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.