Meta-Sentimentality: A Kind Word for the Eagles

It’s kind of amazing the shame we feel over sentimentality, isn’t it? We all like to feel we’re the sort of sensibility that can make those tough-minded esthetic choices, resist the lure of “mere sentiment,” the easy emotional response. Essayists love to promote their purported sophistication by disdaining “kitsch” and ” poshlust .”

The scholar Perry Meisel once wrote a thoughtful essay about the modernist “esthetic of difficulty,” the cult of obscurity and opacity for its own esthetically toughening, challenging self-the intellectual equivalent of the argument for dietary fiber. It could be said there’s a kind of esthetic of difficult emotions as well, dark, complex ones of course, being so much more deeply serious. Perhaps it’s a derivative in the emotional realm of the cult of authenticity, the reverence for reticence rather than passion. You see it in the white folkies, who not only sneered at Dylan for going electric but look down their noses at the likes of Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, the whole brilliant Chicago electric Blues school, for lacking the authenticity of soporific Delta Blues acoustical strummers.

And look at the way certain people think it somehow validates their intellectual sophistication to diss Paul McCartney-as if the Beatles were only about John Lennon, rather than the dialectic of John’s and Paul’s sense and sensibility. Speaking of sense and sensibility, you see the same syndrome among Austenites in those who pronounce Mansfield Park superior to Persuasion because the latter is deplorably romantic rather than merely astringent.

You know who knows about this? Sandra Bernhard, a performer no one accuses of being overly sentimental. She’s surely our patron saint of ironic astringency, yet she’ll do things in her concerts like giving full-blown, all-out treatments to schlocky sentimental ballads like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.'” Not just to make fun of it in the easy, obvious, camp way-she’s doing something much more interesting, she’s playing with the borderline between sentiment and sentimentality, between the secret indulgence in sentimentality we crave, and our guilty self-consciousness about it. She’s not despising but savoring that side of her that can be stirred by the potent spell of cheap sentiment. She’s savoring her sentimentality with an appreciative knowingness that saves it from being mere, or pure, sentimentality, transfigures it into-what? Dare we call it Meta-Sentimentality ?

What prompts this meditation on sentiment and meta-sentimentality is a desire, a hesitant, slightly shameful desire to say something in favor of the Eagles. Hesitant because nobody who cares too deeply about his critical credentials would be caught dead saying a kind word about the Eagles. You might as well try to defend Neil Diamond. These days, this is “the love that dare not speak its name.” In fact, I wouldn’t even say I love the Eagles; I like the Allman Brothers better, for instance. But the Eagles are so universally sneered at, you could call it “the like that dare not speak its name.”

In any event, it was a moment of mutual shamefaced Eagles confession I shared with someone recently that started me thinking about risking the shame of making my Eagles thing public knowledge in a column. It was literally a “Hotel California” kind of moment. I was wandering jet-lagged through the lounge of the Westwood Marquis on a two-day turnaround trip to L.A. last month, when I ran into another New York journalist, a guy who writes for The New Yorker and whom I’ll designate (to spare him the shame of public exposure) Mr. X. We sat around in the lounge talking about our perverse affection for things L.A.-me for the L.A. of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye , the lens through which I see everything out there. We even admitted to one another we had a thing for Jackson Browne’s guilty, heartbreaking, sweetly self-tormenting Late for the Sky LAX sentimentality.

It was at this point that one of us, I think it was me (O.K., it was me), leaned over, and actually looking around nervously to see that no one was in earshot , took that final fatal step beyond the suspect but defensible affection for Jackson Browne. And actually said, well, whispered : “You know, I even actually kind of, sort of like the Eagles.” Actually, I probably didn’t even have the courage to say that. I probably said something more temporizing like, “I kind of like some Eagles songs , too.”

But to my surprise and relief Mr. X did not suddenly get up and recall an appointment he was late for. He actually confessed that he kinda, sorta liked some Eagles songs as well.

Once the dread words were spoken, once the mutual confession had been made, the dam broke, we both felt free to speak the unspeakable and compare notes. “Lyin’ Eyes,” killer! “Take It to the Limit”-how can you not love it? Thumbs down on the heavy-handed moralizing of “Life in the Fast Lane,” mixed feelings about “Hotel California.” But then we went even further, one step further into a kind of terra incognita of terminal shameless unhipness. Thank God no one was listening: We even admitted there were certain songs from Don Henley’s solo career we liked. I admitted I was a complete sucker for “The Last Worthless Evening,” and Mr. X admitted that-well, let’s draw the curtain of privacy over his choice.

