Glenn Frey passed away on Monday, January 18, at the age of 67. As a member of the Eagles, he helped pen and perform several staples of what is now the American classic-rock canon. All humorous references to The Dude's assessment of the Eagles in The Big Lebowski aside, the Eagles, no matter what you might think of them, embodied the mood and the mythology of rock and roll in the 1970s, due in no small part to the contributions of Frey.
The Eagles formed in 1971 with four musicians with a wealth of respective experience. Bernie Leadon had played in the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons, Randy Meisner was a young veteran of Ricky Nelson's live band, and Don Henley had been in a band called Shiloh, which had a record produced by Kenny Rogers. Frey came out of Detroit, where he had played in various bands, including the Byrds-inspired The Four of Us, and the Mushrooms, for whom Bob Seger wrote the debut single. However, the breezy sound of earlier melodic folk wasn't flourishing in Detroit, where longstanding Motown and grittier rock from the likes of the MC5 and the Stooges were garnering the most attention.
In 1969, Frey moved to Los Angeles. After all, Southern California was where the Byrds got their start, as well as Buffalo Springfield (and thus Crosby, Stills & Nash) and other folk-rockers of note — a perfect fit for Frey's knack for harmony and nuanced musicianship. There, Frey met J.D. Souther, and the duo formed Longbranch Pennywhistle. Meanwhile, in 1970, Linda Ronstadt needed a backing band, and she hired the four musicians who would later form the core of the Eagles. After playing one show at Disneyland with Ronstadt in 1971, the fledgling band was signed by Asylum Records, the new label started by David Geffen.
Following this signing, the Eagles were sent off for a month-long residency at the Gallery Club in Aspen, where members honed their chops, their collaborative songwriting skills and the group's ability to perform in front of an audience, where it needed to make an immediate impact. Even with its collective pedigree, it was during that month in Aspen that the Eagles evolved from a group of talented musicians to a very tight band. Frey has maintained a home in Aspen since 1975.
The group's eponymous 1972 debut was an immediate success, its soft-rock sound evoking the daydreams and impressionistic moods of Southern California that only people not from California could embrace so fully. The album yielded a trio of Top 40 singles. The band could have made an entire career with that earliest sound, but when you live any place long enough, you learn about its dark side. This was true for the Eagles and Southern California, especially in the self-indulgent '70s, when America seemed to want to forget about the horrors of Vietnam and engage in hedonistic excess. Whether or not it is widely acknowledged by their critics, the Eagles tapped into this underbelly on future albums, including the 1976 classic, Hotel California. The band also expertly experimented with conceptual songwriting starting most noticeably with the 1973 sophomore album Desperado, which examined the culture of rock-and-roll identity with an uncommon level of sophistication and sensitivity: the rock star as outlaw, in both a romanticized and an unromantic sense.
While its members more or less became the fast-living glamorous figures depicted in so much of its music, the Eagles were surprisingly aware of their part in creating and perpetuating the self-centered, often self-destructive paradigm of that era's rock stars. It's tempting for some to look at the band's catalogue and dismiss it as the soundtrack to Quaalude abuse and the glorification of a pampered and ugly time in American culture and music. But the Eagles truly did capture the tenor of the times in a way that has largely been underappreciated. Part of the reason for that is that the band wrote some incredibly catchy melodies coupled with the distinctive, skillful harmonies that Frey made a hallmark of the Eagles' songwriting.
By 1980, though, following the release of 1979's The Long Run, the band ran out of fuel. At a July 1980 benefit concert for Senator Alan Cranston at Long Beach Arena, which the press referred to afterward as “Long Night at Wrong Beach,” the Eagles effectively broke up on stage, when bickering between Frey and Felder erupted into threats of beating each other after the performance.
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In the wake of the band's dissolution, Frey and Henley went on to very successful solo careers. Both individual efforts managed to tap into a certain zeitgeist of the times. Henley poignantly evoked the era's nostalgia for youth with “Boys of Summer” while also taking aim at the increasingly surreal and cynical quality of the news with “Dirty Laundry," as well as the curiously shallow-yet-menacing character of Reagan-era international politics in “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.”
For his part, Frey tackled the conflicted feelings among those who had come of age in the '60s and '70s. What became obvious with Frey's career, as contrasted with Henley's, was that he proved adept at skirting the line between commentary and portraying human complexity in the characters that peopled his songs' stories. Sure, Frey wrote the hit “The Heat Is On” for the soundtrack of the 1984 film Beverly Hills Cop, but you can't be serious all the time. He also wrote “You Belong to the City” for that most '80s of television shows, Miami Vice, and his “Smuggler's Blues” served as the inspiration for an episode of the same name.
Still, Frey's sensitivity and insight into human psychology and the climate of the times served him well in the '80s, when the free-flowing, utopian hedonism of the '70s transformed into something harder-edged and dystopian. Frey could identify the humanity and everyday struggles of the subjects of his songs and present it in a way that was relatable and not simplistic. At his best, he could tell stories imbued with truthfulness rather than judgment. Frey had developed a gift for making serious social observations without condemnation.
Another thing that tells you volumes about Frey is the fact that he didn't — and could have — left behind a string of truly subpar material just to make a buck. He and his fellow Eagles might have done a lot more than live albums and one other studio album after 1979, if that were the case. Yes, the Eagles did a final tour in the summer of 2015, playing much of their classic material, but these performances included no clumsy attempt to trot out “relevant” new material. Frey seemed to know when to pull the plug on his musical projects and to try to do something different, even if that meant essentially taking a break from music. For this music fan, that sense of self and self-honesty alone sets Frey apart from most other musicians of any era or genre.