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We’ll Find Out in the Long Run

(Pictured: the Eagles on stage, 1979.)

The Eagles disintegrated in ugly fashion in 1980, brawling after a concert, and then releasing Eagles Live, a two-disc set memorable for “Seven Bridges Road,” and for being the least spontaneous live album in history, reported to have been doctored extensively in the studio after the fact.

Two years later, with pop music on the brink of massive change thanks to MTV and Michael Jackson, the Eagles released Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2. Here’s a ranking of the album’s 10 tracks.

10. “After the Thrill Is Gone.” The only pre-Hotel California track on the album. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a substantial Hot 100 hit in 1978, would have been a far better choice, but it wouldn’t see an official re-release until 2000.

9. “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Timothy B. Schmit’s moment in the sun does not sound very Eagle-ish, except for the guitar solos.

8. “Seven Bridges Road.” This song had been in the Eagles’ repertoire from the beginning, so there must be bootlegs of it performed with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner in the band. I haven’t found one yet, however, and I would like to.

7. “The Long Run.” When the Eagles played this live, they referred to it as a tribute to the sound of Memphis. Not much of that sound gets onto the studio version, although the version on Eagles Live brings it.

6. “Life in the Fast Lane.” If you’re looking for a document of the coked-up 70s, you can scarcely do better. I liked it better in the hard-rockin’ summer of 1977 than I do now.

5. “Victim of Love.” Had the Eagles chosen to go more than three singles deep on Hotel California, “Victim of Love” would have made an excellent fourth. This is the sort of thing they never did before Joe Walsh came along.

4. “Heartache Tonight.” You’d probably have to go back to the Beatles to find a release that was as eagerly anticipated as this one in the fall of 1979.

3. “Hotel California.” This has become a polarizing record over four decades; to some people it signifies everything that’s wrong with classic rock as a radio format and dad rock as a genre. But as a creative accomplishment, it’s outdone by very little in the post-Beatles era. I know every note and nuance by heart, but I still dig it every time I hear it.

2. “The Sad Café.” This is a song I’ve written about before, as perfect a capper to the Eagles’ recorded career as side 2 of Abbey Road was for the Beatles.  Anyone who has ever loved something, lost it, and wished they could have it back for just a little while, can relate to “The Sad Café”—so that’s everybody.

(If you are keeping score, that’s three straight comparisons of the Eagles to the Beatles. I regret nothing.)

1. “New Kid in Town.” Critic Stephen Erlewine wrote about Glenn Frey’s solo work and made a point about “New Kid in Town” that never really occurred to me before: as a concept album, Hotel California is more effective without it. “New Kid in Town” is a wistful song about winners and losers, while the rest of the album is all cocaine fog. Frey never sang better than he does on the bridge and the last verse, especially:

There’s talk on the street, it’s there to remind you
It doesn’t really matter which side you’re on
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you
They will never forget you til somebody new comes along

Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2 reached only #52 on the Billboard 200. It and its gazillion-selling predecessor have been replaced, first by the sketchy Selected Works: 1972-1999, then by The Very Best of the Eagles, which was released in 2001 and updated in 2003. (Both Greatest Hits albums remain in print, however.)

(I brand Selected Works sketchy because each of its four discs runs about 60 minutes, so there’s room for more. It covers the band’s career from Eagles to Hell Freezes Over and includes a handful of previously unreleased tracks, two of which are cobbled-together bits of outtakes and not worth much. The fourth disc is from a show in Los Angeles on December 31, 1999, notable for a version of “Funky New Year” and “Take It to the Limit” sung by Frey.)

For most artists, an album that sells 11 million copies would not be a disappointment. Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2, did that many, yet it probably was.

As It Must Come

(Pictured: Don Henley and Glenn Frey, onstage in 2015.)

(I banged out this post yesterday afternoon within an hour of hearing about the death of Glenn Frey. In breaking with my usual custom of revising the bejeezus out of everything before hitting the “publish” button, I’m going to post this as I wrote it and leave it alone.)

