On my 11th birthday, I was given a VHS copy of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion special. I was already well-versed in the hits everyone knows, from “Hotel California” to “Life in the Fast Lane,” and “Take It Easy” was the first song I learned on my then brand-new guitar, but my father still took the time to explain to me why this moment was special. This reunion was never supposed to happen, as he made clear to me, but it did anyway, and my first memory of watching that special is hearing Glenn Frey say “For the record, we never broke up; we just took a 14-year vacation.”
After the obligatory opening number that is “Hotel California,” Frey addressed the audience and explained that, in their first week of attempting to write together, he and Don Henley wrote two songs, and the band was about to play one of them. Then “Tequila Sunrise” started, and I thought How on Earth can you write a song that good during your FIRST WEEK?
The partnership between Frey and Henley formed a powerful, often volatile, core that shaped and evolved the Eagles over the course of more than four decades, and though anyone who knows the band knows that’s true, Henley’s the one who always seemed to shine brighter. He was always there as a key songwriter, but Frey’s vocals never had the bite of Henley’s, or the wit of Joe Walsh’s, or the dazzle of Randy Meisner’s and, later, his replacement Timothy B. Schmit. It was remarkable to me to hear, during the History of the Eagles documentary, that Frey actually admits that he sung lead less because he knew that Henley was the stronger vocal presence. In a way, though, that admission is an encapsulation of what made him great.
It’s no accident, to me, that Frey’s signature song was called “Take It Easy.” There was a smoothness to everything he did in the Eagles — and even in his solo career through hits like “You Belong to the City” — that permeates every peaceful, easy syllable. He never hurried, never pushed, never seemed to over-stress a performance. Even heavier numbers like “Heartache Tonight” carried with them a sense of ease, a groove that you could just fall into. Henley may have been the brightest star in the Eagles, but Frey was its gentle soul.
In his final years, it was easy to dismiss Frey and his band as Dad Rock, or that other strain of the genre — the one revived by the early web-video crusaders of Yacht Rock. Even with Frey’s passing yesterday, I doubt those jokes will ever stop. But I also doubt that Frey ever cared. He was too cool, and too busy trying to lighten up while he still could, to notice.