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IN DEFENSE OF
THE EAGLES

I started defending the Eagles the first week of June 1973. I was 14 and had purchased tickets to see the band perform at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It was my first real concert.

The only reason I was allowed to travel from my San Fernando Valley home to the Civic was that my best friend's mother would be playing violin in the string section they had booked that night to play “Desperado.” As a far as I was concerned, the only people I would want to see more than the Eagles would be Bob Dylan, Neil Young or a Beatle—certainly no act that was coming of age as we were, especially in the same area code, could be cooler. I was informed I was wrong.

“They're lame,” I remember a couple of friends telling me, the basis of their opinion being the time they saw them open for Yes. (And even at that young age, I couldn't understand why the Eagles and Yes were on the same bill). Older teenagers told me they weren't as good as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield or even the records those musicians made after those bands broke up.

It didn't matter. I figured I'd enjoy the show and probably not tell anyone. What I saw was a surprise: They played Desperado front to back, stretching it so it would go beyond the album's 36-minute running time, then followed up with the hits from the first album—“Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and so on.

In a way it spoiled me. By the time I'd seen eight or nine concerts I was wondering why no one played their entire new album the whole way through, giving the listener a greater sense of the band beyond the hits.

What my friends and I were too young to sense at that time was that the music we'd been taping off the radio, buying on 45s and LPs and toting to school as badges of coolness, would permeate deeper than entertainment. We were far enough into the 1970s that we were laying claim to our decade's artists—David Bowie, Alice Cooper, The Allman Brothers Band—acts with no visible '60s residue, artists who rose up charts in a post-Beatles, post-Detroit-era Motown world. Chiming acoustic guitars, by and large, seemed to be the smartest path to success on AM and FM, and the Eagles were certainly at the head of the class.

When their third album, On the Border, came out a year later, it was striking how much more appreciated the Eagles were among my friends. For starters, a lot of us were far enough along playing musical instruments that we could discern between the simple (AmericaCCR) the doable (Eagles, Deep Purple) and the tough stuff (Steely Dan, prog rock keyboard parts, Allman Brothers solos).

A lot of that owed to being able to play music that girls liked—Cat StevensDan Fogelberg, Neil Young and, of course, The Eagles. Strum “Take It Easy” and you could attract attention.

Unachievable, though, were those harmonies. If four high school guys could sing “Best of My Love” properly, they sure weren't doing it in the Valley. On the Border made life tough for budding performers—“Already Gone” required a sharp level of concentration to nail the rhythm and melody, never mind Glenn Frey's soaring vocal. If your band had enough balls to play “James Dean” or “On the Border,” it was unlikely you had the vocal finesse to carry the tunes the way Frey and Don Henley had on record.

Then One of These Nights changed things again. Superficially, the title track made them sound like followers rather than leaders, rockers succumbing—as many would later on—to the sway of disco's money-making rhythms. (In retrospect, it's not a bad song).

But that album had a unique sweep. Who else would put a six-and-a-half-minute banjo-and-strings instrumental on a rock album? Who else felt another six-and-half-minute song (“Lyin' Eyes”) was an appropriate single? And in an era when bands focused on a single lead singer, they had four. Wasn't that the same formula used by bands they were supposedly inferior to?

Director Marc Evans made a film in 2012 called Hunky Dory and based on a true story, about a school orchestra in Wales learning modern pop songs in the spring of 1976. Bowie, T.Rex, The Byrds and others appear in their repertoire, and as a person whose musical tastes changed dramatically in 1976 and '77, I had to ask him about the specifics of the year. “I know what started in 1976,” Evans told me at SXSW that year, referring obviously to the punk movement, “but I'm not sure what ended.”

That's partially why Hotel California did not speak to me the way On the Border had. Some of it owes to moving 2,500 miles away from L.A., some of it was the bands coming out of New York and London; maybe it owes to Frey singing lead on only one song.

Yes, they expanded their vision, subject matter and ambition, hired one of my favorite solo acts—Joe Walsh—to beef up the sound and, as result, embroidered a new vision of California. I wasn't sold, telling kids in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania that they needed to listen to Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Little Feat and this new guy, Warren Zevon, to get a sense of Southern California. Some listened, most went back to Hotel California, The Long Run, Steely Dan's Aja and that other allegedly Southern California band's new album Rumours. I wasn't going to defend the Eagles any more, and besides, I was in the minority now.

I saw multiple tours of the reunited Eagles in the 1990s and 2000s, impressed on nights when they displayed the full range of their talents, discouraged when the night felt too heavily weighted toward hits and solo material that represented the instincts of the soloist and not the band.

I once asked Henley why they didn't find platforms to take risks—play those first two albums back to back, perhaps, or try a run of a different album each night—and as he embraced the idea, he also shot it down: “That's not what the fans want.”

So when the final run of the Eagles was a chronological retelling of their story, I felt they had come to terms with their full lineage. Glenn played ringleader like never before in those shows, taking charge of the story and, we're led to believe, the song selections and set lists. That tour wrapped in the summer after a healthy run that brought in about 2 million fans.

That History of the Eagles show informed all those Hotel California fans about the music that hit a nerve with a significantly smaller audience. I applaud the Eagles for avoiding nostalgia on that final tour, Glenn Frey's coda, a journey that all current and former Eagles should be proud of.

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