As best I can tell, it was Rod Serling who first used the phrase, in an episode of The Twilight Zone: “Death, as it must come to all men, came to talented musician Johnny Foster.” It’s easy to imagine the phrase being portentously declaimed by a newsreel narrator, Lowell Thomas or Ed Herlihy, telling about the death of some great leader, ruler of all he surveyed, yet laid low nevertheless.

Death, as it must come to all men. . . .

Last Monday it it came to David Bowie. This Monday it was Glenn Frey.

I am not going to try to eulogize Frey; others will do it better. Better writers than I will have more pithy and perceptive words to say about Frey’s place in history and that of the Eagles. I do not expect those obituaries and retrospectives to overflow with universal love and respect, as Bowie’s did. Frey was co-founder of a band as famous for being hated as for being loved and co-writer of a body of a polarizing body of work. By the time you read this post, the Internets will be full of Eagle-hating hot takes—but I can’t recall seeing a single one critical of Bowie.

I have said it before and will say it again: at my house, we like the Eagles, and we have for 40 years. I am sick of neither “Hotel California” nor Hotel California. I rank On the Border among my favorite albums. My wife’s very favorite album is The Long Run, and “The Sad Cafe” from that album is going with me to the Desert Island if and when I have to go.

Yes, Frey and Don Henley were not very good people some of the time. Blame fame and drugs in the 70s, blame fame and good old fashioned cussedness after that. They screwed Don Felder out of a legitimate claim to the band’s legacy, and they reformed in the 90s not because they had any great desire to play together anymore, but for the money. They were not the first and they won’t be the last to commit any of these transgressions—but they sometimes seem to me to get a disproportionate share of abuse for it from critics and listeners.

None of that is the point of this post.

Death, as it must come to all men, came to Glenn Frey this week, to David Bowie and Alan Rickman last week, to jazz pianist Paul Bley and avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez the week before that. (Last Friday, it came to my wife’s Uncle Dallas. You probably didn’t read about him on the Internet.)

And it’s coming to somebody else next week. Maybe you, maybe me.

Most people don’t think much about dying, or at least they don’t admit to thinking about it. I know a few people who are openly terrified by their eventual death, which seems like a very unhappy way to live. I used to be like that, back when I was still worried about being judged by some omnipotent being after it was over, damned to hell for the crime of being human. But now, I take the view of Epicurus, the ancient Greek, who said (depending on the translation), “Where we are, death is not; where death is, we are not.” When the time comes, I will sleep and wake no more, and I’m perfectly content with that.

And so I think of David Bowie, and Glenn Frey, and Ann’s Uncle Dallas (who, according to another of his nieces, was ready to go, feeling his age and tired of his infirmities, with the strong opinion that he’d seen and done enough in his 94 years), their labors done, asleep to wake no more.

“They’re not dead as long as we remember them” is apparently a line from Star Trek, a bit on the nose and sometimes mocked for it, but true nevertheless. The legacies of those who cross over are in our hands now, to love or hate, to forget or remember.

David Bowie and the Purpose of Art

(Pictured: David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Gladys Knight Roberta Flack [my bad] in a most excellent shot from the 1975 Grammy Awards.)

This is not the post I’d planned to put up here today. A few years ago, I wrote about my home 8-track deck, which I bought sometime late in 1975 or early in 1976. I was going to reboot that post as part of the 1976 Project, since it also included a mention of David Bowie’s Station to Station album, which came out 40 years ago this month. Even after getting the news of Bowie’s passing on Monday, I intended to stay with it—but I can’t. Bowie deserves better than playing second fiddle to another damn 70s story of mine, and better than the post I cobbled together on Monday within an hour of learning about his death. So here’s another try.

