For what it’s worth: This is not a commentary on Glenn Frey as a husband, father, friend or human being … more like an exploration of one rock star’s public persona as it played out over the radio and between my ears.
It was Max Eastman, writing for the New Republic, who levied the most ingenious and lasting criticism of Ernest Hemingway: “a literary style … of wearing false hair on the chest.”
And Eastman’s famous quote was what I thought of earlier this evening, upon hearing that Glenn Frey of Eagles (not the Eagles, as the insistently retweeted Steve Martin anecdote reminds us) had died at age 67.
I know nothing of Frey’s private life or personality, except that he came from Detroit, and his fellow Eagles apparently could really get under his skin when they got the notion.
What I “know” about him I gathered from the songs he sang or wrote, many of which have played inescapably in public settings throughout my life.
And … let’s just say that Glenn Frey, as I defined him in my mind, would have been a fitting companion for Ernest Hemingway, sitting ringside at a Spanish bullfight, throwing dares and getting into the odd wrestling match with each other in case anyone should doubt their machismo for a moment.
A look at some of the characters created or embodied by Frey will explain my feelings, I think:
“Take It Easy”: Co-written by Frey and Jackson Browne, this song finds Frey playing the hard-lovin’, road-weary rock n’ roll troubador. Women wanna own him; women wanna stone him; but most of all his lovers keep blowing his cover (which must mean he’s, y’know, a little bit dangerous.)
The fact that Eagles plowed this furrow ahead of a bunch of other flannelly singer-songwriters doesn’t excuse them that much. Especially since they followed this with the Desperado album — ooh, musicians as Wild West outlaws! The ladies of the canyon probably bought that, but I don’t.
“Already Gone”: Frey (who, in sorta-fairness, sings this but didn’t write it) brilliantly brings to life the sort of smug, self-satisfied jerk who would sing a “victory song” upon breaking off a relationship. “All right, nighty-night” … asshole.
“Lyin’ Eyes”: This one just sorta strums on and on, hectoring its subject — a young woman with a serial knack for poor romantic decisions, as if that were a crime — with lines like, “I thought by now you’d realize.”
“Life In The Fast Lane”: Another co-write by Frey brings us back to that dangerous-troubador trip again, as a too-cool-for-words narrator tells us about those crazy rock stars, their cocaine habits and their assorted interpersonal cruelties.
(I’ve said in the past that “Are you with me so far?” might be the most repellently smug ad-lib in rock n’ roll history; of course Don Henley was singing, and of course, it might not have been an ad-lib.)
One could blame the corporate milieu of the Eagles — sorry, Eagles — for this tiring menagerie of jaded sinners and self-celebrating winners.
(It says something that the only Eagles song I really like, “On The Border,” is narrated by a powerless schnook being watched by Big Brother … although the zest the band brings to lines like, “Never mind your name, just give us your number,” makes you wonder which side they really feel for.)
Yes, the cooler-slash-smarter-than-thou Alpha Male could have been an Eagles thing. But, left to his own devices, Frey carried the image into solo material like “Smuggler’s Blues” and “You Belong To The City.”
The first of these positioned our pastel-suited, platinum-selling hero as some sort of spokesman for the demimonde. The second moved a bunch of Pepsi and included laughably overheated lines like, “It’s in your moves, it’s in your blood / You’re a man of the street.”
That same sense of vague, overblown drama also blows through “The Heat Is On,” defused only by the absurd four-beat drum break in the middle. I’ve read that at Eagles reunion shows, Joe Walsh would sometimes play that part while wandering the stage like a lost basset hound, strapped to a big bass drum; it only made me more grateful that God gave the world Joe Walsh.
(It surprised me not in the slightest to learn that Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” — another bit of ’80s soundtrack fury signifying nothing — was reportedly intended for Frey to sing.)
It took me a while to separate characters from reality; there was a time when I would have told you Frey and Henley were wastes of space. The previous 12 paragraphs notwithstanding, I wouldn’t say that today. (I am also fairly certain, having learned more, that Frey and Henley were better human beings than Ernest Hemingway.)
So, the departure of Glenn Frey from the scene is sort of like seeing a pro wrestling heel go to his higher reward.
You know the fans won’t get autographs and pictures in the elevator any more, and the grandkids won’t get dandled any more, and charities will probably be poorer, and you take no pleasure from any of that.
But you’re content to see the mask leave the arena.