Watching the History of The Eagles DVD, especially the vintage footage of Don Henley Glenn Frey Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt in their formative years, the question arises why, apart from the plethora of repackagings and a cryptically-conceived CD box, there is no other thoroughly comprehensive archive piece on what is one of the most commercially successfully and longstanding bands in the history of rock.
Particularly in the accounts of the early scuffling stages of their individual career, after seeing reflections offered in latter-day interviews woven throughout the film, the answer may be too obvious: until this project, the group struggled too hard, violently perhaps, to keep functioning real time. They couldn’t find breathing room to look back as they worked and experience too much bitterness to want to reflect when they didn’t. Not to mention that, if you didn’t know it already through interviews during their heyday), the group was and remains markedly ambivalent about their success—viciously so.
Accordingly, as candid as the principals seem to be, there’s a distinctly disingenuous air that permeates the story of The Eagles, particularly around about the time Hotel California elevated them to a heretofore-unparalleled level of mainstream success. While the tale of fractured bonds may seem as clichéd as any stories of friction with bands, there comes the suspicion that gestures of camaraderie like crew softball games are camouflaged compensation for deliberate acts of personal and artistic sabotage within the ranks.
Don Felder’s own book Heaven and Hell stand as a frank account of the latter dynamic, no more or less self-serving than this DVD, especially at those moments that guitarist Joe Walsh speaks of business meetings between Henley Frey and Manager Irving Azoff to which Walsh and other band members were not invited. “I knew it was good for The Eagles” opines the founder of The James Gang, as abject an abdication of personal responsibility as a young mustachioed Frey as he chalks up his (and by extension) the group’s self indulgence in drugs, sex and attendant debauchery to the times in which the activity occurred.
Yet within this cast of heroes, villains, angels and devils—all of which roles seem to commingle—there are those characters within History of the Eagles that come out unscathed. Jackson Browne is as much of a hero in his role as unconscious song writing mentor as Linda Ronstadt is a heroine for allowing the individuals to coalesce as a band as her accompanists, then leave en masse. Successor to British studiomeister Glyn Johns as overseer of Eagles recordings after two albums plus, engineer/producer Bill Sczymczyk discerns the innate friction as well as the levity within the group’s interactions more clearly than anyone—and has the informal recordings to prove it; what a motherlode for the aforementioned audio archive piece when and if that appears (if in fact it already exists in some form as suggesting by credits for songs that do not appear on the video soundtrack of this DVD set).
And as the story unfolds beyond the group’s disbanding in 1980 leading through solo careers and the reunion of 1994 (predicated to a great degree on Walsh’s sobriety), bassist Timothy Schmit emerges as a liaison between potential factions within the ranks, most crucially perhaps by supplying songs the other four could rally around without hidden rancor or agenda. That tunes such as “Love Will Keep Us Alive” became hits reaffirmed the golden touch of The Eagles and, in turn, Frey’s intrinsically smug attitude as well as Henley’s penchant for melodrama: according to the Texas native, the MTV show that brought the band back to the public eye was not fraught with stage fright but terror.
Recounting of the continuing adventures of the Eagles as they meet the latent demand for more shows and new recordings includes the incorporation of Steuart Smith as guitarist, songwriter and production assistant on Long Road Out of Eden. Still, given the group’s attention to detail in the studio, more info for the conception of the stage show that includes additional musicians would be insightful from a craftsmanlike point of view. It’d be as interesting in its own way as the rather short shrift given the departure of Felder—who’s transparently self-serving himself in his apparent exit from his filmed interview—as well as the furor that arose over the ticket prices levied at the outset of the reunion that set new dollar levels for concerts one comment from self-admitted cutthroat manager Irving Azoff would suffice.
But there’s arguably much unsaid in History of the Eagles as it proceeds to the sort of abrupt stuttering halt of many similar rockumentaries. Three-disc packages of the title include a full concert from 1977 that reaffirms the trenchant observation about their oh-so-seductive vocal harmonies as the elemental component of the group’s sound, not to mention an undeniably consummate professionalism in writing arranging and performing.
So if this Hotel California tour show (running approximately an hour) startles as the group displays those virtues in ultra-smooth sonority, the response to every song is equally remarkable and just as easily understandable: virtually the entire setlist is hits. Quite possibly from the last period for which music would represent an end itself, the concert bridges a time between the Eagles hunger for accomplishment and the satiation of their appetite for the fruits of those accomplishments, thereby unconsciously offering a rather transparent statement about the fine line between historical accuracy and mythmaking represented by History of the Eagles: The Story of An American Band.