When Lemmy Kilmister died a couple of weeks ago, the level of grief and celebration on social media was remarkable. I couldn’t recall another celebrity whose death touched so many different people, from political commentators to country music bloggers to people who wisecrack about sports on Twitter. But the response to Bowie’s death dwarfed it. So many tributes, so much historical perspective, so much love from average fans—I find myself hoping that Bowie somehow grasped just how beloved he was, because it would be a shame if he died without knowing it.

I cannot tell you that David Bowie changed my perception of the music I love. The trajectory of my life was not altered by one of his albums. (He did inspire me to try and sneak into an R-rated movie before I was old enough: in 1976, my cousin and I badly wanted to see The Man Who Fell to Earth.) I was not one of those 70s kids who saw in Bowie a validation for their feelings of being “different,” whatever “different” meant. But after reading stories from people who were affected in such ways, I understand now how incredibly important that was. It gets to the very purpose of art.

It’s our view at this blog that the job of the artist—whether he or she is a musician, an actor, a sculptor, a writer, or somebody who makes balloon animals—is to reveal to people stuff they can’t see for themselves. It can be a simple act: in the case of this low-rent blog, I’m happy if I can share a half-assed insight that makes you go, “hmm, I never thought of that.” Some artists aim far higher: think Picasso’s Guernica or “Like a Rolling Stone,” works undertaken with the intent of turning the world upside down. One use of David Bowie’s art is to say to people, “you be you.” Let others adjust to how you are. Don’t always be the one who conforms, the one who does what’s expected of you. It’s OK to live by your own lights, whatever those lights are.

David Bowie’s constant reinventions—his insistence on taking his audience to new places—wasn’t easy on some of us. As I wrote back on Monday, I adored the Thin White Duke, but when Bowie moved to Germany and started hanging out with Brian Eno, I had trouble following. And just when people were getting their minds around the Berlin Trilogy of Heroes, Low, and Lodger, Bowie swerved back toward a more commercial sound on Scary Monsters before going all-in on Let’s Dance. And after a few years of that, he upset the applecart again, with Tin Machine.

But that’s modern life, right? Nobody takes a job at age 21, puts in 40 years doing the same thing every day, and retires with a gold watch and a pension anymore. More often, we take what we know and what we hope and we reinvent ourselves, sometimes by necessity and sometimes by choice, often more than once. Many of us end up in a place far from where we began. And it’s OK to live like that.

I am not sure this post is an acceptable tribute, either. One of the things this week has shown me is that there are many, many people in the world with more and better things to say, and they say them more eloquently than I do. (That’s why I don’t write a lot of obituary/tribute-type posts here.) But this week has taught me, as Joni Mitchell first taught long ago, that often, you really don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

Fame

(Pictured: David Bowie and his mid-70s band.)

I nearly fell off the couch this morning after opening Twitter to see that David Bowie had passed, just a couple of days after his 69th birthday and the release of a new album, Blackstar. He’d apparently been fighting cancer since sometime in 2014.

I’d heard of David Bowie but had not heard much by him until “Fame” and Young Americans hit in 1975. I adored his next album, Station to Station (which will figure in a post later this week from The 1976 Project), although the next several were harder for me to appreciate—I dug the blue-eyed soul singer persona, but Bowie had other directions to explore. In college, I was exposed to the pre-“Fame” Bowie and found a lot to like among his most famous album cuts: “Diamond Dogs,” “Panic in Detroit,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel.” In the early 80s, I didn’t much care for the monster singles from Let’s Dance, although I grew to appreciate them over the years. I played “This Is Not America” and “Blue Jean” during my Top 40 days, and I liked them.

