Because most of us don’t know many celebrities personally, we tend to compare their deaths as if they’re TV shows. That’s a lot different from how we react when we lose someone close to us. You don’t hear a lot of people saying, “I was a lot sadder about Uncle Jeff than I was about Uncle Pete,” but I’m sure you’ve heard statements like “Robin Williams hit me a lot harder than Joan Rivers.”
That isn’t because humankind is unfathomably coldhearted. It’s more an issue of familiarity. When your connection with someone is solely based on their art, chances are you’re going to be more upset about the death of an artist whose work you love than an artist whose work you hate, or even love slightly less. It’s sad when anyone dies, and while the comparisons may feel like we’re reducing famous people to faceless statistics, it’s just a part of the entertainment machine — the close yet distant bond between artist and fan.
But what about an artist you loved and hated at separate points in your life? What about a musician whose work and personality you spent years bashing (even though you didn’t actually know them), then came around to admiring during their final years?
For me, Glenn Frey was that type of musician. Like many folks, I grew up with a resigned shrug towards The Eagles, accepting that their dusted brand of California country rock (which was always a lot harder than critics give them credit for) was just a part of life. While I remember the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, and even Gloria Estefan, I can’t remember the first time I heard The Eagles. They were just always there.
As I grew up, indifference slowly evolved into full-on hatred. It started with that iconic scene in The Big Lebowski, which made me laugh to the point where I had to explore the idea of hating The Eagles myself. The hate-fires were further stoked by Almost Famous, whose guitarist Russell Hammond — essentially a charismatic asshole — was reportedly based on Frey. My dad, a cautious Eagles fan, helped me along my spiteful journey, explaining how the handful of ’70s songs by Randy Meisner and Joe Walsh (and exactly one by Timothy B. Schmit) were secretly better than anything written by Henley and Frey as a duo. And let’s not forget Don Felder’s show-stealing contribution to the Heavy Metal soundtrack! But while my father preferred “Try and Love Again” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row” over “Witchy Woman”, he never said he didn’t like the music of Henley and Frey. I just pretended he did so I could hate the Eagles even more.
Until recently, though, I could never articulate the musical or ethical reasons why I didn’t like the band. It came more from a place of wanting to be funny and cool — remember, this all started with a quote from a Coen brothers film. Then, in 2013, a master thesis on hating the Eagles arrived on Showtime, a master thesis made all the sweeter because it was written by the band themselves.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Alison Elwood’s documentary History of The Eagles (currently streaming on Netflix) more than lives up to its title, serving up a two-part, three-hour-plus retrospective that covers the entire trajectory of the band. It’s also rather one-sided. Despite featuring interviews with all band members past and present, the doc is unmistakably Frey and Henley’s side of the story. When it comes to the notorious in-fighting and lawsuits that plagued the latter half of The Eagles’ career, everyone who took grievance with them being control freaks is framed as being wrong, especially Felder. Frey practically foams at the mouth when describing the infamous “Long Night in Wrong Beach”, the 1980 breakup concert that culminated in the two bandmates lobbing physical threats at each other onstage.
Both of them were clearly being bullish and immature, but even as a 65-year-old man, Frey relishes the memory of smashing a longneck Bud backstage before the show (if you read enough about Frey, his love of longneck Buds comes up quite a bit), then telling Felder, “I’m gonna kick your ass when we get off the stage.” Elsewhere, he inadvertently confirms the ickiness of “Lyin’ Eyes” by describing it as an indictment of the “kept women” who he’d sleep with on the road. Apparently, it was kosher for the band to cheat on their significant others in the ’70s, but groupies, one-night stands, and itinerant girlfriends were obligated to be single.
