It’s a small moment in a 117-minute film, but when that film is the cult classic “The Big Lebowski” (1998), no moment is small. Jeff Bridges, a.k.a. the Dude, gets in a cab after a rough night only to hear Glenn Frey’s voice drifting from the radio, singing as lead on the Eagles’ “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.”
Even for the Dude — perpetually high, perpetually abiding — it’s too much. This band has harshed whatever remained of his mellow.
“Jesus, man, could you change the channel?” the Dude says. “… I hate the f—ing Eagles, man.” The taxi’s driver’s response perhaps reflects the hidden desire of anyone who ever took a pro-Eagles position in an argument with an Eagles detractor: After a profane rant, he throws the Dude out of the car.
Now that Frey — who died Sunday at 67 of complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia, as The Washington Post’s Harrison Smith reported — is gone, we must recognize his many gifts. He helped build a band that lasted decades. He was a gifted songwriter. He had a great voice. He convincingly played a smuggler in a classic MTV video.
Yet, it would be remiss not to note that many people — among them rock critics, cognoscenti and everyday folks who felt they heard “Hotel California” one too many times — really loathed the Eagles. They hated the band’s sound — or, at least, the laid-back, breezy California lifestyle that they took that sound to represent. They hated the band’s politics — or, at least, the post-hippie, cynical lack of politics that they thought the band embodied. And they definitely hated the band’s openly corporate business model.
Robert Christgau, self-proclaimed “Dean of Rock Critics” and longtime Village Voice scribe, laid out the case against the Eagles in a landmark essay more than 40 years ago.
“The Eagles are the ultimate in California dreaming, a fantasy of fulfillment that has been made real only in the hip upper-middle-class suburbs of Marin County and the Los Angeles canyons,” Christgau wrote. “The Beach Boys sang about something similar a decade ago, but they also reminded us that happiness and material things are far from unconnected. The Eagles put that truth aside and pay only lip service to the struggle that real fulfillment involves.”
He added: “Do I hate music that has been giving me pleasure all weekend, made by four human beings I’ve never met? Yeah, I think so. Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love.”
Christgau wasn’t alone. Punks hated the Eagles. People who hated the 1970s hated the Eagles. People who hated bands that got rich — or hated the idea that musicians also had to worry about the bottom line — hated the Eagles. As anyone even passingly familiar with the band’s internal struggles knows, even the Eagles occasionally hated the Eagles. Four decades after Christgau’s hit piece, LA Weekly declared them the second-worst band of all time (behind Dave Matthews, if that tells you anything about the LA Weekly’s musical taste).
“Soporific Laurel Canyon coke rock whose chief existential lament seems to be ‘What toppings should I get on my burrito?'” the alt-weekly wrote. “The Eagles are the quintessential band for a decade whose favorite barbiturate was the Quaalude.”
Even the band Eagles of Death Metal — now known to the world after one of its crew members was killed in the tragic terrorist attacks on Paris in November — got its name by slighting the Eagles. Jesse Hughes, the band’s singer, said in 2009 the name came to him while he was “making fun of a dude” who was “rocking out” to a song that isn’t very hard-hitting: the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change.”
“He was rocking out really hard — like, disproportionately rocking out — to this … song that isn’t very rocking,” Hughes said. The man, unidentified by Hughes, defended his enthusiasm: “This is death metal,” he insisted. Hughes retort turned one of the most popular bands in history into a punchline: “This is like the f—king Eagles of Death Metal, dude.”
Of course, there’s no accounting for taste — what one person deems rocking, another deems milquetoast. But in “The Mansion on the Hill,” a lauded book about “the head-on collision of rock and commerce,” Fred Goodman turned the Eagles into a lamentable test case of what happens when money trumps art. Frey and companions, the author said, were more interested in lining their wallets than challenging the status quo.
“Success, along with a shared cynicism about the business, had given the Eagles a jaded attitude that was light-years from the spirit of artistic camaraderie that had marked the early days” of the band’s evolution, he wrote. Goodman also quoted Frey himself, who likened his art to an assembly-line product.
“We thought of the Eagles as the rock and roll Camaro, the best-designed car of the seventies and eighties,” Frey said. “And we always tried to improve the basic design. We realized that rock and roll is a war of attrition. The longer you survive, the more you become an institution.”
Though Goodman may have found Frey’s attitude symbolic of rock-and-roll’s decline, the Eagles became an institution. Snarky critics may have won a few battles, but Frey’s philosophy won the war. Just a few years ago, prominent Eagle haters were wondering whether they had been wrong all along. Though Chuck Klosterman still called the band “the most unpopular super-popular entity created by the state of California, not counting Ronald Reagan” in 2014, he said learning to not hate the Eagles was part of growing up.
After all, they were — they are —just a band.
“I did not hate them,” he wrote in “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villians (Real and Imagined).” “I didn’t love them, but I certainly didn’t view their subsistence as problematic or false or socially sinister. They were just an old rock band … I no longer possessed the capacity to hate rock bands.”
Even Jeff Bridges had to retreat when faced with Frey in the flesh.
“As far as the Eagles, I don’t hate the Eagles like the Dude hates them,” Bridges said in 2012. “I remember I ran into Glenn Frey, he gave me some s—. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but you know, my anus tightened a bit.”
Still, there is always another Eagles hater waiting in the wings.
“They represented everything that many people feel is wrong in rock music: egos as bloated as studio budgets, music influenced by drug intake more than emotional output, grown men playing cowboys,” Salon wrote in 2013. “… The Eagles’ legacy is selling a lot of records. All the reappraisals in the world won’t change that.”