Bowie made a couple of significant appearances at this blog over the years. In 2014:

In the fall of [1975], David Bowie was doing a great deal of American TV. In early November, he did The Dick Cavett Show and also appeared on Soul Train, nervously answering questions from the kids in the audience after, it is said, having a few drinks to calm himself. (This was also a time in which he admits to having consumed vast amounts of cocaine; he has said that he doesn’t remember recording “Golden Years,” one of the songs he sang on Soul Train.) Sometime in December, he and his band taped the daytime talk show Dinah! with Dinah Shore, where they burned down the house (and the housewives watching) with “Stay” from Bowie’s then-new album Station to Station. And in between, he appeared on one of the final episodes of Cher. The two singers did a version of Bowie’s “Young Americans” sandwiched around a medley of familiar pop and rock songs, a Vegas-type thing that actually works. (There was more of the showbiz trouper in Bowie than anybody in 1975 expected.) He also performed his recent hit “Fame,” doing a live vocal over the record’s backing track, accompanied by what were then state-of-the-art trippy TV graphics.

When I wrote about the first white artists to appear on Soul Train, Bowie turned up again:

He had recorded much of his 1975 album Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studios, the cradle of Philly soul, and he referred to Soul Train on the title track. [On Soul Train] his performances of “Fame” and his new single, “Golden Years” required multiple takes to get his lip-synch half-right because he hadn’t bothered to learn the words. Bowie told an interviewer that [Don] Cornelius actually took him to the woodshed at one point, saying, “Do you know there are kids lined up to do this show, who have fought their whole lives to try and get a record and come on here?”

Bowie changed his birth name, David Jones, partly because David Jones was a bit too pedestrian a handle for a visionary artist coming up in the fertile 1960s. But it was also because at the time Bowie was beginning his career, he didn’t want to be confused with another David Jones—Davy Jones of the Monkees. It was merely the first instance of his shape-shifting: on his first visit to the States in 1971, the story goes, he was unable to perform in Texas because he didn’t have the proper paperwork, but he got noticed anyhow, when he attended a promotional event wearing a dress—adopting another new persona, on the fly, as he would do for the next 40-plus years, right up to inventive elder statesman, and the end of his life.

I Surrender

(Pictured: Cheap Trick, photographed at Budokan in 1979.)

My brother Dan is a curator, and he used to work at a museum in Rockford, Illinois. From time to time, he would chat with one of his volunteers, a kindly old lady, who would sometimes refer to “my son’s band.” Dan says it took him a while before he put two and two together: her last name was Petersson, her son was Tom, and his band was Cheap Trick.

There is much rejoicing among people I know about the election of Cheap Trick to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rockford is down the road about 90 minutes from Madison, and the band and its predecessors played countless Wisconsin gigs throughout the 70s before their late-decade breakthrough, so we take some geographically-based pride in their accomplishment. My Internet friends, dudes of a particular age, are mostly pleased, depending on how seriously they take the RRHoF anymore. Tom Nawrocki voted for them, and explained why in his excellent blog series. So good for Cheap Trick, and if you’re happy for them, good for you.

I have never been a fan.

Let me make clear that the old guy writing this blog both understands and appreciates the place Cheap Trick occupies in history today. I don’t agree with the contention that they invented power pop—the Raspberries were there before Cheap Trick was, and I’d cast a vote for Badfinger as well. But “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” rock like crazy, and “Voices” is grossly underrated in the power ballad rankings. Cheap Trick did three-minute radio-friendly power-chord crunch rock as well as anybody, and had you formed a band 35 years ago, you would have stolen as much from them as you could. As far as I care about the RRHoF anymore, I have no complaints about their induction.

But when my high-school classmates were getting into Cheap Trick, circa 1977, and my college classmates were losing their minds over Cheap Trick, circa 1980, they left me absolutely cold.

I can think of some reasons for this. In high school, I was most interested in the stuff on the radio, and Cheap Trick was not on the radio, apart from a couple of Rockford-area stations I listened to occasionally. If they weren’t on the radio, how good could they be? The stuff I liked that was not on the radio was almost exclusively prog rock: Emerson Lake and Palmer and Rick Wakeman, to name two. “California Man” is pretty much the opposite of “Karn Evil 9,” and I knew where my allegiance lay. Not only that, I tended to resist whatever direction the crowd was going; therefore, when people were going nuts over Cheap Trick, I went the other way. (Columns I wrote for the college newspaper in 1980, in which I bashed Cheap Trick and Van Halen, set a record for generating hate mail.)

