If you’ve seen the Eagles over the last few years, sometimes it feels like Don Henley has stood at the lectern like a historian tracing the history of the Eagles. The professorial approach has been underscored by Henley’s overt seriousness and dry delivery. It’s hardly the stuff of rock and roll and as the Eagles opened their newest tour last month, Henley and company found themselves accompanied by a fifty piece orchestra playing the entire Hotel California.
Now Henley, the literature major out of North Texas University, has some competition for his own version of history with the publication of Eagles Before The Band by Rik Forgo (Time Passages). The author has taken an unconventional and ambitious approach by publishing the first of a promised trilogy. In Eagles: Before The Band, Forgo traces the history of the band up until the release of its self-titled debut album.
It may be an understatement to say that it takes 200 pages until we get to Eagles, the debut album which marks the end of the book. This is not a complaint. In fact the detailed chronology creates its own suspense for avid fans as the years anticipate future events leading to the band’s formation and eventual success.
The chronological approach and meticulously researched book follows history in real time as it unfolded, placing The Eagles in the context of the historical events all around them. At last we have a historical document that demonstrates that the Eagles did not come out of a vacuum. Although the author doesn’t directly say it, it’s clear from the documentation that the Eagles did not invent what we commonly call country rock, something we’ve been prone to say ever since the first time we heard the opening verses of “Take It Easy.”
One of the best outcomes of the book is the visibility it gives to document the history of Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, bands that were instrumental in paving the way for the Eagles. The generous vignettes devoted to their albums along with other influences such as the Dillards, Linda Ronstadt, Rick Nelson and Dillard and Clark, are valuable contributions to the historical continuum.
The format takes an encyclopedic approach and provides connectivity for each of the band members. We explore Don Henley’s time with Shiloh, Glenn Frey’s Longbranch/ Pennywhistle, Bernie Leadon’s time with the Burritos and Linda Ronstadt and the origins of Eagles songwriters Jack Tempchin and J.D. Souther. One of the highlights of the book are the details tracing Glenn Frey’s Detroit upbringing and Motown influence. You can still hear Fry’s voice jump out of the mix where he sang background vocals with fellow Detroit contemporary Bob Seger on “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.”
There’s a lot of material inside the music industry as the author details the trajectory of manager Irving Azoff and Asylum records founder David Geffen’s rise to power. While some of the material may be of interest to a select group, Forgo’s profiles of producers Glyn Johns (Eagles) and Bill Szymczyk provide great context. In one of the book’s best parts, Forgo compiles the history of a “Woodstock-like concert” that the then 22 year old Azoff promoted to 60,000 fans near Kickapoo Creek in Heyworth, Illinois.
The inclusion of Don Felder and Joe Walsh (who didn’t join the Eagles until events years after the end of the book) seem somewhat jarring in the chronology. The book follows Walsh through the history of the Cleveland based James Gang where he sang hits such as “Walk Away.” The inclusion of future Rolling Stone covers that come much later in the band’s history might seem out of context.
It has been nearly 50 years since The Eagles sang about standing on a corner in the now infamous Winslow, Arizona. Glenn Frey, who co-wrote “Take It Easy” with Jackson Browne, is no longer with us. His son Deacon bears a remarkable resemblance as he stands in his place.
But still six decades after their formatIon, the Eagles’ history continues to be fertile ground to mine. The beauty of Eagles: Before The Band is the approach as a reference you can pick up, skim, draw yourself into and pick up the pieces at will.
The author sourced the book largely from the public domain. The bibliography has 1500 references. There isn’t a lot of original source material which is primarily due to Eagles members (save for Randy Meisner) declining to speak, much to the author’s disappointment. Given the commitment Forgo has made, one would think it would be worth the time of Henley, Azoff and company to speak with him for the second and third time around.
The book doesn’t have any cliffhangers. I can’t give you any spoiler alerts since the history that will accompany the next two volumes has already been written. But the start of the trilogy and the demonstrated approach by the author, surely means that there is lots more history to revisit and uncover.