Disdain is so easy, isn’t it? You look at the bodies of work of certain artists — even more, maybe, than the work, the overall persona that comes through the music — and you find yourself thinking in the terms proposed in Robert Palmer’s famous New York Times review of a Billy Joel concert: “He’s the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary.” Substitute “they” for “he” in that sentence and you could be talking about Journey, or Styx, or the Eagles. It isn’t so much that there’s an embedded badness in how their music is executed (anyone might say that there are elements of craftsmanship or proficiency), but that they come across as inherently unlikable to a certain type of observer, a type of observer disproportionately represented in the rock critic population to which I belonged (belong? does one turn in those credentials at any point?). So I can say I don’t like the Eagles, or Mr. Joel (as the Times would have it), and let that be that, but as most things are, it’s more complicated. What about when Billy Joel, on tracks on An Innocent Man, proves himself an adept mimic of early-‘60s pop styles, demonstrates a genuine affection for doo wop? What about when he delivers impassioned, eloquent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speeches on behalf of The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers? Can I really be so dismissive of that Billy Joel because I couldn’t listen one more time to “You May Be Right” or “Big Shot” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”? Or, God save me, “My Life”? A little perspective is nice, sometimes.
Which brings us to the Eagles, and Glenn Frey, and everything you have to blot out to get to the point where you (I) can live and let live and confess that there isn’t a California Playlist you’ve made that doesn’t include “New Kid In Town,” a song and a performance — from an album whose title track (“Hotel California”) ranks up there with “American Pie” as a smug, “cryptic” rock anthem — that threads together country-rock with hints of Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. Unlike “Hotel California,” which strikes me as labored and faux-weighty, “New Kid In Town” feels breezy on the surface, but within the song, and Frey’s vocal, is a sense of foreboding. Look, I’m in league with everyone who’s ever noted how the Eagles drained so much of the soulfulness and integrity of The Flying Burrito Brothers, slicked it up and made it a commercial machine, but if you told me “New Kid In Town” was written by Gram Parsons and not by Frey, Henley & Souther, I wouldn’t be shocked at all. And there are a few other Eagles hits (“I Can’t Tell You Why” by Frey, Henley & Timothy Schmidt, their debut 45 “Take It Easy,” started by Jackson Browne and completed by Frey, even, I have to say, “Lyin’ Eyes”) that make the band undismissible despite “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Witchy Woman.”
Frey’s death brought out all the accumulated resentment of his band, a band whose arrogance was on full display in the recent History of the Eagles doc, whose live shows might as well have been performed by marble statues with wigs and guitars, who gave the world “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Already Gone” (blame, at least in part, Joe Walsh and Jack Tempchin for those). That’s all fair enough, but it’s hard to hate, full-on hate, a band who covered (pretty convincingly) songs by Tom Waits, Gene Clark and Steve Young, did time in the country-rock outfits of Rick Nelson, Gram Parsons and Linda Ronstadt (I first saw Frey and Henley back her up in ’71), and inspired the Fred Armisen and Bill Hader homage Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee. I understand the impulse to want to punch them, because they seem like guys who would have stolen the Ramones’ lunch money in high school, because if they were Beach Boys, they’d all be Mike Love. Because oh, there are dozens of reasons (“Chug All Night,” for example). But I have to step back and confess, every time “New Kid In Town” comes on, I hit repeat.