Eagles: Desperado and the great Glenn Frey

When I was seventeen I just wanted to be an Eagle. I was gasping for air: stuck in a midlands boarding school, with its petty restrictions on hair (“Come on Scott, above the ears and off the collar!”); clothes (no jeans except on Sunday 2-5pm); and girls (same as jeans), not to mention a zeitgeist freighted with the constant power cuts of the three day week, seemingly weekly IRA bombings and the Bay City Rollers. It’s not surprising that there was a peculiar resonance in the lines “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight, with a billion stars all around…”

Those days were brought back to me with a jerk the other day when I heard of the untimely passing of Glenn Frey. For if The Eagles were the top band, then Glenn Frey was the top Eagle. It was his vocal that graced those lines from “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, and his confident, moustachioed face, hair lying just-so on the shoulders (like another hero, James Taylor on the cover of the first ever album I bought, ‘Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon’), that was to define my fashion sense through the sixth form (some hope!) and university (oh yes!), and probably to the present day, if I wasn’t so bald and greying…

But back to Glenn and Eagles. If the first album, ‘Eagles’, honed a winning formula with a delicious fusion of bluegrass (the banjo); country (the pedal-steel) and California (the glorious harmonies, by CS&N out of The Beach Boys), then the second, Desperado, perfected it with the addition of the missing ingredient so beloved of the seventies teenager: the concept. Think ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’; we were suckers for the concept album, and ‘Desperado’, with its romantic journey through the buccaneering outlaw days of the American West, ending in a blood-soaked gunfighting climax, seemed to be just that.

Eagles and their trusted songwriting hombres JD Souther and Jackson Browne hired a Hollywood studio and spent a day shooting scenes for the album cover, together with video of the gunfight which memorably appeared as a backdrop for their stage show. The great irony of ‘Desperado’, for this fan anyway, is that whilst its premise and its songs and that cover just reek of the Old West, the album was actually recorded in depressing old 1972 Britain. In February, for God’s sake! But I wasn’t to know that, or at least my hungry eyes glossed over “Recorded at Island Studios, London”, favouring instead the unforgettable grainy black and white pictures of the band trussed up and playing dead for the camera, in a depiction of the grisly end of the Doolin Dalton gang celebrated in one of the album’s finest tracks.

Indeed, it is Doolin Daltons that supplied the creative spark at the heart of ‘Desperado’. The story goes that Frey and Bernie Leadon, the most bluegrass influenced member of the group, were fascinated by a book on the Wild West, telling the story of one of the most notorious gangs of outlaws founded by Bill Doolin and Bill Dalton. Their rise and fall is a metaphor on which the band hang Desperado’s songs: of course, the parallel between the gang and young guys from provincial small town America heading west to seek their fortunes, with prodigious helpings of “easy money, and faithless women”, was not lost on Don Henley (Linden, Texas), Frey (Royal Oak, Michigan) or indeed this fan, for whom the escapism was joyful.

The songs are an adolescent’s dream: collectively, as much about the trials of young love, proving yourself in a man’s world, the sheer loneliness of life on the range and wandering the streets looking for a purpose, as they are about breaking the rules and getting out of town, in other words the whole package of teenage angst, at least for me back then. “Take another shot of courage, wonder why the right words never come” from “Tequila Sunrise” melds perfectly with the lines from “Saturday Night”, “And she passes her time at another man’s side, And I pass the time with my pride”. (Just like I fancied I did most Saturday nights!)

So now that the macho vision that is Glenn Frey on that album cover has shown us for real that “Sooner or later, it’s a stone cold fact, Four men ride out and only three ride back”, those of us who revelled in ‘Desperado’ back in ’73 feel just a little bit closer to our own “showdown”.  Which is a pain in the ass. Still, we can always get ole Spotify to beam us back up into the world of Glenn and Don and Bernie and Randy when they and we were true Desperadoes, and just sing out those fantastic songs at the top of our lungs and go back to being fifteen all over again. Which I intend to do, frequently…

Drift on Cowboys,

Charles xx

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