The recent reunion of the Eagles thrilled a disturbingly large number of the nation's music lovers, who gladly handed over wads of bills for the privilege of seeing the outfit play note-for-note renditions of its Seventies staples. Not everyone jumped on the band's wagon: Glenn Frey's suggestion (in Rolling Stone) that the $100-plus ticket prices some fans paid were reasonable if prorated over twelve or thirteen years won him deserved derision from critics and listeners turned off by the greed of the entire spectacle. But the Eagles '94 didn't seem to care. After all, the tour and a subsequent CD (the ultrasuccessful Hell Freezes Over) raised them several tax brackets in a matter of months.
For these and loads of other reasons, bassist Randy Meisner deserves to be the angriest man on the planet. You see, Meisner was a co-founder and full member of the Eagles, and he contributed to each of the act's discs through its biggest smash, 1976's Hotel California. But when the gravy train pulled out of the station last year, he was not on board. Frey and co-conspirator Don Henley didn't even bother to inform him that they were putting the group together again.
In conversation, Meisner doesn't seem all that mad. His tone betrays hurt and frustration, but he does his best to convey that he has accepted the situation and is looking toward the future. There are only a few instances that hint that Meisner is what most of us would be in his circumstances: deeply pissed off.
During one such moment, Meisner says, "What bothers me is the way they're lying about everything--about nobody else having anything to do with the Eagles except them. That's just a lie. I mean, they're getting all this money anyhow. The least they could do is tell the truth."
This reaction was precipitated by a series of Eagles-oriented programs aired on the VH-1 cable channel late in 1994. Meisner, perhaps feeling a bit masochistic, watched many of these at his modest home in Studio City, a not-very-trendy suburb north of Los Angeles, and he was not pleased by what he saw as an almost Orwellian effort to rewrite history.
"The first night they had something from the BBC, some kind of TV show we did over in England," he recounts. "And then they showed this Don Kirshner's Rock Concert episode we did, and we had Linda [Ronstadt] and Jackson [Browne] and J.D. [Souther] and I think even David Lindley on with us. But then Wednesday night it was the Don and Glenn show. And they were supposedly giving the history of the group, but I think my name was only said once--like, `In 1977 Randy Meisner left the band.' Like I didn't collaborate on anything. And that's just so wrong."
As Meisner tells it, the real story of his career goes something like this:
A native of Nebraska, Meisner cut his musical teeth in groups such as the Dynamics--"I think they still exist in Scotts Bluff," he says. He left this combo to join the Soul Survivors. According to Meisner, "They were really successful in Denver. I met them when the Dynamics were in a Battle of the Bands contest with them, and when they lost their bass player, they asked me if I wanted to join and move to L.A. with them."
The Soul Survivors didn't exactly take the West Coast by storm. The players were befriended by the members of the Backporch Majority, a group that was in something like vogue during the mid-Sixties, but, Meisner admits, "We didn't realize how much competition there was out here. We ended up all living in a one-bedroom apartment that cost $80 a month and sleeping on the floor. My jacket was my first pillow. We really had nothing at all." Changing the band's name to a more appropriate moniker, the Poor, didn't help matters much; Meisner and company cut a handful of singles for a tiny label called Loma, but they earned little notice.
Things began to improve after Meisner became acquainted with the players in one of the last configurations of the Buffalo Springfield, best known for the track "For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)" and a lineup that included future stars Stephen Stills and Neil Young. When the Springfield broke up in 1968, two of the departing musicians, Richie Furay and Jim Messina, decided to form a country-rock group they eventually dubbed Poco. When Meisner arrived at an audition for the act, he says, "Timmy Schmit [who replaced him in the Eagles in 1977] was just walking out. But I got the job."
It didn't last long. Meisner played on Pickin' Up the Pieces, an album generally regarded as a country-rock landmark. But during the final stages of the recording, Meisner remembers, "I called down to the studio where Jimmy and Richie were mixing the songs down, and I asked if I could listen to the mixes. And Richie answered, `No, we don't want anybody to hear them.' And I said, `I'm not just anybody, I happened to play on them and sing on them.' And I said, `Gosh, if that's the way it's going to be, I really don't feel that it's a group. Maybe I should leave.' And Richie said, `Okay,' and that's all there was to it." Meisner adds that he blamed Messina for the argument until he arrived at sessions for a Poco reunion album cut several years ago: "I said, `Here's what happened,' and he said, `God, I didn't know that.' It turns out that it was Richie, not Jimmy, who didn't want me there that day--and we didn't talk for twenty years because of it. We had a good laugh over that, and now Jimmy and Richie and I are good friends again."
