Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The death of Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey reminds us of the value of craftsmanship--in any endeavor

Glenn Frey
I am the son of a craftsman. My father, William Joe Shuler, made his living (and supported a wife and four kids) as a railroad worker and postal clerk. But his real gifts were as a repairman and a creator, especially with wood.

It's not a stretch to say my dad could fix most anything. I remember him taking an aged Dodge Rambler, which was dead on our driveway, and giving it years of new life. He also built extraordinary grandfather clocks--from scratch, as best I could tell. When he needed a place to put his clocks together, he built his own woodworking shop in our backyard.

I participated in the shop-building project, helping with the foundation, the framing, and the roofing. Until then, I thought hay hauling was the dirtiest, hardest job on the planet. My roofing experience convinced me that job, especially on a hot day, was just as brutal as hauling hay.

It's not that my father passed along his mechanical gifts to me. I had no idea how to build a woodworking shop; he had to show me how to do everything. And I wouldn't even know where to begin on building a grandfather clock.

But my dad did pass along an appreciation for craftsmanship. And I was reminded of that with news Monday about the death of Eagles guitarist, singer, and songwriter Glenn Frey, at age 67.

That's strange because my dad and Glenn Frey seemingly had nothing in common. Frey was the guy with long hair who co-wrote (with Jackson Browne) and sang "Take it Easy," the Eagles' first hit. My dad was a crewcut guy for almost all of his adult life.

I feel certain my dad had no clue who Glenn Frey and the Eagles were--even though their albums were featured regularly on the stereo turntable in my bedroom. I was born in 1956 and was old enough to appreciate quite a few bands from the '60s--the Beatles, Beach Boys, Dave Clark Five, Guess Who, Grass Roots, Three Dog Night, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But I began to actually understand music (at least a little) in the '70s, And that decade belonged to the Eagles.

I came to consider "Take it Easy" as almost the perfect pop song. I loved the Eagles harmonies and their ability (thanks largely to Bernie Leadon's banjo and pedal steel) to merge country and rock. And when the Eagles added guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh to harden their sound, that led to the monster albums "One of These Nights" and "Hotel California," cementing the Eagles as a band for the ages.

The Eagles started as four guys (Frey, Leadon, drummer Don Henley, and bassist Randy Meisner) who were committed to democratic principles--with all four guys singing lead and having an equal say in band decisions. Frey and Henley quickly realized that wasn't going to work, so they gradually took over the band.

Henley, because of his soulful, raspy voice, a gift for lyrics, and an impressive solo career, became the band's best-known member. ("He could sing the New York City phone book and make it sound good," Felder once said.) Henley also became a stickler in the studio, meaning it could take years for the Eagles to produce a record. Bandmates called Henley "Sonic Bat" because of his ability to hear the slightest mistake in a song. (From that nickname, came another--"Guano," which is Spanish for bats--t.)

Even after launching solo smashes such as "Dirty Laundry," "Boys of Summer," and "End of the Innocence," Henley could identify the real leader of the Eagles. "The Eagles are Glenn's band," he said. "They always will be."

That's because Frey essentially was the band's "head coach." He co-wrote and sang the first hit, pretty much settled on the band's name, established the band's low-key concert style, handled personnel decisions (some of which led to painful exits) and developed themes for albums and many individual songs.

With the plaintive, haunting "Desperado," Frey and Henley established themselves as a songwriting team of the highest order. In essence, they became America's version of Lennon and McCartney.

How did Frey and Henley work? The Eagles best-known song, "Hotel California," provides a clue. The lyrics--"On a dark, desert highway, cool wind in my hair; warm smell of colitas rising up through the air; up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light; my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim; I had to stop for the night"--came mostly from Henley. But Frey developed the song's theme--of a man driving through the desert, until he sees the lights of Los Angeles in the distance, and pulling into the mythical Hotel California as fatigue takes him.

Felder wrote the music for "Hotel California", and the song stands as one of the great collaborative pieces ever.

As the "MC" of Eagles concerts, and a primary spokesman in the press, Frey was quick with a quip. He could poke fun at his uber-serious songwriting partner--"Nobody can suck the fun out of a room like Don Henley." He also could poke fun at himself--"People think Jackson Browne and I wrote 'Take it Easy.' But Jackson pretty much had the song ready when he got stuck on the lyrics. I said, "How about, 'It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me"? Jackson said, 'Yeah, that's good.' And that's how I got a credit on the song; I wrote one line." (That quote is from the History of the Eagles documentary. I might not have it exactly right, but I'm pretty sure I've got the gist of it. I just know that I guffawed when I heard it."

Frey was ambitious and driven, and he could get nasty with bandmates who weren't of the same mindset or questioned his tactics. All three members who left the band--Leadon, Meisner, and Felder--departed in the wake of disputes with Frey. When the Eagles regrouped in 1994, after what Frey called a "14-year vacation," he (with some assistance from Henley) tried to rearrange the group's business structure so that the two of them would get bigger shares and Felder would be pushed aside as a partner. When Felder continued to ask questions about Manager Irving Azoff and the band's finances, Frey booted him out of the band--and years of nasty litigation ensued.

Felder probably wound up with a nice settlement, but he was forced out of a band for which his entrance marked an explosion in popularity--and he wrote the music for what would become the band's signature song. Was Frey driven by control, power, and greed? It looks that way to me--and I'm a big Frey fan. Frey and Henley should have been grateful for Felder's contributions to the band, and respectful of the role he had earned as partner. Instead, they (mainly Frey) strong-armed him out of the band.

Was Glenn Frey a driven leader who sought the best from those around him? Yes. Could he be a charming, insightful, and funny guy? Yes. Was he generally graceful and honorable under fire? Nope. Was he a musical genius? Based on his solo output, the answer probably is no. He was a very good, but not quite great, musician; any "genius" tag related to the Eagles belongs with Henley.

