by Austin Segrest
When I was ten or eleven, in about 1990, I found myself with unsupervised access to my parents’ vinyl. Crates snaked around the not-quite crawlspace. The furnace in the corner, a punching bag my brother got Dad to help him hang, Dad’s racks of spoiled wine, you had to duck the ductwork in places...
Did I salvage all that great vinyl? Study the masters, become a great musician? No. I ransacked and rampaged, and just as I figured, nobody noticed or cared.
The mess of their marriage; their vastly contrasting, incompatible passions withdrawn, indrawn, as Elizabeth Bishop writes—in that heyday of cassette tapes, with cd’s on the horizon, that storeroom was my wasteland.
I was pulled in by cover art—especially Mom’s rock albums: anything dark, wicked, sexy. Offset by vibrant collage, on Santana’s second album, Abraxas (1970), a white dove is perched before the spread legs of a voluptuous nude. Or, like a mashup of Maurice Sendak and Jim Henson, Nazareth’s 1975 Hair of the Dog: the bladed wings and ears and fangs of which I realize now is probably Cerberus. Discarding most of the records themselves (consigned to what suburban darkness?), I started—well, twenty years later I wrote a poem about it, a phrase-for-phrase riff on W.B. Yeats’ glorious little “Coat” (1912). Here’s Yeats:
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it. Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
Here’s my “Eternity for Men.”
I made my walls a quilt
of 60s album covers
recovered from my mother’s
days at Vanderbilt.
But riled allergens
set off the family’s asthma,
grounding the resurgence.
just made the miasma
worse when I sprayed it.
Too much, too far! Two covers led to three led to realizing I could cover every inch of my bedroom’s walls. Well, I found the limit. Got everyone’s attention. Goodbye, beautiful strange covers! Who knows who all I poached—Janis, Otis, Joe Cocker, The Everly Brothers, BB King... My short-lived mold of many colors.
Oh, the burgeonings of taste! Where do they come from, how do they take? How we tend to forget those basements of dim incubation.
Naturally, growing up, I copied my older brother, who copied the kids he looked up to. Or rather, à la Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, I copied and swerved: he liked Mötley Crüe, so I liked Poison...
I loved my parents’ music, what they listened to, in striking contrast, in their separate spheres: the ozone and crackle of Dad’s German-built stereo system running along the upstairs hall; downtown NPR classical in his brown hatchback; the benchseat love songs and hooks of Mom’s country and rock—at a late- 80s nadir of softness, to which my sweet-dreaming soul took like an almond to dark chocolate. My parents’ vinyl—how to say it?—artifacted their sensibilities. No surprise that I now love and study old stuff and make poems out of the family vault.
For at least a year when I was seven or eight I looked forward every night to listening to the “Top Eight at Eight” on a portable stereo in my parents’ bedroom. I remember the prospect of that line-up of radio rock ballads getting me through a school day’s drudgery— Corey Hart, Bryan Adams, INXS. I remember my shock when “Sweet Child O’ Mine” broke through, shrieking like air raid sirens...
But with puberty starting and home life eviscerated, I was done being Peter Cetera’s knight in shining armor, or Richard Marx’s faithful lover “right here waiting.” Over and over on my brother’s record player, until he caught me in the act and pounced, I dj-scratched Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back”: “...I can bitch, I can bitch cause I’m better than you...I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch...”
But even as I trashed, I sampled. Appropriately enough, I became obsessed with Nazareth’s “Love Hurts.” And if only for their name, I took many magic carpet rides with Steppenwolf. And “Dream Weaver”—Gary Wright’s purple eyeshadow and lifted, vaguely Wright Brothers scarf: “I believe you can get me through the ni-ight...”
Two other albums I can’t help thinking of as low-hanging fruit: John Denver’s “deep” alliterative Poems, Prayers, and Promises (1971), and the best-selling album ever in the U.S., The Eagles’ Greatest Hits: 1971-1975.
What is happening on that Eagles cover? A face-on bird skull and sky—or is it water, or clouds reflected in water? The centered skull floating or emerging or sitting in a puddle, obliquely lit beneath arched, jagged razorfont echoing the angles of beak and eye socket. Symmetrically torqued panels of background blue accent, and a yellow-tinged orange double-u underlines, the eyes. The beak’s black comes up between the nostrils in a peak not found, that I can find, in nature. Nor does the beak itself look foreshortened as it should for its curve. Its tip makes me think, as it might even have then, of a pen (“here is one whose name is writ in water”), what they used to call a stylus. And, indeed, it’s all about style, a kind of cool, clean, sharp symmetry embellished with Tequila Sunrise colors, foreshadowing 90s so-called tribal tattoos. A kind of literally shallow, superimposed edge that belies their lack of edge. The leading edge of yacht rock...
