A Former Eagle Hunkers Down for the Long Run
By Jock Baird
"My songs grow on people - like warts," grins Glenn Frey, generally acknowledged "quarterback" of the once-mighty Eagles, a co-writer of virtually all their hits, and now an ever-resilient solo artist. He's got a point. Of course, he's also got a head start. There's that voice. Frey's squinting, haunted lead vocals on California classics like "Tequila Sunrise," "Lyin' Eyes," "One Of These Nights," "New Kid In Town" and "Heartache Tonight" have already gotten under the skin of a certainly large number of Americans. There's also something mixed into the grooves of his backing tracks, a super bonding agent known as Glenn's Glue All, that eases pop music's absorption into the human body. And Frey's also well in command of that illogicall populist instrument, the guitar. So you can figure the guy's got a head start, and when your label tells you your music isn't "contemporary" enough and lets you go, you better use any head start you can get to stay in business, too, pal. You're only as smart as your batting average-they don't care about your lifetime stats.
Like many artists escaping a band identity (especially a band under that much public scrutiny), Frey s first solo outing, No Fun Aloud, was as much a reaction against the Eagles as it was a distillation of his strengths. "The Eagles were thought of as serious-and rightfully so,' Frey recalls. "Things got real serious after Hotel California." No Fun Aloud responded by tossing in cover songs including the ill-advised "Sea Cruise", a theme for Monday Night Football, occasional dialogue, and a paean to partying (called, naturally, "Partytown") that featured a backup vocal group of random revelers like John McEnroe, Freddie (a.k.a. Jimmy) Buffet and thenmanager Urban (a.k.a. Irving) Azoff ("He didn't clap his hands, though; he slapped his wallet. True story. I couldn't make something like that up"). This from the arranger of the impeccable Eagles' vocals? Despite its "lighthearted" flaws, No Fun Aloud did have a number of solid tunes, especially the Stax/Volt sass of "I Found Somebody," the Spanish guitar lilt of "She Can't Let Go," and a gooey but nonetheless likeable hit single, "The One You Love."
No Fun Aloud sold a respectable 650,000 copies, but when Frey brought his second record to Asylum early this year, "they said it wasn't contemporary enough." Enter Urban, uh, Irving Azoff again, this time as head of MCA Records. With three new tracks produced by Muscle Shoals' Barry Beckett (and recorded at Frey's expense) added to the record, MCA picked up the project and Frey's contract. Thus was born The Allnighter.
The Allnighter is not a work of Genius. It is not an Important Album, but it is a damn nice little record. Frey's latest excursions into authentic Memphis soul, "I Got Love" and "Let's Go Home," are clear, clean and perfectly suited to the honest emotion of his famous voice. Two collaborations with Rufus keysman/writer David "Hawk" Wolinski add synth fortification to the superb "Somebody Else" and the scratch of "Living In Darkness" ("my Prince tune"). Then there's "Smuggler's Blues," a bonechilling docudrama of drug-related murder and the politics of contraband, set to the razor edge of Frey's savage slide guitar. This one could be subtitled "Life In An Even Faster Lane." Frey is tearing his voice more throughout The Allnighter, moving into territory once ceded to former sidekick Don Henley, and it suits him well.
So if this is not a Brilliant or Important record, why talk to Frey? For one, the guy's been making records and writing songs for fifteen years and knows plenty about it. For another thing, he was the "coach" of a band that was a paradigm of American 70s rock, a Mt. Rushmore of the California Sound, and no one's ever debriefed him on the experience. Frey understands more than most the crucial dynamics of band participation and individual expression because he has lived through extrqrne examples of both and creatively lived to tell the tale. And for yet another, Frey is an incisive observer of the music scene and one funny bastard. No one who ever met him would call him serious, self-conscious or dewy-eyed.
