Judith Simms – “Eagles Take it Easy and Soar” (1972)

April 11, 2009 at 10:01 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article, from the early days of The Eagles, comes from Rolling Stone magazine (issue #115), Aug. 17, 1972…

 

The four Eagles—Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner and Don Henley—had barely been introduced to each other when expectant ever-hopeful LA scene makers began predicting Big Things for the group: fat royalty checks, sell-out tours and beautiful groupies. After all, David Geffen was involved, as manager and head of the Eagles’ label, Asylum Records, the home of Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill and Jackson Browne.

Glyn Johns, wizard engineer/producer for such as the Stones, the Who, Steve Miller, Traffic, etc. Al., produced the first Eagles album in London; that same Jackson Browne, newly successful but always an LA hero, was a friend; and the group recently embarked on some partial tours with Jethro Tull and Procol Harum. There was just no doubt about it; the Eagles were gonna be First Class.

Sure enough. The Eagles album is still rising, slowly but steadily, through the chart listings; the first single, “take it Easy,” written by Glenn and Jackson Browne, rose quickly and steadily into the exalted Top Ten. A hit single after a mere ten months as a group.

“We’re a synthesis of all the Sixties music that was involved with folk and country and rock & roll,” said Bernie Leadon, settling back on a Topanga Canyon hilltop with his second bottle of beer. “We’re just another synthesis. The LA music scene is a progression through the same people, the same family. Don and Gene Clark and Randy could be a group and it would be a combination people would like to hear, or I could get back with Doug Dillard and Roger McGuinn and somebody else and that would conceivably work. Who ends up in a group with who depends more on circumstance than anything else. It’s like when you leave a group you decide to cast yourself back in the tank. When I left the Burrito Brothers I felt I was a branch that had dropped off the tree to the ground until I could graft on to another one.” He polished off that eloquent analogy with another swig.

None of the Eagles seemed comfortable with the idea that they were already considered a success. They’re cautious about that. “People have not decided to like us yet,” said Glenn. He was perched on a big chair in David Geffen’s office, frowning nervously as someone talked about the inevitability of that success.

“We would not be disappointed it the record wasn’t a success,” Glenn added. “The disappointment comes if the product…we liked the album, it captures…it’s a statement of our backgrounds. The Eagles were conceived as a song-oriented band. It doesn’t matter how good we can play if we address a piece of material that’s inferior…” Glenn’s sentences tend to start as minor explosions that peter out midway.

If the album is a statement of their backgrounds, it’s a slightly inadequate one. It’s a nice album, but low-key, with a trace of country, a hint of bluegrass, a touch of folk and some fairly gutless rock. As a musical introduction, it promises more than it proffers; these four young musicians have not quite proved they’re worth all the fuss, despite their undeniably impressive background credits.

Glenn was born in Detroit, where he started playing in rock & roll copy bands and wasn’t inspired to write songs until Bob Seger let him visit recording sessions and encouraged him to try writing. Four and a half years ago Glenn moved to California: “I came out here chasing my girlfriend from Detroit and John David Souther was going out with my girlfriend’s sister and I met him my first day in California. We decided that day to drop out of rock and roll bands for a while.” They did, too; for three years they were Longbranch/Pennywhistle, acoustic country/folk/rock with one album on a now defunct label, Amos. “John David taught me how to sing and play country.” Glenn spoke of John David, a fellow Asylum artist, with awe and love.

They met Jackson Browne at a benefit concert for ht fee Clinic, Glenn continued. “He walked up to me and John David with an acoustic guitar and started singing “Jamaica Say You Will; and me and John David started singing with him. I’d heard of him but I’d never met him before.” Two months later the three of them shared two slum apartments in Echo Park.

All did not go smoothly for John David and Glenn and Amos Records. “It was so frustrating I don’t even like to talk about it,” Glenn said glumly. They waited out their contract, never did make a second album, and started playing separately. Enter Linda Ronstadt, who hired Glenn as a backup musician. At one point in their pre-Eagle careers, Linda Ronstadt hired all four of them.

Randy Meisner, bassist, has been a rock and roller since he was 13; at 26, he’s the oldest Eagles. Born and raised in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where he used to win 4-H blue ribbons for raising sheep, Randy migrated to Denver in the early Sixties as part of a group called the Poor. The Poor were sort of folk/rock; they came to California and played the Whisky a few times, and that’s where Randy met the Buffalo Springfield. Not much later the Springfield broke up; Richie Furay and Jim Messina and Randy formed Poco. Randy stayed a year before he quit. “I was dissatisfied with the way our sound was coming out on record.” Randy joined Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band but “I was getting nowhere, just backing someone up,” so he went Somewhere—back to Nebraska where he worked for John Deere tractors and played rock and roll at night. “I decided that was stupid and moved to LA again. It was good to do that, though; I’d never had a job, I was in music all my life.” Still, Randy’s relationship with Los Angeles is tenuous. He says he’s “here to stay…till I can get whatever I can get, enough money to get out. I want clean air.” At that point Glenn leaned forward and confided with a sly grin, “I love LA. I thrive on the nervous energy. I don’t have visions of myself going to the country.”

Bernie was born in Minneapolis and moved to San Diego in 1957 where he started playing bluegrass, serious bluegrass, and met Clarence White, Larry Murray and Chris Hillman, all of them proficient bluegrass pickers who achieved fame in non-bluegrass music: Hillman with the original Byrds, White with the later Byrds, and Murray with a folk-rock group called Hearts and Flowers.

