January was a bad month for music lovers. The world lost David Bowie, and Glenn Frey, guitarist, and songwriter extraordinaire. Yes, that’s correct, Mr Frey was, in my not so humble opinion, a great songwriter. There, I’ve said it, and what’s more I’m not ashamed to declare my love for Frey’s band, the Eagles, an incredibly popular, but much maligned outfit — maligned mostly by my gang of post-punk pals, and one Gersh Kuntzman. Kuntzman wrote, ‘No disrespect to Glenn Frey — whose death this week is a cause for genuine mourning — but the Eagles were, quite simply, the worst rock and roll band.’ He goes on to vilify the band further by characterising them as soulless and generic. Indeed, I’ve often heard the Eagles described in these terms. The band apparently represent the worst excesses of 70s corporate culture in popular music by purveying ‘easy listening,’ ‘commercial’ music with the sole aim of making millions of bucks. In short, these corporate cowboys are not artists, but businessmen. It follows, then, that their music is a mere commodity, devoid of authentic feeling, and intellectual substance. The Eagles, for many, are the raison d’etre for punk — a politically oppositional genre, supposedly uncontaminated by the ugly commercial considerations of capitalist record companies.
Let’s be perfectly clear. I’m a huge Bowie fan, and I can’t begin to express how shattered and impoverished I feel by his death (I’ll elaborate on this in another post). Now, while I don’t think Frey was in the same league as Bowie in terms of cultural impact, stylistic flair or musical innovation, I do think the man could craft a melody like few others, and I do respect his success, and ability to connect with a vast audience. Obviously, I didn’t know Glenn Frey, but he did touch my life in a number of important ways (which I will go on to enumerate at a later point). If you don’t like the Eagles, that’s fine by me, but, please, think carefully about what you’re buying into when you start to spout this ‘corporate rock’ bollocks. The ‘hipper-than-thou’ attitude articulated by Kuntzman, and his ilk sticks in my craw because it’s so fucking hypocritical. All popular music is commercial. That is, it’s made and distributed for profit, and whatever its other merits may be, no album financed by a big, badass record company floats above the ugly capitalist market place. Now, it is possible, and perfectly valid, to compare and contrast Bowie and Frey in musicological terms, but I suspect the Kuntzman camp hate Frey’s music because it doesn’t resonate with their self-image as ‘right-on’ oppositional pop connoisseurs. Popular music is never just about music. In my view, it’s mainly about identity formation, a way of making you feel like you belong to some exclusive club. We all invest in fantasies about who we are and who we would like to be through our patterns of consumption. In short, we are what we consume, and in the affluent Western world people tend to fetishize their purchases in order to consolidate a sense of self. We divide into tribes based on various factors, but, for the middle class, our taste is music, film, television, food and various other commodities define our identities, especially when we are young. Sure, in terms of my personal identity, I’d rather invest in the Bowie fantasy — I’d like to see myself as a shape-shifting, radical Starman; an alien that doesn’t respect conventional generic and gender boundaries. This fantasy is far more appealing that the Eagles fantasy, at least for me. I’m sure there are many people out there, that saw Frey as a kind of ego-ideal, but I digress. If the truth be known, I’m not talented; certainly not gifted as Glenn Frey, and light-years away from David Bowie’s genius. I am, like so many other people, very fucking ordinary, which is why I have so much respect for those artists that can help transcend the banal, dull world of my everyday life. Bowie and Frey, each in their own ways, contributed to giving me momentary respite from the various social and political forces that constrain me, yet my love for their music is not purely about identity, fantasy or flight from ‘reality, ’for music also acts as a repository of memory par excellence.
Music often takes me back in time, and enables me to revive long lost reveries. Frey and his confreres transport me back to my long lost teenage world in suburban Perth, a world characterized by fiercely hot summer days spent lolling around the Swan river, and balmy nights spent in front of the stereo listening to a wide array of tunes. The Eagles, though, were, for me, the sound of summer, and their melodies will eternally float on the dope smoke I usually exhaled while listening to the band compete with the sound of chirping crickets. If you listen carefully, there is something inherently spooky, and mysterious about Hotel California, something that resonated with the inhabitants of a city on the other side of the world from where the music originated (Hotel California was on high rotation on Perth radio in the latter part of the 1970s). The Eagles also sang, like so many others, about longing, loneliness and loss — listen to Desperado or ‘The Best of my Love,’ and, for better or worse, this is the music that attached itself to my earliest experiences of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and this is why I take offence at Mr Kuntzman’s lazy critique. That greatest hits album still manages to lift my spirits and make me smile, so fuck you, Kuntzman.
Rock and roll may occasionally shake the political order of things in ways that are usually very difficult to quantify, but let’s not kid ourselves that badass rock and roll actually changes very much. For all its posturing, preening, ranting and raving, rock, in my view, remains locked in the realm of fantasy. At best, its part of a complex web of cultural artifacts that allows us to vicariously experience danger and participate in rebellion while distracting us from many of the material forces that actually make our lives a living hell. So, friends, pass the spliff and play the music fucking loud! RIP Glenn and RIP David. I loved you both.