The passing of Glenn Frey both recalls and closes the book on one of rock’s most celebrated rock ‘n’ roll songwriting teams, but for many of us it also signals something more personal: the passing of a time when the Eagles’ “Hotel California” was the anthem for the youth of America in the ’70s — the way Beatles music was for the children of the ’60s.
For people who came up in that time, the death of Frey — and earlier this month the death of David Bowie — comes as a reality check, a resounding reminder that the days of “Take it Easy” and the promise of “One of these Nights” are long behind us.
Instead, music, the blood of our youth, has somehow been replaced by mortgages, credit cards, spouses, children, divorces, alimony, expanding waistlines and diminished dreams. Some of us may feel like an oldies act, but Glenn Frey never became one.
Formed in 1970 at the front bar of L.A.’s legendary Troubadour nightspot, the duo of Frey and Don Henley united to be part of the backup band for Linda Ronstadt at a Disneyland engagement. It was the nucleus of what would become the Eagles, the hugely influential band that introduced the “L.A. sound” to the world—and whose album “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” still holds the record as bestselling album of the 20th century by a group.
Henley brought a Texas-style country sound to the band, but it was tempered and made more sophisticated by Frey, who gave it its essential urban rhythms. Frey was born in Detroit and raised in the nearby suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan. (None of the Eagles were, in fact, from Los Angeles.)
An Eagle gets started
While still a teenager, Frey became a local sought-after studio musician, and in 1966 had his first exposure to greatness, playing for one of Detroit’s own, Bob Seger, who was becoming a hot touring act, and one of the first to spot young Frey’s abilities as a rhythm guitarist and lead singer.
A few years later, in Los Angeles when the Eagles first played together, they were mostly a derivative band, using material from Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Jack Tempchin and Tom Waits to help them find their way. (Like the Beatles, Henley and Frey relied on the music of others to learn how to make their own.)
It took Elliot Roberts and David Geffen, a couple of young and ambitious former William Morris agents who formed the record label Asylum, to push the Eagles into the mainstream with their debut album. Their mellow, West Coast “country rock” cool defined mainstream American popular music in the ’70s and has been lodged in car radios across America ever since.
The album had three top 10 singles. One of them, “Take it Easy,” co-authored by Frey and Browne, pretty much said everything you need to know about the vibe. It was followed up a year later with the less successful “Desperado” before the Eagles took a more rocking direction.
‘Hotel California’ speaks to generation
But it was “Hotel California,” released in 1976, that made them a worldwide sensation. The album’s opening track of the same name, co-written by Frey, was the clarion call for the Eagles the way “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” had been for the Beatles: It described both the band’s self-destruction by excess, its awareness of that self-destruction and its inability to stop it. (“You can check out any time, but you can never leave. …”)
It was “Hotel California” that internalized all the angst of the times, trading in the ’60s — Vietnam, student unrest, turning on and dropping out — for a weary age of tuning in and getting laid, its lead character moaning about not having the spirit of 1969 in the air anymore.
This introspection was what separated and elevated the Eagles from all the other American bands, and it was Frey who was key to it. The only thing he cared about was the hot-rush politics of romance, while Henley wanted the band to be more relevant, to put a cool contemporary voice to the romance of politics.
One of the best songs on “Hotel California” is the Frey/Henley/Souther “New Kid in Town,” a song they came up with while having dinner at Dan Tana’s, a legendary L.A. restaurant adjacent to the Troubadour late one night after they saw Bruce Springsteen drop an atomic bomb at the Roxy. It was a song, as I wrote in my book, about the beginning of the end for the band, 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 has moved on.
Returning to his groove
When the band broke up in 1980, not surprisingly Henley found his solo voice in songs that were overtly political (“The End of the Innocence”), while Frey stayed true to his rock groove, with hit songs like “You Belong to the City,” which reached No. 2. Frey also took up acting as yet another successful outlet for his proud narcissism. He appeared in several episodes of “Miami Vice” and was featured in Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire” and several other films.