Was Frey a craftsman? Absolutely, and insight on that comes from Timothy B. Schmitt, who left Poco in 1977 to replace Meisner as the Eagles bassist. Poco was--and still is--a very good band, with a career that spanned more than six decades and produced hits like "Good Feeling to Know," "Keep on Tryin',""Rose of Cimarron," "Crazy Love," and "The Heart of the Night." But the band has never come close to the heights the Eagles reached.

Someone once asked Schmitt about the difference between the two bands, and he said, "There is a level of craftsmanship with the Eagles songs that we didn't have with Poco."

Who drove that craftsmanship? Don Henley certainly played a role, but the leader--the man who set the standards high--was Glenn Frey.

I, and millions of other fans, long will be grateful for what Glenn Frey brought to our lives. I think even my dad would have appreciated Frey's determination to get things right.

Frey is best known as the co-writer and/or lead singer on major singles, such as "Tequila Sunrise," "Already Gone," "Lyin' Eyes," "New Kid in Town," "Heartache Tonight," and (of course) "Take it Easy."

But he also took the lead on LP tracks that made all seven of the Eagles' studio albums such treasures. One of my favorites is a song from the band's third album, "On the Border," and it wasn't even written by a member of the Eagles. Tom Waits wrote "Ol' 55," but with Frey on lead vocals and piano--plus classic Eagles harmonies, it's a song that has stayed close to my heart for almost 45 years. Here are the Eagles performing "Ol' 55" live:


Anonymous said...

What a great article, LS! While you do investigative journalism well, it's nice to see you reflect on a band that had a huge influence on so many lives. I remember going to a concert in the 70's where Poco opened for the Eagles. What a show! I became equal part Poco and Eagles fan that night.

You are obviously a music fan. Good to know. Please continue to share such fun, memory/filled blog posts more. It certainly gives your readers a glimpse in to you as well. Thanks for the memories!

legalschnauzer said...

Thank you, @12:44. Glenn Frey's death hit me hard. You generally knew if he was involved in a song or album, it was going to be good. He and Henley refused to put out trash. Like you, I also love Poco, but have never been able to see them in concert. Never could figure out why they did not enjoy more commercial success.

Was fortunate to see the Eagles live three times, once in Kansas City and twice in Birmingham. Never seen another band that can play its music as well live as the Eagles. A lot of that was Glenn Frey.

Anonymous said...

Glenn Frey will be greatly missed. Hard to imagine the Eagles going on without him, and that's a huge loss, too.

Anonymous said...

A touching tribute to Glenn Frey--and to your dad. Very nice.

Anonymous said...

Glad you featured Ol 55 here. Love both the original by Tom Waits and the Eagles version. Hope the Eagles find a way to soldier on, but it will be tough without their leader.

legalschnauzer said...

Glad you liked it, @3:27. If you listen to the end of the audio, it includes a funny line from Glenn Frey:

"Tom Waits didn't really like our version of 'Ol' 55' when it first came out--and then he got the check. Since then, Tom and I, we're real close."

legalschnauzer said...

Just found a great Glenn Frey quote from a 1975 Rolling Stone article. It sums up what drove Frey and the Eagles to the top:

"We had it all planned. We'd watched watched bands like Poco and the Burrito Brothers lose their initial momentum. We were determined not to make the same mistakes. We all felt that this was going to be our best shot. Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM and FM success. Number one singles and albums, great music and a lot of money. I wanted to make it really bad. I was driven, a man possessed.In a sense I think we were all that way. We didn't just want to be another LA band." (Rolling Stone 1975)

Anonymous said...

Noticed you did not mention Blood,Sweat&Tears. When I was in the Marines back in the 60's,"And When I Die"played continuously in the geedunk.Roger! You truly are not scared of dying.

Anonymous said...

Yes, "Ol 55" is one of my faves from Frey and the Eagles too. J.D. Souther was the unofficial Eagle who contributed from behind the scenes. He, along with Glen Frey wrote some great songs.
The fusion of country, rock and pop was great and they made it work without having to try too hard, it just flowed. Leadon and Meisner made the early albums way more country than today's pitiful country. Yet it was still California rock simultaneously.
Felder and Walsh gave them a harder edge that they seamlessly moved into without blinking. Few bands can have incarnations like that and make it work still keeping their fan base. The fans go on the journey right along with the band.
All that, plus playing as Linda Ronstandt's band before Andrew Gold. Every one ever called an Eagle contributed and made it better. It's so sad the guys couldn't tame their egos and struggled to get along.
Most people like Henley's vocals best, I liked Frey's. Plus his arrangements and guitar that was subtle yet edgy.
Maybe one day there will such thing as talent in the delivery of pop music. It's taken a back seat to image and fluff songs. The Eagles in their flannel shirts and dusty boots had more talent than today's entire top forty.

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for a great comment, @8:45. You clearly have a deep appreciation for the Eagles and Glenn Frey.

Anonymous said...

Roger,How could you forget the "Temptations" no.1 1965 hit. It was inspired by Smokey's wife,"Claudette".Surely you are familiar with the song."My Girl"

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for bringing up the Temptations, @8:16. So many great acts in the 60s. Didn't the Temptations have strong ties to Birmingham? I think Eddie Kendricks was from Bham, and maybe another member of the band.

Just thought of another 60s band I left out--Chicago. They've been around so long that it's easy to forget that they first hit the charts way back in the 60s. Stevie Wonder was another major act in the 60s, who put out several classic albums in the 70s ("Songs in the Key of Life," etc.)

Based on my reading, Glenn Frey grew up in Detroit and was steeped in Motown and other forms of music. Those influences, along with those from his friend Bob Seger, can be heard in many Eagles tunes.