Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eagles: Taking It To The Limit
By Ben Fong-Torres
Running Press

Jackson Browne’s recent tour reminds us that the California stars of the 1970s are still around and remembered. I may have witnessed their collective apex, when Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles played at the Capital Centre outside Washington, DC in 1976, in a benefit for the presidential campaign of Linda’s boyfriend, Jerry Brown. (It's actually in Maryland, and it was before the state Democratic primary that Brown won.)  They looked like they might rule the country as well as the music charts.  Afterwards at the press reception, the once and future Governor of California walked across the room with his entourage, stopped directly in front of me and spake unto me the immortal words, “Where’s the food?”  (Though it includes a photo that appears to be from this event, this volume doesn't mention this concert.)

The band is known as the Eagles, though officially they are just “Eagles,” as the title of this book affirms. (Steve Martin tells the story of one of its members trying out the name on him at LA's famous Troubadour club. “The Eagles, yeah, good name,” Martin said.  “No. Eagles.” “Right--the Eagles.” “No. Eagles”)

But by any name the band was officially formed forty years ago, the occasion for this bio by journalist Ben Fong-Torres, a star himself in those days for Rolling Stone. The Eagles' first hits were in 1972 (“ Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and after Desperado, Hotel California, One of These Nights and The Long Run, their most recent chart-topping album was in 2007. It may not be their last.  Their first Greatest Hits album was among the top sellers of all time.

Merging country and rock was a slowly forming trend in 1971 but the Eagles took it to the limit, big time. Though they largely defined a style identified with California,  none of them were originally from the state. What they did have in common was also shared with many others in their precise early Boomer age group: the Beatles changed their world. “I would… listen to the Beatles records every morning just to get me through the day,”said Don Henley. He and Glenn Frey had their innocent Lennon-McCartney period when they lived together and wrote some of the best Eagles songs. But in the long run there was conflict, paranoia and raging ego, accompanied however by a perfectionism that kept their songwriting and musical standards high.  All of that is according to this book.

The book brings back that sun-drenched era of excess—sex, drugs and rock & roll, but also emotions that became songs that became emotions. The Eagles personified the laid-back testosterone of the California sound, with literate lyrics expressing sensitivity and vulnerability along with country-style sentimentality and anguish.  They posed as gunfighters with guitars.  Replete with old western metaphors along with an awareness of the sweaty present, their songs were a deep part of their time, especially if you were in their relatively young but not getting younger desperado age group.  Much is made early in this book of hostility from eastern critics, but their music was part of life in fast and slow lanes all over America.  If there was any hostility it was in terms of hard rock vs. not so hard rock, which was not even non-urban vs. urban.  One of the most enthusiastic cities that Poco played (one of their country-rock progenitors) was Boston.

Over the years the Eagles added and shed members, fell apart entirely, and like some other bands that swore never to reunite (the Police, for instance), they of course did, wearing suits and spending more time before shows on exercise bikes than with hash pipes.  Still it's hard to make out the meaning of a story I heard, told by someone who rode shotgun for one of the RV-drivin Eagles in Colorado a few years ago--the one who played Hotel California on the stereo over and over, and sang along.

Fong-Torres’ text is predictably well written, more narrative than critical. There are lots of photos, mostly of the band. The Eagles started as Linda Ronstadt’s backups, and their early success was partly due to the songwriting of Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther and others. They acknowledge this, but it’s not reflected in the photo selection (just one unflattering image of Linda.)

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