Monday, November 2, 2015

Instructive Rock-umentaries

I just watched "History of the Eagles" (2013) & "Eagles: Hell Freezes Over" (1994).
In the second documentary, the group gives a press conference at the beginning of their European Reunion tour. Asked how much they are going to earn from the tour, band manger Irving Azoff says he has "not added it up" but the tour won't be "lucrative." Bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey thereupon pretend to get up and leave, only to break into smiles and sit back down.

Azoff's assessment actually alluded to the cost to the band in putting on a European tour. It cost them more to make concert arrangements in each country than they could assume they would make from ticket sales. From a financial point of view, Henley and Frey should have walked out and taken the next flight home.

This scene reminds me of another rock 'n' roll documentary, "Anvil: The Anvil Story" (2008) about the heavy metal band Anvil, who found, on their tour of Europe, that club managers often refused to pay them. What a contrast: This band could not get arrested anywhere else in the world, including their native Canada, but when they played Japan, they were sold-out in an enormous concert venue.

I am also reminded of the documentary, "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon," about rock band manager Shep Gordon, who said that the three most important jobs of a good band manager are 1) get the money, 2) get the money, and 3) get the money.

Sausage Factory Department

I feel as if I did not need to know about the feud between Glenn Frey and Don Felder. Alpha male Frey and social moron Felder broke the band up in 1980 and could not get along when the band regrouped in 1994. (It had been said that the Eagles would not reunite until hell had frozen over, hence the title of the 1994 film.) Unfortunately, knowledge of their feud is key to the history of the Eagles and especially its first ending, and it is just too bad that bandmates who made such magical contributions to the music of the Eagle's could not put their pettiness and hurt feelings behind them. 

The history of the band is a series of joinings and leavings of band members. First the band came together right after Frey and Henley left Linda Ronstadt. They were joined in their new independence by Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and later by Don Felder. Leadon left over the band's quest for success and its drift away from country toward rock. Leadon left after he had dumped beer on Frey's head. He was replaced by Joe Walsh, a rock 'n' roll bad boy who could play mean guitar duets with Felder. Meisner left because he hated singing the same song over and over. He was the lead singer on "Take it to the Limit" and had to hit high falsetto notes which he found it difficult to guarantee. Finally, after Meisner repeatedly refused to sing the song, Frey told him to just go, and he did. None of this was enough to break up the group. Meisner was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit who later said, "In my experience, bands are always on the verge of breaking up." Nevertheless, Schmit soon found that he had gotten himself into a group that was being torn apart by conflict. He was with the group for perhaps two years or so before it came apart.

The Eagles made appearances in support of liberal California politicians, Sen. Alan Cranston and Gov. Jerry Brown, in 1980. (Brown was then dating Eagles mentor Linda Ronstadt.) This was a passion of Frey's to which all of the other band members acceded, except for Felder. It was not that Felder was a conservative, but rather that he was apolitical. His aversion to politics and politicians led him to make a rude remark to Senator Cranston at a fundraiser appearance in Long Beach, California, and Frey never forgave him for it.

After Felder stormed off the concert stage at Long Beach, Schmit waited a couple of days and then called Frey to ask whether the band was still together. "It's over," Frey told him.

When the group reunited two decades later, Henley and Frey insisted that they be paid more than the other band members, which makes sense to me since Henley and Frey had had the most successful careers independent of the band and, consequently, had the least need for any reunion. Felder, however, did not see it that way and particularly resented this arrangement. When the band got back together, Felder found living with the elephants in the room intolerable, and he either was ostracized by the rest of the band or else ostracized himself. Finally, he left the group for good. (The way the film is edited, Felder gets up and walks out on his interview in "Hell Freezes Over," not be seen again; but, notably, he walks out sad, not mad.)


The Eagles came together about 1970 after Frey and Henley had played back up for Ronstadt, who later helped make their song "Desperado" a hit even after the Eagles had failed to move it up in the charts.

The band came up with their legendary name during a peyote-induced holiday near Joshua Tree, California where the whole group was wowed by the sight of a great American bald eagle swooping over them. According to Native tradition, peyote was (and still is) used to discover one's animal spirit guide, and so the band decided unanimously that the eagle was theirs.

