Simmons's Reader E-mails: Eagles Edition

On Tuesday, we posted my column about my favorite movie (so far) of 2013: The History of the Eagles, Part One. Turns out more people out there were binge-watching this Eagles doc than we thought. Here’s a collection of e-mails from some of them, as well as a few other Eagles-related thoughts.

I still think you are giving Part 2 short shrift. Yeah, Part 1 was a wonderland of cutting edge drugs, groupies, bad hair, distinctly organic music, road trips and more than a few sultry shots of a young Linda Ronstadt. It was, to borrow from Seinfeld, adult fantasy camp for these guys. Fell ass backwards into money, mooched off their friends and had sex without dating. And we got to live vicariously through them for about 90 minutes.

But Part 2 was just straight up real life. Glenn Frey jumped the shark musically, and did shitty acting spots. Henley completely sold out and made vacuous, meaningless music (but hey, he “won a couple Grammys” didn’t he?). Felder did pretty much nothing until the reunion. Joe Walsh descended into full blown addiction and alcoholism. This part of the story had to be told to put the decision to reunite in proper context (especially the part about pretty much saving Joe Walsh’s life).

Lastly, I thought Frey won the Douche-off. That part at the beginning on how he was selected for that part in Jerry Maguire, and how genuinely proud he was of that feat as if it validated him as some sort of tough guy blew away anything Henley put on the table.
—Andrew, Chicago

I absolutely hate the Eagles. They are, for my money, the most baseline American band in history. Aside from two good songs (your aforementioned “Wasted Time” and “The Last Resort,” which, like “MMMBop” and “I Want It That Way” only serve to prove the “when good songs happen to bad bands theory.”) I find them to be one of the most unjustly arrogant bands in the history of time. Put any three guys in Mack Truck hats and flannel shirts together during the ’70s and give them a truckload of dirtweed, and the odds are about 78 percent that they end up writing “Desperado,” perhaps the singularly most overrated song of all time.

Here’s the thing about the documentary, though. It’s SO good that I can’t stop watching it, even though my opinion on the Eagles has changed not one iota. What it does to Henley and Frey is something truly amazing. It turns their off-the-chart unlikable personality into something to be admired. It’s as if (and you mentioned this) they know how awful they are as people, don’t care, and admire themselves for their achievement. It’s a tour de force.
— Mike D’Alonzo, L.A.

“You know what else? The Eagles were significantly bigger than I ever realized.” You do realize that to every music geek reading that you might as well have said, “That Dr. J guy was significantly bigger than I ever realized.” I have to wonder how much coffee was spit all over desks and cubicles in America reading that. It was lot I am sure.

Second, you only get half of the Eagles phenomena. The other half is their huge effect on country music. The Eagles, depending on your perspective, either brought country music out of the hurting song dark ages or ruined it. Every kid who grew up in rural America in the 1970s listened to the Eagles. And their lasting effect on music is ironically enough in Nashville. Without the Eagles there would be no Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and so forth. It is a huge and very controversial part of their legacy.
—John K, D.C.

They were my favorite band growing up in the ’70s. Like you I have watched History of the Eagles several times and enjoyed each viewing. Joe Walsh was a guitar hero of mine back when he was in the James Gang and as a solo artist. He comes across as a decent human being with a sardonic sense of humor. He still rocks in concert by the way. Don Felder (and yes I did read his book) was an incredibly gifted guitarist and got treated like dirt by Frey and Henley, two of the most arrogant (and yes, very talented) assholes in the history of music. I do have to take issue with your assessment of Don Henley’s Afro-beard combo however. It comes in a distant second to Lindsey Buckingham’s at the height of Fleetwood Mac’s popularity. Check out his pictures from that time and tell me you don’t agree.
—Dave Whitney, Rapid City

I have to disagree with one thing you said about the Eagles. Sometimes there IS some tricky meaning in their songs. My fave is “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” A quick listen makes you think that it’s a love song, that the girl gives Frey that feeling, but it’s really saying that the peace comes from knowing that the girl can’t hurt him, can’t touch him. She won’t let him down, because he’s already standing on the ground. Not earth-shattering, mind you, but unexpected, tricky songwriting. The song gets in your head one way, but then becomes something different.
—Kirk Gill, Highland Ranch

I must say I’m surprised you wrote an entire article on the Eagles and never once mentioned this. (Don’t miss the bridge.)

