Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Trying to Understand the Eagles

The Eagles--Glen Frey, Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, and Don Henley--are the tightest and most accomplished rock band to emerge since Neil Young's Crazy Horse. The usual compilation of credits--Poco and the Burritos and the Stone Canyon Band, Bob Seger and Linda Ronstadt--does not mean the usual compilation of disgruntled sidemen doing battle with their own well-deserved anonymity. The difference is partly chemistry--the Eagles are an organic group, not a mixture of musicians--but mostly raw talent. These guys can execute. Not only do they all sing and compose, which is nothing new--they're good at it.

The Eagles are a culmination of the vaguely country-oriented mainstream of American rock. Building its following from a core of white college and precollege males, this music extends from electric citybillies like the Flying Burrito Bros. at one extreme to thrice-removed folkies like America at the other. Most such bands either undermine their popularity with purism--diluted purism, to be sure but even steel guitars and bluegrass harmonies and traditional material cut into the mass audiences--or seem to design their music for broadcast into elevators. In contrast, the Eagles have a basic commitment to rock and roll, probably by way of Frey, who grew up in hard-rock central, Detroit. Commercially and aesthetically, this is a big plus.

Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them. "Hate" is the kind of up-tight word that automatically excludes one from polite posthippie circles, a good reason to use it, but it is also meant to convey an anguish that is very intense, yet difficult to pinpoint. Do I hate music that has been giving me pleasure all weekend, made by four human beings I've never met? Yeah, I think so. Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love. As the culmination of rock's country strain, the group is also the culmination of the counterculture reaction that strain epitomizes.

Rock musicians differ from their fans in several crucial respects. For one thing, those who succeed earn a lot of money, and they usually have money even before success hits, from the studio and back-up gigs where they make their recording contacts. Their work is meaningful even when it isn't profitable and provides them with automatic status. The rock star is the perfect fantasy hero--not only has he beaten America's options, but he also gets laid. Considering their privileges, it's no wonder that many musicians are turning into spokesmen of hip reaction.

In Leadon and Meisner's "Earlybird" the square title character, who "spends his time denyin'/ That he's got no time for flyin'/ In the breeze," is compared to a hipper bird: "High up on his own/ The eagle flies alone./ He is free." Later, the singer sets up an implicit comparison between himself and the eagles: "Y' know it makes me feel so fine and set my mind at ease/ To know that I don't harm a soul in doin' what I please."

This comparison is a little confusing, of course. The eagle roams the sky not in search of freedom and fresh air but in search of prey, which is why he is such an apt symbol of American imperial power. Although I doubt that the group intended the martial resonances of its name--that would be dangerous, image-wise--the Eagles definitely do espouse a new, hedonistic brand of American individualism. The youth counterculture of the sixties always had a certain eccentric frontier quality to it, with the understanding that frontier life was cooperative as well as individualistic. But the stress of mass cooperation eventually bummed everyone out--it was just too heavy, y'know?--so the new alternative man goes it alone. As the refrain of "Take It Easy" advises: "Lighten up while you still can,/ Don't even try to understand,/ Find a place to make your stand/ And take it easy."

Actually, the protagonist of "Take It Easy" doesn't plan to make his stand alone. He craves female companionship--but please, no one who will stone him or own him or bewitch him or tie him down or let him down or do anything much but chug all night. After all, "she can't teach you any way/ That you don't already know." That line comes from a song that in a less male-chauvinist context might seem as thoughtful a representation of the ethic of sexual autonomy as Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" but is here reduced to the hippest of hip come-ons. There is more wisdom about the real give and take of sexual relationships in most of the silly romantic ditties of the early sixties than there is on the Eagles' entire album. In the end these eagles fly alone with a vengeance.

It is no accidental irony that such hard-rock professionals convey their integrated vision of self-possession and pastoral cool by way of a dynamite corporate machine, including genius manager David Geffen and genius producer Glyn Johns. It is the custom of affluent liberals to let others do their dirty work--that way they can continue to protect the illusion that they are not harming a soul by doin' what they please. It's no accident, either, that the Eagles' hip country music excises precisely what is deepest and most gripping about country music--its adult working-class pain, its paradoxically rigid ethics--and leaves sixteen tracks of bluegrass-sounding good feelin'. After all, there's nothing to be gained scaring our young people. The music, the lyrics, and the distribution machine are all suave and synthetic. Brilliant stuff--but false.

The Eagles are the ultimate in California dreaming, a fantasy of fulfillment that has been made real only in the hip upper-middle-class suburbs of Marin County and the Los Angeles canyons. The Beach Boys sang about something similar a decade ago, but they also reminded us that happiness and material things are far from unconnected. The Eagles put that truth aside and pay only lip service to the struggle that real fulfillment involves. Even the Beach Boys learned that in the end our welfare and the welfare of others are bound together. We all tried to forge a humane generation and ultimately fell back exhausted. Retreat was only natural. But any prophet who tells you not to try and understand is setting you up for a swindle.

Newsday, June 1972

Black Oak Arkansas, which recently purchased thirteen hundred acres in the Ozarks in order to build a private community called Heaven, has decided to share the land in a show of generosity unprecedented among rock groups. As manager Butch Stone explains: "It's our way of saying thank you." The celestial gesture will consist of one acre, divided into six million square inches parceled out one to a thank you, with the group continuing to pay taxes and to control what Stone describes as "land improvements." I figure that if someone were to get together with 143 friends and mail all requests from the same post office at the same time, he might be able to keep a pet flamingo on his collective square foot, though it would more likely measure twelve feet by one inch. Anyway, flamingos probably count as land improvements.

Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Rick(y) Nelson Joy