Friday, August 3, 2012

Love, Hate, and Don Henley

The other day, I bought a copy of Don Henley’s album Building the Perfect Beast. I found a copy of the CD in a junk shop. The booklet was mangled and the jewel case was cracked, but the disc was pretty clean and so I bought it anyway. Later that day, at another junk shop, I bought a copy of the LP. You see, then I would have a copy of the LP to keep on the shelf and the beat up CD to rip to my iPod and then give to a friend when I was done with it.  Normally this would seem like rather strange and obsessive fan behavior. But as I am someone who has been effusive about my hatred of the Eagles and Don Henley, I realize that it is just downright odd.
My hatred for the Eagles is not because I think that they are untalented. Quite the contrary. It is pretty much accepted that these guys were excellent musicians, good singers, and gifted songwriters. Skill, however, is different than art, and it is the fact that they used these skills in such a blatantly commercial way, apparently aiming to make a musical product that would please everyone, which taints their success in my eyes. The mellow, middle-brow pandering that pervades their music even diminishes their occasional success when they actually would create something that was nearly universally pleasing.
Thus, the Eagles created a body of work that spoke to everyone on a superficial level. They speak to a larger group, but not very deeply. I have never met anyone who said that the Eagles were their favorite band, but I have met countless people who rank them as their second or third favorite. They simply do not arouse passion. Indeed, it has been argued that the early 70s were an era in which much of the music, from the Carpenters to James Taylor, deliberately provided a gentler soundscape to counter the turbulence of the times. Still, mellow is one thing, tepid is another.
To be sure, I take no joy from hating the Eagles. Even the backlash against them is tepid. Sure, when you mention the Eagles to people my age (or a bit younger), often you’ll hear the quote from the Big Lebowski: “I’ve had a hard day and I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” But they don’t say it with feeling. I’ve never met anyone for whom the Eagles were their most hated band, either.
My feelings about Don Henley are a bit more intense.  I find him to be the most reprehensible member of that outfit. I certainly do not harbor the same disgust for Joe Walsh (latecomer to the group that he was), and his records with the James Gang get frequent spins on my turntable. I don’t even have the same disdain for Glenn Frey, whose influence in the band was perhaps equal to Henley’s. It could be in part because Don Henley has been the most successful and the most visible of the Eagles since their breakup. I think the bigger reason, however, is that he has provided us with the most unflattering caricature of the aging baby boomer rock star in all of its ugliness. His vaguely cynical demeanor, the graying ponytail, and what many consider to be his pretentious but dilettantish dabbling with social and environmental causes, simply rub me the wrong way. (I understand that, in fact, his dedication to these issues is very intense and sincere with his Walden Woods Project representing a huge commitment of time and energy. The successes and unexpected negative consequences of his involvement in these movements have been expounded on more thoroughly by David S. Meyer and Joshua Gamson in their paper, The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements*. At any rate, this is supposed to be a rant, not intellectual discourse.)  
So why did I buy the album? I bought it for “Boys of Summer.” It’s a damn good song. It is a song that that is moody but driving, fresh but classic, cynical but sentimental. It is a true classic and I love it with every fiber of my being. Consequently, I have conflicted feelings considering how much the song speaks to me and who it is that’s speaking.
Given Henley and the Eagles’ tendency to aim for the middle, the fact that “Boys of Summer” speaks to me should be no big achievement. It speaks to a lot of people. However, as I have already established that this kind of deliberate universality is actually a detriment in my eyes, it is a bit strange, But what is stranger is that the song spoke to me as a boy of seven, when the sentiments of the song were clearly aimed at baby boomers finding their first gray hairs.
Maybe the song just caught me at the right moment. I first knew the song from the bleakly beautiful video on MTV. By the time that video came out, MTV had already been priming me to be neurotic and melancholy (MTV came on when I four, and when other kids my age were making the move from Sesame Street to The Electric Company, instead I went right from Big Bird and Grover to Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman). My favorite videos from the year before were “Overkill” by Men at Work, “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and “Mama” by Genesis, all songs about alienation, desolation and despair. In retrospect, this was odd fodder for a six year old. I’m not sure if I was affected by this or if I was predisposed to be drawn to these things. That’s something to work out with my therapist, I suppose.
Perhaps the song is unique in Henley’s catalog as illustrating an actual unguarded moment, a truly introspective flash of yearning and nostalgia for halcyon days, ruing the loss of love and ideals, all brought to mind by the momentary espying of “a dead-head sticker on a Cadillac.” It is hard for me to ever think of Henley as being unguarded, though. Perhaps  the song resonates for me because,  growing up with MTV, on which the imagery was either plastic and nihilistic, or bleak and disturbed, it was nice to see that there was once a golden moment to back at longingly, even if I couldn’t remember one for myself.
Or maybe it’s just a good song. In spite of my other reservations about Henley, the fact is that he is a talented musician and songsmith who picks his collaborators well (Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s secret weapon, co-wrote the song and played its haunting guitar parts). In this case he was able to create something with an atmosphere and a mood which could speak to universal emotions without having to rely on shared experiences. I guess I should try to stop analyzing it and just admit the power of the melody and performances were enough to teach a young boy, too young for nostalgia, how to be wistful.

*Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 65, No. 2, May 1995:181-206