A little story to go with the tune. Years ago, when I was living in Austin, Texas, Mojo Nixon was playing a local hole in the wall called, well, the Hole in the Wall. It just so happened that Don Henley was in town as well, playing the local rock-star auditorium.

Henley must have gotten word about Nixon and his song because he actually showed up to the Hole and proceeded to join Nixon on stage to help sing the song calling for his own death.

Nixon was so impressed that he changed the words on the spot to “Rick Astley must die,” and after the two brought the house down together, Nixon declared to the crowd that he’d have to change the name of the song because “Don Henley has balls the size of church bells!”

As the years have gone by, this incident — not particularly crazy for Austin in those days but nonetheless surreal by its very nature — began to morph in my mind into one of those “did that really happen?” scenarios. You know — is it memory or imagination???

So after years of just letting the issue hang in the ether, I decided upon reading your article to Google the story and lo and behold, it really did happen.

As a fellow Italian, fortysomething, sports-nut Masshole (Holliston), I’ve always felt a kinship with you through your writing. And I’ve meant to write you a hundred times — after Game 7 in ’03, after Game 7 in ’04, the night before LeBron ended the Celtics, after Game 6 of the Cup this year, etc. But as fate would have it, it was your story on the Eagles that moved me to pull the trigger.

I guess we all underestimate Don Henley.
—Patrick Earvolino

I had no idea the Eagles did as many drugs as they did. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with music these days — nobody is doing enough coke. I met Joe Walsh one time. I worked as a cashier at Home Depot in Encinitas (a rich San Diego neighborhood) back in 2005 and an Eagles song came on the radio. He happens to be the next customer in my line, and he points to the radio and says, “Hey, that’s me!” I don’t realize what he’s even saying until I have to check his ID for his credit card purchase. I’ve met a few famous people in my days as a Home Depot cashier but that was by far my favorite.
—Blake, San Diego

Are the Eagles “first ballot hall of famers” without Don Felder? Without Felder’s music, Hotel California does not exist. Period. I submit that without that album, the Eagles are a borderline Hall of Fame band. With that album, arguably they become legendary. A “role player” should not be able to make that much of a difference in the perception of a band. However you want to categorize Felder, Henley and Frey’s legacy is much more dependent on Hotel California than either would be willing to admit. Without Hotel California, they are only one of the best bands of the ’70s, not a band “for all time” as Frey unironically stated.
—Jerry, Branford, Connecticut

I too have watched the doc multiple times and agree with your points. It inspired me to get tickets to the current History tour which was much better having seen the doc because it is a multi-media show. However it was also a disappointing revelation: all the high notes were rounded off (to be expected from a bunch of guys in their sixties); there were wheelchairs, walkers, and hearing aids; the line at the men’s room was longer than the women’s; and there were a hundred people waiting to buy wine but nobody in the beer line. Some of this is likely due to the venue (Mohegan Sun casino), but still … Nevertheless Joe Walsh was transcendent. The value he brought back then was still obvious today.
—Mark, Hartford

