Glenn Frey’s Ghost

The Eagles leader has more to offer classical music than just an Oregon Symphony tribute


Knoxville Tennessee, June 1977. The Eagles are seven grueling months into an 11-month non-stop tour. They finish the concert and prepare for the encores. It’s bass player Randy Meisner’s turn to thrill the crowd with his massive hit “Take it to the Limit” from the Eagles fourth album, One of these Nights (1975). Meisner is miserable, suffering from stomach ulcers that are acting up, nervous about hitting the famously high notes in that song. He’s been lobbying to retire this song for awhile. This evening he stands up to Glenn Frey, co-founder of the Eagles (along with Don Henley). He’s not going to sing the encore.

The Oregon Symphony pays tribute to Glenn Frey on Monday.

The Oregon Symphony pays tribute to Glenn Frey on Monday.

Frey, who has dealt with ulcerative colitis most of his life, wheels around to the shyest, most anxiety ridden beta-male in the Eagles and spits

[T]here’s thousands of people waiting for you to sing that song. You just can’t say “Fuck ’em, I don’t feel like it.” Do you think I like singing “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” every night? I’m tired of those songs. But there’s people in the audience who’ve been waiting YEARS to see us do those songs. (from Alison Ellison and Alex Gibney’s documentary “History of the Eagles, part one)

An asshole, no doubt. But he’s The People’s Asshole! Fighting for the right of the audience to get its hard earned money’s worth. Fighting to make their evening memorable.

This Monday, May 9, the Oregon Symphony honors Glenn Frey, who died last January, with a show of Eagles tunes. Like many pops concerts, this one will boost the bottom line for an orchestra that probably can’t survive without them. But Frey’s legacy has so much more to offer classical music than just one of those nights.

The Eagles’ ascendence to mythic popularity is no accident. In Alison Ellison’s riveting 2013 documentary, History of the Eagles), Frey’s clarity of purpose hammers the viewer over and over: The audience comes first, comes only. Frey views his position in the band as fluid, not ego based — searching to find his highest and best use. Realizing the magic of Henley’s voice, he turned over more of the lead vocals. Frey took himself off of lead guitar when he brought in the guitar phenom Don (Fingers) Felder.

Make no mistake, the Eagles were Glenn Frey’s band. He threw the loudest tantrums and called the shots. Frey gave permission to Ellison and producer Alex Gibney to interview anyone — friends and especially enemies. Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh asked to be re-interviewed when he heard Frey’s edict.

That band worked harder at preparing for concerts than anyone you or I know. The opening scene in HotE, the a capella “Seven Bridges Road” is indicative of the bar they set early on, not just in getting the vocals just right, the harmonies tight, but obsessing over the right words when honing lyrics on songs they wrote, even controlling the amount of reverb in their recordings.

[W]hat have I done? Worked my ass off… That’s why people who envy me look foolish. They don’t see me at the Record Plant, trying all night to get one vocal. (from Cameron Crowe’s first Rolling Stone assignment covering the Eagles: “Chips off the old Buffalo” RS 1975)

Glenn Frey’s ambition was NOT girls, drugs, girls, money, girls, fame, girls.

I think the first thing we [Don Henley] had in common was ambition. We were looking to write songs with meanings and messages. (The Long Long Run, NYT 2013)

Meanings and messages. Why? To connect with audiences. The opposite of “Art for Art’s sake.”

Another lesson for musicians, classical and otherwise: Frey never settled, always pushing beyond the comfort zone. He and co-founder Henley shared a near oppositional independence, striking their own course and taking responsibility over their own success. Together they decided to leave their sure-to-be successful start-up gig as rising star Linda Ronstadt’s backing band in order to form their own, with her blessing. Early when the Eagles achieved a successful country rock sound with folk-loving guitarist Bernie Leadon and the over-controlling English producer Glyn Johns (who thought the Eagles were only capable of soft country rock), Frey made a quick hard left, replacing Leadon with rock-and-roll’s bad-boy, Joe Walsh. He canned Johns for a much more simpatico producer, Bill Szymczyk.

The payoff came with Walsh’s first and Szymczyk’s third Eagles album, the mega-successful “Hotel California.” The band would not back down from shortening the 7 minute title cut and radio caved. We ALL got tired of listening to “Hotel California!” It was ALWAYS on the radio.

