Many relationships in life are conflicted, but none anywhere is more so than my own to the Eagles. No, not the Philadelphia Eagles (though that too is complicated) or bald eagles (for whom I experience a patriot’s unnuanced love). I’m talking about the Eagles from Los Angeles—the most successful country-rock band ever to aggressively straddle the globe.
They were the talented rookie athlete who never shut up. They were the cockiest commingling of self-styled swinging rods that ever smugly rocked and countried their way to the top. Bad men. Surly. They made a federal case over whether you called them the Eagles or just Eagles because they said it was just Eagles. They were led by the dueling macho songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey.
Their songs are, let’s face it, incredible. Or be difficult and don’t concede that point. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that you know them: “One of These Nights,” “Desperado,” “New Kid in Town,” friggin’ “Hotel California.” During my suburban Long Island upbringing, their smooth sounds were the other thing you heard besides Billy Joel at any given barbecue. As adults drank beer and children capered in pools, the Eagles’ soft rock provided uneasy companionship. All the harmonies, honky-tonk men, and scarlet women made me intuitively uncomfortable. But the songs were burned into my memory forever.
Fifty years after the Eagles’ first release, they continue to exert a monolithic familiarity. For one thing, their infuriatingly precise mix of rock and roots essentially created the template for contemporary country music radio, with its brick-walled story songs and note-perfect ripping solos. Secondly, they have a way of turning up in the strangest contexts. A couple generations now know them as the Dude’s most hated band in The Big Lebowski. Millennials might have first heard of “Hotel California” when emergent supernova Frank Ocean sampled it on Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011, a flattering occurrence to which Don Henley responded by referring to the culture-shifting Ocean as “a talentless little prick.”
That episode was not a discrete phenomenon—this has always been Henley and Frey’s modus operandi. They are, and have always been, dedicatedly off-putting.
Why are the Eagles the most unloved band to ever sell a hundred million records? Where and when did all of this start and is there any chance for this cognitive dissonance to be resolved?
In an attempt to finally achieve convergence, I conscripted a panel of experts that included radio legend and rock historian Tom Scharpling, treasured cultural critic Rob Sheffield, and celebrated singer-songwriter Will Sheff to reexamine the case against the Eagles 50 years after they first thrust their way into the mainstream. These hand-picked panel members are all music enthusiasts who consume music at a pace roughly equivalent to an average 18-wheel driver on trucker speed. Life in the fast lane. Here are the findings and verdict.
Charge No. 1: The Dickishness
The Eagles were a machine built on umbrage and limitless material gain. Unlike many bands who achieve dickishness in escalating proportion to their success, the Eagles seemingly needed no prompting. Almost immediately their grievances were countless. They were mad at the press, their label, their publicists, concert promoters, fellow musicians, and one another. Their anger is a feature, not a bug. Punk rock never knew such pugnaciousness.
A representative example: The group despised their first producer, Glyn Johns—legendary for his work with the Who and the Stones—whom they blamed for being too bossy. Not a partier, Johns informally banned drugs from the studio, meaning that “we’d have to sneak off to the bathroom to do dope,” according to Henley. And sure, that must have been a nuisance for the Eagles. But this was the band’s first time in the studio and Johns needed their full attention. The Eagles’ self-titled debut ultimately yielded the standards “Witchy Woman” and “Take It Easy,” and set a template for their cultural contributions. The band found the experience unhappy, and decades later, Glenn Frey would continue to complain that his vocal on “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was out of tune.
Tom Scharpling advances this theory about their paper-thin skin: “I think they knew the rap on them the whole time is that they’re these pretty boys who are trading in the mythologies of country music and Americana or whatever you want to call it, but they’re just not legit,” he says. “That crushing insecurity is why they’re dicks.”
An authenticity gap plagued the Eagles from the outset. The legendary Gram Parsons, whose sound the band slavishly aped, called them “bubblegum” in an interview shortly before his tragic death in 1973.
“They’re not actual country music people! They’re not cowboys,” Scharpling says. “They were just kinda handsome guys who saw an opportunity to smash a couple genres together with an eye toward the charts. The Eagles could confidently play with their shirts off. They were the shirtless Byrds!”
Will Sheff, whose forensic folk-rock character studies sound something like Townes Van Zandt by way of Buffalo Springfield, sees the tendency toward bullying as innate to their temperament. “I always thought of the Eagles as the high school jocks who joined bands because they thought they could get laid or something,” he says. “The dudes who are gonna bust into band practice and be like, ‘You fucking loser!’ and push you over and grab your guitar.”
