By Stephen McClain, Reference Department
Glenn Frey, singer/songwriter/guitarist and founding member of the Eagles died at age 67 on January 18, 2016. He was born in Detroit, Michigan where he began piano lessons at age five and later switched to guitar. Like many aspiring musicians from the Great Lakes industrial belt; he headed for a warmer climate and more opportunity. Before leaving the Motor City, he worked with fellow Detroit rocker Bob Seger who wrote a single for Frey’s early band the Mushrooms. Glenn would also sing back-up vocals and play acoustic guitar on Seger’s first national hit, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” He soon moved to Los Angeles where he would meet J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne. It was also in southern California that Glenn met Texas native Don Henley. After playing a tour with Henley as Linda Ronstadt’s backing band in 1971, they would form the Eagles with guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist/vocalist Randy Meisner later that year. While it was Glenn Frey who was the founder and visionary of the Eagles, he and Henley were songwriting and musical partners in the band. On the heels of the History of the Eagles tour and after Frey’s death, Henley would say,” I’m not sure I believe in fate, but I know that crossing paths with Glenn Lewis Frey in 1970 changed my life forever, and it eventually had an impact on the lives of millions of other people all over the planet.” No doubt. While reviled by some as being fluff and too soft, the music of the Eagles influenced so many people to either pick up guitars or pick up and move. Glenn Frey was quoted as saying that people did things TO the music of the Eagles; they partied, travelled, broke-up… Love them or hate them, that meeting of Frey and Henley would eventually result in the bestselling album of the 20th century, “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-75.”
The band broke up in 1980 (well, took a vacation) and Frey and Henley each had successful solo careers, Henley’s being the most successful (which certainly prompted a song by Mojo Nixon called “Don Henley Must Die.” Written in jest, I’m sure, and perhaps distasteful to bring up at this time, I always thought it was funny: “He’s a tortured artist, Used to be in the Eagles, Now he whines, Like a wounded beagle.”). Of Glenn Frey’s solo hits, my two favorites were “Smuggler’s Blues” and “You Belong to the City.” “Smuggler’s Blues” from Frey’s solo album “The Allnighter,” was a cool little tune with a great, bluesy slide guitar part. The video for the song inspired an episode of Miami Vice, in which Glenn played the part of a drug smuggler. The B side of “Smuggler’s Blues” was the track “You Belong to the City,” written specifically for Miami Vice. Glenn played all of the instruments on the recording except the drum and saxophone track. The song has such a great street-like feel and the sax typifies the nighttime urban atmosphere. “You Belong to the City” peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on Billboard Top Rock Tracks.
Then in 1994, fans welcomed the long awaited reunion. Glenn wasn’t even sure that anyone would come to the shows. The “Hell Freezes Over” live album and tour featured four new studio cuts and surprised fans with a stripped down “unplugged” version of Hotel California. Glenn joked at the beginning of the live album, “For the record, we never broke up; we just took a 14-year vacation.”
My first Eagles record when I was a kid was the double live album that came out in 1980. I already knew most of the songs from hearing them on the radio, but there was something different about the energy, the sound of the crowd and the fact that the songs were a little unlike the studio cuts. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that this album was one of the most heavily overdubbed “live” albums in history. Regardless, it’s the way the music makes you feel that matters. Those were the days when you sat down with the album in front of the stereo, read the liner notes and looked at the pictures as the music washed over you. Much like disappearing into a book, you entered another world, where you could draw up all kinds of images in your brain. This was a double, fold out album so there was even more to look at and read, including a huge, 6-panel poster. It went straight up on my bedroom wall, alongside dozens of KISS posters (don’t judge) and an iconic print of Farrah Fawcett in a red one-piece bathing suit, sitting in front of a striped beach towel, a-hem…I digress. Colorful, live shots of the band: Don Felder, Timothy B. Schmidt, Joe Vitale* and right in the top center of the poster between Don Henley and Joe Walsh was Glenn Frey, smiling with an acoustic guitar. (*Vitale played keys for the Eagles live shows and had met Joe Walsh when they were both students at Kent State University.)
I remember in high school, we used to sit around with acoustic guitars and sing “Seven Bridges Road” from the Eagles’ Live album. Like we could ever come close to that five part harmony, but it was fun. The song was written by Steve Young and was on his “Rock Salt and Nails” album in 1969. Young originally didn’t like the Eagles’ cover version but admitted that the more he heard it, the better it sounded. You can clearly hear Frey and Henley’s voices in the wall of vocal harmony on the Eagles Live album and without Randy Meisner’s tenor, it just would not have happened.
Probably my favorite Eagles song sung by Glenn Frey is “New Kid in Town.” Eagle’s biographer Marc Eliot said it best when he wrote, “New Kid in Town” captures “a precise and spectacular moment immediately familiar to any guy who’s ever felt the pain, jealousy, insecurity, rage and heartbreak of the moment he discovers his girlfriend likes someone better and has moved on.” But for me, it was more about the chord changes and the structure of the song. It is so well written with a bit of a Spanish sound …and those major 7 chords, minor 7 chords, there’s a key change after the beautifully constructed bridge then another key change back to the original key of E after the last chorus. Who writes like that today? Honestly, plenty of people do, but you won’t hear it on the radio anymore. “New Kid in Town” peaked at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1977.
Glenn Frey was the epitome of the American dream. He was a Detroit rock fan who grabbed his guitar and headed for the coast, met some guys, did some drugs, wrote some songs and changed the world. And although he left the Motor City, he never forgot where he came from. Bob Seger said in an interview, “He was so much more than people knew he was … He would never fail to start with telling me how grateful he was that audiences were still there. He loved the band. He loved the fact he could keep doing this. And he kept doing this until six months before he died.” Glenn Frey is gone way too soon. Why do we mourn our rock stars more than other celebrities? Probably because of what they represent and how they and their music shaped our youth and our lives. True rock stars from Glenn Frey’s era were actually what the original moniker characterized. They didn’t care what you thought. They gave the middle finger to the man and conformed for no one. The writers of this timeless music seem invincible and when we lose one, it reminds us of our own mortality, both individually and as a group. So, thank you, Glenn Frey. The Eagles music was the soundtrack to so much of my life. And it’s the music, along with the somber reminder of impermanence and evanescence that makes me want to sit back with a beer and sing while I still can. Or better yet, put me on a highway, and show me a sign. And take it to the limit…one more time.
*Opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and in no way reflect the philosophy or preferences of the Williamson County Public Library, its staff members, their families, friends, or pets.