The Eagles: Hell is for Heroes

A year in the Fast Lane with America's Number One Band

November 29, 1979
The Eagles
The Eagles on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Norman Seeff

Here each of us is a king in a field of corpses.
– Elias Canetti, 'Crowds and Power'

I know there must be something better But there's nowhere else in sight
– Joe Walsh and Barry De Vorzon, "In the City"

Don Henley has the haunted blue eyes of a consumptive Romanian poet who has decided his manhood depends on assassinating Vlad the Impaler. Or maybe it's just the haunted blue eyes of a Texas Calvinist who hasn't quite assimilated the California good life – all that hellfire and brimstone he heard as a kid creeping back like stink from a dead rat under the floorboards to reek, "You don't deserve this massage. The Eagles are about to play in front of 50,000 drunken teenagers in Milwaukee County Stadium for a ridiculous amount of money, therefore God wants you to be in pain from muscle cramps in your back. You are here to suffer."

Stress, not original sin, however, is Henley's earthly explanation for his malady as an accupressurist manipulates his spine – a nightly ritual so he can play the drums without wincing. "It's the price you pay for being sensitive," says Henley, prostrate and shirtless on a folding table. "You are, of course, going to get the humor in my voice as I said that."

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Glenn Frey pops in the door of the trailer and announces, "I just met two wives of the Milwaukee Brewers. One of them was perfect."

"Do you wanna die?" asks Henley.

"No, they gave me an autographed baseball," says Frey, turning it over and mock-reading an inscription: "'Glenn, he's out of town until the Yankee series . . . . "'

A few feet away, Joe Walsh picks at a banquet table piled high with food. "I need some more meatballs," he remarks to no one in particular. "Get some heartburn for the show. I eat everything twice."

The mention of heartburn jars loose another dead rat under Henley's floorboards, and he describes how Life in the Fast Lane ate a hole in his stomach. "I was actually rather proud of getting an ulcer before the age of thirty," he says.

I tell him I had one before the age of fifteen, and he is quite impressed. We discuss the relative virtues of antacids and speculate about all the horrible things that eating chalk does to your body.

"Who are you guys? The Maalox survivors?" Frey explodes with laughter – no idle figure of speech in Frey's case. Mere chortles of his have been known to kill water buffalo at 500 yards. "You call this rock & roll?"

Well, yeah I would call it rock & roll. Just don't ask for a definition. I've stabbed it with my steely knives, but I just can't kill the beast. Another metaphor will have to suffice. We resume our metaphor a half-hour later in the above-described summer tour of 1978.

Our motto is pay now, pay more later," says Irving Azoff, head of the aptly-named Front Line Management, which handles the Eagles and several other status acts. "Figure out a fair price, add a third, and that's what we get in our contracts."

Just this side of dwarfism, Azoff surveys the bustling roadies onstage with the calm eyes of a guiltless man. I ask if the long-overdue Eagles album, late starting and now six months in the womb, is causing problems for their record company, Elektra/Asylum.

"We only hear from them about ten times a month," he giggles. "When they project a $116 million year because Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles are going to release albums, and then come up $40 million short from not having an Eagles album, they hurt."

Steve Miller, the opening act, takes the stage to a big ovation from the Milwaukee teenagers. Azoff, behind a stack of speakers, gives them the finger. "Look at that guy," he spits, indicating Miller's short hair and conservative dress. "He even looks like an accountant. Undoubtedly the cheapest man in rock & roll. You know he gets all his equipment into one truck?"

"If he's so horrible," I ask, "how come you hired him to open for you?"

"He's the least of the worst," says Azoff, still angry because Miller cut his set short the previous night. "Some other act, we'd get a hundred bikers in the front row."

The Eagles take the stage at 9:45 and play two hours of their greatest hits (everything from "Take It Easy" to "Hotel California"), along with four Joe Walsh songs from his period with the James Gang and as a solo artist ("Walk Away," "Turn to Stone," "Life's Been Good" and "Rocky Mountain Way") and one tune by their new bassist, Timothy B. Schmit, from his days with Poco ("Keep on Tryin"').

Their relationship with their audience is the best it has ever been but remains odd. Except for Frey announcing, "We're the Eagles from Los Angeles, California," they do not talk to the people. (Perhaps after setting the tone for their foul relations with East Coast rock critics by denouncing the New York Dolls in New York in 1973, they are afraid that if they open their mouths they will denounce beer in Milwaukee.) Schmit, who obviously enjoys being onstage, is an improvement over his predecessor, Randy Meisner, who loathed performing toward the end of his tenure. Walsh is the only one who moves around, jumping off the risers and doing birdman strums (which occasionally tear off his fingernails). Walsh is also the crowd favorite, generating an ecstatic response with the wonderfully absurd humor of "Life's Been Good."

As pure aural experience, the Eagles are awesome. The Joe Walsh-Don Felder guitar attack could have saved the South at Gettysburg. Alternating between rhythm guitar and keyboards, Frey joins Henley and Schmit in harmonies that are inevitably but accurately described by newspaper headline writers as "soaring." They come inhumanly close to perfection in re-creating their recorded sound. Frey states their concert philosophy: "With so many variables you can't control, you should control everything you can. We make it so the worst we can possibly be is great." Only a slight brag there. But by eliminating spontaneity – particularly a Walsh-Felder guitar jam – the Eagles sacrifice any chance of creating anew onstage and reaching a higher peak.

The centerpiece of the music, the sound that makes the Eagles unique, the sound that makes you want to weep over your lost youth in "Desperado" – that sound emanates from the throat of a skinny guy walled off behind his drum set. Maybe half the audience can see a small part of him. The rest see his cymbals. They are mystified about whom to clap for on the Eagles' best material.

Backstage the Eagles are equally mystifying, but they leave more clues. The names Henley and Frey show up in most of the publishing credits, by themselves and with others. They sing the most songs. In the studio, their ears have the final decision on what sounds good. They run the show. Yet they have never emerged as personalities in their own right. They can walk down any street in the world and not be recognized. The American band of the Seventies, the Eagles remain an anonymous monolith.

The history begins with one Richard Bowden, better known as Balloon Dick, for a high-school locker-room antic best left to the imagination. Something of a legend in the L.A. music scene, Bowden first won fame in Linda Ronstadt's backup band by removing his clothes, covering himself with shaving cream and asking hotel clerks if they knew where he could buy a razor blade. He now plays guitar for Blue Steel (Texas slang for "a hard-on that won't go away") and is Don Henley's oldest friend.

"Joe Walsh came to me just after he joined the Eagles and said, 'You've known him the longest. Tell him to relax."' recalls Bowden. "I told him to just let Don be tense. He's always been that way. When he solves one problem, he just moves on to something else to worry about."

Bowden, 34, and Henley, 32, were babies together in Linden, the Cass County seat in Northeast Texas, population around 2000. Having little oil to dig up, its citizens tend to commute over the rolling countryside to other burgs for factory jobs and spend their few local tax dollars on football.

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