Throughout the cascading successes of their charmed career, the Eagles improbably continued to nurse early grudges. They singled out critics for a “punch on sight” list and stewed over positive reviews. It is tempting to connect the dual animating impulses of aggrievement and ambition to a boomer generation that would, in 1994, usher in a new era of hard-right American politics. That same year, the Eagles were planning one of their innumerous reunion tours with prices that would make Croesus blush.
Charge No. 2: The Inheritance
“It’s weird how much the Eagles bitch about L.A.,” Sheffield says. “They seem to have thought that everybody in L.A. was born in L.A. All the movie stars and ingenues couldn’t possibly have been from Texas or Michigan like they were. And somehow that makes them mad. They complain a lot about that, but then they complain about everything.”
We’ve now been through several stages of lionizing the Laurel Canyon scene to the point of cultural idiocy—however much good music emerged from there for a discrete period of time, surely it doesn’t justify the at least two lengthy documentaries I lapped up in the last 18 months alone. It’s weird how much footage there is of David Crosby in hot tubs.
Laurel Canyon in the ’60s and early ’70s was, by some tellings, a bastion of freedom and liberation that attracted an endless succession of beautiful people and aspiring geniuses to a teeming cauldron (hot tub?) of overflowing talent. Some of this is certainly true, but it was also the time and place when rock ’n’ roll was first conceptualized as a Fortune 500 endeavor. And it wasn’t the Eagles that started it. They were just following the trail blazed by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“With CS&N, they had the highest ticket prices and largest advances and they were definitely living the rock-star lifestyle. And at the same time every song was a message song,” Scharpling says of the three maestros. “Their second show was Woodstock, so they kind of reaped all the benefits of what had come before, and now you also had a very self-serious attitude of rock music. There were songs with titles like ‘Nighttime for the Generals.’”
As the cultural gravitas of Crosby, Stills & Nash expanded, their earning potential did as well. Their 1974 tour with Neil Young was a landmark of personal and financial excess that raised the bar on rock iniquity, while being sold as a groovy gathering of peace-lovin’ folk. Under the canny management of Elliot Roberts, even the music press of the day was bamboozled by the group’s earnings—the astronomical paydays and all-too-earnest banter about world peace were feeling increasingly dissonant.
Scharpling says: “They seem to be the first people that really got flagged by the press for being ridiculously capitalistic and also ostensibly do-gooders—the first time that particular feeling of embarrassment occurred.” While keeping a watchful eye on CS&N’s business model, the Eagles would find an easy enough workaround for the paradox of being altruistic and mercenary at the same time. They wouldn’t be altruistic at all.
Charge No. 3: Witchy Women
Rob Sheffield has always been annoyed by this: “At least 90 percent of Eagles’ songs are telling a woman, ‘You think you’re really cool but you’re not, and I’m going to explain why by making a bunch of points that certainly never occurred to you before.’”
This bothers me, too. And it’s weird because as a lady, I’m perfectly happy listening to AC/DC or the Stones or whatever, who have songs in which women are more or less constantly objectified and variously badgered. In the case of those groups, there is always the idea that on some level they recognize that the joke is ultimately on them. Not so with Henley and Frey. Their unctuousness and self-pitying solipsism is simply one more insult than I can endure.
Sheffield finds “Lyin’ Eyes” risible: “That song really, really bugs the shit out of me. The way it begins, like, ‘City girls just seem to find out early how to open doors with just a smile.’ It’s like, ‘Excuse me Glenn Frey, how the fuck do you open doors? Is it your brilliance?’”
It’s similar to a shitty boyfriend going into forensic detail about how they were always utterly blameless in everything that happened when the break-up occurred, only this time with harmonies.
“For the Eagles, being arrayed against women is an ethic in itself. There’s no wit, and you don’t feel like they’re trying for wit and failing at it,” Sheffield says. “A song like ‘Already Gone’ is monstrously irritating. Because the singer is so incredibly proud of himself for dumping his girlfriend, which honestly isn’t that huge an achievement, you know?”
Sheff paints a nightmare scenario of preordained entitlement meeting with an endless sea of approbation: “When you’ve had that much success, and you’re a man of that generation and sort of a dick to begin with, and literally millions of people are reinforcing your self-conception as a demigod, you’re probably going to end up the official band of toxic boomer masculinity.”