Classical music: Get Frey-ed

We’ll hear Glenn Frey’s music in a “classical” setting on Monday, but when I look at much of the classical scene in Portland, I don’t see enough of his values. I see musicians who stay in their personal comfort zones instead of thinking about what engages audiences. I see musicians who throw under-rehearsed music on stage, then charge ticket prices most can’t afford, AND THEN whine when audiences stay small. I see too little respect for audiences.

Contrast Frey’s willingness to value fans and audience despite the price of his own ulcerative colitis or the stomach ulcers and the anxiety issues of bandmate Meisner, with Portland Nice, where I hear shit like “These peeps (performers) are my friends” when I call out half-baked crap that makes it to the stage. (In truth, I get way more supportive feedback from others who corroborate and appreciate what I’ve said).

“I remember having a conversation with [Steve Jobs] and I was asking why it could have been perceived that in his critique of a piece of work he was a little harsh. We’d been working on this [project] and we’d put our heart and soul into this, and I was saying, ‘Couldn’t we … moderate the things we said?’
And he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘ Because I care about the team.’ And he said this brutally, brilliantly insightful thing, which was, ’No Jony, you’re just really vain.’ He said, ‘You just want people to like you, and I’m surprised at you because I thought you really held the work up as the most important, not how you believed you were perceived by other people.’
I was terribly cross, because I knew he was right.” (Apple design chief Jony Ive)

If we want classical music to win Eagles-sized audiences, the work, the audience must come before the performers’ fragile egos. Stop over-protecting the team. Nurture the client who is purchasing your product!

Glenn Frey (l) and the Eagles.

Glenn Frey (l) and the Eagles.

Eschewing non musical gimmicks, the Eagles were by no means the most talented nor visionary band of their era, nor even a particular favorite of mine. Yet their Greatest Hits album, put out in 1976, just five years after they formed with only four albums behind them and before their mega-hit album, Hotel California, is the biggest selling album of the 20th century. They rehearsed diligently for tight tight tight performances. So tight that Frey could rip Don Felder a new one DURING a 1980 concert at Long Beach! Each getting their digs in under the microphone, between licks, without missing a note.

Glenn Frey. Prince. David Bowie. May you all rest in peace. You deserve it.

You worked your ASSES off to bring something you cared about creating to an audience in a polished way that honestly connected with us. Last month, seventy three year old Paul McCartney held a Portland audience enraptured for over three hours in a tight concert and did it all over again two nights later in Seattle. Night after night, 66 year old Bruce Springsteen does the same thing.

If I hear one more classical musician justify unaffordable ticket prices for classical music concerts with “Springsteen charges at least twice this and HE’S able to fill stadiums” I swear I will write that article and spill a little (more) blood!

If you want to play poorly rehearsed personal favorites in your own living rooms with your hand selected group of supportive friends, have at it! I love your innovative way of supporting your tender self.

But the moment you ask me or any general audience newbie to your show, giving up 3 hours of our time and $20 plus dollars from our barista to piano lesson to software engineer wages AND you refuse to practice because too much practice bores you or because you’ve committed to too many gigs, AND THEN you have the audacity to bitch and moan that not enough of us are showing up in the audience to pay for your motivational shit,

Long live Glenn Frey’s ghost and may it haunt the hallowed halls and sacred church atmospheres of classical music. Because Frey put the audience first, thousands will come hear the Oregon symphony play his music at Schnitzer. While the orchestra is learning his music, maybe the rest of us in classical music can also absorb his respect for the audience.

The Oregon Symphony presents Music Of The Eagles: A Tribute To Glenn Frey, Monday, May 9, 7:30pm, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall $35- $95. Tickets available online, at the Oregon Symphony Ticket Office and by phone: 503.228.1353 or 800.228.7343.

Portland pianist Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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One Response.

  1. This is a lovely piece and says exactly what I’ve thought when people accused Frey of being difficult. I’ve argued elsewhere that in another life he would have conducted a symphony orchestra. He had the energy, discipline and ability to see the big picture. As one who loved the Eagles in the 70s then moved off to classical music, I rediscovered Glenn Frey’s career after his sad, premature death in January. His dedication did away with any assumptions I’d made about rock and pop artists and their lack of discipline.

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