Wednesday, May 28, 2008

This Might Heaven, This Might Be Hell

Last couple of years, I have gotten into reading bio- and autobiographies of musical groups from the 60' and 70's: The Beatles, together and separately; Clapton; the Band; Dylan; Janis Joplin; Warren Zevon. And there have been some associated books about various musical scenes -- the bands who lived in SoCal's Topanga Canyon; the folkies in Greenwich Village; blues; a couple by groupies or ex-wives, all like that.

The latest is by Don Felder (with Wendy Holden, who undoubtedly wrote most, if not all, of it) -- Heaven and Hell: My life in the Eagles (1974-2001).

Felder, aka "Fingers," is a Florida boy invited into the Eagles after they'd done a few albums, and notable as the guy who came up with the music for what is the most-played Eagle song, Hotel California.

Felder's early years were interesting -- where he grew up, dirt-poor in Gainsville, Florida; the kids he hung out with -- Steve Stills was one. He taught guitar lessons at a local store, and one of his students was Tom Petty. Garage bands, with Bernie Leadon. Duane Allman taught him how to play slide guitar.

His father didn't like his long hair and wanted him to get a real job ...

In the Eagles, players came and went, but there were essentially seven who mattered over the years: Bernie Leadon, Joe Walsh, Don Henley, Tim Schmit, Don Felder, Glenn Frey, and Randy Meisner. At their peak, the Eagles were the number one selling group out there, and one of their greatest hits albums sold 26 million copies, blowing right past Michael Jackson's Thriller. They were rich, famous, and most people didn't recognize them on the street, so they weren't mobbed with fans every time they took a walk.

Felder's autobiography is, like most, self-serving in places. When the talk turns to sex-drugs-rock-n-roll, he admits to finally giving in to temptation, after manfully resisting it for a long, long time -- and that it was more to be one of the boys than anything. This has a "Yes, but I didn't inhale." quality to it that isn't convincing. Felder was married, with a wife who spent a lot of time home pregnant and raising his (eventually-four) kids by herself. His offhand, you'd-have-had-to-have-been-a-saint to resist all the women who kept throwing themselves at him might be true, but his reluctance and guilt didn't seem to slow him down. He was sorry he smoked all that weed, drank all that booze, snorted all that coke and balled all those girls -- but not so sorry he stopped. And not much of this is in the way of specifics, but a generalized, sex-drugs-rock'n'roll, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?

Interesting that the Eagles sued to keep the book from being published. It came out in the U.K. first, then eventually here. Not that much real dirt, save how Felder pretty much thinks Frey and Henley are dicks.

There are some sour grapes. There was so much money, and everybody wanted more of it. A kind of whining tone arises now and then -- yes, by his account, Felder was shafted. He started out an equal, but the subsequent deals whittled him down, and in the end, he was fired, mainly he figured, for pissing off the Gods by asking for his fair share. Still, he kept signing the papers and going along, as Frey and Henley became Orwellian: (All animals are equal in the barnyard; only, some are more equal than others.) At some point, the lesser Eagles became Frey and Henley's back-up band, and they resented it.

In the real world, it's hard to feel sorry for somebody raking in millions and living at the acme of the food chain when he pisses and moans about how hard his life is. Hey, tell it to the homeless guy panhandling down down on First Street ...

Felder was touring and gone most of his kids' early lives, on the road for months at a time, and when his wife developed a life past being essentially a single-mom and started her own business, he resented it. This, he says, eventually led to the break-up of their marriage.

What was sauce for the goose was totally unacceptable for the gander.

He mentions it, but tends to gloss over his participation in the weed, coke, and downers, and carloads of groupies in the infamous 3E -- third encore -- parties. Yeah, he was there and all, but it was more the other guys, hey? And hey, they were rock stars, so it was okay.

Much of the Eagles' arc is like any episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Talented kids get together, write a bunch of songs, find a groove that calls to audiences, and hit it big.
Almost from the moment they started, they started breaking apart, and what began as we-are-all-equal, and all-for-one-one-for-all devolved quickly into all-for-me-none-for-you. Egos inflated to the size of the Hindenburg, and eventually burst into into flames that burned it all up.

All of the rumors about how they didn't get along were, according to Felder's book, true. Efforts by the band to downplay this continue to this day -- Oh, we're family, and families don't always run perfectly smooth, you know ... -- but as Felder has it, it was ever gut-wrenching and about-to-implode the whole time, always on the razor's edge, and that by the end, nobody liked anybody. They would, as the Beatles did, go into the studio at different times to lay down their tracks, and never have to see each other.

Last year, 60 Minutes did a story on the Eagles, with the latest lineup -- no Felder, and after this book, I'd be surprised if that would ever happen again. There's an album, Long Road Out of Eden. They all say how they get along just fine, but if you watch the body language when they are together? Brrr ...

The reunion tour in the 90's was a cash cow the size of Jupiter, so the boys managed to grit their teeth and soldier on. Felder's revelation that he and the other lesser members (they did call Frey and Henley "the Gods,") kept themselves going by telling each other to tough it out and think of the money.

I had a chance to see Simon and Garfunkel on their reunion tour, and they had a guest appearance by the Everly Brothers, another duo who had broken up less than happily. You could tell there was no love between either pair. Yes, Paul and Artie were pros and they sold the music to an audience nostalgic for they days when they liked each other, but it showed that they were hitting their marks and singing their songs for a payday neither could match alone. It makes a difference when the audience can see that. The music might sound almost the same, but the heart and soul aren't there, and it makes you sad.

The Eagles had a long string of hits, a unique sound, and their a cappella version of Seven Bridges Road (written by folksinger Steve Young, here's a nice cover) was, when they were at their best, a thing of harmonic beauty. But behind the fake smiles and pretense, if Felder can be believed, it was only in rare moments anything but ugly ...

Another example of art sometimes being greater than the artists who produce it. An interesting read if you are into rock bios.

1 comment:

steve-vh said...

Seems like a ton of Rock bios coming out.
Now all the metal gods of the 80's have bios.
Slash's just came out, Tommy Lee, Nikki Sixx (Strange Scary one, that) and more.