Cameron Crowe Looks Back on His 1975 Eagles Cover Story

Writer-director recalls unlimited access he enjoyed during research of definitive piece on California rock icons

"Just the band, relaxed, eyes on the horizon, with a lot of blue sky": Cameron Crowe recalls the Eagles' cover shoot. Credit: Neal Preston/Corbis

"Take It Easy" had only been out a few months in the summer of 1972. I was a big fan of the song, and was still in high school when the Eagles came to the San Diego Civic Theatre. They were the opening act on a bill with Procol Harum and Cold Blood, and the Civic Theatre was a few blocks from my house. I bought a ticket, and brought my tape recorder. The idea was to slip backstage and talk the band into an interview for a local underground paper, The San Diego Door.

The Eagles opened the evening without an introduction. The lights lowered, and they began with an a cappella version of "Seven Bridges Road," quickly adding instruments and swinging into "Take It Easy." They were fierce and joyful, playing with all the piss and vinegar of a young band hitting its early stride. I slipped backstage with my photographer friend from high school, Gary Elam, and asked their road manager if I could interview the band. They were eager to talk. Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner all hung out in a tiny dressing room and spent hours detailing their history and their dreams of hitting the big-time. "If you like us, you should check out our friend Jackson Browne and John David Souther," Glenn Frey said excitedly, clutching a long-neck Budweiser. They posed for a photo by the amps, arms around each other, and we exchanged phone numbers. I stayed in touch with them. (Little did I know, that fuzzy group shot would be one of the only known photos of all four original members hugging each other. Looking at it today, it has the same slightly surreal quality of one of those photos of the Loch Ness Monster.)

When I started writing for Rolling Stone the next year, the Eagles became one of the bands that I regularly covered for the magazine. As they became more and more popular, I saw how they chafed over the magazine's assessment of their music. The band felt marginalized as a "California laid-back" band, and they regarded the whole "mellow L.A." moniker as an East Coast critical prejudice. The band could be tough as nails personally, but always spirited and very serious about their songwriting. Business-wise, they had studied all the pitfalls of bands that preceded them and vowed not to end up on the trash heap of history. With manager Irving Azoff at their side, they were driven with ambition, and boisterous in the pursuit of good humor and authenticity. From the very beginning, they exuded a quicksilver spirit — forward motion was everything. Up close, the Eagles were many things, but "laid back" was not one of them.

For the Rolling Stone cover story, I spent many months with the band: sitting in on their exacting studio session, joining them on the road, tagging along with them at bars and clubs and around Los Angeles, watching them take in the social nuances and inhabit all the haunts that would later turn up as iconography in their songs. To compose their then-new album, Henley and Frey moved in together in a home atop the Hollywood Hills, a place with a night-time vista they dubbed "The Million Dollar View." They invited me to move in with them, and I did for a couple weeks in 1975 as they wrote the songs that would become their album One of These Nights. I was there, with tape recorder on, as they wrote "Lyin' Eyes" and "After the Thrill Is Gone," the title song and many others, including an unrecorded gem called "When a Bad Boy Meets a Bad Girl in the Night." Though Henley was from Texas, and Frey from Detroit, their goal was to capture the California zeitgeist. As they looked out on that glittery horizon, the songwriters kept topping each other with ideas and phrases that could have layers of meaning. "Nothing can just skim the surface," Henley told Frey. The partnership was electric, a guided missile of creativity. I had a front-row seat for their process, and wanted the RS piece to show their chemistry from the inside out. For a notoriously press-shy group, this was way off the grid. They left no doors closed and no avenues off-limits. It was journalistic nirvana, and the Budweiser flowed as we talked for many hours over many nights.

Frey was hungry for new influences, and a big fan of soul. He loved the Thom Bell–produced hits by the Spinners, the Teddy Pendergrass records cut in Philadelphia, and some of that spirit landed in the song "One of These Nights." In fact, one of the discarded titles for the album came from a tip Frey had heard Thom Bell used in the studio. To gain the perfect drum sound, Bell often instructed the drummer to put a wallet on the snare drum. Wallet on the Snare was one of the working titles for the album.

It was a different time for journalism, a long way from our current world of quick sit-downs or rote, 45-minute junket interviews. The piece became one of my favorites, a sprawling look at life inside the band as they laughed and brawled and buckled down to make the very best of what they knew was now their time. I was on duty throughout. Frey and Henley wanted the article to be completely representative of how seriously they took the mantle of being a premier American band. It was thrilling to watch them chart their course and hit all the marks. As many other bands fractured and fell around them, Henley and Frey charged forward, taking a firm grasp at the helm of the band, changing members when necessary and always staying focused on the songs. Always, their conversations returned to songwriting. I still have many of their discarded yellow legal sheets, filled with lyrics that were honed and refined until the words were up to their very exacting high standards. It occurred to me at the time, and many other instances afterward, how their trajectory never veered very far from the game plan they first laid out in that tiny dressing room in San Diego, with Procul Harum thundering on the other side of the wall. The group photo by the amps says it all. From the very beginning, they were built to soar.

"They left no doors closed and no avenues off-limits. It was journalistic nirvana."

Neal Preston, my then-roommate and best friend, was the photographer for the Rolling Stone assignment. Neal and I spent a lot of time on the road with the band, shooting candid shots of the members and planning the cover shoot with them. There were a few memorable group portraits that could have been used, particularly one taken outside their dressing room at the Day on the Green concert — it's the band at their mugging best. Later, Frey had the idea to get out on a boat, put some oxygen into the mix and take some shots out at sea. Just the band, relaxed, eyes on the horizon, with a lot of blue sky. That was the session that made the cover but Preston had many alternates, some of which I think he's sharing with you.

Of all the artifacts I saved from the research, my favorites are that first group shot, Neal Preston's outtakes of the cover shot, and of course a cassette with "Lyin' Eyes" scrawled on it. It's a two-hour real-time document of the writing of one of their biggest hits, and an audio snapshot of the collaborative process that would produce so many of the Henley-Frey songs that still fill the airwaves. Looking back, I think the article caught the excitement, dedication and humor of the end of the Eagles' first career act. These were the early adventures of, as they joked, "Those Darn Eagles." Just around the bend was "Hotel California" — more angst, more peaks, more fireworks and many more hits — but in 1975, they were still newcomers to the West Coast, still young men aiming to stake their claim and make good on all the promise of the future, shimmering ahead of them like the lights that made up "The Million Dollar View."