Hearts and Flowers lasted nine months, but Bernie met Doug Dillard, “always one of my idols. We played music all day and all night for six months,” and then Gene Clark started coming around, songs were written, contracts signed with A&M. That was the Dillard and Clark Expedition; their first album sold little but is still considered one of the best albums released that year, 1968.

Dillard and Clark started to fall apart almost immediately. Michael Clarke, former Byrds drummer, was called back from Hawaii by Gene, but Michael was subsequently lured away by the Burrito Brothers. Donna Washburn was added, but since Donna sang most of Bernie’s parts, Bernie got bored and “the scene got too spaced out.” He left the group to play behind Linda Ronstadt for a while until Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons offered him a job with the Burrito Brothers. He stuck with them through two albums and numerous changes. Gram Parsons left, Rick Roberts joined, Sneeky Pete left, Al Perkins joined. Bernie Leadon left. Almost immediately he fell in with Glenn and Don and Randy, who had already begun sharing songs and rehearsing. “I tried it and I liked it,” Bernie recalls.

Don Henley, the drummer, grew up in Linden, Texas, not far from Louisiana and Arkansas. Somewhere in 1962 Don decided he wasn’t cut out to play football, but a friend rescued him from total obscurity by asking Don to play drums in a dixieland jazz band. They outgrew that when Beatle records started showing up in Texas. “We made some small-time records on small-time labels, like Crab Records, and we went through various small-time managers.” One day in Shreveport in 1965, Don saw the Byrds—but he also saw the Dillards. “They really knocked me off my seat, I’d never heard anything like it.” It was his first exposure to bluegrass; it kept Don busy hunting for Dillard records in the backlands of Texas—with little success.

Don ended up with four years of college and no degree, but meanwhile his friend and group mate Jerry had met Kenny Rogers of First Edition fame in Dallas. Rogers knew how hard it was to get a break in Texas; he said he’d try to help. They kept in touch by phone the next year, but in the meantime the group returned to Linden and started rehearsing original material—”We’d finally come to the realization that copying wasn’t going to get it”—in an old abandoned church. When they weren’t rehearsing they rode their dirt bikes and played records, like the first Dillard and Clark album. “That’s how I found out who Bernie was. I knew it was the scene I would like to be involved with.”

Kenny Rogers finally sent for the group; they arrived in Los Angeles and made a single for Amos Records. “It bombed,” Don remembered succinctly. The group, named Shiloh at this point, returned to Texas where Jerry was killed when his motorcycle was smashed by a car. Everyone went into shock, but they decided to pick up the pieces and continue the band. They found Jim Norman for keyboards and added Al Perkins, whiz steel player (now with Manassas, formerly a Burrito). They rehearsed for two months and then moved to California where they made an album—for that same unbeloved label, Amos. “It bombed, too,” Don said with wry sadness. “It was a total complete flop. We sat around broke and bummed out. I was hanging out at the Troubadour getting drunk a lot and getting ready to go back to Texas to call it quits. Glenn was bummed out too, so we sat around and talked about our problems with Amos Records and everything else.”

This sad, sodden episode as soon lightened by Linda Ronstadt (notice how that name keeps popping up in this saga). First Glenn, then Don, joined her backup group, and they finagled Randy to fill in on bass one night. Don remembered that. “Glenn kept telling me about his manager, David Geffen. I didn’t even know who Geffen was, but I decided I would stick my neck out to play with Glenn.” That meant Don had to get up the nerve to tell the rest of Shiloh that he, the leader, was abandoning them. “It was like a divorce. I almost had a nervous breakdown.” One night at Disneyland Don, Glenn and Randy were backing Linda when Bernie appeared, all drunk and happy, and picked along.

Then there were four.

They rehearsed two weeks and went to see David Geffen. Bernie plopped down and said, “here we are, do you want us or don’t you?” Geffen said, “Yeah.” “But first he gave us a lecture about staying together at least a year,” said Bernie.

Geffen sent them to Aspen, Colorado, to a bar called the Gallery where they played four sets a night for four weeks. Geffen also sent them to England to make their album because Geffen thought Glyn Johns would be the perfect producer-engineer. Only one song, “Nightingale,” was recorded in Los Angeles, because their London attempts on that song fell short. And now, in the late summer, they have a full four months with nothing scheduled except rehearsing for the next album (they promise a “heavier” one, to be started in December or January, writing songs and making themselves comfortable.

At first, as a joke, they had called themselves Teen King and the Emergencies, but that just wouldn’t do. Bernie, who can talk circles around the other three, explained the group’s real and present name with sincerity bordering on passion (but cool, always cool): We were all reading books about the Hopis, and in the Hopi mythology the eagle is the most sacred animal with the most spiritual meaning. The eagle flies closest to the sun and will carry our message to the father, it symbolizes all highest spirituality and morals,” he gestured with an emphatic beer bottle, “high morals” The best that man can be. I think it’s a beautiful symbol. I would hope that the music would soar that high.” He paused a moment. “Glenn likes the name Eagles for different reasons,” he said as if he really disliked mentioning it but thought he should be fair. “Glenn likes the name because it wounds like a teenage gang.”

Judith Simms

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