By day, the stardom-obsessed City of Angels depicted on the Eagles' The Long Run is a dreary land of blank vistas and empty promises, baking slowly under an unsentimental sun. But when the night comes, the landscape is suddenly infested with mad shadows: inky, menacing configurations that provide an ominous depth. Unbridled by reality, this is the time when desperate dreams emerge from their lairs. Such dreams stalk the back streets, bistros, board rooms and bedrooms where the deals for success are struck — and then metamorphose into nightmares.
The Long Run, the Eagles first album in three years, is a chilling and altogether brilliant evocation of Hollywood's nightly Witching Hour, that nocturnal feeding frenzy first detailed by Warren Zevon on his haunting Asylum debut (Warren Zevon, 1976) and the equally powerful Excitable Boy. Both Zevon and the Eagles have employed the desperado and the ghoul as antiromantic symbols of the star caught in the devil's bargain. And both eventually came to realize that they had to give up the guise of observers and confess their roles as participants.
The Eagles live and thrive in a town where rock & roll is the foremost fame machine. Commercially, they've risen as high as a band possibly can, and yet, as individuals, they still have trouble getting in touch with a girlfriend, with any true comfort or satisfaction, with their own dreams. Their backyard is a thicket of fast cars, witchy women, outrageous parties and wasted time, so their perspective on the maw is doubtlessly an informed one.
Since their first LP in 1972, the Eagles have been adept at portraying the dark side of stardom, the sordid milieu of its beneficiaries and the various modus operandi used to secure notoriety. From Eagles' "Chug All Night," "Most of Us Are Sad" and "Take the Devil," through all of Desperado, to "James Dean" and "Good Day in Hell" on On the Border and the title tracks of One of These Nights and Hotel California, the themes of evil exhilaration, dissolution and despair that attend tinseled glory were relentlessly hammered home. These recurring themes finally reached their apex in the song whose title has since become synonymous with high living and self-destruction: "Life in the Fast Lane."
On first listening, The Long Run seems a modest, flawed project that's virtually devoid of the gloss, catchy hooks and flashy invention that typified earlier Eagles records. The title tune sets an unambitious tone: the group lopes along in a familiar country-rock framework, singing about youthful hopes and the virtues of tenacity. But it slowly becomes apparent that the "long run" is a metaphor for a host of secret concerns and passions that are either career- or relationship-oriented. What starts out as a mildly encouraging number about hanging in there ends up a grim homily on the solitary pleasures of flirting with the precipice:
Did you do it for love?
Did you do it for money?
Did you do it for spite?
Did you think you bad to, honey?
This is the lament of a seasoned veteran of the star wars, a lover who's both hardened and accusatory, asking questions to which he already knows the depressing answers. The cards have been dealt and played, and all that remains is to tally the terrible cost: "Who is gonna make it/We'll find out in the long run."
Overall, The Long Run is a synthesis of previous macabre Eagles motifs, with cynical new insights that are underlined by slashing rock & roll. There's a stark simplicity to the album, especially when compared with the hyperslick Hotel California. Not a collection of hot car-radio singles. The Long Run is easily the band's most uncommercial effort. Vocally, instrumentally and lyrically, the Eagles' trademark of coy cleverness has largely been replaced by a raw, direct approach. The songs are of a piece, each one complementing and building on the other in a saga that blends the internal sensibilities of Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now with the external textures of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. The total effect is shattering.
"I Can't Tell You Why," the LP's second track, fleshes out the callous courtship introduced in "The Long Run" and describes the pitfalls of couples "who lived through years in the dark." Though the tone is tender, the singer offers no solution to the problem of why he and his partner are "up all night, tearing our love apart." Newcomer Timothy Schmit's vocals have the same pleasingly plaintive quality he brought to Poco, but the old urgency has turned ghostly, elusive. In the background, an eerie synthesizer hovers over a repetitious yet enticing guitar riff, and you get the creepy feeling that you're being lured into an abyss.
This central sense of doom is further reinforced by Joe Walsh's "In the City," a brittle but forceful rocker (which appeared in a different version on the soundtrack of Walter Hill's The Warriors) that cooks up a heroic vision of the possibilities outside the urban labyrinth. Unfortunately, as Walsh sees it, "there's nowhere else in sight."