This interview was conducted at Manhattan's prestigious Russian Tea Room, where gracious representatives of Frey's new management, Fitzgerald-Hartley, and MCA kept us both plied with Moet champagne (hey, no one said being a music writer was easy). Frey was sporting about a quarter-inch of beard, which made him look nothing like Steve Reeves/ Superman and everything like the lead character in "Smuggler's Blues" in fact, he was trying it on for a proposed video. Dressed in a blue sports coat and tie ,"I'm just a bleeping maniac in straight clothing. There's no reason to dress my monster up", Frey scanned the gourmet menu and ordered a BLT. His slightly nasal Western/Californiesque accent was frequently enhanced by a throaty delivery, a sort old Tom-Waits-meets-Wolfman-Jack growl. For all that familiarity, nothing could've been further removed from Laid Back.
MUSICIAN: There seems to be an ongoing tension in your work between the vulnerable romantic and the tough cynic. On the first Eagles album you had "Most Of Us Are Sad" follow "Chug All Night." Now it's "Smuggler's Blues" and "Lover's Moon."
FREY: It seems when I put together records, as Henley used to say, they're just like movies. They should have action, tension, love scenes, places to relax ... So I don't know if I'm really conscious of being the splendid romantic and then the realist. I don't do that purposefully, out you're probably right.
MUSICIAN: Do you feel you have logo cut of your way to live down a perception of being this dewy-eyed tender type?
FREY: You mean about me being perceived as (sneers) a balladeer? I think that goes back to the Eagles. When we had Don Henley to sing the rock 'n' roll songs, why should I screw around with it at alot? I loved the way he sings-he reminds me of Seger, Wilson Pickett, the real thing. I think emphasizing his voice really helped push us over the top.
MUSICIAN: You always write songs with a collaborator, particularly Henley and now with his old pal Jack Tempchin ("Peaceful easy feeling," "Already Gone').
FREY: We have a very good rapport. It's funny, there are only those certain people where things click-at least for me. He's very free. I'll just run some soul licks by him, or I'll ring him something like "The Allnighter," which originally was just about staying up all night. But then we started talking about it and Jack says, "Staying up all night can't play over three or four verses. What if the Allnighter was a guy?" So we made him into some woman's Everyguy.
But I don't like writing alone, I don't trust myself. You don't have to have the conversation with yourself: "Is this good enough?" Jack and I are completely honest with each other as far as criticism goes. Of course, even our bad suggestions are usually great. I find it very easy to be honest the older I get. I've discovered that beating around the bush, tainting, coercing, trying to guide people, is more trouble than it's worth. Of course, it's a lot easier now that I'm running my own successful dictatorship (laughs) as opposed to being in a struggling democracy. One of the reasons life is great now is because I'm the boss.
MUSICIAN: You're coming out of the shadows as a guitar player. With the Eagles, you never really did pursue the heavy instrumental route you could've, because you !et Don Felder do it.
FREY: Well, you see I drafted all those guys. I was the one who chose Don Felder and chose Joe Walsh. I had a lot of singing to do. What I want to say is that it was all of my own choosing. I felt that for the benefit of the Eagles it was most important that we get a couple of blistering guitarists in there. After Bernie Leadon left, my role as a singer became much more important. I had to be in tune-all the time. But then again, for the albums I always got to play lead on one or two tunes. The bass players! (proudly) The bass players always chose me to play lead on their songs.
MUSICIAN: So you area frustrated lead guitarist.
FREY: No, as a matter of fact, I'm a happy lead guitarist. But then again, the best way to learn how to play guitar is to play with people who are better than you are. So what does it hurt me to play with the Joe Walshes and the Don Felders and the Bernie Leadons of this world? Didn't do it too bad at all. I just call it smart. No, I laid back on purpose, because it eaves something for people to discover about you later.
MUSICIAN: One thing we've only recently discovered is that you're an R&B fanatic. How does a kid who grew up in Detroit manage to get involved with country western and bluegrass?
FREY: It's funny, people always like something that's different from themselves. When I grew up in Detroit I was more interested in what was going on in California, and only when I got out to California did I think back to Detroit and talk about all the records I'd heard.
MUSICIAN: But your R&B tastes aren't really Detroit/Motown, but Stax/Volt ....
FREY: It's Memphis and Muscle Shoals, isn't it? See Detroit was Big Production, layers of sound, eight instruments just playing with the backbeat. Muscle Shoals was Small Production, small, tight bands. It comes down to what music speaks to you, appeals to you over a longer period of time.
