Glenn Frey Talks Take It Easy, Don Henley & Jackson Browne
[This is a transcript of an Art of the Song interview as broadcast nationally on Public Radio. Click here to listen to the complete show with music.]
Viv: How do you think songwriting has changed over the years?
Glenn: I grew up in the time before videos. I think everybody was a more visual songwriter. I think imagery has a lot to do with it and we always tried to be visual. So I’m not sure that there’s as much of that going on now. I’m not sure there’s as much clever lyric writing. Whenever I speak about songwriting and talk about it, there’s some things you can’t teach, and one of them is to be clever. But there’s good stuff out there. You just kind of have to go look around for it. There’s young people who are writing songs who have all their influences in order and know who the great songwriters are who came before them and know the rules. For me, what’s changed is now, on one hand, I’ve written a lot of songs that have been well-received. That could put some pressure on you to want to always live up to the standards of the songs you’ve written before. But, on the other hand, because I know I can do it, I’m feeling pretty unencumbered right now, I’m feeling pretty brave about writing songs and singing songs and doing my thing. I think that comes with experience.
John: When did you write your first song?
Glenn: Oh God, probably late high school. The thing I remember most, I grew up in Detroit, and Bob Seeger was my hero and kind of my big brother, my mentor. I remember we were sitting in a nightclub in Ann Arbor, Michigan called, I can’t remember right now, but anyway we were watching this great little R&B band from Detroit called “The Rationals” and they were very good. They had a cool lead singer and guitar player and rhythm section they played some funky stuff. It was a pretty good band. Seeger looks at me and he goes, “You know, Glenn, if they just keep doing this, they’re never going to make it.” And I said, “Really? Why?” He says, “Because they don’t write their own songs.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah, Glenn, if you want to make it in the music business, you’re going to have to write your own songs.” I said to Bob, I said, “Well, what if they’re bad?” And he goes, “Oh, they will be. You’re going to write a lot of bad songs, but eventually you might write a good one.” That was a turning point for me. The light went on that it was time to write songs. Then, I did exactly as Bob predicted. I wrote a lot of bad songs and kind of feeling my way around, trying to figure that out, then I got to California and I met J.D. Souther, and J.D. was a guy who was a little more evolved, further along in his songwriting development then I was. Then J.D. and I met Jackson Browne who was, again, steps way beyond where J.D. and I were as songwriters. I didn’t even really know how to write songs. We were living in Echo Park, down near downtown L.A., and J.D. and I had this little place that was about $60 a month. Underneath, Jackson Browne had this place that was probably illegal, but it was $30 and it was probably about as big as this room that we’re in right now. But he had a little spinet piano in the corner. We’d stay out late and go to The Troubadour and I’d be sleeping off the night’s revelry. I’d hear the teapot go off in Jackson’s place underneath because the walls were so thin. And he would be up and he would start playing piano. And he’s working on “Rock Me On the Water” and he’s working on a couple other songs, and he’s playing this one verse for like twenty minutes. He plays it over and over again. Then there’d be silence and the teapot would go off again and then, maybe ten or twenty minutes later, he’d come back and he’d have the second verse. Then he’d play the intro, the first verse, and the second verse, all together with the chords in between. So, he’d be working on this song and he’d be working on it for two, three, four hours in the morning. And I’m lying in bed up there like a knucklehead. I finally say, “So that’s how you do it. It’s like work. Oh, he does that over and over again. Oh man.” So that sort of gave me a little idea that you had to have more than just inspiration. There was work involved and revision. So that kind of started me on my way.
Viv: I love that. Training by eavesdropping.
John: Tell us about how “Take It Easy” came about.
Glenn: Jackson was writing “Take It Easy”. We’re still in Echo Park. And he didn’t have the second verse. He was telling me the story. He had actually gone; he drove to Sedona, Arizona and back. Sedona’s a pretty cosmic-looking place to go. It’s got that whole thing. It’s a very mystical place. He had driven there and he actually had car trouble and he broke down in Winslow, Arizona. He said, “And I’m trying to hitchhike to get to a gas station and everybody slowed down to see who the weirdo was and then they just drove on. Nobody would pick me up.” He had this line, “I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…, but then what do I say?” So I said, ” Such a fine sight to see, it’s a girl my lord in a flatbed ford slowing down to take a look at me.” So I inserted that in what was already going to be a great Jackson Browne song no matter what, but he was very grateful and felt like I’d provided the missing piece, so he gave me songwriter credit on it.
Viv: Just like that.
