This weekend, I will do something I swore I would never do for most of my life: Attend a concert by The Eagles. Throughout my teens, twenties, and a big chunk of my thirties, I loathed the laidback troubadours of decadent 1970s Los Angeles with great gusto. I despised them for all of the usual kneejerk reasons that people hate the Eagles: they did not rock, they espoused problematic opinions about women (witchy or not), they epitomized the smug and unearned superiority of baby boomers, they were played way too much on FM radio, they were responsible for the monumentally terrible song “Get Over It,” etc.
But in my late 30s — around the time I regrettably printed the words “Don Henley sucks” at the start of my second book — my opinion changed. The 2013 documentary History Of Eagles had a lot to do with it — a band willing to make themselves look this unlikable somehow made them more likable to me. Each time Glenn Frey fired one of his guitar players with increasing ruthlessness, a growing percentage of my heart was won over. I couldn’t help myself. The Eagles were Sid, and I was Nancy. After that, I could no longer live with the fallacy of disliking the Eagles when they weren’t all that different (musically, philosophically, cocaine-ically) from other boomer rock acts from the late ’70s L.A. era: Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt … and Steely Dan.
I forgot to mention that my interest in seeing the Eagles on this tour — which is advertised as their last, but in classic classic-rock fashion will continue for at least the next few years — was due in part to the inclusion of Steely Dan as the opener. Alas, health problems have sidelined the 75-year-old Donald Fagen, so the Dan are replaced on my bill by the Doobie Brothers. (I’m hoping against hope that “Michael McDonald Does The Backing Vocals For ‘Peg’” will be slotted on the Doobies’ set list.) When the tour was announced earlier this year, there was some predictable griping about the pairing, with some loud groans about how the Eagles should be opening for Steely Dan, man. This underlined the unexpected (and already much-discussed) rehabilitation of Steely Dan among non-boomer audiences. Two decades after they upset Eminem and Radiohead at the 2001 Grammys, Fagen and his late partner Walter Becker have become extremely meme-able musical godheads for millennials and zoomers, a fate that seems like it will never be possible for the Eagles.
But again: There is a lot hypocrisy here. Of all the artists I mentioned earlier, the most alike are the Eagles and Steely Dan. They are both hyper-proficient soft-rock acts that peaked commercially in the late ’70s. They both fizzled out in the early ’80s, and then reunited in the early ’90s. They are both led by male songwriting duos — in each instance, one guy is named Don and the other guy died in the late 2010s at the age of 67. They are both famous for writing about “the dark side of L.A.” in a manner that actually glamorizes (to the point of likely driving up the population of) America’s second-largest city. They are both managed by iconic “Satan” Irving Azoff. They both employed the services of Timothy B. Schmit, a man who seems too sweet for either band. Both bands were skeptical of punk, which is why expressing distaste for the Eagles and Steely Dan remains meaningful for a certain kind of aging Gen Xer fond of posting provocative opinions on social media. They were both sampled by landmark hip-hop albums in 1989 — 3 Feet High And Rising for Steely Dan, and Paul’s Boutique for the Eagles. I could go on. (And I will shortly.)
But none of this matters in the minds of the public. Steely Dan vs. The Eagles is a classic rivalry of ’70s rock. Let’s explore this further.
I’m going to be brief here as this is well-trod territory. In the Steely Dan song “Everything You Did” from 1976’s The Royal Scam, Fagen sings, “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.” This is allegedly a reference by Walter Becker to a real-life argument he had with his real-life girlfriend, who apparently really loved the Eagles. (Assuming the album she was playing was One Of These Nights, which would have been the newly released Eagles LP when the song was written, I wonder if she enjoyed “Lyin’ Eyes,” another “I don’t trust the woman in my life” track that feels like a sister number to “Everything You Did.”)
Later that year, the Eagles referenced Steely Dan in this “Hotel California” lyric: “They stab it with their steely knives / But they just can’t kill the beast.” It was meant as a tribute. Years later, in an interview Bob Costas, Frey praised Fagen and Becker for their cleverness, and credited them with inspiring the “weird” lyrics of their most famous song.
In terms of actual personal animus, Steely Dan vs. The Eagles is not a real rivalry. But it absolutely is a real rivalry in the sense of these bands representing opposing ideas. The common shorthand for describing their dynamic is “nerds (Steely Dan) vs. jocks (the Eagles),” which is fine if also superficial. (It has a lot to do with the latter band literally sharing a name with a professional football team.) The reality is that we’re talking about two enormously rich old-guy rock bands. It’s just that one of them offers the listener plausible deniability of that fact. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are insiders — feted with Grammys, surrounded by world-class session players, and ensconced in the finest recording studios on the planet — who have the cachet of outsider misfits. They fit in without seeming like they fit in. The Eagles meanwhile were always a hugely popular band that carried themselves like a hugely popular band. They want it known that they fit in.
Herein lies the central allegorical conflict posed by Steely Dan vs. The Eagles: Is it better to appear as though you tried to be successful on purpose, or like your success happened in spite of everything else about yourself?
The Case For Steely Dan
I like their music more. They are funnier, smarter, and weirder than the Eagles. Their albums are a lot more consistent. (“The Disco Strangler” would not have made Steely Dan’s garbage bin during the making of Gaucho.) They are less culturally ubiquitous — there is no Steely Dan song I have heard 1/100th as many times as “Take It Easy” or “Hotel California,” even though I have consciously set out to listen to Steely Dan 100 times more than the Eagles. Steely Dan doesn’t have the same amount of “bad boomer” baggage that the Eagles do. They have some “bad boomer” baggage, but it has thinned considerably in recent years. When I picture a typical Eagles fan, I like that person less than the individual conjured by the prompt “Steely Dan fan.” Based on this interview, Timothy B. Schmit even prefers Steely Dan, perhaps because Don Henley has held the Sword Of Damocles over his neck (financially speaking) for the past 45 years.
