They created sublime melodies, but the iconic rockers were often at war with each other, their bassistTimothy B Schmit tells Neil McCormick
"It seems like people are just dropping off the Earth,” says Timothy B Schmit. “I suppose that happens when you get older. It’s part of life. No one’s getting out of it.”
The Eagles bassist is contemplating the death last year of Glenn Frey, the group’s founder and the man who co-wrote some of the most popular songs of the 20th century, including Hotel California and Take it Easy. “None of us realised how sick he was. He had a lot of health issues, but we didn’t know it was so serious. He went into hospital… and didn’t come back.” Frey, who died from intestinal problems on January 18, 2016, aged 67, had toured with the group as recently as the summer of 2015.
“It’s just so f---ing weird, you know?” says Schmit. “The two most mysterious things in our lives are birth and death. They are both miraculous events; one brings shiny, brand new life into the world, and the other snuffs it out like that.” He clicks his fingers. “That person isn’t there anymore.”
Schmit maintains a philosophical demeanour, but there are moments when his composure cracks.
“It’s really still shocking and we are still processing it,” he admits. “For a long time afterwards, I thought about his passing every day, quite a lot. That’s backed off a bit.”
Schmit was the last Eagle to join, recruited in 1977 when the country rock band ruled the world. Their Greatest Hits remains the second biggest selling album ever, its 42 million sales beaten only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Schmit played in a line-up of guitarist and vocalist Frey, drummer/vocalist Don Henley and lead guitarist Joe Walsh, through break-ups and reunions for over 30 years, until the death of their leader. So is that it for The Eagles, I wonder?
“It looks like it,” says Schmit. “The Eagles couldn’t be the Eagles without both Don and Glenn. That’s why I think this thing’s over. You see a lot of oldies bands still going out and playing when there’s not one person left from the original line up. I wouldn’t ever want to go there.”
Schmit has used this unexpected lull to make his sixth solo album, Leap of Faith. It is really a treat, a beautifully crafted melange of country, rock, reggae, R&B and blue-eyed soul, played with finesse and glistening with gorgeous harmonies. If it was an Eagles album, it would be hailed as a quite spectacular return. Schmit wrote it all himself and co-produced it with Eagles engineer Hank Linderman. Yet the bassist with the high, sweet voice only ever had a handful of co-writing credits on Eagles albums, singing lead on their last top 10 hit, I Can’t Tell You Why, in 1980.
“There was a pecking order. It was Glenn and Don’s band, no question. And they knew what they were doing. I learned a lot from them. A great song has to stand on its own, just singing and playing, and the rest is frosting. But you have to pay attention to the frosting.”
He was, he says, a late developer as a writer. “I’m not very prolific. I really go through a lot of aches and pains. I’m not digging a ditch, but it is work, and I do contemplate pretty much every word and note. I don’t take any of it lightly.”
It is probably fair to say that Schmit did not know what he was letting himself in for when he joined The Eagles. Frey once described the band’s career as: “Got crazy, got drunk, got high, had girls, played music and made money.” Guitarist Walsh was well on his way to becoming one of rock’s biggest hellraisers, with a mammoth alcohol and drug problem (he has been sober since 1994).
Frey, too, led a life of excess and the partying, combined with Frey’s cockiness and single-minded pursuit of success (no matter how debauched the night before, he never missed work), led to huge arguments.
“I felt the tension, I saw the squabbling, but I didn’t know how deep it was,” admits Schmit, who was the only member of the group to keep his intake of drugs and booze in check. “I was the new guy, I wanted to fit in. I saw it get heavier and weirder, but I missed the build up. I thought, ‘This will pass’.”
But just three years after he joined, The Eagles broke up in 1980, with band members threatening to administer beatings to each other onstage during a charity fundraising concert. “I was in shock. I didn’t even really believe it, until I finally called Glenn, and said, ‘Is this thing really over?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s over. See you’. It made me very sad. But you move on, and do what you can do.”
Schmit made solo records and guest appearances with a number of great artists, including Toto (he sings backing vocals on their 1982 number one single Africa), Steely Dan, Bob Seger, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Ringo Starr.
Asked in 1980 when The Eagles would get together again, Henley replied, “When hell freezes over.” Fourteen years later, in 1994, The Eagles embarked on the “Hell Freezes Over” tour. So what changed? “We said, ‘Screw all this. Why do we have to be all lovey dovey all the time? Let’s just go to work.’”
Thanks to Frey’s obsessive attention to detail, The Eagles’ live performances were machine-tooled perfection, with every song sounding exactly the way it was on record.
“I wouldn’t say it was free and easy and loose,” says Schmit. “Glenn always said it was his band, really. Don has a big personality too, he was definitely one of the Alpha dogs, but he had the sense to acquiesce, even if he had to hold back what he really thought.” Then Schmit laughs. “He didn’t always back off, that’s for sure.”
When I question the pleasure of playing in such a rigid and hierarchal setup, Schmit points out that he grew up in a trailer park in Sacramento. The hotel suite that he is currently occupying in Claridge’s is bigger than his childhood home. “I try to be conscious of my very good fortune.”
His real thrill, he insists, has always been performance. “Playing in front of tens of thousands, seeing their reactions, feeling what the crowd gave back, that could freshen up an old song quite profoundly. Man, I saw everything out there, people crying, laughing, transported to other dimensions. It’s pretty great.”
On a smaller scale, he experiences the same as a solo artist. “It is a little more intimidating doing smaller venues, ‘cos it’s so personal and people are sitting so close. It’s kind of scary and I’m attracted to that. I don’t wanna start sitting in a rocking chair yet.”
As a wealthy 69-year-old, he treats music as vocational. “I need to do this. I really do. It helps me be a happier person. I do not run my band like The Eagles, for sure. I’ve never had to be heavy handed.”
I ask what he misses most about Frey. “He wasn’t a wishy washy kind of guy. He knew what he wanted, so you weren’t left guessing about anything. But what I remember most fondly was that he was a belly laugher. He was a funny guy, always telling jokes. If he heard something funny, he would almost fall on the floor laughing.
“That was good. He had a complete opposite side too. I preferred the lighter one.”
Leap of Faith (Man in the Moon records) is out now