MUSICIAN: There is, of course, a big British R&B revival now. It's....
FREY: So concrete, so androgynous, and it's so dull and un-dynamic. That's what I miss out of all this synthesized music-it starts to lose dynamics. I saw Billy Idol on the Letterman show last night, needless to say, I had a slight wardrobe crisis. That's when you realize you're no longer part of the younger generation. But Billy Idol's okay. There's a place for everyone in bur business. I just haven't figured out where. But you can only take things so far.
MUSICIAN: Is the business more image-- and product-oriented now?
FREY: No, it was always product oriented. We fought against jewel-box rock, which was very in vogue in the 70s. People were going into space on us then, too. But I'm not commenting against anybody in the music business but myself. It's like they tell basketball players: play well within your game. A white power forward like Kurt Rambis doesn't have the moves of a James Worthy, but he plays within himself. And that's what you have to do as an artist, find out what's good about you, always keep that, and then try to develop a little more without overstretching yourself. One thing I find with younger people-some of these guys are playing at being something, they're not really being something. You don't get that gut feeling about them.
MUSICIAN: Even if Asylum didn't think you were contemporary, why would they ignore your sales of 650,000?
FREY: (cracks a cautious grin) It might've had something to do with the letter I wrote (Elektra/Asylum chairman) Bob Krasnow after his first interviews. He pissed me off. He didn't call up Jackson Browne or Irv Azoff and say. "Well, here I am." He just walked right out and told the press, "This label is not going to be a country-rock graveyard. This is a new company." I just thought, "Here's a guy with no sense of history." So I photostatted a copy of the interview and wrote on the front of it in magic marker, "Dear Bob, Don't ever come to L.A. or your bleeping ass is mine. So you figure the guy might not like my stuff, might be slightly prejudiced against my music. Now Bruce Lundvall's left. I knew he wouldn't last long. He's got taste, he's gone.
But also, my deal with them was huge. Huge. I probably didn't deserve what I was getting. No, I did deserve what I was getting, but you have to be realistic about these things. Hey, I'm playing hardball. I'm ready for the worst now. I had it good, but what can the worst be? Money can't help you if you have liver trouble.
MUSICIAN: Given you call yourself a dictator, who's there to make sure you're playing as we/] as you can within your game? Who coaches the coach?
FREY: (defensively)Well I've already sold 650,000 copies of my first solo LP, which is not too shabby. I think my second album's better than the first one. Unless I appear exceptionally disillusioned to you right now, I want to tell you I've followed my gut feeling from the time I was twenty-two about everything. But I had other opinions: (Eagles string arranger) Jim Ed Norman, my new managers, Irving, Bob Seger. People told me they thought I should do some other things I said, "How dare you?!" and about three days later I did exactly what they suggested I do. Why, are you telling me to change producers? Are you offering me some career advice? I mean, goddamn ....
MUSICIAN: Uh, no ... just ... well, there's something about the song "Sexy Girl, " the over repetition. I like the bridge; I'm just sick of the hook.
FREY: Hey, that song affected me the same way. It's my least favorite song on The Allnighter. Jack and I wrote a standard called "After Hours," with brushes and stand-up bass and acoustic piano and strings, like Bobby Short at the Carlyle Hotel. And that got bounced cause I took other people's advice. And again, I don't know, maybe that's the last time I'll take other people's advice. But a song like "Sexy Girl"...for a guy who's written, "Smuggler's Blues," how can I sit down and tell you this is the greatest thing since candy pants. I just figured, I'm going to a new company, I didn't want to give them any excuses. I was this far from just buying my own recording truck and saying, "screw all all, guys."
MUSICIAN: Having produced yourself, Karla Bonoff and Lou Ann Barton, are there charges in the way you record now? You're using things like synths and digital drums.
FREY: I liked cutting with a drum machine and bringing the drums in after, cause real drummers get tired after about eight takes, and that's usually around the time the guitar players have figured out their parts. Before mechanical drummers, one of the keys to a good session was keeping your drummer fresh, stopping him after one take and taking him out of the game before you've wasted him. I've seen it happen a lot.
