But pluck away the molting feathers of the premier American rock band of the 1970s, and their merits start to emerge. In fact, if you scratch beneath the surface of many of us self-anointed hipsters, you just might find buried deep in the closet, in the dark recesses where we furtively stash the truly guilty pleasures of our past, there, in an old shoebox, you might uncover a long-buried love for the Eagles.
More than 30 years ago, there was reason enough for it. Can you imagine the exhilaration of hearing their debut single, "Take It Easy," on Top 40 radio in 1972? It was as much a soaring breeze of freshness as first hearing the Everly Brothers in a transistor radio earphone late at night in 1959 or "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds on pop radio in 1965. "Take It Easy" was, like the latter, a vibrant and musically beautiful reassertion of a distinctly American roots musical ethos into the pop music landscape.
The Eagles were the great white hope of what was that era's alternative country. The difference between then and now is that they actually opened the way for a string of hits by themselves and kindred spirits like Jackson Browne (who co-wrote "Take It Easy") and Linda Ronstadt (whom the group once backed). California country-rock represented the pop musical pendulum swinging back from the wild LSD buzz of psychedelia to the mellower magic-mushroom sound of the American dream, Golden State-style. They were the harmonies of the Beach Boys meeting the Bakersfield twang of Buck Owens within the ambience of a John Ford or Sam Peckinpah western.
The Eagles were also the singing B-movie cowboys of the 1930s and '40s, updated for the fear-and-loathing era with snorts of blow and shots of tequila. The Eagles cultivated a bad-boy street-gang pose that was likely as much of an artifice as today's de rigueur alt-country tats, goatees and piercings, but it was even more commercially effective. They were the guys who bought in to the California dream and headed there from Texas (Henley) and Michigan (Glenn Frey) to enjoy the golden Chardonnay of its balmy weather, cute beach bunnies and laid-back take on life in the fast lane.
At first blush, the entire Eagles ethos was as seductive as the prospect of a date with the woman of your dreams, one where you just knew you were gonna get buzzed and laid. But by their fifth album, the group didn't just move into the Hotel California. They bought the whole damn place, and then dismantled all the mirrors from every bathroom wall and laid them down to snort up from their shiny surfaces long lines of the glittering Peruvian flake of their own hype. The Eagles became a symbol for the worst excesses of the era, and it showed in their music, even if the Hotel California album is their masterwork.
It also remains firmly lodged in the list of the top ten best-selling albums of all time, on which the band's Greatest Hits album is No. 1, at nearly 30 million units moved handily outpacing all works by Michael Jackson and the Beatles. But to really understand the pleasures of the Eagles, one must dig beneath the hits.
The Eagles, their debut LP, still plays like a warm desert breeze given off by a potent fusion of rock meeting country, and is rich with a musical variety that the band later eschewed. And tracks like Frey's libidinal "Chug All Night" and their poignant take on Browne's "Nightingale" are still as compelling as the better-known hits such as "Take It Easy," "Witchy Woman" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling."
Disc two, Desperado, is one of the rare concept albums that didn't crumble under the weight of its pretensions. In fact, even if you never want to hear "Tequila Sunrise" again, because of the lounge-lizard baggage that became attached to the number, it still sounds piquant within the record's running order.
With On the Border, a compelling R&B backbeat found in the title track -- no doubt an assertion of Frey's Detroit roots -- began to emerge. In among the overexposed hits one can unearth such treasures as a deliciously touching take on Tom Waits's "Ol '55," and the soul-stirring sensitivity of such later Henley solo hits as "The End of the Innocence" and "The Last Worthless Evening" within the strains of "You Never Cry Like a Lover."
By the time of One of These Nights in 1975, the Eagles were established superstars, and with the addition of Joe Walsh on Hotel California in 1976, the group became a fearsome guitar army, although the departure of multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon robbed the band of a country music grounding that had helped counterbalance its hot-rod rocking. Still, they ruled the American rock roost like no other act before or since from Hotel California through The Long Run in 1980.
After the group officially knocked it on the head in 1982, the members' internal tensions had inspired the pledge that they would reunite only "when hell freezes over." But as rock idols are almost always cast from fragile clay, hockey season in Hades was announced in 1994. There followed some two years of touring in which they hoovered up millions from the mega-inflation of ticket prices they spawned and continue to feed on today.
Today's top ticket tariff for the Eagles makes a pair almost as pricey as the monthly payment on a luxury car. And even though the Eagles reside in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame pantheon alongside the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, they have neither a John Lennon nor a Keith Richards to help them maintain at least a few shreds of rock cred. The Eagles might have been able to maintain integrity in the same fashion as has Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers -- not dissimilar bands, when you think about it -- but they squandered that coin through the sins of greed, gluttony and hubris.
Henley could have been a contender for such stature, as his best solo work exceeds anything by his former band. He managed to pull off musical adventurousness and innovation ("The Boys of Summer" and "All She Wants to Do Is Dance"), sharp social commentary ("Dirty Laundry" and "Johnny Can't Read") and the perfect yin-yang balance of romance and heartbreak in his ballads. But as a public figure and social activist, he bears a Sting-like "Don knows better than you do" vibe akin to the perception (misperception?) of arrogance that may well have cost Al Gore the presidency.
But for better or worse, the Eagles changed the face of rock and roll and built for themselves an undeniable iconography, even if it is tattered, chipped and stained by their own grubby hands. They also -- once again, unlike alt-country -- made their mark on mainstream country music. (And one thing we can't blame on the Eagles is how Nashville in its typical fashion took their influence and transformed it into a cheap and tacky roadside tourist attraction.)
And the Eagles still can not only pack stadiums but also fill the air in them with undeniably muscular and propulsive rocking and shimmering and gorgeous harmonic sweetness -- as ever, no small feat. But after they depart, it's not hard to see their continuing reunion tours as bank jobs by a bunch of rich dudes who really don't need the hard-earned money of their ever-loyal fans. The Eagles may soar on dirty wings, but the fact that they did and still sometimes can take rock into the stratosphere is reason enough to gaze skyward in awe.