Editor’s note: this article was originally published in January 2016, and has been updated.
Glenn Frey, guitarist, co-vocalist and co-founding member of Eagles had immeasurable influence on country and rock music.
To some, Frey was another in a line of brilliant musical minds claimed by the heartless winter of 2016 that also claimed Scott Weiland, Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie. Each a calculated reminder that, while their legacies may be eternal, our heroes are temporary.
But when I heard Frey passed away, I honestly couldn’t believe it. Not because his death seemed more sudden than the others, who were either plagued by cancer, histories of substance abuse, or both. I couldn’t believe it because, for the first time in my life, I personally felt loss from the passing of someone I’d never met. Like a small piece of me also passed on.
When I was 8, my brother and I were spending summers camping in an old Volkswagen van with our dad. To my memory, there were two cassettes that we rotated between: Pink Floyd’s live album The Delicate Sound Of Thunder and Eagles’ Hotel California. At some points in my young childhood, I felt Hotel California was the only thing I understood about those summers. Sometimes I think Glenn Frey and Don Henley invented some new language and it was the only one both my dad and I spoke.
We eventually lost the cassette, and a replacement may have been the first non-candy independent purchase of my nascent life (thanks, lemonade stand money). I needed to hear it for the millionth time.
When I returned home, I dove deep into Eagles’ catalog — yes, it bugs my grammar-crazed brain too that I’m not calling them “The Eagles”, but dammit, Glenn insisted the band name was “Eagles” and I’m going to honor that. At least for this article.
Anyways, I dove deep into their catalog and, though I was discovering it 20 years late, I had found a sound that truly inspired me. It was a revelation. Not simply country, not simply rock n’ roll, but something that completely eschewed the notion of genre conventions altogether.
Theirs was a sound that would eventually inspire some of the world’s biggest country stars. They are responsible for country legends in all arenas. As the 70s progressed and gave way to the first big phase of pop country, they made it cool for country music to be edgy and organic. They made it cool for country to rock. And they made it cool for rock to strip itself bear, be vulnerable, lay its heart on the line and accept the consequences.
Imitated but never duplicated, Eagles had a sound that wasn’t afraid to morph not just from album to album, but song to song. They didn’t care if it didn’t fit in a box, because those harmonies and hooks were often too big even for our stereo speakers, much less a critic’s column.
They famously suffered a falling out in 1980, largely sparked by a feud between guitarist Don Felder and Frey, but they showed enough humility and humor with their 1994 comeback. Don Henley famously said in the 80s that the band would reunite when “hell freezes over.” So guess what they called their reunion tour? Yep, Hell Freezes Over.
They constantly reminded upcoming young musicians that the music should come first. The only time I was able to see them live, they opened with “Seven Bridges Road”, a single spot on each member as they launched into the flawless A capella croons of the first verse. It was a religious experience.
And they continue to inspire the little guys, like me. I can honestly say I would not be on the path I am if it weren’t for them. Eagles made me believe you can be meaningful, musical, original and catchy all at the same time. Anytime I hear a bad country/rock crossover, I just say to myself, “Remember: Eagles did it right. It exists. It can be done.” Oh, and Frey and Henley were 25 and 26, respectively, when they wrote “Desperado.” Wisdom is ageless.
They were not without their flaws, but Eagles managed to create something timeless and bigger than themselves. In his moving farewell note to his friend, Henley said Glenn “changed my life forever.”
Mine too, Don.
“But,” continues Henley, “I will be grateful, every day, that he was in my life. The bond we forged 45 years ago was never broken, even during the 14 years that the Eagles were dissolved. We were two young men who made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles with the same dream: to make our mark in the music industry – and with perseverance, a deep love of music, our alliance with other great musicians and our manager, Irving Azoff, we built something that has lasted longer than anyone could have dreamed.”
They inspired countless others to dream that dream, too.
And truthfully, I don’t think they cared what people called their sound. As artists, we’re all too caught up in what we are or aren’t. What is or isn’t country music. Who cares? Does it move you? Does it speak to you? Does it give you that peaceful easy feeling and inspire you to take it easy? Does it rejoice in and lament the true costs of love and addiction and fame and life in the fast line? Does it connect you to something — or someone — you never thought you’d connect with?
I may be an optimist, but I do believe that beyond the business and the fans and the money and the not having any of it, we’re all just trying to connect to something real.
We’re all just trying to be Eagles.