On Hating the Eagles

In my archives I have a bootleg titled MTV Unplugged—Second Night. It’s the outtakes from the shows the Eagles recorded for Hell Freezes Over in April 1994. It contains a lot more onstage chatter than Hell Freezes Over does, comparatively speaking. But Don Henley and Glenn Frey scarcely interact with the audience. They don’t banter with each other or talk to the other members of the band. Even Joe Walsh, a gregarious sort, is largely excluded. At one point, Henley says, “We’re happy to be friends again,” but his lack of conviction is chilling. Never has anyone who uttered those words seemed to mean them less. They make it sound like the 1994 reunion was purely a business arrangement. Today, 19 years later and on the brink of another reunion tour, maybe they really do like each other and bygones are bygones. It wouldn’t make sense to suffer people you dislike when you’ve already got more money than God and you’re at the age when most people are considering retirement. But I could be wrong.

Even as the Eagles continue to sell records, and will sell out arenas this summer at astoundingly high prices (not for nothing was there no announcement of ticket prices when the Eagles’ July gig at Milwaukee Summerfest was unveiled last week—if you have to ask, you can’t afford it), the phrase “hate the Eagles” gets over 21 million hits on a Google search. It’s not that people didn’t hate the Eagles before—in the 70s, über-critic Robert Christgau unloaded some of the harshest rhetoric of his career in the band’s direction: “Don Henley is incapable of conveying a mental state as complex as self-criticism—he’ll probably sound smug croaking out his famous last words (‘Where’s the coke?’)” and “I mean, these guys think punks are cynical and antilife? Guys who put down ‘the king of Hollywood’ because his dick isn’t as big as John David Souther’s?” And he wasn’t the only one.

Christgau and other critics disliked the Eagles’ music as plastic country rock, their lyrics as pretentious or condescending (or vicious) tripe, and their image as slickly marketed nonsense. Your mileage may vary (mine certainly does), and there’s a reason why this stuff sold like it did, and why Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 is second only to Thriller on the list of all-time top-sellers. It was everywhere during the 1970s because it’s pretty: love it or hate it, you gotta admit that “New Kid in Town” and “Best of My Love” and “Take It Easy” are pleasing to the ear. It’s easy to sing along with, and you know this because you’ve done it. In fact, it’s my half-baked theory that the audience-participation aspect of the Eagles’ music helps explain why their best-of is the biggest seller of its kind, and not similar compilations by Elton John or Chicago. For one thing, the Eagles’ music is very, very American, all Arizona deserts and California sunsets, unlike Elton’s, whose songs are sprinkled with Britishisms and other references that mark them foreign to our experience. And while most of us can imagine picking out a melody or a couple of chords on a guitar, it’s harder to see ourselves playing a trumpet or trombone like the guys in Chicago.

So to a certain degree, we dug the Eagles because we could more easily imagine ourselves being one of the Eagles.

Christgau’s criticism, and that of others, extended to the sort of people the individual Eagles were. Henley’s famous coke-fueled canoodle with an underage girl is the most famous example of the band’s moral turpitude. Their 1980 implosion, which began onstage with the vigorous trading of insults within range of live microphones and spilled over into an all-out brawl backstage, would be a black mark on the reputation of any grown adult. We’ve heard how Henley and Frey froze out the other members, and we know they fired Don Felder, whose claim on the band’s legacy was at least as strong as theirs. So yeah, they’re jerks. But it’s not necessary to be a nice person to make worthwhile art—Van Morrison isn’t, and he does. But if you dispute that the art is worthwhile, the personal failings of the artist become even more egregious.

This piece doesn’t have a good ending. The Eagles have always been part of my mental furniture. “The Sad Café” is one of my Desert Island songs, and I am still not tired of On the Border. I get that there are people who hate them passionately. I’m not joining that tribe, even though I understand why it exists.

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12 responses

  1. IMHO there are 2 main reasons rock critics hated the Eagles and neither one has anything to do with the kind of people Henley and Frey are. 1) They were too popular. They had too many hit singles, which to a rock critic is the kiss of death, a pure indication that the band sold out. Did you ever notice how often Rolling Stone would rally for a band until their latest release went double platinum at which point Jann Wanner’s rag would turn on them? 2) Their music wasn’t anti-establishment enough to be credible. They were too mainstream.

