ate us, broke up, horrible relief. They just summed up nine years of the Eagles in 16 words. 

Reason No. 18: “The Third Encore”

Here’s the real reason everyone resented Frey and Henley: They plowed through more women than Wilt Chamberlain …

The Eagles

… with their legendary after-parties becoming part of the Eagles myth. As Frey explains, “We started to perfect after-show parties and we invented something called the Third Encore. We did two encores so our third encore was the party.”

I love how the word “perfect” was in there — he sounds like Steve Jobs talking about mastering one of the early Macs. Who got invited to the Third Encore? Basically, every attractive female attending an Eagles concert. Frey and Henley told crew members to locate the best lassies in the crowd, then hand them special pins that provided “Third Encore” access. Those parties happened in their hotel suites, and as Frey explains, “We filled the bathtubs up with Budweiser, and we had a party after every show.” Did they make films of these parties in every city and call them Spread Eagle: [INSERT CITY]? Of course they did.

Important note: It’s safe to add everything that ever happened with a Third Encore into the “Ninety percent of the time, being in the Eagles was a fucking blast” files. Let’s hope Shabazz Muhammad starts a “Third Encore” tradition for the 2014 Minnesota Timberwolves.

Reason No. 19. The Fear of Success

I’m obsessed with the perils of fame, especially when rock bands are involved — it’s the reason why I love Almost Famous and believe “Have You Seen Me Lately” is severely underrated. When an artist’s career takes off, they invariably battle three separate questions …

“Why me?”
“Do I really deserve this?”
“Why isn’t this more fun?”

And as their careers progress, every subsequent demon feeds off one of those three questions. They wanted success for years and years; now, they’re almost fearing it. For whatever reason, Henley understood that internal struggle. He got it in the moment, and he gets it now.

Henley in 1977: “The success of the first album scared the hell out of us. Why me instead of some guy down the street? Why me and some friends of mine who were just as good of musicians as I am, and yet it happened to me and it didn’t happen to them? I don’t know.”

Henley in 2013: “Success can sometimes be just as disconcerting and frightening as failure. Especially when you have questions about your own worthiness and your abilities.”

Those quotes could work for authors, actors, athletes, TV showrunners, movie directors, you name it. How many artists have been derailed by the spoils of fame, by bloated confidence, by an unrealistic desire to top what they just achieved, or by a nitpicking backlash that seeped into their heads and won’t go away? The Eagles escaped the first wave of success with little damage. They barely survived the second wave. They didn’t survive the third wave. But as one of their crew says now, “It comes together, it’s magic, then it falls apart. But you know, how cool? That it even happens at all?” To that end …

Reason No. 20: Wasted Time

Oh my God, you can’t believe
It’s happening again
Your baby’s gone and you’re all alone
And it looks like the end

And later …

So you can get on with your search, baby
And I can get on with mine
And maybe someday we will find
That it wasn’t really wasted time

Even if it’s the most melodramatic Eagles song, it works perfectly for the last few minutes of a documentary about a wildly successful band that just imploded, right? And as it’s playing, we get another round of Henley, Frey and Walsh doing Henley/Frey/Walsh things. Even if I’m about to poke fun at all three moments, please keep in mind, I enjoyed the hell out of all three moments. It’s probably my favorite part of Part One.

• Henley going all English major-y on us: “We had always said that we wanted to step off the wave just before it crashed into the beach. And we did.”

• Frey making one last attempt to win the Arrogant Douche-Off (too little, too late): “We set out to become a band for our time. But sometimes if you do a good-enough job, you become a band for all time.”

• And Walsh staying true to the Tao of Joe Walsh: “We managed to represent that period of time, in the ’70s, Southern California, which was very artistically creative. And I hope that’s remembered like the Roaring Twenties are, you know? Our generation and what we did.”

The Eagles

Was the American King of Hotel Trash overstating that one? Any successful artist faces an inevitable backlash, but still, the Eagles took more shit in the 1970s than any successful band short of Led Zeppelin. You see this happen from time to time — not just in music, but with anyone who reaches a certain level of popularity. As soon as people start thinking, “OK, [fill in the artist] is good, but they’re not THAT good,” there’s an overcorrection and they start getting picked apart. That overcorrection eventually swung back their way for Led Zeppelin — over time, people decided they were underrated again. Only the Eagles continue to be penalized historically for being too successful, even as they’re still selling out stadiums in their mid-sixties.

Here’s the interesting part: They could see it happening at the time. Frey told Cameron Crowe in 1975, “Mass appeal is definitely suspect. Just look at our Grammy winners, Stevie Wonder excluded. Sometimes all that mass appeal means is that you simplified your equation down to the lowest common denominator. It’s a great temptation to think, Well, fuck it, they’ll buy this. No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the mass public.”

Translation: The Eagles hoped to distance themselves from their overwhelming success even as it was happening. They kept pushing themselves creatively because they never wanted to ride the coattails of that mass appeal. And eventually, all that pushing ripped them apart. But their best 20 songs remain really solid, and over everything else, that’s what the documentary captures: The spirit of that decade and the music that emerged from it. The Eagles wanted to become a famous band, and they did, and they couldn’t keep it going because bands aren’t supposed to keep going.

The Eagles

For that and many other reasons, The History of the Eagles, Part One is anything but wasted time. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with some terrific filmmakers for 30 for 30, including Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney (who made the film together, with Ellwood directing it).18 It’s a relatively thankless job to make these things. You’re always one blown interview away from the project falling apart, and you’re almost always three killer stories away from having something truly special. It’s an absolute bitch to find the right footage, much less to license it. You end up stockpiling so much material that it’s a little like falling into a footage abyss — you spend week after week after week after week in some gloomy, smelly edit bay next to an editor who becomes your platonic spouse.

The first and second cuts always feel 40 minutes longer than you want them to be. If you have producing partners giving you notes — and almost always you do — even if they’re trying to help, they usually make you more insecure than you already were. You reach a point where you absolutely hate cutting anything else, only you have to, and there’s just no way around it. You begrudgingly keep chopping and chopping. You get to where you need to be, only you never feel great about it. When it’s done, you don’t feel like you’re done. You never feel like you’re done, actually.

The end result? You hope people love it, you hope you honed your filmmaking chops, and within a few days, you’re already thinking about your next project. The truth is, you’re probably never striking it rich with a documentary, no matter how good it is. You do these movies because you love the craft itself. And I think that’s why I appreciated Part One so much. The whole time, you feel that love and passion permeating every frame. The rise and fall of a famous band, captured perfectly. We need more of these.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, People, Simmons


Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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