Remembering Glenn Frey: Cameron Crowe on Eagles' Teen King

From the "Take It Easy" days to his final year, charismatic singer/songwriter/actor always had a plan

Cameron Crowe recalls his decades-long friendship and collaboration with Glenn Frey in a Rolling Stone exclusive. Credit: Sam Emerson/Polaris

It was 1972, and "Take It Easy" was on the charts. The Eagles came to San Diego, where I was working for a local underground paper. I grabbed my photographer buddy Gary from school and made a plan. We were going to sneak backstage and grab an interview with this new group. I loved their harmonies, and the confident style that charged their first hit.

Glenn Frey introduced the band: "We're the Eagles, from southern California." They were explosive, right off the top, opening with their a cappella rendition of "Seven Bridges Road." Then, this new band, filled with piss and vinegar, launched immediately into their hit. There was nothing "laid back" about them. No "saving the hit for last." They were a lean-and-mean American group, strong on vocals and stronger on attitude.

Gary and I talked our way backstage with ease and found the band's road manager, who threw us all into a small dressing room where drummer-singer Don Henley, bassist Randy Meisner and guitarist Bernie Leadon took us through the story of the band. Every other sentence began with "And then Glenn. ..." Glenn Frey was the only guy not in the room.

After about a half hour, the door whipped open and Frey walked in. He had a Detroit swagger, a memorable drawl and patter like a baseball player who'd just been called up to the majors. He was part musician, part tactician and part stand-up comic.

It was immediately obvious that Glenn had his eye on the big picture. He'd studied other bands, how they broke up or went creatively dry. He had a plan laid out. He even used that first interview to promote his friends — Jackson Browne, John David Souther and songwriter Jack Tempchin. His laugh and demeanor were infectious. Immediately, you wanted to be in his club.

At the end of the interview, I asked the band to pose together. The photo is one of my favorites. It captures one of their earliest, happiest, freest moments. A band that would later brawl memorably was giddy and happy that night, arms wrapped around each other. The look on Glenn's face is priceless: This is my band, and we're on our way.

Glenn and I exchanged phone numbers, and he stayed in touch. He brought me in early on the making of the Eagles' second album, Desperado. As I'd begun to do more and more work as a correspondent for Rolling Stone, he began to complain to me about the magazine calling the band "soft" or "laid-back," along with much of the East Coast literati. The Eagles, in my time around them, were many things, but "laid-back" was not one of them.

Glenn's jocular street wisdom was pretty addictive to a guy who'd never had a brother. It was easy to share your personal stuff with Glenn. He'd help you plot out the answers to your problems like a seasoned coach. He once laid out the psychology of getting and maintaining a buzz at a party. ("Two beers back to back, then one every hour and 15 minutes. ... You'll be loquacious, and all the girls will talk with you.")

I found that I went to him often for gender-specific advice that would have stumped or even horrified my sister. When I once told him about a girl I was in love with from afar, a girl I was sure I needed to impress with a better "act," Frey reacted hugely. "No!" he said with a pirate's smile. "You don't need an act — all you need is to be you." He leaned in close. "If she can't smell your qualifications, move on."

Frey was a big character, and as I began to write fiction, I often plucked liberally from things he'd told me. The above quote I gave to Mike Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Glenn valued camaraderie, which was apparent whenever he was around crew and friends or in a recording session. Glenn and Don would coach the vocal takes like seasoned pros, giving sharp directions, as well as nicknames and athletic truisms worthy of John Wooden. Along with longtime friend and manager Irving Azoff, Glenn was also careful about keeping his band above financial water. He'd read too many biographies about genius musicians who were now broke. Early in the band's history, he took me aside. "I don't want to be super-rich; I don't need the big money," he once said. "I just want 1 million to spend on a house and a life, and 1 million to put in the bank and live off the interest. And then I got a life."

Six months later, before playing a sold-out show in Oakland, he casually told me the good news. "Cameron, remember what I told you about the $2 million?" I nodded. "Got it. Now all I gotta do is make a buncha records that I would buy myself!"

