Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Artists’ deaths spur memories, melancholy

Glenn Frey delights fans with his acoustic guitar during the Sacramento stop of the Long Road Out of Eden tour on April 27, 2010, at Arco Arena.
Glenn Frey delights fans with his acoustic guitar during the Sacramento stop of the Long Road Out of Eden tour on April 27, 2010, at Arco Arena.

Glenn Frey was dead. The news was coming through the radio on a rainy drive home from Southern California, and the elements outside our family car matched the mood of the 50-something adults sitting in the front seats. The trek from Disneyland to Sacramento was suddenly a wake for Frey, and for the youthful emotions that connected us – and millions of others – to his timeless music.

A founder of the Eagles, arguably the most successful American rock band, Frey was 67 when he died Jan. 18 from various illnesses – rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, pneumonia – maladies he would have seemed impervious to in his 1970s heyday.

In the past, when entertainers had died, it had been easy enough for me to maintain an emotional distance because often they were much older and of a different generation. Not so with Frey, the news of his passing casting a melancholy light on my adolescent memories.

“We’re getting up in years,” said Mark Goodman, the satellite radio DJ who once introduced videos at the dawn of MTV in the early ’80s.

We couldn’t pretend Goodman was talking to someone else. He was talking to us. We are getting up in years. This reality was punctuated by the kids laughing in the backseat as they played games and asked innocent yet painful questions, such as “Who was Glenn Frey, Dad?”

I once had been the kid who was indifferent when my dad lamented the passage of time and the loss of people and things he held dear. Now it was my turn to ask my children to please quiet down as the opening strains of “Hotel California” played on the radio. The kids weren’t being disrespectful. It’s just that Frey meant nothing to them. Neither did David Bowie or Mic Gillette, founder of Tower of Power.

For my children, the music of their generation has yet to be written. For me, two artists from the soundtrack of my youth died within days of each other.

Before Frey’s passing, the “Hotel California” album evoked only my early teenage years when – as teenagers often do – I began thinking for myself and pulling away from my parents. Frey inspired me to test parental disapproval for the first time. My dad hated rock music. He hated long hair even more. When I gravitated toward both, it created a family battle that we had never had before.

I was inspired to rebel against 1940s-era parents by lyrics I didn’t really understand. “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair / Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air / Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night.”

Hearing Don Henley sing those lyrics about the free spirit of ’70s life and life in the fast lane, I could imagine the album cover from the “Hotel California,” with its glorious sunset beaming behind palm trees and a California Mission-inspired hotel.

At 14, I certainly wasn’t living life in the fast lane when “Hotel California” topped the Billboard charts in the summer of 1977. For me, it was coming of age music. I would go to Tower Records and listen to the Eagles as employees spun vinyl for kids who had money to buy records. I didn’t. All I could do was listen and watch from a distance as my mind opened. In the store, I was turned on to Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone magazine. I first read seminal American poetry, such as “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. I discovered Lou Reed and Led Zeppelin.

I also discovered David Bowie and was stunned by his gender-bending stage persona, his seductive pop melodies and subversive lyrics. In “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie sang: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl / Hey babe, your hair’s alright / Hey babe, let’s go out tonight.”

The idea of not being sure if you’re a boy or a girl seemed frightening at the time, given the Mexican/Catholic homophobia of my upbringing. But that song had a primal effect on kids everywhere. It empowered people who felt different and looked different.

To this day, the lyrics to Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes” sound like a call to action to outsiders everywhere: “I, I will be king / And you, you will be queen / Though nothing, will drive them away / We can beat them, just for one day / We can be heroes, just for one day.”

Bowie later said this song was about an affair between his manager and a young woman that was kept secret for years. But like any true art, the lyrics and the melodies carried messages that moved people for different reasons.

It was through Bowie’s music that casual and cruel homophobia became unmasked to me. I met and became friends with kids who were gay. I didn’t advertise it to my family because I was still too immature to know my own mind in those years. But I didn’t run away from the ideas contained in the music I loved. That music helped shape me into a different person. Looking back now, I never felt the hostility toward gay people that some of my friends did. I saw the AIDS epidemic for what it was in the 1980s: a tragic health crisis that demanded attention.

I wonder now how much Bowie’s music had to do with my own world view, which conflicted with my dad’s and with those of other people I loved. My dad thought my music filled the minds of young people with dangerous ideas. In a sense he was right. The composers of my generation inspired me and others to find our own way and think for ourselves.

Bowie and Frey became part of the song book of my high school and college years, which also included Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Elvis Costello and the Clash. Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album of 1983 was his biggest commercial success the year I turned 21. Music videos were new then. It was a time made for Bowie, whose videos for “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” still take me back to when I was thinner and had much more hair.

These artists remained in the public eye for decades. I saw the Eagles in Sacramento in the late 1990s, their voices still powerful even though their faces revealed hard-earned wrinkles. The concert reminded me of how talented they were as singers, songwriters and performers. Though none of the Eagles was from Southern California, the band formed there, and their music evokes a mythology of Los Angeles as a magical, if decadently destructive, place.

We had only just heard that Frey was ill late last year, when the Eagles passed up a chance to be recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors due to Frey’s illness. Bowie’s death on Jan. 10 at 69 was a shock because his cancer had been kept secret. Suddenly, they were gone – along with Gillette of Tower of Power. The man who blew that gorgeous solo on “You’re Still a Young Man,” died Jan. 17 of a heart attack. He was 64.

I told my kids that their dad was sad because these songwriters had created music that he loved when he was a boy. They were sympathetic, but soon back to being kids. They’ll learn in their own time what we all learn eventually: That life is about the little things, like the music that moves you when you’re young and impressionable and just making your way in life.

Then one day, the maker of that music dies. You mourn for him or her and for the person you were. You’ll always love the songs, but from now on, when they come on the radio, they’ll scrape your heart while making it pump a little faster.