Loved your article on the Eagles doc, especially your opening lines which expressed so succinctly that dismissive attitude so many of us have about them and their music. So … cool story from someone who lived during their original reign. My mom used to rock out to Hendrix, the Doors, and Canned Heat when driving my clueless little elementary school buddies and me around on her carpool days. She was once married to Little Feat front man Lowell George (her sister was married to the drummer, Richie Hayward), once went to a show with about 500 people in a music hall where this black guy from the States — somehow coming over from England — shredded everybody’s minds in attendance with his raw power, not to mention tricks like playing the feedback off of the speakers and lighting his guitar on fire. By the mid-’70s she had settled down with my dad and began assuming her role as the coolest mom ever. Around the 6th grade, as my buddies and I are beginning to explore music that the older kids are listening to, one of my friends had an Eagles tape and asked my mom if she would play it and if she thought they were cool (her opinion being respected now that our older siblings were introducing us to Zeppelin, Cream, the Doors, etc). She gave one of those forced smiles which implied that you probably weren’t going to like her answer, and said, “Meh. We had a nickname for them back then. We called them Gerber.”
—Orion, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Good story about Frey’s temper from Jeff Bridges. Sometime, supposedly years after Big Lebowski, Bridges runs in to Frey and says hello. Frey goes off on this tirade, about how The Dude says “I’ve had a really bad day and I hate the fucking Eagles man … ” and basically tells Bridges to go fuck himself. Bridges was kind of taken aback, like wtf, seriously? Anyway, love that story, Bridges told it in an interview once and I didn’t know if you’d heard it or not. I guess Frey hadn’t lost that famous temper of his by then. (Note: Bridges mentions that something happened in a Rolling Stone interview recently.)
—Eric Lynn, New York

Want to point out one flaw in your argument about the Eagles documentary (which I have watched as many times as you). It involves Felder and why he didn’t get as much [money] on the reunion tour. While I love your analogy about HoGrant not deserving the money that Scottie and Michael deserved, those guys didn’t own the Bulls. All five Eagles owned equal shares of Eagles Ltd. in the 70s. However, when Randy and Bernie left, Joe and Timothy B didn’t get their equal shares, they were hired guns. So when the reunion came around Felder, Henley and Frey each owned a third of the Eagles but Henley and Frey (at Glenn’s behest) got 2/7 while Felder only got 1/7 just like the other guys who didn’t own the band. Tim took it because he was making no money, Joe took it because he was in bad shape and probably would have done anything to get back.

I know you read that in Felder’s book — it’s true. If you, Klosterman and Barnwell each owned 1/3 of Grantland (I know it doesn’t work that way but hear me out) and you decided to mothball it, then in 2028 put it back out there, you would expect your one-third. However, let’s say Chuck and Bill in those 15 years had multiple best sellers and became much more famous while you sat in front of a blank Microsoft word doc (as you have worried about) for 15 years. Now you’re 1/3 is 1/5 and not only is your share lower, you don’t have equal vote and they can vote you off the island just like they did Felder.

I get it, it’s about greed and voices. The Eagles were popular with girls and still are. Girls don’t care who plays well or who writes the songs, they just want to sing along and fantasize about sleeping with the singer. Felder didn’t sing any songs so to most eagles fans, he wasn’t even around. Forget the fact that they were a pseudo country band until Felder (and then Joe Walsh) joined the band. Hotel California is the only real rock song they ever did and they owe it to Felder because on the heels of the greatest hits album came Hotel California and that is their best selling original studio album (they really only made six).
—[name accidentally deleted]

I was a member of your class at Holy Cross during our sophomore year. That year, Don Henley played a concert at the Centrum. It began as a Don Henley concert, and I bought tickets to see it with my brother who lived in Boston. It quickly morphed into a benefit concert for Walden Woods. Jimmy Buffett opened. Bonnie Raitt (who had the number one album at the time) and Bob Seger followed with short sets of their own. If I remember correctly, John Mellencamp was supposed to have played but wound up getting sick. For reasons beyond my own comprehension, Don Johnson and Katey Sagal were there. They sang back-up, I think.

