It felt like a good Wednesday to rejuvenate this series, as rock fans have had plenty of cause for sadness of late. I talked about David Bowie in a post a week ago; just a few days back, Glenn Frey passed away as well. It’s ironic that the two will be linked now, because, for the most part, they occupied separate hemispheres of the rock universe: Bowie as the critically-acclaimed iconoclast who became popular almost in spite of his left-of-center artistic impulses, Frey the workmanlike striver who suffered the slings and arrows of the rock intelligentsia on his way to the top of the rock world with the band he founded.
The animosity that many rock critics had for the Eagles is well-known. I put a lot of that down to timing; had the group, with their impeccably-played and sung blend of country, rock, and soul come along in a different era, they likely would have been celebrated by the press as much as they were revered by their fans. Instead they became the symbol for corporate rock at a time when more fashionable trends like punk railed against it.
I’m not sure how anyone could complain about the Eagles greatest hits now unless to say they’re overplayed, which is why you should seek out equally worthy, if not as omnipresent, tracks like “The Last Resort”, “My Man”, “Those Shoes”, and “Hollywood Waltz”, just to name a few. And albums like On The Border, The Long Run and, especially, Hotel California, are enjoyable as a whole even when you take out the singles. From what I’ve read, Frey and Don Henley were devoted to being huge hitmakers, studying what worked and what didn’t and meticulously crafting their songs toward maximum success. Somehow they get slagged off for doing that, when others in the rock pantheon, Lennon and McCartney for one shining example, were praised for their tireless ambition.
It’s hard to know what song to attribute to whom with the Eagles, as they’ve been more cagey than most in terms of revealing the impetus for their hits, but it’s safe to say that Frey’s had a major hand in writing some rock evergreens, he and Henley nailing the California ethos despite the fact that they were from Detroit and Texas, respectively. And his singing, understated and soulful, doesn’t get enough credit either. Plus he was in on the Miami Vice fad ahead of many of his rocker buddies, for which he’ll have a soft spot in my heart. Check his lovely lead vocal out on the late-period Eagles song “The Girl From Yesterday” below.
Glenn Frey found a place to make his stand in the music world, and his fans are infinitely thankful he did.
My initial thought upon hearing of David Bowie’s death was “How did he do that?” As in, how, in this day and age of intense media scrutiny and social media ubiquity did he manage to keep the secret of his illness for eighteen months so that he could shuffle off with his dignity intact?
Then again, “How did he do that?” is a question that I, and clearly many others based on the outpouring of emotion unleashed all over the media and internet today, asked many times throughout his career. How did he manage to make what were essentially singer-songwriter albums in the early 70’s sound so unusual and otherworldly? How, when other artists of his generation were tripping over the disco era at the end of the decade and releasing music that today sounds sadly dated, did he record three albums which would seem forward-looking even if they were released tomorrow? How, in the early 80’s as so many of his classic rock brethren stumbled through the MTV airwaves like clumsy dinosaurs, did he dance away to number one with such effortless grace?
I’ve always thought that Bowie’s career decline from the mid-80’s on came because the music scene had become too fragmented; how can you “push their backs against the grain”, as he stated in one of the songs from his recently-released swan song Blackstar, if the grain just keeps giving way and revealing infinite wastelands behind it? His occasional releases from that point on had their moments, but the standard set by his incredible run of about fifteen years of brilliance just wouldn’t capitulate and cease towering so that the newer music could get a fair shake.
Like so many of my other favorite artists did, albeit with less whiplash gusto and fearlessness, Bowie refused to settle into any kind of rut for too long, pushing his audiences into new musical territories even if they weren’t ready to make the move. That Blackstar, with its uncompromising lyrics and restless soundscapes, continued that trend makes it a fitting farewell.
Like many of you, I will be pulling out the old albums, digging up forgotten tracks on YouTube and Spotify (there’s a link to “Absolute Beginners” below as an example), and even finding clips of some of his fun late-period acting appearances (as the ultimate fashion arbiter in Zoolander, taking the piss out of Ricky Gervais in Extras, exuding irresistible strangeness as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige.) There will be a lot of memorial articles that will concentrate heavily on the different personas and identities that he inhabited throughout his career; to me, these are fun ephemera attached to a music catalog that’s second to none.
Ultimately David Bowie was too elusive for tributes and such; the guy put a lot of effort into obscuring his true self, and he won that game by a rout in the end. My groping words in this post only prove this point. Best to keep it simple, as his record company did in an e-mail they sent out to journalists this morning: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of David Bowie. It was an honor and a privilege to release his music to the world.” It’s an ongoing honor and privilege to hear it as well.