Above all, I like Steely Dan more because they are less obvious than the Eagles. Most bands on Earth are less obvious than the Eagles, but their obviousness is even more, well, obvious in relation to Steely Dan due to their shared subject matter. In a 2016 interview, Don Henley enumerated the following themes as central to Eagles songs: “Loss of innocence, the cost of naiveté, the perils of fame, of excess; exploration of the dark underbelly of the American dream, idealism realized and idealism thwarted, illusion versus reality, the difficulties of balancing loving relationships and work, trying to square the conflicting relationship between business and art; the corruption in politics, the fading away of the sixties dream of ‘peace, love and understanding.’” You can hear all of that stuff in the song “Hotel California.” It’s impossible to miss. There’s a hotel called California that represents the state of California (and California as a state of mind). This place could be heaven or hell, which we know because Don sings, “This could be heaven or this could be hell.” It evokes the spirit of 1969, though that might only refer to the Captain’s wine. (But it doesn’t. The song is clearly about the end of the sixties.) Finally, it all culminates with some instrumental fireworks from Joe Walsh and Don Felder, whose harmonized guitars represent the main character’s failure to escape his own nostalgia.
Now consider the Steely Dan song “Aja,” which is also about all of those things that Don listed. In “Aja,” the protagonist is in an opium den. This could also be heaven or hell, but Donald and Walter do not bother pointing this out. The main character is fixated on people on a hill. They may or may not be real. We never know for sure. These people never stare. They just don’t care. They’ve got time to burn. Because they are free. For the protagonist, they symbolize his own longing — for the past, for an unrealized version of himself, for all of his dreams that were never fulfilled. Finally, the song culminates with some instrumental fireworks from jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. No disrespect to Joe Walsh or Don Felder — they’re both guitar gods, in particular my personal hero Joe W. — but they are not Wayne Shorter.
I could have done a similar comparison of the Eagles’ “Life In The Fast Lane” (a song about life in the fast lane) and Steely Dan’s “Glamour Profession” (a better song about life in the fast lane) or the Eagles’ “The Sad Café” (a self-serious song about the end of an era) and Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” (a hilarious song about the end of an era). But I think I’ve made my point: The Eagles tell you what their songs are about, and Steely Dan shows you.
The Case For The Eagles
Lest it seem like I am knocking “Hotel California” let me be clear: I love “Hotel California.” I know I’m not supposed to say that. I am supposed to hate “Hotel California” because the Eagles suck and boomers are bad and The Big Lebowski is good and blah blah blah. But if you can set aside all of the baggage that comes with this song, and trick your mind into forgetting about all of the sports bars and hockey games and gas stations it has soundtracked in your life, you might come to the following conclusions: 1) The harmonized guitars rip; 2) The song’s central metaphor is sound; 3) You have probably quoted the line about how “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave” at least once without realizing it; 4) The Eagles are good at writing “end of the innocence” songs.
(This is also true of Don Henley’s solo career, which is highlighted by the two finest songs of his entire oeuvre, “The Boys Of Summer” and — obviousness alert — “The End Of The Innocence.” Haters will give the credit to Mike Campbell and Bruce Hornsby, respectively, for writing the music on those tracks, but Don’s melodies and words on are tip-top. To quote Jeff Lebowski, “out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” is true “that creep can roll, man” material.)
Let’s go back to the central allegorical conflict posed by Steely Dan vs. The Eagles: Is it better to appear as though you tried to be successful on purpose, or like your success happened in spite of everything else about yourself? Contrary to the “nerds vs. jocks” stereotype, Don Henley and Glenn Frey were not born-and-bred Southern Californians. And they were not born on third base. Don is from a tiny town in East Texas, and in this 2001 Charlie Rose interview he talks about being a small, sensitive kid who was bullied by the country boys in town because he was into books and music. And Frey is a Detroit native who cut his teeth as a teenager playing in garage bands before hooking up for a time with Bob Seger. (You can hear Glenn’s backing vocals on Seger’s immortal “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.”) They were both Middle American kids who moved to Los Angeles in order to make their fortune, and they were willing to work their asses of to do it. Once they got rich, they could justifiably feel as though they earned it. So, why pretend otherwise?
Donald and Walter worked their asses off, too, but they were products of Bard College, as anyone who loves “My Old School” will tell you. Their smartypants sensibility is in line with a typical “elite college” mentality, where your social status is more secure, which means you can also afford to be noncommittal about your status. If the Eagles are the more obvious band, maybe it was because Don hustled for three and a half years at two low-prestige Texas schools — Stephen F. Austin State University and North Texas State University — and felt more urgency to prove his literary bonafides. (He not only read Henry David Thoreau, damn it, but he also saved Walden Woods!) Or maybe that obviousness comes from the proximity of the writers to their subject matter. I can picture Glenn Frey as one of the people in “Life In The Fast Lane.” I can also imagine him as a character in “Glamour Profession.” Steely Dan observed L.A. strivers and wrote about them, but the Eagles were the people in those songs.
What it comes down to is a matter of class — the more you need to be successful (because you have no other options in life) the more open and less ashamed you will be about seeking out. (And the most susceptible you will be to the excesses that come with that success.) On that count, I relate more to the Eagles than Steely Dan. I also believe in taking it to the limit one more time. Or more if that’s what it takes.
If you conduct an informal poll of extremely online people, Steely Dan wins in a landslide. If you ask the public at large, the Eagles win in a walk. This strikes me as just, and I suspect both parties would find it amenable.