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


Kaye Sanner said...

The Eagles are my favorite band and I know a lot of people that feel the same way. None of us have tepid feelings about the Eagles. However, my primary question is the comment you made and I've heard before about commercialism. I don't understand the criticism. Any artist that cuts and record and offers it for sale is giving in to commercialism. As a fan, a band not interested in appealing to my tastes is useless to me. Since the Eagles were crossover artists, they needed to be commercially successful in order to be played on FM vs. AM (different times, different rules). If they hadn't, I'd have never heard them and a large part of my teenage years would have had a huge hole because Eagles music IS the fabric of my teen years. And all decades since...

Rita Doubiago said...

Touche, Kaye. I totally agree.
The Eagles are and have ALWAYS been my favorite band since they first formed...even more so when Walsh and TBS joined the ranks in the '70's. I don't understand why anyone would not like their music. It is so diverse on many levels, from every member, even as a solo artist. Plus, to say that Henley is not adamant in his beliefs on the environment and other worldly causes is beyond belief. One just has to listen to his music to know he cares deeply for his causes.
Mr. 'Wise' man...after reading your post, I have come to the conclusion that you are a tad bit pretentious and definitely narrow minded in your thinking. Apparently you don't realize just how many Eagle/Henley fans there are out here in this big world. We can't be all wrong!
Oh, btw...with you buying Henley's album, you bought right into his so-called commercialism. I am sure he thanks you for that, as well. :)

Roger Weisman said...

While I’m hardly about to say that I stand corrected, I understand that no one likes hearing the classic “your favorite band sucks” line. Thanks for reading (although if you were reading closer, you would have found that I actually said that his “dedication to [environmental] issues is very intense and sincere”). I appreciate your opinions and statements, but I still stand behind everything I said (I will say that you two are the first I have ever heard profess to having them at the top of your lists). That said, I understand that the Eagles provided the soundtrack to many people’s lives in the 1970s, and I know that a lot of people like them for that reason. They were epochal and ubiquitous. Being somewhat younger, I can only listen to them in retrospect. I did not grow up with them (aside, of course from the Glenn Frey and Henley solo songs that made it to MTV), and can only listen to the music based on its own merits. I understand that there a lot of Eagles fans out there, but I do not believe their merits can be established by consensus. There are a lot of very popular acts that I believe to be artless, talentless, and useless. Also, I never said the Eagles were in that category. If you were reading, you would have noted that I emphasized their talent and skill (also, while waxing rhapsodic about a Don Henley song) even while asserting that I perceive a middle-of-the-road commercialism in their music (I want to add that I do not have any problem with selling music or being popular. I love great pop music. The ability to appeal to and connect with a wide group of people without pandering is a brilliant and rare thing). I will say that I was surprised by your responses being so passionate and immediate, and I thank you again for taking the time to post them. It does make me curious as to how common that depth of feeling is when it comes to the Eagles. Lastly, I just want to add that I have (probably rightly) been accused of being pretentious before, but never of being narrow minded, and I don’t view myself as such just because I don’t like your favorite band.

Michael Fetherston said...

I hate the Eagles. I also hate that my favorite comedy movie ever made a such cliche of that sentence that it doesn't even sound sincere anymore. I always hated them. Perhaps my contempt isn't really directed towards The Eagles in particular, but is a symptom of a more general revulsion to a particular kind of culture that has something to do with a groovy 70's dude whose self important brand of west coast cockiness along with obscene amounts of cocaine blinds him to seeing himself for what he really is; a corny, fair weather liberal from the burbs with a laughable wardrobe. On the other hand, "Boys of Summer" is a catchy song and great for driving. I always got a kick out of the improvised seagull cries (was that a guitar effect?) but there's that subtle undertone of pompous exasperation that always comes through in his lyrics. One imagines Don standing on the beach at sunset, contemplating the bittersweet memories of his remarkable life and remorsing the decade of Reagan that failed to deliver on all the glory that the baby boom generation assumed was their birthright. Are Cadillac drivers sellouts? Really? Well, kind of car do you drive Don? It's that kind of holier-than-thouness that pervades so much of The Eagles message. Big time rock bands writing songs about how much it sucks to be a big time rock band is the hardest of all genre pills to swallow, and the Eagles excelled at it. But it's not just the genre that bothers me, it's the music itself. These guys had the talent to head out into all kinds of exciting directions, and they chose the safe route. I will confess one inconsistency- I love the song "In the City", which plays during the closing credits of "The Warriors". As a kid, I assumed some obscure east coast band made that song and I only found out the truth when I was well into my 20's. So maybe I'm just allowing my prejudices against the artist prevent me from appreciating the art. But screw that. The Eagles suck. I hate them.

souljour2000 said...
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Jhu262 said...

I don't hate the Eagles they were a big part of the soundtrack of my youth. They are not my favorite band but i like them enough not to hate them. I can think of a lot of bands to hate.