In his new book, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) out July 9, journalist and author Chuck Klosterman explores the nature of villainy, from O.J. Simpson’s “second-worst decision” to the anti-heroes created in American pop culture. Check out a full chapter of the book below, in which Klosterman deconstructs the Eagles and his other musical dislikes.
Editor’s note: Klosterman is married to EW senior writer Melissa Maerz.
ANOTHER THING THAT INTERESTS ME ABOUT THE EAGLES IS THAT I [AM CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO] HATE THEM
Here are the opening lyrics to the song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. It was the first cut on the Eagles’ first album; written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, “Take It Easy” was released upon the world in May of 1972, one month before I was born. The words are familiar to anyone who listens to rock on the radio, a population that dwindles with every passing year . . .
Well, I’m running down the road
Tryin’ to loosen my load
I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that wanna own me
Two that wanna stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine
I’d love to isolate the first time I heard these words, but I can’t. It predates my memory. I do, however, remember the first time I thought about these words, which didn’t happen until 2003. I was intrigued by the math: The main character (who’s technically the creation of non-Eagle Browne, since he wrote this particular verse) is fleeing from seven women. Four of these females are possessive, so he finds them unappealing; two others hate him (but don’t want to own him), which comes across as neutral; the seventh is (I think) the one he likes, but she can’t reciprocate. It’s clearly the problem of a young man, as no one over thirty-five could sustain interest in seven simultaneous relationships unless they’re biracial and amazing at golf. The four who want to own him are sympathetic; the two who want to stone him are reasonable; the one who says she’s his friend is the O. Henry twist. Now, are we supposed to like this philandering protagonist? Not necessarily, although I suspect we’re supposed to see him as a realist who’s slowly realizing he’s made his own life more complex than necessary. If we allow ourselves to project the unknown motives of the songwriter even further, perhaps we start to think the song is about the discomfort of romantic honesty; maybe we start to think the verse is really about how each of these seven women has reacted to the abrupt awareness of the other six (four increase their affection, two invert their affection, and one slips into detachment). If you conject even further, perhaps you can pretend the song is only about one woman (with seven different sides to her personality), or that this is supposed to be humor, or that we’re not supposed to think about these seven women as actual people, or that we’re not supposed to think about these lyrics at all.
However, one detail is non-negotiable: People fucking hate this song.
Which is not to say it’s unpopular or unpleasant or a failure, because those descriptions don’t apply. It went to number twelve on the Billboard charts, and only an idiot would argue that “Take It Easy” is poorly written or badly executed. When it originally hit the radio, some guy from Rolling Stone claimed it was the best-sounding song of 1972. If we use all of America as an aesthetic gauge (and particularly its Walmarts, gas stations, and retail yarn proprietors), this song is a classic. But pop music — like all subcultures — has an outside culture and an inside culture. Pop music’s exterior culture is why the Eagles are the best-selling rock band in U.S. history; its interior culture reviles the Eagles so much that almost nothing written about them can ignore that reality. Barney Hoskins’s 2005 book about the Laurel Canyon scene that spawned the band takes its title from the group’s biggest hit (“Hotel California”) but still can’t ignore how they were perceived by their peers: “For Gram Parsons, the success of the radio-friendly Eagles was galling.” To the Limit, a sympathetic (almost sycophantic) 1998 biography of the group, tries to spin their bad reviews into understated masculinity: “We’d been abused by the press, so we developed a ‘fuck you’ attitude toward them,” says drummer/vocalist Don Henley. These are established positions, understood by everyone who cares. It’s not like I’m exposing some dark secret or pushing a false controversy: The musical reputation of the Eagles is great and the social reputation of the Eagles is terrible. They are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California, not counting Ronald Reagan.
