Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Eagles – “Lyin’ Eyes”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #2 in November 1975
By 1975 the Eagles had scored a few hits, made some dough. Keeping an eye on their bottom line, leaders Glenn Frey and Don Henley watched the Laurel Canyon acoustic country-rock scene from which they had drawn sustenance slip into desuetude as a afternoon variety show kind of story-song, epitomized by David Geddes’ “Run Joey Run” and Gordon Lightfoot, gripped the Hot 1oo. Disco and funk made threatening noises. The band wanted slicker and trashier. Enter Don Felder, a journeyman guitarist who’d given a young Tom Petty lessons in Gainesville and had kicked it with the Eagles during tour rehearsals. “We thought, ‘Well, how can we write something with that flavor, with that kind of beat, and still have the dangerous guitars?'” Frey told Cameron Crowe in 2003.
“Lyin’ Eyes” did not have that beat, nor were the guitars dangerous. But Frey, who wrote most of it with Henley’s help, channeled the purported danger into the lyrics: a narrative about a dumb chick not actress enough to hide her promiscuity. This trope is as archetypal as they come; men learn that women matter insofar as they remind them of their sweet, angelic mamas. Hundreds of guitarslingers from Robert Johnson to Richard Thompson have specialized into disciplining these devil women.
Two things grate about “Lyin’ Eyes.” First, the precision of the arrangement, normally a virtue, is in scary congruence with Frey. “Lyin’ Eyes” is not about the chick so much as the guy naive enough to have trusted her, to keep trusting her; Bernie Leadon’s typically excellent mandolin work emphasizes the sour grapes (Leadon, not long for this change, skedaddled). Second, with Frey at the mike, “Lyin’ Eyes” sounds cramped, devoid of generosity. “She’s headed for the cheatin’ side of town” is a line that Gram Parsons would’ve sung with wit, that George Jones would have suffused with so much pathos that the listener might feel creeped out eavesdropping. On the same album’s “One of These Nights,” on which Henley sings lead, the character acts as if he were one of the men who could have slept with the “she” in “Lyin’ Eyes.” Thanks to Henley’s weathered, thin, faintly effeminate timbre, the character could be the woman in ‘Lyin’ Eyes.” A superior performance and song, approximating Frey’s ambitions about the period.
Steeped in bad faith, “Lyin’ Eyes” is a lie. For, after all, what’s “Lyin’ Eyes” about but the curdling of the Eagles’ own dreams as Lear jets and cocaine complicated the lives of former Linda Ronstadt backup musicians? So impervious to irony are the songwriters that when Frey sings, “She’s so far gone she feels just like a fool” there’s no suggestion that Frey is the fool. A song about an asshole? Hallelujah and why not. I mentioned “One of These Nights.” A couple years later Frey and Henley also wrote “The Long Run,” a sly, nasty little number on which Henley’s vocal and the other musical elements – Joe Walsh’s mocking slide guitar, the cheerful harmonies, the organ – are in perfect collusion. “Lyin’ Eyes,” on the other hand, is congealed toothpaste. Also, it’s long. Very long – I can believe the malice poured out of Frey, difficult to contain on the pages of his yellow legal pad. I hate “Lyin’ Eyes” because its torpid professionalism has convinced millions that it’s a good song. Its blanket airplay has magnified its chowderheaded sentimentality.
I belong to an exclusive club: a dozen of us on ILM in the fall of 2013 listened to an Eagles song a day, even the material on 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden. We salute each other, my band of brothers and sisters, as survivors of the musical equivalent of Antietam, the Marne, and Midway. We learned, over the course of three months, that, the stray oddity like Leadon’s narcotized space-banjo operetta “Journey of the Sorcerer” aside, the Eagles’ best hits were on Greatest Hits. They had no talent for even simulating empathy. Henley and Frey kept fellow travelers like J.D. Souther, Jack Tempchlin, and Jackson Browne on retainer to augment their meager talents, and superb guitarists like Leadon, Felder, and Walsh for subtlety and wit (why Walsh, a superb multi-instrumentalist in his own right whose James Gang surpassed the Eagles in rhythmic finesse and hahas, indentured himself to characters as repulsive as Frey and Henley, would require a Leon Edel. I don’t want to say it was merely filthy lucre).
But these complains don’t matter. I’m another workaday critic spared one of Henley’s poisoned apple missives — fulsome denunciations of dissent, women’s bodies, and common sense. To receive one of these beauties in 1987 meant you’d made it. “Lyin’ Eyes” and its brothers have had the last laugh. I can’t not go to CVS, you know.