At this point, we were really out there in a zone beyond hope of ever being cool again. Everyone is supposed to diss Don Henley. Every card-carrying hipster in the universe will recite in Pavlovian fashion at the very mention of Henley’s name the song that Mojo Nixon, gadfly rock satirist, wrote, called “Don Henley Must Die.” (You know, because he’s too slick for words and dresses like Don Johnson.) What they won’t tell you is the story I heard, that when Mojo Nixon did “Don Henley Must Die” in an audience that included Don Henley, Mr. Henley gamely joined him on stage and sang along. After which even Mojo Nixon kind of thinks Don Henley is cool, he told the Observer . And he’s changed some lyrics in the song to ” Sting Must Die.”

But wasn’t it interesting that when the Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago, hardly anyone had a good word to say for them (as opposed to the truly obnoxious Fleetwood Mac) and many (surprise!) found reason to diss Don Henley for making pompous remarks about rock history. Like the whole idea of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with its kitschy poshlust (there!) Swedish Academy trappings of pretension, isn’t too pompous for words in the first place.

In any case the whole shameful Hotel California confessional session and the uneasy Hall of Fame induction (which undoubtedly sent America’s rock critics into spasms of cringing) set me to thinking about what the deal is with the Eagles, with my Eagles thing, what is it about the band I find so shamefully appealing, so appealingly shameful, and whether it’s possible to separate the shame from the appeal.

Which brings me to another shameful confession, a huge mistake I’ve made about the Eagles for some two decades now, a mistake about my all-time fave Eagles song, “Ol’ 55.” I fell in love with “Ol’ 55″ when I first heard it on a motel room radio early one morning someplace in the upper Midwest, on my way to the hollow mountain in Colorado that housed the early warning system for nuclear attack. (I was investigating the Strategic Air Command’s ability to prevent accidental nuclear war.) I was having one of those moments of doubt that had always afflicted me as a reporter, one of those motel room morning moments Joan Didion captured so well in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem . The moment when she finds herself out on assignment in the middle of nowhere sitting on a motel room bed afflicted with self-doubt, trying to wrench up the determination to make another call to the local D.A. who doesn’t want to talk to her about a story that may not work out anyway and what’s the point of trying except, she suggests, self-respect.

“Ol’ 55″ isn’t really a song about self-respect. It’s really a song about self-pity and forgiveness for self-pity. Some guy getting ready to leave some motel, at dawn; to leave some situation, probably some embittered romantic situation which has left him crippled by remorse, facing a future of infinite regret but still somehow (barely) glad to be alive. As I said, it’s not so much about self-respect as self-pity, but in a pinch, romanticized self-pity will get one out the door when self-respect is not entirely forthcoming.

Anyway, I always loved “Ol’ 55″ for that. (Ol’ 55, I assume, is the ’55 Chevy he’s going out the door to. It’s one of the two best anthems to cars anyone’s written-the other being Neil Young’s incomparable “Long May You Run.”) But here’s where I discovered my big mistake. Every once in a while, I’d unearth an old Tom Waits album from my CD pile, the one that has Waits’ version of “Ol’ 55″ on it, and play it incessantly for a while and think to myself, isn’t it great that Tom Waits would cover an Eagles song, doesn’t that kind of validate my whole Eagles thing? Because Tom Waits is certifiably cool, he’s a romantic, sure, but he’s not considered a sappy sentimentalist. He used to be like that with Rickie Lee Jones, after all. He sees what I see in the Eagles, so it’s O.K.

Then, just as I was looking at the credit sheet of the CD of On the Border , the early Eagles album I got just so I could relisten to their version of “Ol’ 55,” I discovered something I’m probably the last person in America to know: “Ol’ 55″ was a Tom Waits song! He wrote it, the Eagles covered it, not the other way around. At first I thought, jeez, what an ignoramus I am. But then I thought, maybe the mistake explains something: that what I like about the Eagles is the gritty self-lacerating Tom Waits sensibility, the Chandleresque, neon noirish nihilism beneath the deceptively sweetish surface of their seductive melodic lines. Like Waits, the Eagles wrote about my favorite emotions: remorse, regret, self-pity, even (my new favorite) self-loathing. O.K., yes, there are a few exceptions, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (which I like) and “Take it Easy” (which I can’t stand mainly because I can’t stand the kind of person whose most profound advice is “take it easy.” Yeah, easy for you to say, buster). But most of their songs are self-lacerating, guilt-ridden in that narrow but exquisite emotional range between romantic self-pity and bitter self-loathing. I ask you: What’s not to like about that?