The sound of those records made for scores of hits, changed the way concerts and the music business would be conducted in modern times, and also redefined what we now know as country music. None of this was by accident. Glenn was the playmaker. His and Henley's deep knowledge of sounds, of R&B and soul, country and pure rock, warmed up three different generations. Their success never even flagged during the decade-plus hiatus they took starting in 1980.

Their 2013 documentary, History of the Eagles, told the whole warts-and-all story. And in it, you see the Frey that his friends knew. Funny. Tough. Cynical. A ruleskeeper. Along the way, these scrappy carpetbaggers from Texas and Detroit wrote about Los Angeles with a clarity and wit that few have matched, in novels, music or movies. Critically, the East Coast critical intelligentsia continued to slight them, and sometimes even mock them.

Frey gave up trying to please them long ago. The Beach Boys had the far more media-attractive tale of Brian Wilson and a troubled young genius' mythology of pain. The Eagles had Glenn and Don, an avalanche of public acceptance, fewer scandals and a cleareyed adult's view of the same California. They were, frankly, a winning team. Some never forgave them for their success. But that success, as Frey would explain to you, was always part of the plan. "You can be in the gutter talking about all your missed opportunities," he said, "or you can be successful, and pull the other guy out of the gutter."

Frey made success look like a ballgame anybody could suit up and play with him. Within a half hour, he'd have given you a nickname. Because I made him laugh with an imitation of James Brown's MC ("Ladies and gentlemen, it is star time tonight. ..."), I was "Get Down Clown." And Glenn, who along with Henley made a regular habit of charming the ladies with gallant good manners, was "the Teen King." Because of his ability with charting Eagles harmonies, he was also "the Lone Arranger," and once, because he'd collected a small garbage bin filled with weed in his backyard, he was "Roach." Don Felder, his guitarist, was "Fingers." The other band members had a psychedelic ever-changing collection of nicknames that each had deep and swirling meanings. I forgot most of 'em, but Glenn never did.

When I later moved in with Glenn and Henley for a couple of weeks while they were writing the One of These Nights album, we talked about life and love and music for days on end. I watched as they incorporated their nighttime adventures into daytime classics. They worked meticulously on songs like "Lyin' Eyes" and "One of These Nights," often spending hours on a single word.

And at one point, Glenn took me aside. We had the very conversation that appears in Almost Famous, when William is guided to leave some stuff off the record. Frey eventually capitulated. "Everything's on the record," he said. And then the famous Glenn smile. "Just make us look cool."

In Jerry Maguire, Glenn played Dennis Wilburn, the general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. I had auditioned several other actors for the part. Somehow they all had a problem harassing and beating down Tom Cruise's character, who was then at his low point. Many were intimidated delivering soul-crushing lines to such a superstar. Glenn came in and had more fun harassing Cruise than a kid at summer camp. "It's just sports to me," he said.

His turnaround at the end of the film was far sweeter for the vigor he put into the performance. He was an excellent actor with generous people skills, friends with the entire crew. For all those who worked with him, from the beginning to the end, he was the team captain who you could call late at night. Glenn was also never far from the Teen King, awash with the enthusiasm and wickedly fun humor of his youth.

After the enormous critical and commercial victory of the band's masterpiece, Hotel California, Glenn also became a family man. He approached that role with the same verve of the kid who first got in a car and drove from Michigan to Laurel Canyon, spotted David Crosby on his first day and never looked back.

For fans of Frey feeling the pain now, I have a simple suggestion. Enjoy a long-neck Budweiser, and put on some soul music. Something with great vocals, like Johnnie Taylor's "I've Been Born Again." Or a song that Glenn was so intent on playing for me that he drove back and forth on Sunset Boulevard, again and again, just to listen and study: Eddie Hinton's "Get Off in It."

A last image. Working on our show Roadies, I was set on hiring Glenn to play the band's skilled but flighty manager, Preston. The word that came back was upsetting. Frey was in tough shape, hospitalized but fighting. I tried not to worry too much. Glenn Frey is, and always was, built for the fourth-quarter win. I last saw him over the summer, and I told him I wanted him to act again. He was enthusiastic. "I got an idea for a TV show," he said. "Kauai Five-0. I'm Hawaii's toughest cop, and I live in Kauai. And in the off-season ..." There was that pirate smile again. "... I get to be in the Eagles. It's a good life, right?"