I know this because everybody knows this, but also because — once — I hated the Eagles, too. After spending the first twenty-five years of my life believing they were merely boring, I suddenly decided they were the worst band that had ever existed (or could ever exist). I’d unconsciously internalized all the complaints that supposedly made them despicable: They were rich hippies. They were virtuosos in an idiom that did not require virtuosity. They were self-absorbed Hollywood liberals. They were not-so-secretly shallow. They were uncaring womanizers and the worst kind of cokeheads. They wanted to be seen as cowboys, but not the ones who actually rode horses. They never rocked, even after adding Joe Walsh for that express purpose (the first forty-five seconds of “Life in the Fast Lane” are a push). They lectured college kids about their environmental footprint while flying around in private jets. They literally called themselves “The Eagles.” It was easy to hate a band who kept telling me to take it easy when I was quite obviously trying to do so already.
And then, one day in 2003, I stopped hating them.
This is not because of anything they did or anything I did. It wasn’t due to anything except clarity. I was working at a magazine, and Warner Bros. mailed me a promotional copy of The Very Best of the Eagles. I slid the CD into the disk drive of my computer and waited for the music to start. Once again, the first track was “Take It Easy.” It sounded okay, but — then again — it had always sounded okay. I’d accidentally heard this song hundreds of times in my life, so there wasn’t going to be any big surprise. It was the same song it had always been, remastered but unchanged. The only thing that was different was how I felt about the band itself: Suddenly, I felt nothing. I did not hate them. I didn’t love them, but I certainly didn’t view their subsistence as problematic or false or socially sinister. They were just an old rock band who made music that was significant and relaxing and inevitable, and who seemed to be hated (particularly by people like myself) for reasons that were both valid and ridiculous. So I listened to “Take It Easy” and I thought about its lyrical content, and I came to a mostly positive — but highly uncomfortable — realization about who I was and how I thought about art.
I no longer possessed the capacity to hate rock bands.
I started caring about pop music as a fifth grader, but it didn’t make me lose my grip on reality until the summer before seventh grade. That was 1984. For the next twenty years, I didn’t care about anything else with as much unbridled intensity, except for women and amateur athletics and booze and (of course) all the self-made problems that accompany those specific pursuits. Because I loved music so much, I hated it even more — but my reasons for disliking music were never as valid as my reasons for enjoying it. What follows is a chronology of every artist I most despised from age twelve to age thirty-one, followed by a brief analysis of what I did not like about them at the time . . .
1984 (Bruce Springsteen): There’s never been an artist I didn’t like as much as I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen as a twelve-year-old. I hated all his songs, including the ones I’d never heard of. I hated music about roads and I hated his generic-yet-kinetic clothing and I hated whoever it was I thought he represented, which I imagined to be humorless people who wanted to vote for Gary Hart. I just thought he was so fake, which is the most backward possible reason for hating Bruce Springsteen. But — for me, at the time, having no idea who Holden Caulfield even was — my definition of fakeness was fanatically nuanced. I made extremely subtle distinctions. My favorite band was Mötley Crüe, whom I also viewed as fake — but the difference was that Mötley Crüe did not pretend they were real (or at least not in a convincing enough manner). Vince Neil never led me to believe that any element about who he pretended to be was supposed to serve any purpose beyond “the act of being the singer in Mötley Crüe.” Yet old people who read Newsweek believed Bruce was somehow different from everyone else making music, and his willingness to perpetuate that fallacy made me view his integrity as profoundly compromised. It seemed like the difference between acting in a play and lying in real life. [Obviously, time has passed and my feelings have changed. I now view Springsteen as an upright citizen who’s recorded more good songs than the vast majority of people who have ever tried to do so. I am his fan, sort of. But not completely. Any time I meet someone who thinks Springsteen is overrated or artificial, I find myself thinking, “This person is extra real.” I immediately respect that person more. And yet I do sincerely believe Springsteen is (on balance) a great guy. I don’t hate him at all. So why am I still retroactively trolling him? It’s just something I can’t get over.]
