Learning From A Pro
The scene was usually set within the first few lines: the dark desert highway; the sad, empty smile; the new kid in town. "Start with a picture" remains as much a part of Glenn Frey's songwriting credo now as it was through all those years with the Eagles.
That's what he's saying now, here in his Beverly Hills office, in a gray sweat shirt and still tapping his jeans with the cigarette he first threatened to light a least 10 minutes ago. "I think it was very helpful for me to become a songwriter before the age of video," Frey says. "When I first learned to write songs, people's imagination was the screen against which all the tunes would play out. It's important to be visual."
This isn't just some idle small talk from the man who with Don Henley led the Eagles to repeated visits to the top of the pop music charts during much of the 1970s, singing songs that often missed delicate acoustic yearnings with a colder emotional politics. Soon enough he'll be lecturing on these mechanical and philosophical details of songwriting, drawing from his experiences with the Eagles and a continuing solo career, in a two-month course at UCLA Extension.
It's not exactly a detour from a post-Eagles career that has landed him in the top 10 twice with the songs "You Belong to the City" and "The Heat is On." Frey recently released his "Strange Weather" album, just finished his first national tour in several years, and is already talking of recording his next project in Nashville, Tenn., in a kind of aesthetic move back toward his acoustic country-rock routes.
The weekly songwriting class beginning Tuesday emerged after Frey appeared as a guest speaker at a pair of other UCLA Extension music classes last year. He enjoyed that interaction with students, he says. And since his wife was pregnant with their second baby, and planned to stay near her Los Angeles doctors, he accepted an invitation to lead his own course.
"I know you can't teach creativity, and you can't show somebody how to summon inspiration," he says, finally lighting that cigarette. "But I think there's a lot of be talked about, and a lot of things to have in your mind, so you're ready when the time comes."
Although such major filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee have sometimes returned to the classroom to teach, the participation of a pop figure of Frey's credentials in a continuing classroom situation is rare, says Ronnie Rubin, director of the UCLA Extension's entertainment and performing arts department.
"He was very concerned about having a manageable-sized group, and he wanted people who were seriously committed to writing songs so that his time would be well-spent, Rubin says. "People have to sit and write, so he can give feedback. And he can only do that with a limited number of students. He wants to have an impact on their lives."
The class is limited to 20 students, Frey says, though there have been some tentative discussions about having the singer-songwriter also lead a larger one-day seminar. "Songwriting is intimate, and I think it will help to have the size of the class small," Frey says. "Everybody will get some individual attention from me."
Frey says the direction of the class will depend in part on his students, whether they are musicians, vocalists or strictly lyricists. He'll be in the midst of writing songs for the Nashville album by the time the class starts, and will probably bring in some of those compositions for discussion as they develop.
"It's a pretty unpredictable set of circumstances" that leads to the creation of a song, says Frey, whether it begins with a particular chord or a phrase, as did "Life in the Fastlane."
This all comes more than two decades after Frey's own abbreviated academic career at a community college outside Detroit. "I majored in lunchroom, parking lot and folk club. We used to sit around and go: 'The chicks are so much better lookin' at Michigan State. I couldn't get in.'"
But he did get some valuable, if informal instruction back then from Bob Seger, who first encouraged the 18 year-old future Eagles to develop his own songwriting. Otherwise, Seger warned, Frey would be doomed to play Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Mitch Ryder songs in bar bands his whole miserable career.
"He was really the first person I met who was really a songwriter," Frey says of Seger, whom he hopes to have visit one of the class meetings. "He was already writing songs and making records and was having local hits in the Great Lakes area.
"One thing he told me was 'You can never say the title of your song enough in your song.' Not that I've used that all the time, but it's just something to think about, to exploit a title if it's good."
As it is, Frey is expecting the class to "be like group therapy," where students will openly discuss one another's works-in-progress, writing methods, potential topics and such less tangible elements as "what makes the right atmosphere for creative ideas?"
Given Frey's upcoming Nashville recording--this after spending more than a year delicately piecing together the elements of the slick production of "Strange Weather"--the songwriter suggests he may decide to emphasize some basic song ingredients, rather than promote a dependence on the newest electronic production tools.
"I could sit here with a guitar right now and play you 'Lyin' Eyes,' Just on the acoustic guitar, without any of the band or the background vocals or any of the production. An you would still see the possibility of this being a good piece of material to record.
"It's important to have production in the back of your mind, but I don't think it's paramount. A good song will sound good if you just sit down and play it on the piano or guitar."
That was true enough when he arrived on the Los Angeles folk-rock scene of 1970, when his growing interests in a country-flavored sound had him mingling with the future members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Jackson Browne and JD Souther. In those days, Browne was a neighbor in the hills of Echo Park, and in the midst of writing such songs as "Jamaica", "Say You Will" and "Doctor My Eyes" for his debut album, as well as "Take it Easy."
"I heard these songs start from just a verse and a chorus," Frey remembers. "And I couldn't believe how religiously he worked on these songs an got up every morning and played through the three or four songs he was working on for three or four hours. Then he'd break and go to lunch, have a meeting,and then come back and be working on them again and again. I began to see there was a lot of perspiration involved, and it didn't just come out of him instantly."
The songs that Frey soon began writing with Henley and others for the Eagles during the 1970s have now often been acknowledged as important influences on the contemporary country-pop artists now dominating the sales charts. Even so a recent project planned for the Eagles to reunite in the studio to record a few new tracks for an Eagles boxed retrospective was scrapped last year.
"No, I don't think that's going to happen now," Frey says. "We've just all gone into too many different directions, and we've sort of gone on with our lives. And I think it's very difficult to get back to that place."
He adds: "I've always thought the songs that I've written have been sort of a reflection of a place and time I've been in my life. To me some of the early Eagles songs sound young. But I don't think I could go back, just like I don't think I could have written the songs for 'Strange Weather' six years ago either."