Thursday, April 7, 2011

This Could Be Heaven or This Could Be Hell

I’m just finishing up Don Felder’s book, “Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001).”  I’ve had a little fling with rock ‘n roll bios lately, so it made sense to get the scoop on one of my long-time favorite bands--even if they did make me shop at Wal-Mart for their most recent album.

First, the truly distressing news.  Only one of the seven Eagles came from California.  

Henley was from Texas, Frey from Detroit and Felder from Gainesville.  Leadon was from Minneapolis and Meisner from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for crying out loud.  Joe Walsh was from Kansas and Ohio by way of Pluto.  

The quintessential laid-back California band wasn’t.  From California.  Or much laid-back, for that matter.

Consider: The Eagles are one of the most successful bands in the history of the planet.  Six number one albums, including the single best-selling album in the U.S. ever.  120 million albums worldwide. The fifth highest selling music act in U.S. history and the highest selling American band in U.S. history.

As a musician (or a human being), wouldn’t that bring some bit of happiness and satisfaction to your life?  

Near as I can tell, though, Don Henley and Glenn Frey are two of the more contentious, humorless, and possibly greedy guys on the planet.  If we are to believe Felder--and there’s an obvious risk of partisan ax-grinding--there wasn’t a practice, a meeting, a road trip or a concert in which someone didn’t threaten to storm out of the room, to blow things to smithereens.
Felder writes, “The tension within the band continued to deepen.  Everything from facial expressions to talking too much became an issue, and nerves were frayed.  Don and Glenn became of the mindset that they were going to take control of every aspect of the Eagles, and a lot of emotion was vented in between drug-taking interludes.” 
Later, as Bernie Leadon was dumping a beer over the head of Glenn Frey—who had just admonished Leadon to “cool down, you fxxxxxx axxxxxx”—he just stared Frey down, spoiling for a fight.  (Nothing like a couple of guitarists who depend on their hands for their livelihood and fame smashing their fists into each other’s noggins.) 
Over time, Glenn and Don, each of whom owned 1/5 of the Eagles (the other 3/5s belonging to the three other band members) somehow scored nicer suites and cars, more hired hands on the road (including Glenn’s tennis coach), and hired hands who continued on the payroll when the band wasn’t on the road.  When Felder complained to the band's manager that his 1/5 share was going to fund expenses for Glenn and Don, he was told to “stop complaining and stop being so cheap.” 
Felder would conclude, “When we first met, anyone could say or do anything, and there was a sense of all being in it together.  As the fame and stakes got bigger, the rest of us were less included in any of the decisions, until it got to the point where we became intimidated and didn’t like to ask.  It was like being at the office party when your boss is there, all the time.  You just couldn’t relax.”
The sad part, of course, is that these guys were living their dream.  Playing music.  International acclaim.  Huge bucks.

Constant misery.

Certainly, the over-abundance of drugs didn’t help.  Or the endless grind of road trips.  And, I’m sure there must have been some civilized times.  But in no way did contented satisfaction match the level of success.

Why is that, I wonder?  Does contentiousness have to be part and parcel of intense creativity?  I mean, how many arguments can five people have over whether they should be a rock band or a country band?  Couldn’t they just agree that everyone gets to sing lead on at least one song per album?

Maybe, and I’m guessing this is closer to the truth, the pressure to constantly do better made success just another obstacle.  Said another way: It’s possible, for a certain kind of person wired a certain kind of way, that success is nothing but a hurdle.

I dug around on YouTube for a while and watched a good interview with Henley in which he seemed like a decent, thoughtful guy.  And he said as much about pressure: The success of their first album (three hits) turned up the heat on everything that happened afterward.  The pressure to perform, album after album, shaped everything.

I’m wondering if Henley isn’t like the guy who you love at work, but when you go to dinner with he and his spouse their relationship is wound so tight it’s like sitting in a war zone.  Henley and Frey apart may be great, but together, seeking that next level of success, they become a horror show.

I remember hearing one of the authors in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” celebration of the best young writers in America being interviewed after learning of the accolade.  The question, “How did it make you feel,” was answered by (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) “I enjoyed it for a minute and then immediately went back to being paranoid that the next thing I write won’t be good enough.”

Success: a hurdle to happiness.

I don’t know Steve Jobs, but I’ve read enough (he’s pretty much pilloried in business school cases and across the back 40 of the Web) and heard enough from people who have worked with him that he is among the most ornery, egotistical and unpleasant people on earth.  (The Fake Steve Jobs, it turns out, wasn’t so far from the truth.)  What fun would it be, I wonder, to be a wildly successful entrepreneur, one of the top CEOs in the history of the world, and leave a legacy of making those around you miserable?

IDisney War, Jeffrey Katzenberg comes across as a mean-spirited sob even as he’s performing miracles with the Disney animation franchise.  The way he treated Roy Disney was unconscionable.  Perhaps Katzenberg has grown up, or perhaps he’ll always be in that weird Jobbian Zone of spinning misery from success.

I’m not suggesting everyone must be or can be happiness and honeysuckle all the time.  I know I cannot.  But to earn a reputation after decades of rampant success for being a first-class shitake makes me think that either something is broken--or something is broken in those of us whose success is somehow being stymied by the fact we generally seek to act as decent human beings.

SCROOGE: What reason do you have to be Merry? You're poor enough.        
FRED: Come, then, what right have you to be dismal? You're rich enough.

Look at Tiger Woods.  When he was a self-absorbed, self-destructive creep he was the best athlete in any sport who ever lived.  Now that he is purportedly an engaged human being, his level of success has fallen dramatically.  (I recognize this is risky stuff to be writing on the eve of the Masters.)

I’ve only had a few bosses in my life, and they’ve all been great.  All very different, all successful in their own ways, but all great.  And, thinking back, one of the things each held in common was a gift for making people around them more energized, confident and better for their having been with them.

There’s something really powerful in that.  Whether I was feeling good or bad about the quarter, confident or worried about the business, unhappy about a problem we were facing--a visit from each of my bosses would leave me in a better place.

I am no stranger to stress, and wanting to do well, and grouchy, cranky days--as those around me can attest.  But this idea that you can be blessed with enormous talent and success, and make everyone around you a little bit worse off for your having touched them--well, as the Eagles sang, I can’t tell you why.

(And that was my opening.)

As I finish the Felder book, I’m hoping that one of these nights, maybe the Eagles will take it easy.  Just get over it.  Make up for wasted time.

OK.  I’ll stop there.  

I’m already gone, as it were. I’d be a certain kind of fool to continue.

Just so long as you know that I could take it to the limit if I wanted, bringing misery where none is needed.  Like some of the most successful people on the planet.

I could.  And if you don’t stop staring at me, I will.