"In the City" provides a neat segue into two of the Eagles' finest compositions, "The Disco Strangler" and "King of Hollywood." "The Disco Strangler" is a shrill, severe portrait of desperate living stretched to the snapping point. Paced by an unhurried bass drum that thumps like predatory footsteps in the darkness, this cut is coarser and more grating than anything these musicians have ever recorded. All vestiges of their customary precision and prettiness are ripped away to reveal the bare wires. The guitars are metallic and violent. They leap out with thick, sharp thrusts, while the fearsome braying of Don Henley rises above the riveting tumult. This is rock & roll that's calculated to make your hair stand on end. It's also a telling exploration of the strutting hedonism at the center of the Hollywood success ethos. "The Disco Strangler" resonates with savage accuracy.
Lookin' for the good life
Dressed to kill
She don't have to worry 'cause there's
Always someone else who will
Loose and loaded every night
Dancin' underneath the flashin' light
Sayin' "Look at me baby, look at me
I'm beautiful, I'm beautiful, I'm somebody."
Lurking on the fringes of such lavish confusion is the dirty, nameless little ingredient that'll kick the legs out from under your illusions. He's the one figure that the dancer seeks to avoid. And the very audience she's been so willfully attracting all along.
He's the crimson in your face du jour
The fiddler in your darkest night
He's the melody without a cure.
When the fury subsides, the latest victim has been discarded and the town returns to business as usual.
Another transaction on the casting couch is being lined up in "King of Hollywood." The delicate, clipped vocals by Henley and Glenn Frey capture all the sickening heartbreak of the moment:
Come sit down here beside me honey
Let's have a little heart to heart
Now look at me and tell me darlin'
How badly do you want this part?
Side two begins a new cycle of fast-lane histrionics. In "Heartache Tonight," we're treated to glimpses of the rollicking insensitivity in the constant blowouts that now pass for fun. "Those Shoes" dissects the ever-present limousine lovelies, certain overanxious career women who ride the razor's edge between sycophant-socialite and slut. Here, the hissing singing style is intensely effective as the ladies ply and are plied with "tablets of love." "Teenage Jail" and "The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks" heighten the whole grotesque maelstrom, with angry vocals and chain-saw guitar accents that belittle the concept of rock as a saving grace in this or any other void.
The Eagles have always been imaginative albeit sometimes gimmicky guitarists, but on their last three albums (not counting Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975), they've broken new ground, exploring the tonal and coloristic possibilities of their aggressively stagy sound. They've also been much influenced by Joe Walsh's skillful use of silences, employing his spacious, stinging guitar leads as a dramatic device and breaking the rhythm section's output into tight, percussive statements. Within this framework, the introduction of any new element — a voice, a horn, a drumbeat — becomes a pivotal flicker of life: e.g., the introduction of a hi-hat in "The Disco Strangler" startles like the first vicious rattle in a snake pit.
"The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks" is the explosive last binge. The Long Run closes with "The Sad Café," a dirgelike hymn to the Troubadour, the legendary Los Angeles saloon that sheltered the Eagles and so many of their cohorts in their scuffling days, providing a stage on which they could express themselves, and a bar at which they could forget themselves.
The Long Run is a bitter, wrathful, difficult record, full of piss and vinegar and poisoned expectations. Because it's steeped in fresh, risky material and unflinching self-examination, it's also the Eagles' best work in many, many years. There's none of the tacky, Twilight Zone posturing that marred Hotel California, and the boisterous innocence of the group's "Take It Easy" era is now far too distant to retrieve. Instead, we're offered a well-crafted message that's just as arrogant and probably a whole lot more honest. Wrapped in black cardboard, The Long Run is an invitation to a funeral, a thoughtful interment of the past.
Clustered around the bar in the Sad Café, the Eagles admit that the long run was never a roll of the dice as much as a conscious attempt to outrace their demons. It seems that the drive for success is a kind of black hole in the center of the soul — a black hole that sucks in and devours most of the feelings, generosity and commitment that could have been saved for friends, lovers or oneself. Great courage is needed to face up to this, and it takes a lot of experience to make an album this strong. But the next step is surely the hardest of all. As Don Henley intones near the end of the last tune:
Now I look at the years gone by
And wonder at the powers that be
I don't know why fortune smiles on some
And lets the rest go free.