The Meaning of Glenn Frey

I haven’t had time this week to write anything substantive about the latest celebrity death that’s hit me in the gut like a baseball bat, namely the passing on January 18th of Glenn Frey, who cofounded the seminal classic-rock band the Eagles.

I know, I know… The Dude hates the Eagles. And so do a lot of critics and music snobs and vinyl-loving hipsters. Whatever. A hell of a lot more people like them, based on their record sales and continuing presence on the airwaves after 40-odd years, and their music was a big part of my life’s soundtrack when I was growing up. Hell, it still is. So yeah, Frey’s death hurts. But it hurts in a different way than David Bowie’s did, at least for me. Whereas I mourned Bowie as the passing of a cultural institution, as well as a charming, multi-talented human being that I confess I didn’t respect nearly enough, the situation with Frey is more… metaphorical. Everything I’ve heard about Glenn Frey the man suggests I probably wouldn’t have liked him very much had I spent any time with him (unlike Bowie, who strikes me now in interview footage as very likable indeed). But Frey as a symbol is quite a different thing.

I think what I’m feeling about his death is very much what Marc Eliot is getting at in an article he contributed to CNN. (For the record, Eliot is the author of a book called To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles, which I read a few years ago and which is largely to blame for my jaundiced view of Frey and his bandmate Don Henley. Neither of them came off very well in that telling of the band’s tumultuous history.) Eliot is addressing an older audience than myself, more the late-stage Baby Boomers than we Gen-Xers, but given the ubiquity of Eagles music throughout my own formative years in the ’80s, not to mention my own somewhat anachronistic worldview, I can certainly relate:

…despite the belief that rock ‘n’ roll will keep us forever young, the truth is it doesn’t age well on us. That’s the beauty and power of rock ‘n’ roll: It celebrates transient youth in the present tense. It’s what makes it both shimmery and precious. And it’s what makes the death of Glenn Frey so mournful.

What happened to him? That’s our first instinct, that’s what we want, we need to know. … But maybe what we really want to know is: What happened to us?

The passing of Glenn Frey reminds us all too well of the kids we were in the ’70s — our blue jeans and black boots, our long hair and ‘stashes and crushes on impossibly beautiful, unattainable girls, our nights spent cross-legged in front of turntables listening with great intent to the latest album of one of our heroes. We believed that somehow we could change the world by the force of our belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll, but instead the world changed us.

When we mourn for Frey, are we mourning our lost selves and a time when we all thought we could live hard and stay free and surf and bike and run and jump and love and never lose because we were forever young?

To which I would reply, hell yes that’s what I’m mourning. In one way or another, to one degree or another, damn near every single day.