When Cheap Trick dropped off the map in the middle of the 80s, I didn’t notice. In 1988, I was playing elevator music when “The Flame” and “Don’t Be Cruel” became the two biggest hits of their career, and I didn’t notice. It was only when I started working at the classic-rock station 20 years ago that I gained the understanding and appreciation of Cheap Trick’s place in rock history that I mentioned above.

So good for Cheap Trick, and if you’re happy for them, good for you. But I have never been a fan.

Additional Note, Plausibly Related but Entirely Coincidental: Starting today and continuing through New Year’s Day (except for tomorrow), I will be filling in on the air at the Mighty 100.5, a classic-hits station in Rockford. Find out when and how to tune in, if you care, at jb on the Radio.)

More #13s

(Pictured: ABBA on The Midnight Special, deep in the 70s.)

Here’s the second part of my completely arbitrary and therefore highly debatable list of the best #13 hits of the Hot 100 era, the first part of which appeared on Friday the 13th.

1972: Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” is the pick by by the thinnest of margins over “Roundabout” by Yes and “Anticipation” by Carly Simon.

1973: Only two songs peaked at #13 in this year. I’m going with King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” over Pink Floyd’s “Money” because of course I am.

1974: Here I’m going off the board again, ignoring Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and “Skin Tight” by the Ohio Players in favor of the Pointer Sisters’ “Fairytale.” That’s one you’re gonna want to click if you’ve never heard it.

1975: In yet another close call, I’ll take Al Green’s “L-O-V-E (Love)” over Chicago’s “Harry Truman.”

1976: “Fernando” by ABBA gets the call here, as much for the associations I have with the song as for the song itself, but you should be used to that line of thinking by now.

1977: “Livin’ Thing” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

1978: “Turn to Stone” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

1979: “Suspicions” by the Electric Light Orchestra—er, Eddie Rabbitt—for its sultry summery vibe.

1980: The much-beloved-around-here “Pilot of the Airwaves” by Charlie Dore, about which I have written before.

1981: There are only two to choose from in this year, “Somebody’s Knockin'” by Terri Gibbs and “Cool Love” by Pablo Cruise. I’m going with “Somebody’s Knockin’,” but you could talk me out of it.

1982: “Waiting on a Friend” by the Rolling Stones.

1983: “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne. (Off topic: The Mrs. and I got married in 1983, and we had a giant poster of the Lawyers in Love cover hanging over the couch in one of our first living rooms. Even though neither of us is a particularly big Jackson Browne fan, we really loved that cover.)

1984: I’m not wild about any of the seven records that peaked at #13 in this year, but Culture Club’s “It’s a Miracle” is the most distinctive of the bunch.

1985: One way to play this game is to ask yourself, “Which of these songs would I like to hear right now?” Answer for 1985: “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

1986: Three to choose from, and I’m going with Jeffrey Osborne’s “You Should Be Mine” over Bob Seger’s “American Storm” and “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora, because that “can you woo-woo-woo” hook is too big to ignore.

1987: “Back in the High Life Again” by Steve Winwood.

1988: Any list of “world’s most boring” that doesn’t include Glenn Frey’s solo work is incomplete. “True Love,” in which he gets his Detroit soul man on, is a bit of an exception.

1989: “Sacred Emotion” was part of Donny Osmond’s off-the-wall late-80s comeback, and is better than it has any right to be.

1990: It’s probably cheating, but I’m going with the Righteous Brothers’ reissue of their 1965 hit “Unchained Melody,” from the Ghost soundtrack.

1991: “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn.

1992: “Would I Lie to You” by Charles and Eddie is a classic one-shot, reaching #1 or #2 in nine countries around the world without resulting in a successful followup.

By 1993, I had grown so unfamiliar with the current music scene that I don’t recognize a lot of songs that charted far higher, let alone the #13s. So that’s where we’ll bring this thing to a close.

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