Glenn Frey died in New York on January 18. Viewed from Britain, his death was completely overshadowed by another death in New York eight days earlier, that of David Bowie. Everyone, it suddenly seemed, had been in love with Bowie. You couldn’t tune to the BBC’s Radio 4 (the country’s NPR equivalent) without hearing excerpts of Bowie songs and talk of his endlessly creative self-reinvention. Every radio presenter and journalist seems to have been a lifelong Bowie fan. The Economist did something I have never seen in the magazine before: an obituary covering two pages rather than just the one inside the back cover.
But Frey’s death affected me more. His songs (generally written with Don Henley, and sometimes others) have always struck me as much richer in serious insights on life and relationships than one generally finds in rock music. Very few songwriters’ oeuvres have made me go out and buy books of sheet music so I could consult both words and music in print; but Frey and Henley rank for me with Jerome Kern and Tom Lehrer. Eagles Complete and Hotel California (Warner Bros., 1977) are prominent on my music bookshelf.
Several of Frey and Henley’s songs have to do with the anatomy of failing relationships: “You’re not quite lovers and you’re not quite friends” (After the Thrill is Gone, which also has “You don’t care about winning but you don’t want to lose”); “You see it your way and I see it mine, but we both see it slipping away” (The Best of My Love); “He was too tired to make it, she was too tired to fight about it” (Life in the Fast Lane).
Others are about fear of even starting a serious relationship: “It seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table, but you only want the ones that you can’t get” (Desperado, which also has the unforgettable line, “Your prison is walking through this world all alone”). Still others concern people whose relationships fizzle: “You don’t care much for a stranger’s touch, but you can’t hold your man” (Wasted Time). These are deep poetic insights into life and love when they’re not running smooth.
Wasted Time also has the saying: “Sometimes to keep it together we got to leave it alone.” My marriage would run smoother if only I could keep that insight closer to my heart. I always want to talk about what’s caused the upset, analyze it, justify myself, instead of putting down the shovel and ceasing to dig. But that’s how tiffs become fights. (Often when “Reacher said nothing” it was because Jack Reacher knows when to leave it alone.)
The songs aren’t all about commitment phobia and failing marriages, though. There is wry humor about the transience of public approval: “They will never forget you till somebody new comes along” (New Kid in Town), and in one song, The Last Resort, a symphonic power ballad spanning the history of American westward expansion from Rhode Island via Colorado and California to Maui, we get reflections on American rapacity (“We satisfy our endless needs, and justify our bloody deeds”) and a paratactic comment on the inevitable destruction of natural beauty (“You call some place Paradise, kiss it goodbye”).
It’s not particularly fashionable to admire work like the Hotel California album – not like it’s fashionable right now to be smitten with Bowie (all of his albums are now back in the U.K. charts, along with his parting gift, Blackstar). We’re supposed to have grown out of California country rock when the seventies ended.
For the Eagles didn’t play on through the Reagan administration: In 1980 they broke up (or so it seemed). Henley used to tell people they would reunite “when hell freezes over.” When the reunion happened anyway, it was with an album and a tour called “Hell Freezes Over,” but Frey announced on stage that there had never been a disbandment, only a 14-year vacation.
They did good work after the reunion too, but it’s the Hotel California album that always seems to me their finest, both musically and poetically. The strangely suggestive imagery of the title song is as successful as other songs in the what’s-it-supposed-to-be-about genre, like Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm or McLean’s American Pie (though even without poetic merit, its climactic choreographed guitar duet would be enough to make it one of the great tracks of all time). But the whole album deserves much closer attention as poetry than it has generally received.
I’m going to miss Glenn Frey. But he’s gone far beyond the pain, and we who must remain go on living just the same. (That’s not his line; it’s from the underrated My Man, written by Bernie Leadon while he worked with Frey as an Eagles member.)