1985 (Bruce Springsteen): This was an emotional hangover from 1984. I was a grammar school red giant collapsing into a middle school white dwarf; my anti-Boss feelings grew dense and intense (super hot and extra useless). Why did he use the word speedball instead of fastball when reminiscing about high school sports? Was he trying to sound dumb on purpose? Was ESPN unavailable in New Jersey? An episode of Growing Pains was built around on Mike Seaver (Kirk Cameron) wanting to see Springsteen in concert — and so did his fictional father (Alan Thicke). I suppose Springsteen was the first major artist for which this commonality was plausible: If someone had youngish parents, it was theoretically possible for a fifteen-year-old kid to love the same singer as his father. I found this kinship alien and undesirable, although now it probably happens all the time (in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, it’s actually an ordinance). That said, I don’t remember Bruce being popular with any of the kids at my school, even casually. The teachers seemed to like him more than the students. He used to be so much older then; he’s younger than that now. Springsteen used to be the same age as Steve Winwood, but now he’s maybe six years older than Julian Casablancas.
1986 (Van Halen): This temporary distaste for VH was solely a product of my inflexible (almost fascist) support of David Lee Roth’s solo career and my dislike of anyone who thought 5150 was better than 1984 (an opinion I deemed “unserious”). Hating Van Halen required an astronomical degree of nerfherdian gymnastics, particularly since Roth essentially destroyed a band I loved and then tried to act like he’d been unjustly fired. But I’ve always been like this; when Mötley Crüe split up in 1991, I sided with Vince. Within any group conflict, my loyalties inevitably rest with whichever person is most obviously wrong. I feel like I started appreciating 5150 around the same time Randy Moss started playing for the Minnesota Vikings, but I don’t think those two things have any relationship outside of my personal memory and the content of this specific sentence.
1987 (Dire Straits): My reasoning here is not particularly reasonable. Basically, I (and everyone I trusted, which was maybe five other people in the entire world) misinterpreted the lyrics to the song “Money for Nothing,” which had actually been on the radio for two years before I got around to hating it. We all thought that when Mark Knopfler sang, “That little faggot with the earring and the makeup / Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair,” he was criticizing glam bands like Cinderella and Faster Pussycat. [I now realize those lyrics were actually mimicking some random bozo who worked inside a kitchen appliance store and liked to spew opinions about MTV during his cigarette break. But these kinds of things were impossible to know in 1987.] I decided Mark Knopfler was a soft, anti-metal hypocrite, which makes only slightly less sense than believing Springsteen was a fraudulent poseur. Weirdly, I was not remotely troubled by the song’s language; being a high school sophomore, it had not yet occurred to me that the word faggot could be viewed as offensive to anyone who wasn’t literally gay. I stopped hating Dire Straits around the same time I started defending H. Ross Perot, but neither entity truly migrated into my mental universe. The fact that I insist on always referring to Mark Knopfler as “Mark Knopfler” is probably proof: our relationship remains formal. I dig “Sultans of Swing,” but if someone said, “Hey Chuck — Warner Brothers has just released a DVD with some amazing footage from the Brothers in Arms tour,” I would probably avoid watching it by pretending I’d already seen it.
1988 (R.E.M.): I didn’t relate to the kind of person who related to R.E.M. and I didn’t like textured, nonheavy songs that made me feel like some dour weirdo was telling me I was living my life wrong. Over the next twenty years, R.E.M. would become one of my favorite bands of all time, which means a) the sixteen-year-old version of me would have hated the thirty-six-year-old version of me, and b) I probably was living my life wrong.
1989 (Fine Young Cannibals): Though I could not name one member of the group or one fact about their history, I didn’t like them as people (and was annoyed that “She Drives Me Crazy” was so obviously not terrible). Their fan base had progressive haircuts and trendy clothes, qualities I considered unpatriotic. Everything turned around when I found out they selected their band name by randomly opening Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. Now I think they’re a bunch of geniuses.
1990 (R.E.M.): The use of “Stand” in the opening credits of Get a Life galvanized my fear that I was losing an undeclared war against reality. How could Chris Elliott support this? I decided to stop rooting for the Georgia Bulldogs.