The average birth year of the seven Eagles members is 1947. (Five of the seven were born in 1947.) These boomers were just the right age (all just about 20 years old in 1967) to revolutionize popular music when the 1960s turned into the 1970s.

Unlike their ages, the band members' birthplaces are diverse. Early members came from Michigan (Frey), Texas (Henley), Minnesota (Leadon), Florida (Felder), and Nebraska (Meisner). Later members hailed from Kansas (Walsh) and California (Schmit). The group was formed, however, in California. Their musical mentors came from Michigan (J.D. Souther and Bob Seeger), Texas (Kenny Rogers), and Arizona (Ronstadt). Jackson Brown was a mentor who happened to be a U.S. Army brat born in Germany. These mentors tended to be not much older (or, in the case of Brown, slightly younger) than most of the Eagles, with the exception of Rogers who was born in 1938. Why does this interest me? Because many movers and shakers in  rock 'n' roll have had mentors who were five to ten years older, who taught them music genres from a slightly earlier period, which the younger musicians turned into "new" genres, which were unfamiliar and seemingly fresh to young audiences who did not recall the earlier music. Rogers may have had something of this influence on Henley, but not to any great degree. Henley had been steeped in both country and rock from his youth in Linden, Texas.

The Eagles were a country-rock band when that genre was taking off in the late '60s in southern California. Their move from the country side of country-rock to a more rockish style happened by the time, in the mid-1970s, guitar picker Leadon was replaced by rock guitarist Walsh. Leadon had been the most uncomfortable with the shift toward rock, and his playing had anchored the group in country. His influence was vindicated in the early 1990s when the album "Common Thread" came out and demonstrated that country artists could cover Eagles songs with ease. That was an influential album for me, but I had not realized that its popularity was a catalyst in getting the Eagles to reunite.

Sex, Drugs and Anything Goes
The Eagles, in their heyday, were of a time when traditional morality was being sloughed off, and they jumped feet-first down the rabbit hole. Actually, some of their debauchery may have been more show than substance. When they took on Walsh to replace Loaden, they were acquiring an expert trasher of hotel rooms who had apprenticed in this craft with internationally acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll hotel room trasher (and the Who drummer) Keith Moon. However, if one does $28,000 in damages to a hotel room and then the band’s accountants pay for it all, the act of destroying private property becomes more of a wasteful pose than a pseudo-political statement for which one might actually go to jail. In any case, the rest of the band did not trash hotels, instead taking vicarious street cred from Walsh’s exploits.
Similarly, the Eagles’ “third encore” party, featuring nubile women dancing naked around the musicians on stage, was, in and of itself, a pose, even if it apparently did move on to a suite full of women claiming to be twenty years of age. (If the age of consent in that state was twenty-one, then this was probably true, but if the lower age limit was eighteen then it probably was not.) Women were apparently free to go, as one did at two a.m. after complaining that the men smelled strongly of beer. (As well they might; they had filled a bathtub with the potable suds.)
The band's history of drug use is par for the course, although, British record producer Glyn Johns did insist, when he worked with the group in the early '70s, that there be no drugs or alcohol while the band was recording in his London studio, and at least one band member seems to have appreciated this, but most did not. A few years after the band began to work with Azoff as their new manager, they were held up by customs officials in the Bahamas. All but one member of the band was holding illicit drugs as they stepped off the plane, and customs wanted to search each of them thoroughly. At the last moment, Azoff took one of the customs officers aside, and afterward the band was allowed to go without a search. The Eagles claim not to know what Azoff said and Azoff is coy about it. (My girlfriend wisely suggests that it was probably not so much what he said as what he did; can you spell bribery?) In any case, afterward, Azoff became as a god to the band.

Guitar virtuoso Walsh seems to have had the most difficulty with drug addiction, and his rehabilitation was a prerequisite for his rejoining the band in 1994. (It should be mentioned that it was Felder and Azoff who drove Walsh to the clinic.) Happily, Walsh appears to have remained sober ever since, and possibly enjoys being reunited with his children as much or more than he enjoys his reunion with his bandmates. Indeed, and almost predictably, the Eagles today value their status as more or less sober family men more than they once did. Some have children, some of whom are now in the music business themselves.

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