Dreaming of Playing a Funky D Chord: A Bar Band Musician’s Tribute to Glenn Frey
Already, 2016 is turning out to be a terrible year for being a musician of a certain age, and we haven’t even finished the third full week. A few days ago, David Bowie died, and now, Glenn Frey is gone. A few might dismiss Frey as “The Heat is On” guy, the ex-Eagle who also acted in Miami Vice, or that dude who did commercials for some California health club chain back in the late eighties. That was certainly him, but he was much more than that.
Most anyone who’s ever played in a guitar band knows at least a couple of Eagles songs. I know almost all of them, heaven help me. In the grand tradition of ten gazillion other budding guitarists, one of the first songs I ever figured out all the way through was “Take it Easy,” and I remember learning to sing harmony on it with my mom. From there, as I progressed through the Eagles’ albums and got better at my craft, I eventually took on some of their later pieces.
I always wanted to see the Eagles—the original line-up, preferably—but I never got the chance. Not surprising, since I was only ten years old when Joe Walsh replaced Bernie Leadon. Not to knock the later roster, either. Hotel California and The Long Run are fine albums, and I’m a huge fan of Joe Walsh, who was a logical and perfect replacement for Bernie Leadon. Tim Schmidt is an excellent vocalist and bassist, too, though no one could ever replace Randy Meisner.
Glenn Frey, though. Here’s a funny little story I like to tell about him. When I first started learning guitar, I was in the middle of the lacerated fingers stage, the time every new guitarist considers throwing in the pick just about every other minute. Bleeding fingers sound awesome when it’s George Harrison reminiscing, but when your own digits feel like they’re about to fall off your hand, it’s a different story. Still, I soldiered on.
One day, looking through my Eagles’ Greatest Hits songbook, I saw a picture of Glenn Frey on stage playing a garden-variety D chord, but he was doing something unusual: His thumb was playing an F# on the top string. To a more experienced musician, this makes perfect sense, since F# is a note in the D chord, but for a novice like me who’d barely graduated from his Mel Bay’s Guitar Method book, it was exotic and, most importantly, it was cool as hell.
Unfortunately, I was also certain it was Something I’d Never Be Able to Do.
A few years later, after a four-year stint in the navy, I’d somehow learned to play that weird D chord, along with a few others. Along the way, I joined a decent band and proceeded to play the crap out of some Eagles tunes up and down the California coast for three years. In those days, I got tapped to sing the Glenn numbers, not because I had a voice that was one-tenth of his, but because I was the only one who could imitate him. That’s what bar bands do, by the way, as followers of bar bands can confirm: they imitate. No one wants to hear your interpretation of “Mississippi Queen,” loser—they want to hear the Mountain version. Same with the Eagles tunes. Look it up. It’s true.
The songs Glenn sang were usually my favorites, anyway, so I loved singing them. He had a mellow voice, but man could he hit those notes—not necessarily the high ones, either, though he could do that. No, he zeroed in on those perfect notes, the ones that hit you in the heart. And in those legendary Eagles harmonies, his, Henley’s and Meisner’s voices created something truly greater than the sum of their parts. Frey’s lead vocals often sounded simple, and in a way they were. But beneath the surface, there was something more compelling. Take a listen to his vocal on “New Kid in Town,” one of the lesser hits on Hotel California. That’s soul right there, people, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different.
To me, Glenn Frey was always the face of the Eagles, or at least the face I chose to see. Of course, the story is more complicated than that. Like other creative duos ranging from Lennon and McCartney to Buckingham and Nicks, Glenn Frey and Don Henley couldn’t stop arguing long enough to hammer out twelve bars of anything, and other people suffered as a result. Henley got a lot of press at the time of the first breakup for being the jerk in the band, but Frey played his part, too.
Still, Frey was the guy who seemed like he was there because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, that thing he did best. Whether that perceived persona was true or not is beside my point because, remember, I was just an impressionable kid and could therefore be held accountable for nothing at all. Facts had little to do with anything, least of all rock and roll.
Glenn Frey was why I loved the Eagles, he was one of the reasons I wanted to play music, and most importantly, he made it seem like something I could do. I could never be John Lennon, but as stupid as it sounds—and trust me, even then, I knew how idiotic it was—that young version of me felt like I could be Glenn Frey, or at least a version of him. For about three years, I was, too.
And to this day, every time I play that funky D chord, I think of him.
Rest in peace, Mr. Frey.