The Eagles still soar after tumultuous ride

7/18/2013
BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Eagles
The Eagles

The Eagles personified the rock music business in the 1970s.

They made piles of money, snorted, smoked, and drank themselves into oblivion, and defined a sound that wiped the sonic map clean of any vestiges of the protest music and jam-heavy hard rock that lingered in the post-Vietnam era.

Led by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, a pair of cantankerous perfectionists with a knack for penning remarkably catchy songs, the band’s story is told in great detail in the excellent rock documentary History of the Eagles recently released by Capitol Records.

Clocking in at more than three hours, the film spans the formative years of its two main founders and covers the band’s story in exhaustive detail. The entire thing is fascinating and never drags thanks to the refreshing candor Henley and Frey bring to their on-camera interviews. The result is an intriguing exploration of band dynamics and the almost casual brutality of the music business told through a pair of artists who don’t suffer fools easily.

The Eagles DVD box set cover.
The Eagles DVD box set cover.

At the core of the story is the internal wrestling with the three lead guitarists — Bernie Leadon, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh (mostly due to his drug and drinking problems) — and bass player Randy Meisner. Creative power struggles are exposed and decades later nerves are still raw from some of the bruising battles that occurred, mostly between Frey and Felder.

No one emerges as a hero in any of these stories, least of all Frey, who embodies the ultimate alpha male in a band full of them. When it came time for the group to get back together in 1994 after being apart for 14 years, he was the last one to sign up and his return came with a caveat.

He told Eagles manager Irving Azoff that “I’m not going to do it unless Don [Henley] and I make more money than the other guys.” His logic was that he and Henley were the principle songwriters, original founders, and most essential members.

“A rock band is not a perfect democracy,” he says. “It’s more like a sports team ... everybody can’t touch the ball.”

The Eagles DVD box set.
The Eagles DVD box set.

Sounds harsh until you consider that Walsh was a stone-cold drunk and addled cocaine addict at this point — interviews at the time show a bloated, barely intelligible cipher of a man — Felder had unrealistic expectations about his role in the group, and bass player Timothy B. Schmit was just happy to be there.

This drove Felder nuts because he still wanted the gig to be five guys with an equal say in things and eventually he and Frey nearly duked it out on stage as the tension built to a climax. Suffice to say, Felder was gone and Frey is still with the band.

Meisner left because he couldn’t handle the fame and started freaking out. The most annoying manifestation of this for the other band members was his reluctance to sing his signature Eagles hit “Take It to the Limit” live because he feared he couldn’t hit the song’s high notes at the end.

Also explored are the band’s epic battles with music business impresario David Geffen, whom Frey and Henley went to war with a few times. No love is lost as Geffen describes Henley in the film this way: “By nature he’s a malcontent.”

History of the Eagles also delves into the evolution of what came to be known as the “Southern California sound” embodied by them, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, and a few others.

Frey, who is from Detroit and counts Bob Seger as a key early mentor, tells a fascinating anecdote about watching and hearing Browne write songs such as "Doctor My Eyes" and "The Pretender" when they lived in the same apartment complex, describing the painstaking process as “elbow grease, time, thought, and persistence.”

The documentary also explains how some of the band’s most popular songs were created, including “Take It Easy,” “Hotel California,” and “Life In the Fast Lane” and explores the relationship between Henley and Frey, a pair of guys who seems awfully different on the surface but who actually are sympatico.

Oddly, while History makes passing mention of the animosity that built up between the two principle members in the early ’80s when the band broke up, it is never explored. Obviously it’s a lot easier to tee off on Meisner and Felder, who no longer are associated with The Eagles, than it is to pick at scabs among two guys who still tour together.

At the end, of course, a band’s legacy is all about its songs. Fans don’t care all that much about internal bickering or if Don Henley’s a dour grump (seriously, the guy seems like a real sourpuss) if the music moves them. The Eagles have always been about making music that is timeless and universal. As Browne says near the end of the documentary, “These songs last.”

The DVD is packaged as a two-disc set that also contains a full DVD of a great “Hotel California” era 1977 concert.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.