All of this (not to mention a terrific lambasting of the film by Steven Hyden) gave me the ammo I needed to defend my Eagles hatred, which I very much felt the need to do the day after my wedding in 2014. A bunch of my friends were still in town, and while dining at a Mexican restaurant (cue “Tequila Sunrise”), my friend Josh asked me plainly, “What’s with you and The Eagles? Why do you hate them so much?” I went on a (probably loud and annoying) rant that hit all of my painstakingly thought-over points: the documentary, the greed, the sexism, the air of moral superiority despite being bullying jerks, how their laid-back songs become a lot grosser when you consider what they’re actually saying. After huffing and puffing for five minutes straight, I asked Josh the inverse of his original question: “Why do you like The Eagles so much?” He explained that he wasn’t a super-fan or anything, but that their music just gave him a nice feeling — that it had always been there and reminded him of growing up and hanging out with his friends and family. Also — and I couldn’t disagree with him, even then — they knew how to write a hell of a hook.
In the following weeks, I started to think a lot about what Josh had said. He’s one of the nicest people I know (a lot nicer than me*), and if someone for whom I hold so much moral respect could listen to The Eagles without guilt, maybe I could, too. Maybe it was possible to buy into their ubiquity and undeniable vibe while still acknowledging some of the contradictions in their music. After all, we all have flaws, especially musicians in the ’70s. As is the case with most things I hate, I decided I had to revisit the material. And why not? Their entire studio catalog (save for 2007’s all but unlistenable behemoth Long Road Out of Eden) was and is available on Amazon for less than 20 bucks. Remastered, too!
I got the box set in the mail a few days later, and after a couple weeks of cycling through the six records they put out in the ’70s, I became a card-carrying Eagles fan. To quote Timothy B. Schmit, I can’t tell you why (sorry, couldn’t resist), other than that I didn’t think about it too much. I had spent years feverishly analyzing why I hated The Eagles so much, so when it came to liking them, I did the opposite. I viewed it as music for my memory, music that had always existed in my life — in car stereos, in grocery stores, in the background at state fairs, in my parents’ boombox. I remembered my mom and dad listening to Hotel California a lot when I first read The Stand, so I even started associating The Eagles with Stephen King. Maybe it’s because “The Last Resort” also has to do with the death knell of human civilization. Then again, maybe that’s thinking about it too much.
Even though I’ve been an Eagles fan for a couple years now, I was still shocked to find myself bawling in my kitchen after hearing that Glenn Frey had died yesterday. I never cry over celebrities dying. Never. “I didn’t know them” is always my go-to response. “I loved what they did, but I didn’t know them as people. I’ll cry when a relative dies, but I’m not going to cry when Levon Helm dies, even though I adore The Band.”
I didn’t cry when David Bowie died either. Did I like his music? Absolutely. Did I respect his influence? Of course. I can’t think of a musician who walked the line of popularity and innovation with so much elegance and badassery. I can’t think of someone who was so mesmerizing (and sincere) in the way they constantly reinvented themselves. I can’t think of another rock ‘n’ roller who could have owned the role of Jareth the Goblin King with such a perfect blend of grace, malice, charisma, and yes, confusing sensuality. But I didn’t cry when he died.
So why the hell am I hit so hard by Glenn Frey? I asked my wife that exact question in between my ugly man-sobs: “I didn’t cry over David Bowie, but I’m crying over fucking Glenn Frey?”
After sleeping on it, I think I know the answer. It’s not because I eventually came around to loving The Eagles’ music, but because I used to hate it. And when musical hate turns to musical love, you’ve gone through a wide spectrum of emotions as a listener, emotions that only strengthen your bond to an artist’s work, whether you want it to or not. It’s the hatred that made me dive further into Frey’s songs, the hatred that made me pour over his lyrics, the hatred that got to such a white-hot point that I had to let it go and take in The Eagles from a more natural place.
The hatred also humanizes someone when they die. For the longest time, The Eagles were a running joke for me. They still are. And when you make fun of something — or, more accurately, someone — you tend to forget there’s a human face behind it. I don’t regret the constant jokes I’ve made about the Eagles, but I do recognize that it made me see them more as caricatures than people. Now that one of them has passed away, that caricature has become a lot less exaggerated, its warped lines lengthening and smoothing out until the drawing has reverted back into the photograph it originally came from. Rest in peace, Glenn. I’ll always remember learning to love your music. And I’ll remember not loving it, too.
* Editor’s Note: Which is laughable and damn near impossible. Dan’s our friendliest writer.