Charge No. 4: Innocence and Experience
In 2013, Sheff was in the process of promoting Okkervil River’s wistful and bracing LP The Silver Gymnasium, which reckons with the traumas and joys of early childhood with the same sort of wonder and awe as John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. As a thematic tie-in, Sheff recorded a series of cover songs he remembered hearing on the radio in the 1980s, when he was a dedicated preteen listener to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.
“I think that there is a period of time when you’re a little kid and you like everything that you hear on the radio and you don’t really question it,” Sheff says. “You assume it all deserves to be there and that it’s being presented to you for some good reason. And there is a point where I began to develop the rudiments of taste and I started to discern things I didn’t like. I would feel crappy when I was hearing ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings.’ And when ‘The End of the Innocence’ came on, I felt good.”
Sheff’s covers project included tracks by Randy Newman, Cyndi Lauper, Joni Mitchell, George Benson, and Wang Chung among others. It also featured a subtly rewritten version of his personal favorite, “The End of the Innocence.” None of the other original artists objected, but Don Henley and his legal team did, and forcefully. The threat of legal action resulted in the covers collection being promptly and permanently removed from the marketplace.
“I think the thing that offended him so much was that I made changes to the last verse,” Sheff says. “I wanted to cover that song because as beautiful as the recording is, with Bruce Hornsby’s piano and everything, I always wanted to strip out the ’80s-ness and just present it as a singer-songwriter song. I also wanted to stick the landing and make it be dark all the way to the end, because Henley sort of craps out in the last verse.”
We dare not reprint any of the original lyrics here for fear of helicopters full of lawyers descending in moments, but the kind of reimagining that Sheff is describing is a useful shorthand for the folk, country, and blues tradition the Eagles emerged from. Gram Parsons borrowed meaningfully and movingly from the Carter Family and Merle Haggard. Bob Dylan repurposed the words of Woody Guthrie and Allan Ginsberg. The travails of train operator Casey Jones were first commemorated in a traditional folk song and given an update by the Grateful Dead. Henley knows all this. So why was he such a dick about it?
The Verdict: Long Road Out of Eden
Glenn Frey died in 2016, a moment Sheffield remembers well.
“I went to see Bruce Springsteen the day after Frey died,” he says. “Springsteen was just starting The River tour and they were still playing the whole album through. And Bruce did ‘Take It Easy’ as his encore. And it felt like a touching gesture even while watching this good-timey smarm emerging from his mouth. The Eagles always represented the roads that Springsteen wasn’t willing to take. But then, watching him play ‘Take It Easy,’ you had to examine if that’s actually true. It was a weird moment, and poignant.”
An ultimate irony of the Eagles is that they seem never to have fully enjoyed the preternatural consensus-building machine of their songwriting, for want of something like the critical adulation of Springsteen. They were knockoffs. They were deplorables. They took it hard even when they took it easy. Is that really what this was all about: the critics? A measuring contest in monetary and reputational terms with Rolling Stone magazine and the East Coast peers they were convinced received preferential consideration? This comprised the last days of Laurel Canyon?
“What you’re really wondering,” says Sheff, “is how the Flower Power generation turned into the MAGA generation. And that is the most mysterious fucking thing. I think of the cookie-cutter conformity of the ’40s and the ’50s and the whiteness of the suburbs. I think the hippies probably really wanted to break free from that, but somehow they were already too warped. The sexual revolution became just a shorthand for guys to have consequence-free sex at random. It was a freedom of a kind, but highly conditional and leveraged towards the privileged and the male.”
The Eagles songs were… you know them. To be ubiquitous in the contemporary age is in so many ways synonymous with being virtuous. Fifty bazillion Eagles fans can’t be wrong. Tom Scharpling and I were talking about that and the Eagles, or maybe it was Laurel Canyon, or maybe it was just the ’70s, when my mind drifted to the inexplicable Frey-penned deep cut “Teenage Jail” from 1979’s The Long Run LP. It’s an astonishingly terrible track that weds a typical broadside against a runabout woman to a sub–Spinal Tap mélange of tepid hard rock and prog. It may have been a joke or it may have just been coke, but one can scarcely conjure a worse song by a bestselling band on any widely released record. As I said, their songs are incredible.
They were prisoners of their own device, trapped in a teenage jail. The more the Eagles won, the angrier they got. An aggrieved sensibility that paralleled a generation. Oh, the limits they took it to.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.