Stars are usually easy targets. Retroactively, it’s all too easy to call The Eagles soulless, clueless, corporate: a bad, belated American rhyme with The Beatles. But you try writing catchy songs with harmonies and lyrics that amount to something—however bland or problematic.
I wonder to what degree the Dude’s hatred for The Eagles in The Big Lebowski (1998) has infected me. In truth, I couldn’t remember which movie it was where The Eagles were famously dissed. I am well-aware of the outsize, reactionary, embarrassed disdain we often harbor for our early passions, the hipster in us insisting beyond reason, for example, that 311—only because we loved them so much in high school—is the worst band in history.
But don’t children have bad—undeveloped, we say— taste? Was I litmus proof that The Eagles suck?
One book my parents’ bookshelves had in common (otherwise as different as their record collections) was the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. At about this same time, lucky enough to have a home with books, I took a shine to Dickinson—to some of her poems, that is. Precocious good taste? Not quite. I was drawn to her poems with exact rhyme.
Where every bird is bold to go
And bees abashless play,
The foreigner before he knocks
Must thrust the tears away.
Like so many of her myopic contemporaries, I thought of her revolutionary slant rhymes as failures. They left me hanging, as it were, like the end of “I felt a funeral in my brain”:
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -
By the same token, I was averse to the (frankly, superior) minor-chord hits like “New Kid in Town” or “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Nor, dousing my pancakes with straight Karo corn syrup, would I touch tomato sauce, or fish, or anything bitter...
The Eagles songs I loved most—“Take It To the Limit,” “Already Gone,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and another “Take It-” song, “Take It Easy”—are, in retrospect, all of a kind. Harmony showcases: easy strumming, easy going, easy feeling. They’re memorable—if indistinguishable— in the sense that earworms are memorable.
The burgeoning poet in me loved the rhetorical play, the near-chiasmus of “You can spend all your time making money / You can spend all your love making time”; the clever internal rhyme of “standing on a corner” with “Winslow, Arizona”; the idiomatic displacement of “put me on a shelf” (though I wasn’t ready for Dickinson’s even odder “...Life is over there / Behind the Shelf,” if only for the Life/Shelf slant rhyme!). Too, I loved the envelope rhyme, not to mention sass, of
They said you were gonna put me on a shelf
Lemme tell you, I’ve got some news for you
And you’ll soon find out it’s true
Then you’ll have to eat your lunch all by yourself
Regarding those first-loved songs, if I’m being hospitable, I say the lyrics are pretty tight. If I’m being picky, though, I say they’re condescending as well as pat: take it easy, baby; take it to the limit, baby; “lighten up”; “I know you won’t let me down...” In their assurance of standing firm against slippery, witchy feminine forces that can steal your soul, they display typical patriarchal insecurity. Which is pretty much Petrarch? It would take a rock star like Kurt Cobain to call this tradition—most of Mom’s records—what it is: cock rock. Not that we heard him.
I’m a bit surprised (the ambivalence is real) to realize these songs pass my karaoke test. It goes without saying that every karaoke venue has an understood if not actual “No Country Roads” sign to point to, Wayne’s- World-style. And I absolutely cannot brook a body trotting out the dreary, droning melodrama of “Hotel California” (so gloriously transformed in Jesus’s slow- mo bowling montage in The Big Lebowski). But though I’d never pick “Take It to the Limit” or “Take It Easy” (would I?), neither would I moan and whine and pinch the Jeff Bridges bridge of my nose if someone else did. I wouldn’t even be indifferent, but heartily sing along.
Boys looking up to older boys, we raise ourselves in the wreckage. What did I learn? That you’re either owned, stoned, or friend-zoned? That love might save me?
Reddit threads suggest The Dude’s beef is political: that The Eagles’ success betokens the end of rock’s— of the left’s—sustained protest against the military- industrial complex.
That’s a lot to put on one band.
Don’t the let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
And take it easy
A place found without a fuss; a stand made lying down; cake had and eaten, too... Easy for you to say! It’s not the worst advice, so long as you don’t imagine a bunch of privileged white Boomers professing it, so much milk-toast equivocation.
It’s a fine line, indeed, between complacence and enlightenment. The heart seeks refuge there, singing its victory song,