Glenn: And we gave it back to him a little later. Anyway, that’s what happened.
Viv: When you’re writing with a group of people, such as you have with Jackson and J.D. Souther, and Don Henley, how do you stay on your own voice or your own path? What kind of flexibility do you like to have? What’s the process like?
Glenn: You’ve mentioned three of the four people that I’ve managed to get comfortable with in the songwriting process. The other person would be Jack Tempchin, who wrote “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and Jack and I wrote a lot of songs on my solo records. You have to have mutual respect. You have to feel comfortable with the other person. I always thought that that was the most difficult thing. You have to have some sort of connection that works. You have to be able to turn to somebody and just go, “I’m not sure about that line.” That’s not always the easiest thing for me to say, is criticize somebody else’s work, or offer a suggestion, or say, “We should make that better, that’s not quite it.” But, with John, and J.D. and Jackson and Jack Tempchin, those guys I feel comfortable with and I don’t mind them telling me if something is a little askew. I like the idea of having somebody to bounce something off of, especially when I was first starting to write songs, this was around the time that I was working with J.D. a lot. J.D’s songs were better. My songs hadn’t evolved yet. I hadn’t read enough books. I hadn’t, for one reason or another; I wasn’t quite there yet. So I felt comfortable writing with Don. “Let’s write something together.” Of course, then, it turns out that Don has an English literature major and just barely missed graduating from North Texas state and he’s read every great poet. He’s got this incredible background in lyrical writing. So he became my songwriting partner and that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was able to provide him with all sorts of interesting chords and musical approaches and my share of lyrics and they were able to be the bed for him to do some great writing and some great singing, and it worked out very well for me to have a partner. And Don was a great partner.
Viv: One of the missions that we have with Art of the Song is to, through story like this, we uncover other people’s processes. People who’ve been working in the field of creativity and using their creative expression for years and have honed it into a craft and a wonderful career. What would you say to somebody who was perhaps looking for the road in to creative expression?
Glenn: Well, I think more of Buddhist sort of approach, which would be, maybe, in laymen’s terms, I can’t really tell you about God, but if you follow these steps, there’s a good chance that you’ll have a mystical experience. Then, it’ll be what it is for you. I think you sort of do that with the creative process. If you want to be a songwriter, I think you have to set aside the time to work. I don’t write all the time, but when it comes time to write, I’ll just go, “These three weeks, Monday through Friday, from after breakfast till whenever I’m spent, I’m going to write.” Then, you get yourself ready for the moments when it all happens. And it doesn’t happen all the time. The songwriting thing is fascinating to me. I’m always surprised at how I end up writing songs, or my friends and I end up writing songs. But I just know that you get ready, so you’re thinking about it all the time. You got your song title. It’s not a bad idea to have song titles, or story ideas, that can certainly help you along the way. Some songs, though, you just start with the music, then the story just sort of comes to you because of the music. Other times…We had the title ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ for five months before I heard Joe Walsh play “do do doodle do doodle do do do” and I said ‘Oh, that could be the lick for that song I was thinking about’. They evolve in different ways, but I think the best thing that you can do is show up and try every day and do that for a long enough period of time that you sort of get your wheels greased and you sort of get used to it. The other thing we used to always do is, we write some funny songs. If you get too serious about something, then…Jack Tempchin and I, and the Eagles too. Just to keep things going along and so everything doesn’t have to be great all the time, “Hey, what about this? Jesus is coming and boy, is he pissed.” So Jack Tempchin and I wrote a country song, we spent a day doing that. But it seemed like that was the right thing to do that day. You’re kind of just keeping it going and keeping the wheels greased and start thinking more like a songwriter every day. Then you start carrying these ideas around with you. They won’t go away. You’ve got a half-written song that’s waiting for you to come back. Come work on it. It’s fascinating stuff. I haven’t really figured it out, other than to show up and try to get yourself in that place. Whatever that is for you. If that’s coffee and cigarettes, if it’s granola bar and chamomile tea. Whatever it takes. You light candles, you burn incense, you turn the lights down, you turn them up, you walk around. You get your legal pads all set up the way you like them with your favorite pens. Start like that. The other thing I think that really helps is to be a reader. If you’re going to deal in words, you need to be reading and speaking and hearing words. Joni Mitchell taught me to love words. Only because I saw how much she loved words and language. So I’m just trying to always keep a book going. I’m always reading about something, so is Henley. It helps. And when we get together to work, we got something to talk about.
Click here for the last installment of our interview with Glenn Frey