    1. Not sure I agree with your first point. There were other acts with lots of singles that were better-reviewed than the Eagles were. To the second point, however, you’re probably onto something. There’s nothing edgy about the Eagles.

  2. Might be onboard with someone whose opinion of Eagles would be ‘overrated’, but really don’t understand the ‘hated’ part.

    Personalities and band inside-drama aside—and really, why the hell should that even matter?—they tell pretty good stories, an indication, in my mind, of quality song-writing.

    No, they don’t jam like Guitar Gods, but ‘Already Gone’, ‘Victim of Love’, ‘One of These Nights”, to think of a few off the top, bring it just fine for me.

    A Top Ten—if not Top Five—all-time American band is what they are.

    1. I’ll take a shot at explaining the “hated” from my perspective:

      – Too slick. For some reason I always think of “Tequila Sunrise” as a song so perfect, so every-hair-in-place, that it could have been spat out by a computer programmed for country-pop supremacy. (“Peaceful Easy Feeling” is in the same boat.)
      The side of me that would rather hear Iggy and the Stooges rebels against that perfection … and, for some reason, the side of me that loves Steely Dan never learned to appreciate it.

      – Too self-appointed California cool for their own good. Example: Don Henley’s ad-lib of “Are you with me so far?” in “Life In The Fast Lane.” No, Don; I’m not hip enough to follow your tale of self-indulgence.

      – Too full of themselves. Witness Henley’s exchange with a critic regarding “Hotel California”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_California_%28song%29
      I can put up with a fair amount of jerkdom, but taking oneself too seriously is a cardinal sin.

      – It also happens that I loathe Frey and Henley’s ’80s and ’90s solo output (for many of the same reasons cited above), which I shouldn’t hold against the Eagles but still do.

      As for one of Jim’s points, I bet a few of those “hate the Eagles” Google hits came from here in eastern Pennsylvania. ;-)

  3. Understand where you’re coming from.

    However, I think if we’re going discount some of this group’s big hits are overly-programmed, written exclusively with FM heavy-play and chart-position in mind, we have to do the same for most if not all of the ‘California-rock’ genre of the 70’s-80’s…CSNY, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Beach Boys, Poco, Linda Ronstadt, and on and on. That’s alot of talent, alot of songs, to address with skepticism.

    I believe it’s possible this type of sound and song-writing was done so well and so professionally it looks too ‘easy’ and too over-cooked. These guys were just pretty damn good at what they knew best. That’s how I look at it.

    By the way, huge Steely Dan fan here who vastly prefers that sound/word-play/vibe over the West Coast stuff.

  4. Here’s a good reason to hate the Eagles: In 1994 they decided to charge $100 or more for tickets to their ‘reunion’ tour. That helped the average price of a ticket triple with a year. Now you’re lucky if you can get tickets to a basic show for $50, while they now average $150 per ticket
    It’s cheaper to see the Philadelphia Eagles than it is to see the Eagles (not sure if either are worth it)

    1. This point about the Eagles’ extortionate 1994 ticket prices is something I had in this post originally but took out for reasons of space. They aren’t totally to blame—Barbra Streisand undertook a major tour at about the same time and charged $100 a ticket or more—and I suspect that if they hadn’t done it, somebody else would have eventualy, but it’s another strike against them. Before the Hell Freezes Over tour, you could still see big acts live for maybe $25 or $30. The top ticket for their Summerfest show is $167 not including Ticketmaster’s legalized theft–er, I mean service charge—on top of it; lawn seats are $61.

  5. “They make it sound like the 1994 reunion was purely a business arrangement.”

    Which it was. This paved the way for the Beatles and KISS to do the same (Anthology and reunion tour respectively), to pad members’ portfolios as they entered their twilight years. It was the heyday of the compact disc as well, when artists realized how much money they could make from the format and Garth Brooks was pumping out product just to top statistics held by Elvis and the Beatles. The Eagles could put out a mediocre product on CD and reap the rewards.

    And I believe it was girls, pleural, canoodling with Mr. Dirty Laundry.

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