It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that you’re the guy who watches music documentaries on iTunes after the kids have gone to bed. I feel like I’m confirming a bunch of cliches that involve Starbucks, the New York Times, the number forty (40), Pitchfork and whiteness. Honestly, not all of those cliches are true. But, most of them are.
That said, a week ago, I would have thought that Charles Bradley and The Eagles have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Really nothing. But, a week later, I realize that I would have been wrong. The two things that connect them are:
- I watched documentaries about both artists within a week of each other, both after my normal bedtime.
- Charles Bradley told an amazing, heartbreaking story about how, when he was working in upstate New York, his car wouldn’t start on account of high snowfall. He called his boss from a pay phone to say that he couldn’t make it to work and his boss told him that, if he was unable to make it to work that day, he wouldn’t have a job the day after. Impossibly kind and reliable, Charles trudges to work by foot through the snow and stops at a local diner for some warmth. Inside, he has a transcendent moment that emboldens his life’s purpose and faith in god. That moment was the playing of “Take It To The Limit” on the diner jukebox.
The Charles Bradley doc, The Soul of America, is the story of a man whose incredible voice is surpassed only by a sweetness, sadness and faith that are among the most extraordinary things I’ve seen. Mr. Bradley regularly breaks down into tears on film, pleading with god to dignify his sacrifices and bottomless capacity to love. He spent a lifetime working odd food prep jobs, paying out more money than he could earn to ensure that his mother (and sisters) had a roof over their heads and food on the table. At nights, he would moonlight as James Brown in a band he called “Black Velvet” to occasionally channel and release what he was feeling. He spent years sleeping in dirty basements, enduring the abuse of family (some of whom he supports), professional rejection, confusion (it’s unclear if he’s ever had a romantic relationship) and the simple, mostly cruel state of the affairs he was delivered into from the outset.
His professional salvation came when he knocked on the door (literally) of Daptone Records in Brooklyn. The Daptone family of musicians and producers are an immensely sympathetic group. They’re charismatic, talented and have given everything they reasonably could to develop a number of worthy performers. It’s a challenge to resolve the relationship between the mostly white, young hipsters (I mean that in the 1940/50s sense) and their star singers and performers. There are layers to unpack there, for sure. But, I’ve come away, thinking the very best of all parties involved after seeing this movie.
I don’t necessarily love or appreciate Charles Bradley’s music any more having seen this doc. His voice is immediate like Otis Redding. I’m not sure if it could possibly make me feel more than it already does. But I will say that if there has been a person that could reasonably called a great “soul singer” in the last twenty years, it’s Charles Bradley. And I wish the world would wrap him up and hug him.
The Eagles documentary, on the other hand, confirmed what I had assumed without real evidence: that they were a bunch of really talented, mostly charmless guys, who had the great benefit of a drummer with an uniquely amazing voice and a bunch of supporting players who were, arguably, the reason why the band ever made anything resembling great music.
The History of The Eagles, Volume 1, was actually a really good documentary. It helped me understand how the band succeeded. Ostensibly, Glenn Frey was the CEO of the band. He was the most charismatic, the most willful and the only one who could lead. Henley was a half-baked visionary with a false sense of intelligence but a spectacular voice. Frey realized this and increasingly made sure that the group was writing songs for Don. I had always assumed that Glenn and Don had tension. Amazingly, they had very little. Glenn was de facto boss of the band who made sure that the most valuable player (Don) and instrument (his voice) in the band were always being served.
But here’s the thing. The band’s few truly great songs — “Hotel California”, “Take It To The Limit” and “Victim of Love” — were really the product of the supporting players, namely Randy Meisner and Don Felder. Frey and Henley would take the key ideas from each song and bring them to the finish line. In two of those cases (“Hotel California” and “Victim of Love”), Henley takes lead vocals and makes a great song a classic. But, to be sure, the key guitar parts, melody, basic structure, are neither Frey nor Henley’s. And, “Take It To The Limit” is simply a Randy Meisner song. I’d argue that most of the other Eagles’ “classics,” with perhaps the exception of One Of These Nights, are bland, but likable, tunes with exceptional vocals and harmonies. But not songs that bring you to your knees.
I really liked “Volume 1” of the documentary. The second part was mostly useless. Oddly, I left the first part liking Glenn Frey a whole lot and respecting him as a strong leader but not as an especially great singer/songwriter. Henley comes off as a guy with vague (or poorly articulated), big ideas and a sense of greatness wrongly ascribed to a talent other than his voice. And the band’s story — central to the 70s LA scene with Jackson Browne, CSN, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt — is amazing, if only in that it led to such inconceivable, excessive success.
And, by the way. How has nobody ever mentioned the odd Don Henley/Walter White thing that’s happening (ignore the hair and listen to him talk, if you can).