Then Don Henley came out and played his longer set. After all, the event was originally his concert. When he finished, Glenn Frey popped out and played a song. Then Frey and Henley returned to the stage with Timothy B. Schmidt. They played seven Eagles songs together. This was four years before Hell Freezes Over. I believe it was their first time playing together since the break-up. If I am not mistaken, one of them referred to themselves as “The Eagles” during the set. It was the Eagles reunion that was completely forgotten by history, and it happened right in your backyard while you were a sophomore in college. Perhaps you were even there.
—Brian, Wilmington, NC

I’m the guy that asked you about the sports equivalent for Dave Grohl a few years ago. (answer-there was none!) Anyway, with all of the ridiculous hoopla about PED’s in sports, someone (you) needs to make the comparison to music and the recording industry. Virtually all the greatest rock songs and albums were written and recorded with the help of PED’s (LSD, cocaine, marijuana, etc.), yet no one would think to discount their value to rock music. It’s not like someone would say, “yeah Electric Ladyland was great, but Hendrix was using a lot of LSD at the time and since he did not record it clean it’s not as great.” Makes the whole PED seem more senseless. We should appreciate great performances and accomplishments even if they required a “little help.” The underlying talent is still undeniable.
—Kevin Mott, Honolulu

Wonderful piece. But do you realize how great Linda Ronstadt was and is? Of course you’re not saying Stevie Nicks is a greater vocalist and a more versatile stylist or anything like that. Just a more complete rock-queeny 70s star. Got it. But here’s the thing about Linda. She’s always been an intellectual, even curatorial artist, more along European lines than we’re used to. Think Marlene Dietrich or Jeanne Moreau. I mean those 1970s albums — more alt country than rock, really — still sound terrific. But it’s what came after that puts her all by herself. The Spanish-language albums, both the Mexican (Canciones) and the Cuban (Frenesi) are really fine, educated but spirited, lively. For sure, her first Standards album — What’s New — won some attention (and some dumb blah reviews), but it’s the later stuff — Hummin’ to Myself, for example — that may be her finest. Duet albums with Aaron Neville and Anne Savoy, even a song by Philip Glass … c’mon, she is literally peerless.

So: Do you realize how great Linda Ronstadt was and is?
— Conn Nugent, Washington

Something to consider: Frey ran the Eagles like a baseball GM. “I can trade this guys, lose a few points inn batting average or on base percentage but pick up more home runs and RBIs.” In this regard, Frey was focused and driven on making the Eagles into a championship team. I believe we agree that this goal was achieved.
— Marc Shipman

“People did things with the Eagles.” That one line says it all. I went to high school and college in the 70′s and there is no better description of them. My friends and I knew how big they were at the time and we knew of nobody who didn’t like them. But we (especially the guys) always seemed more attracted to the edgier side of rock — the violent John Bonham drum solos, Ian Anderson’s odd choice of the flute and his codpieces. But the Eagles were just so damned comfortable, cozy you might say. Oh, and they were also loved by the girls.
—Mark Kelly

Like you I never put much thought in the Eagles and I worked at a Classic Rock station in Los Angeles. But since the Documentary I wanted to learn as much as I can about the band. I think you should check out Howard Stern’s interview with Don Felder a few years back. It sheds a little more light to his side of the story. Fascinating stuff.
—Sal M., L.A.

Thanks for reminding me that the Eagles had perfect timing. By the time they hit their stride, (a) we had drugs that wouldn’t make you drown in a bathtub or choke on your own vomit, (b) fans wouldn’t kill their idols, much less slog through Catcher in the Rye, (c) the worst consequences of unprotected sex were syphilis and unwanted pregnancy, both of which were manageable with prevailing medical technology and (d) Elton John and David Bowie had culled out all of the sexually ambivalent groupies.

The Beatles, the Who and Led Zeppelin created the legend, but the Eagles could pass the stories on to their grandkids. Now pour me another tequila sunrise.
—Victor Hastings, Kenner, L.A.

