It is the evening of March 21st 1977 at the Capitol Centre, a now-extinct concert arena in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The Eagles are on stage. “Thank you and Good Evening,” Glenn Frey says to the audience following the group’s rendition of “Hotel California.” He stands upright, focused, guitar-draped, dressed in Young-American seventies garb - blue jeans, and a University-of-Colorado t-shirt. He is beautiful, he is a success, his band, having just released its career-topping Hotel California album, is a success. He knows it.
“We’re the Eagles, from Los Angeles,” Frey continues, in a bit of an upturned, mid-sentence way, a casual conveyance of fact way. This utterance of this phrase by this man at this time in history – is quite an utterance to hear. Its essence is one of the American Dream made real – a Detroit kid by birth who liked the Beatles, a self-dubbed Los Angeleno, becomes the nucleus (along with Texan Don Henley) of one of the most successful rock bands of all time.
The Eagles released the best album of their career in 1976. Hotel California was the manifestation of the American band’s artistic aims, aims that had been sought after since The Eagles’ formation in 1971. Guitarist Bernie Leadon had left since then and guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh had joined. The Eagles were at their peak and their HC record resulted in two number-one hits - the title track and “New Kid in Town.”
History of the Eagles, Alison Ellwood’s two-part doc released in 2013, proves true to its name. The film covers the entire forming and subsequent line-ups of the group and features many present-day interviews with an assortment of the band’s members and those involved with them. As the film goes on, and as the drama with Eagles guitarist Don Felder unfolds – lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, and Henley and Frey keeping Felder in his place on occasion, in a not-so-cool way - one gets the sense of the tightness of the Henley-Frey team, and of its intense determination to succeed, both in artistic and financial ways. The Eagles are such American characters and seemed so set on “making it” that their success was long ago written out, was always going to happen, and so how it came about, whether or not some individuals got hurt along the way, didn’t much matter. There was a larger prophecy, a culture-affecting sheen to be laid down – and it would be laid down. Think 1970s America in which festered citizens’ desires to “take it easy” after the tumultuous decade that had just passed. Southern California and the music scene that had already been established there was an ideal gestation place for the Eagles to be born. The Eagles’ creed incorporated a love for the Western landscape, images of which were featured in many early photographs of the band and its debut album cover design. Pleasure-seeking, nature-endorsing, flannel shirts and blue jeans and longish undone hair: the lifestyle aesthetic of the Eagles.
Don Henley said about the song “Hotel California,” penned by him, Frey, and Felder, who was responsible for the easily recognizable guitar part: “It is about the journey from innocence to experience.” Which is what the Eagles had themselves experienced – the journey from anonymity to notoriety, from average-lviing to living in excess. Which is what every life is more or less about: knowledge. To know one’s total self more by having acquired wisdom and to know the timeless part of oneself even more intimately. Failure would be to forget that this timeless part of the self ever existed and could never be destroyed. Henley in part sought to avoid this sort of failure through his new introspective, retrospective album released last year, Cass County.
It is the evening of November 2nd 2015 at the Beacon Theatre, a concert venue on the Upper West Side of New York City. Don Henley is on stage. He has just released his first solo album in fifteen years. It is an artistic attempt at returning to his roots. The album title, Cass County, is where Henley was born in Texas and its songs reflect as much. The catchy and somber “Take a Picture of This” is the measurement of time spent, the awareness of the present and its own unavoidable and eternally repetitive termination. Henley wanted to come full circle as an artist while he still could and grow because of it. Henley is a smart guy. This recent concert began – while the stage was yet empty - with an audio chronological mash up of American culture pumped through the theatre speakers - beginning with the era of Henley’s childhood in the 1940s and moving forward in time. With clips of recordings by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the audience was immediately made aware of Henley’s place among this audio cultural history. Of his place amidst the timeline of American popular music. The full concert on this November evening lasted Springsteen-long, nearly three hours, and showed Henley in fine and awesome form. He basked in the glow of the new record, performing much of it for the audience, and did not disappoint with a selection of his greatest hits from his ongoing solo career and favorite covers. “The Boys of Summer,” “The Heart of the Matter,” and Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” were highlights.
Glenn Frey passed away in January of this year.
Fictional and non-fictional characters who have more or less been absorbed into the canon of American Mythology, tell success stories of varying questionability. Every character’s life consists of a myriad of components which construct its whole, and it is rare for every individual component to carry an aura of success. Instead most times, one component, or two or three, stands a head above the others and can thus serve as the defining element of a successful life. This defining element is frequently a person’s career, or a long-standing and rewarding marriage, or an abundance of good works that contribute to the overall bettering of society. Such retrospective decisions of whether someone or something was a success once its lifespan has ceased, are usually made about individuals or groups that have shaped or affected many American lives during their own lifetimes. These figures or groups belong to American cultural history, much like a figurative, more malleable version of Mount Rushmore.
Jay Gatsby, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic novel The Great Gatsby, is one such figure. Is Gatsby, as a man, a success? Perhaps he was a success in progress, always yearning after Daisy Buchanan, yearning after the flashing green light at the end of her dock across the water. Gatsby did make himself into this successful American character who called everyone old sport and had tons of cash, albeit by questionable means. He created himself and his own myth as American characters are wont to do. Charles Foster Kane, of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic – arguably the best ever made – film Citizen Kane is another such figure. A newspaper tycoon among other roles, Kane acquires a multitude of material possessions but in the process loses his own innocence of spirit. Perhaps the best question to ask in determining whether someone was a successful person is this: over the course of his lifetime, did the individual reach and fulfill his own potential for greatness, and still manage to fully grasp and love his own unchanging inner identity, the identity that was perhaps more easily reachable when the individual was a young person, rather yet unmade, untouched by the physical world?
American characters write their own stories. They create themselves, building upon what they were born into or running away from it. The Eagles were not individually from Los Angeles but were made so by their own invention and by their identity as a band. Jay Gatsby was Jimmy Gatz from North Dakota. Citizen Kane was Charles Kane from an impoverished family in 1870s Colorado. Perhaps the greatest realization about success is that once it seems to have been achieved in one or more areas, the succeed-er realizes that his newfound success is not everything, that he still desires more - not out of greed but by the virtue of his own alive-ness. This does not mean that he has failed.