MUSICIAN: Do you still stay in the studio ail hours these days?
FREY: After about eight hours in the studio, you start to not get returns. I've read somewhere that when you're writing, you should stop while you're doing well so you always want to go back to work. That's one of the lessons I learned from doing The Long Run, where we stayed in the studio for weeks at a time. I'd just start getting up in the morning and it was just like school. I didn't want to get up, dreading to go.
MUSICIAN: I'm interested you brought up The Long Run, because I've heard it said that the reason the Eagles broke up was because they were unable to artistically equal Hotel California.
FREY: I think that's a very accurate observation. Hey, I didn't make a big deal out of Hotel California. The eighteen million people that bought it did.
MUSICIAN: But it seems as if this fixation on following Hotel California went to such an extreme, when musically The Long Run was a very good, very underrated record.
FREY: I think The Long Run is very underrated too, but you can also near that it's slightly tired. (laughs) Maybe it just makes me tired to listen to it. But actually it was one of my favorites too.
MUSICIAN: Hotel California had the four or five monster songs....
FREY: And there are a couple or three things that weren't quite as good. But it's funny, people only remember the hits. One of the reasons The Long Run is better top to bottom is that with five guys who wanted to express themselves in one way or another, we decided we would do a double album. That way no one worries, "is this the only song you're going to get to do?" That's not a good way to draw material out of people. So we actually did about eighteen songs before we honed it down to those nine.
MUSICIAN: Don Henley did an interview with us last year in which he .... (Frey snatches the copies of the interview and reads underlined passages, then pronounces, "absolutely true... that one's absolutely true...... He hands the pages back) So is it true, as Henley says, that the Eagles drove you and him crazy because everyone wanted to be quarterback, that you got tired of being the boss and being hated for it, that you were a great coach who had put this team together and didn't get to express yourself enough?
FREY, (deliberately) The thing is, when you're in a band, it's suppose to be equal. And when people emerge as having strengths in certain areas, other people are so resentful of having that strength,. Everybody makes this big thing about Don Henley and I being the reason for the split in the Eagles, but I'm here to tell you right now that Joe Walsh and Don Felder-and others-created as much turbulence for our band as everybody else did, just because they're frustrated quarterbacks. All I'm saying is that in a band, it's a fake democracy. The roles are not so defined.
The thing is, in the Eagles, everybody brought things to Henley, he was the lyrical genius, the English Literature major who could help us put tense stories together. So I wasn't encouraging anybody to do anything in the Eagles that I wasn't doing, just giving my music to him heard....
MUSICIAN: He calls you "The glue."
FREY: I was. I guess so. That's very nice. That's another reason why I couldn't understand all these disturbances from the other players in the band, because I was subordinating myself. And why couldn't somebody else see their way to take a step backward and do what they do the best, 'cause that's really what grated on me. They didn't make subordinating myself a worthwhile job anymore. Besides being the glue, I was also the guy who said, "You sing this, I'll play lead on this-not me, I'd love to but.. ." The bass players never gave us any trouble, though. It was the guitar players.
MUSICIAN: You're the guy who reportedly turned down the two US Festival offers for an Eagles reunion and just lately you told Billboard's Paul Greil, "If the Eagles were to fart in a bag, the label would've tried to get a stereo mix and ask me what / wanted on the B-side." Does that pretty much express your thoughts on an Eagles reunion?
FREY: The point is, if the Eagles were to get back together, it would have to be for the right reasons. I think it would look awful if it were just for the money. The guys in the band didn't call me up and say, "Gee, we missed the music so much, do you think we could get back together and do a couple of benefits for Alan Cranston?" The US Festival twice offered us a lot of money, but money's not an issue, But I think it's an issue with the guys who want to put the Eagles back together. But money's not an issue for Don. He understands what's going on. I have a great deal of respect for him, and the reason he and I don't talk so much is because the Eagles were our common interest, not because we had any failing out. Many other factors. But you don't like to drag this stuff out.
MUSICIAN: When all is said and done, can't it be said that the Eagles were really you and Don and your sidemen?
FREY: I think you can say that, and I think so too.