I was a teenager in the mid-’70s and I was just mesmerized by the film. Even back then we knew they were a bunch of douches, but they produced great music. As rock documentaries go, this is as good as any I have seen — even beating Melvin Belli’s appearance in Gimme Shelter). If I gave you a chance to write something about the Eagles (say a new “fictionalized” version of This Is Spinal Tap), I don’t think in all your great creatively you could ever have come up with the stuff they said in Part One.
—Brad, Phoenix

This is from an improv special that Drew Carey did just as Whose Line Is It Anyway? was beginning to fade away. Joe Walsh firmly establish his place as an American treasure at around the 2:17 mark, again at 3:34, 4:16, 4:33 and finishes the perfect game at 6:27. Walsh gets the biggest laughs because he brings his special brand of Tao.
—Michael P, Arcadia

I really enjoyed the Eagles article, but I think you may have overlooked a key component in the analysis of why the Eagles get a a bad rep. For everything they did right, there is no single Eagles musical moment that makes you say, “How did they do that?” Everything they ever did sounds entirely possible. This leads to the inevitable “Well, anyone could do that” argument, which frustrates less successful musicians and the fans that love them. They seem ordinary, but they were received extraordinarily. This will inspire hatred every time.
—Josh, Minneapolis

And one last long one, just for the hell of it …

Great piece on the Eagles doc, I have exactly the same reaction to the Eagles — I was a kid in the 70s (twelve when Hotel California was on every AM station 50 times a day — and our Pinto wagon had only AM radio) — and never really gave them much thought after the insane music bonanza of the 80s, especially when I went to college and discovered R.E.M, (when they were the best), Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Cure, Yaz, etc., etc. (someone should really do a “Twenty Best Bands of the 80s (non-metal division)”. But, yeah, the only thing the Eagles were good for was derision and someone asshole always playing “Take it to the Limit” on a jukebox for last call.

But. then I stumbled upon this doc and it is one of the most fascinating ones on a band I have ever seen. Part of it, as you correctly recognized, is Frey and Henley not afraid to let their douche flags fly. The Tom Petty doc is also great, but to hear him twist himself into knots trying fruitlessly to explain booting Stan Lynch out of the band in 94 and trying not to cast any aspersions is sad but humorous. Contrasted with Frey’s total (and gleeful) demolition of Felder, and you realize — these guys are not just feeding the microphone bullshit.

All of which begs the question, who were the Eagles of the 80′s/90s? The obvious answer — Guns n’ Roses — is also incorrect. They imploded for a far different reason that the “Alpha Dog” battle. The Smiths would be an interesting possibility, but I would posit that, for a TRUE Alpha Dog battle, it has to be Vocalist v. Vocalist. Even if the, say, guitarist, writes all the tunes, the Alpha in a band is still going to be the singer 99.999995% of the time.

(When I was in college, I was in a band with a friend of mine, I sang/played poor rhythm guitar, he was a guitar genius who could play any instrument handed to him within about 30 seconds. One night, we were sitting around, ranking the order in which band members got girls (positively early-Simmonsesque!), I said guitar player, since as long as you are skinny and not bald (this was 1983), every dude looks cool with an electric guitar strapped on. He gave me a disgusted look and said, “Singer. Every time. The girls aren’t standing there singing the guitar solos, are they?” Point taken.)

So, even though it is an imperfect comparison, I would have to say that the inheritor of the Eagles mantle in the 80s/90s would have to be — Uncle Tupelo.

Uncle Tupelo.

Bear with me a moment, and you will see how it makes sense. Yes, it is true UT never had the huge commercial and mainstream success that The Eagles did, but they had a concomitant huge effect on the next generation of “alternative” rock coming out, and, actually, even were considered the “fathers” of a whole new musical genre — “alternative country”. Aside from that difference (which is not minor) there is an eerie similarity:

1. Not counting Greatest Hits compilations, only made four(!) albums before breaking up.

2. The principal songwriter was a very smart, bookish, confident-to-the-point-of-being-a-huge-douche guy.

3. The other eventual co-songwriter was the counterpoint to the first guy, way too talented to be strictly “second banana” (Hello, Andrew Ridgeway from Wham!, or DJ Jazzy Jeff, looking at you), and, as he grew more comfortable with songwriting, the inevitable clash of giant egos commenced.