Upon leaving Poco, Meisner became part of Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band, playing on and off with the former teen heartthrob for a couple of years. On a date in San Jose in 1971, Nelson's troupe was on the same bill with Ronstadt, whose sidemen at the time included Frey and Henley. "I mentioned to Glenn and Don, `This sounds pretty good. We ought to get a group together,'" Meisner recalls. "And Glenn kind of said, `Yeah, we should.' That's where it all started--although you won't hear that on TV.
"When the Eagles started, I was the best-known one in the band. I remember when Poco would play the Troubador, Glenn and Don would be in front of the stage, drooling and wishing they were in the band. But they'd never admit that now."
The Eagles' self-titled first album (recorded with Meisner, Frey, Henley and guitarist/former Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon) was released in 1972, and the song "Take It Easy," co-written by Browne, became a smash. It was followed by plenty of others: "Witchy Woman," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Already Gone," "Best of My Love" and, in 1976, "Take It to the Limit," which was sung and mainly penned by Meisner. But behind the scenes, tensions were rising. Leadon left in 1975, shortly after Don Felder came aboard as a second guitarist; he felt, according to Meisner, as if Frey and Henley were becoming too dictatorial. Joe Walsh replaced Leadon, and the country flavor that had been the Eagles' early calling card began to dissipate in favor of a rockier base. That was fine by Meisner--but what he didn't like was the increasing sense that he was being looked upon as nothing more than a sideman.
"Don and Glenn were taking over at that point, and all of a sudden it was, `We don't need you. You're just a player in the group,'" he claims. "I wasn't feeling part of it anymore. So finally, I just left."
Once on his own, Meisner signed a management contract with the Eagles' overseer, Irving Azoff, but that ended after about a year: "I heard through the grapevine that Don and Glenn had a problem with that, so Irving cut me off," Meisner says. Nonplussed, Meisner made three solo albums that spawned a trio of minor Top 40 hits--"Deep Inside My Heart," "Hearts on Fire" and "Never Been in Love"--between 1980 and 1982. After that, though, shifting musical fashion doomed his future projects. He drifted for a decade before hooking up with singer-songwriter Allan Rich, son of the eclectic country performer Charlie Rich, and Billy Swan, a critically praised artist who scored a number-one hit in 1974 with "I Can Help" before sinking into obscurity. As Meisner, Rich and Swan, the threesome--supplemented by guitarist Vern Monnet and former Dan Fogelberg drummer Ron Grinel--is working up original material and hoping to land a major-label contract. Thus far, no bites.
Which no doubt makes the Eagles slight even more annoying to Meisner. When word about Common Thread, an album-length salute to the music of the Eagles by established country stars such as Travis Tritt, began to circulate, Meisner and Leadon, who now lives in Nashville, hoped to participate in its recording. Because they were not invited, Meisner did his best to put subsequent rumors of an Eagles reunion out of his mind.
"I thought, if that's what they want, why push?" he says. "But then my accountant called and said, `I don't want you to go against what you believe in, but if you could just call, you should.' So I called Irving and said, `Hope everything's going okay.' And then I said, `Hey, I heard that the Eagles are getting back together.' And at that point he said, `Sorry, I've got to go. I'll say hi to Don for you,' and hung up."
The new Eagles, including bassist Timothy B. Schmit (who contributed to only one of the band's studio albums, 1979's The Long Run), played Los Angeles a few months after the brief chat with Azoff. "Stuff about the reunion was all over the TV all the time, and they were playing `Take It to the Limit' on the radio again," Meisner notes. "And I'm thinking, gee whiz, I wish they'd reunited with the guys who were actually in the group. And then they rerecorded all the old songs on that new CD, just to make sure that Bernie and I wouldn't get a penny of royalties from them."
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This conspiracy theory aside, Meisner says he's happy with how things are going for him. He insists that he likes playing small venues because he can meet fans face-to-face, and that he doesn't mind lugging his own amp just like he did in days gone by. He's equally effusive about the music of Meisner, Rich and Swan, and asserts that it's only a matter of time before a record label will bring the configuration to a wider audience. He even allows that the Eagles reunion might bring him a few extra dollars as a result of listeners intrigued by Hell Freezes Over dropping by their CD store and picking up copies of discs Meisner does play on.
Meisner is certain that the original Eagles albums are far better than Hell simply because they arose from creative, rather than financial, motives. "This whole reunion is about money," he says. "I watched that MTV thing, and none of them looked like they were having any fun at all. They just seemed to be going through the motions. Like, `Oh, I guess I can play a couple more songs, because each song means this much more money to me.'"
But when Meisner is asked how much he could have made if he, too, had been invited to the party, he suddenly sounds wistful. "Millions," he mutters. "Millions."
Meisner, Rich and Swan. 8 p.m. Thursday, January 12, Buffalo Rose, 1119 Washington, Golden, $10, 290-TIXS or 279-5190.