Grieving For Glenn

How an Eagle’s death broke this Wagnerian’s heart.

A few days after the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I met a friend for tea in the Crypt Café on Trafalgar Square. He looked furtively around that vast cellar full of people coming from galleries or headed to theatres and whispered: “This Bowie business. What is wrong with people? Getting all bent out of shape about someone they had never met.” I nodded sagely. What was wrong with people? I muttered something about us living in an age of cheap sentimentality and we stirred our tea and changed the subject.

Two days later Glenn Frey of the Eagles died and I went into emotional free fall. Never in my life have I been so devastated by the death of someone I did not know. When the news of his death was announced I sat down and looked at old Eagle’s clips on Youtube and it broke my heart. A few bars of “New Kid in Town” or “Hotel California” and I’d be reduced to floods of tears. For an Eagle??

Yes, I’d loved the Eagles back in the 70s when I’d run off to California from the UK. But that was the past; I thought I’d moved on to higher things. Alec Baldwin recently said on BBC Radio 3 that somewhere in the mid-80s, contemporary music ceased to feed him and he turned to the great composers of the past. I had done the same and turned my attention to writing a novel about a Wagnerian singer. These days I attended Verdi operas at La Scala or queued for tickets at Covent Garden. I’d left the Eagles out on that “dark desert highway.” Or so I thought.

There is a famous photo of Glenn onstage back in the 70s. Wearing blue-jeans and a beige shirt open at the neck to reveal a tanned, hairy chest, he’s playing his guitar, the sunlight and the audience behind him. Snake-hipped, with hooded eyes, droopy moustache and shoulder-length hair he was the dangerous boyfriend you longed for but didn’t dare have. Looking back at him from an era where we shave every body part we can reach and a lot we can’t, he seems raw and wild and very raunchy.

The droopy moustache would later become the object of 70s jokes but not on Glenn. This is the beautiful young male animal in its prime — full of drive and sexual energy and wild romance. I saw that photo last week and raged, irrationaly and absurdly. How can he be cold and still? But, of course, Frey had not been that young man for decades any more than I had been the young woman who’d been in love with him from a safe distance. He probably didn’t think about being an Eagle when he got up in the morning any more than I’d thought of them.

A comment under one of the Eagles Youtube videos says: “Watching the old concert footage makes one just despise the concept of time”.

So, yes I was raging against time.

In earlier centuries, a cameo or a portrait was all we could keep of a dead loved one. Perhaps that made them fade into the mist that much more completely. Now we can watch them walk, talk, sing, dance and look young and beautiful. This must be quite confusing to our primitive psyches. Thanks to Youtube, I can keep clicking that mouse and move from that unbearably sexy young man on stage in the 70s to the comfortable golfer with a paunch that he became. I can survey a stranger’s whole life — that doesn’t seem fair somehow — or kind.

We tend to forget that before the internet age, we didn’t keep up with everyone and everything all the time. We couldn’t just stare at a screen and find anybody. When I left The Eagles for Verdi and Wagner back in the 80s, I lost track of them, assumed they were still out on that “desert highway” and that I could check back in with them any time I wanted. But they had got old and sick and now one of them has died.

When I looked at those Youtube clips, the past hit me like a tsunami. And my 20 year old-self washed in on that tidal wave of memory. I needed her to help me “despise the concept of time” a little less. After all everyone in that sunlit audience is old now. The future has seeped into that particular present and made it the past. One day a man decides not to wear a hat and then another man and soon we are looking at old films and saying, “Funny all men wore hats then.” We are doomed to live our lives perched on the edge of a well, watching our present fall endlessly into it.

But for a brief moment this past month, the Eagles and I were in our 20s again. I could reach out and hold them and hear them, young and overflowing with energy and confidence before they tumble away down that well forever.

When I ran off to California, the Eagles were there to narrate my experience. For this 20 year old girl from Twickenham, they had a sheen and a gleam — a promise of American adventure, health and invulnerability. Perfect teeth smiled out from behind those moustaches. Glenn Frey may have been from Detroit and Don Henley from Texas but when they introduced themselves on stage, they said they were the Eagles from California. And they carried that tang of California sun, sea and desert dust with them.

“I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight with a billion stars all around,” sang Glenn in “Peaceful, Easy, Feeling.” His voice was the most tender of the group. Drummer and co-founder Don Henley could break your heart with his husky, slightly raspy rendition of their exquisite “Desperado” but Glenn had a mellowness and gentleness in songs like “New Kid in Town”, “Lyin’ Eyes”and “Tequila Sunrise” that was at odds with that virile, foxy man on that sunlit stage.

The promise of sex was always there. Listen to Frey’s favourite Eagles track “One of these Nights”. Hear Don Henley’s intake of breath “One of these dreams, ooh, we’re gonna find one that really screams” .You don’t need to Google the countless stories of the band’s sexual adventures to know how utterly horny this “soft rock” really was. And yet so tender.

Tenderness and testosterone, romance and raunch, the mix made a 20 year-old girl ache with longing. But, behind the stories of drugs, booze and women, there was a shrewd, some would say ruthless, business-minded perfectionist.

“Write every day,” said Glenn. He made the Eagles do at least 30 takes of the opening of “Lying Eyes” just to get the word “City” right. He was a voracious reader and his love of narrative came through in his and Henley’s songs.

My favourite was “Desperado”. I think it grew bigger than its writers’ intentions. What starts as a song to a lonely cowboy character talks to us all with lines like “Freedom, well that’s just some people talking. Your prison is walking through this world all alone.” In the even lonelier world of the 21st century that song reaches out to us over the decades and ends hopefully but with some sage advice that both Henley and Frey took in their later years: “It may be raining but there’s a rainbow above you. You’d better let somebody love you before it’s too late.”

In his later years, Frey liked golf more than performing and planned the very occasional tour around the nearest golf links. Sunningdale Golf Club in the Midsommer Murders-esque English countryside flew their flag at half-mast for golfer Glenn after his death.

So many of us have said that his was the soundtrack to our youth. But his music made that youth bigger, more colourful, more romantic than it probably was in reality.

His music made me dance, made me absurdly happy and made me cry. It made me sing out loud for hours on American highways in my old Chevy Impala; it filled me with desire and made me believe that I could be young and free forever. But I couldn’t and he couldn’t. And that’s the unbearable truth of our passage on this earth.

In another comment on Youtube (and yes, I took to reading them all obsessively) the writer said how much she struggled with his being refered to as “the late Glenn Frey.”

I was having a similar struggle with all those RIP notices. Glenn Frey was not ready for resting — certainly not of the eternal kind. But I didn’t know him — couldn’t know of the health struggles, of the ongoing physical pain of rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. I want to hold him forever, young and handsome, lusty and wildly alive on that stage, guitar in hand, shirt-front open with the sunlight behind him.

For him the amazing and glorious race that his life has been was over. But I still wish it wasn’t. I want to know that he is still walking this earth somewhere like the rest of us. Like thousands of others, I had loved him from a distance. And it turns out, that my 20-year old self was still alive and had gone on loving him for all these years.

I am glad that his years of pain are over but I hate that he is gone.

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