4. Much like the Eagles with Desperado, after UT’s second album, they were being inundated with major labels begging to sign them. Their odd mix of countrified punk with baffling starts and stops and even extra cowbell was like nothing else really happening in 1988-89. So, on the cusp of “making it” for their all-important third album, they went in a completly differnt direction and released an all acoustic record that was half cover songs of old timey temeperance tunes and murder ballads. It was pretty much written, recorded and mixed in, as the title suggests, five days, March 16-20, 1992 (“produced” by Peter Buck!). This pivot confounded the record companies, but cemented their legacy as “creative artists”. It also allowed them to miss out on the huge wave that came with Nirvana.

5. Finally signed to a major label that was in love with them and ready to spend whatever and wait however long for them to “break”, they recorded one album and then broke up.

6. In this instance, it is all about the “Alpha Dog” fight — Jay Farrar was the undisputed leader, the guitar player and vocalist and chief songwriter. Jeff Tweedy started out as the bass player, then gradually began contributing songs and also singing (one of the reasons this comparison works so well, is, can 2013 person imagine a time when 1990 Jeff Tweedy is told he is not “good enough” to be a singer in his own band?). The classic “two kings, one castle” thing killed the band. There has been a lot written about all this (which is another reason UT are so important, even today — because they broke up so early, they have these insanely devoted (obsessive) “what if … ?” fans who spend endless amounts of time speculating on everything from who did what to whom to what kinds of mythical albums UT would have made post-Anodyne.

7. It did not help this dynamic when the band got their first big break to play on national TV, on Conan, and the record company decreed they would have to play one of Tweedy’s songs — “The Long Cut” — instead one of Jay’s. In this clip, you can see how Jay does not even look up once, and barely bothers to sing the backup vocal, while Jeff, who had promoted himself to guitar by this time, as the band added two new members, is clearly having the time of his life.

8. Of course, then what happened was even more interesting. Jay left the band and formed Son Volt, with UT’s original drummer. Tweedy took the remaining present members of UT and formed Wilco. Their previous label signed both bands, but the smart money was clearly on Son Volt and Jay, which was totally justified by the first song on the first SV album, “Windfall” which is pretty much a timeless classic. Wilco’s first record is ok, but nothing great, sorta derivative from what bands like The Jayhawks were doing at the time. It was obvious that Jay Farrar was the musical genius and Jeff Tweedy was the lackey.

9. Until everything else in the last twenty years happened. Wilco has blown up to be the critical darlings that R.E.M. used to be, and gets “America’s Best Rock-n-Roll Band” slapped on them and unlimited airtime on NPR and the very epitome of “musicanship and integrity”, especially after the embarrassing incident with their label and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in which the label said the album was “too uncommercial” and dropped them, at which point another label owned by the same corporation picked them up and the album was a huge hit. Son Volt, on the other hand, released a total of three albums to diminishing sales before Jay broke it up to “go solo” and those albums became increasingly odd and somewhat self-indulgent, he brought back the “Son Volt” name with all new musicians other than himself, and has rotated those musicians in and out quickly over the course of several more albums, by this time SV found themselves on little Rounder Records label and playing halls to 1,500 people while Wilco played stadiums (not 50,000 seat stadiums, but still).

10. And, in all this, Jay is seen as the “bad guy” who broke up the band because of his insecurity (and, to be fair, he leaves plenty of ammo laying around for this — in his 2013 “memoir” he never refers to Tweedy by name, just calling him “the bass player” in a douche-level move certainly similar to Henley referring to Felder as “Mr. Felder.” Yet, for all the good will that Tweedy has with Wilco, he still does not give songwriting credits (where residual money comes in) to any of the other members of the band, in a sense, regulating them all to “hired players.” What is interesting is still, twenty years on, there are still bitterly divided “Team Jay” and “Team Jeff” camps which, thanks to the internet, continue to snipe and battle over who is the real Alpha. It does not help that both Jay and Jeff refuse to not only entertain a discussion of a UT reunion, but have made it a point to not even see each other (on purpose) over that time.

There is plenty more, but I am gonna go walk my dog.
—Bill Breedlove

Filed Under: Bill Simmons

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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