The death of Randy Meisner, the bassist and a founding member of the Eagles – one of America’s most successful bands, although they prefer to be known simply as “Eagles” – has been greeted with appropriate solemnity by his former act. Although Meisner quit the Eagles in September 1977, only appearing alongside his former bandmates once again in 1998 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they paid tribute to him.
“Randy was an integral part of the Eagles and instrumental in the early success of the band,” read an official statement. “His vocal range was astonishing, as is evident on his signature ballad, Take It to the Limit.”
Undoubtedly, these sentiments were sincere. Yet what the statement neglected to mention was that Meisner’s departure from the Eagles was caused by a spectacular fall-out, the circumstances of which have been questioned for decades.
When Meisner formed the Eagles along with Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Bernie Leadon, great things were expected from them almost immediately. Frey and Henley had been performing with Linda Ronstadt, and had formed a creative partnership that would prove vital to the success – and subsequent direction – of the band.
As Meisner would later say, without intending it as a compliment: “Don & Glenn were the Lennon/McCartney of the Eagles.” He himself had been performing with the musician and actor Ricky Nelson, and was an experienced session bassist; when the four were signed by David Geffen’s record label Asylum, they harmonised both literally and figuratively, and the resulting album, Eagles, was a million-selling smash in the United States, making immediate stars out of the four musicians.
Meisner was well represented on the band’s debut, singing lead on three of the 10 songs (the same as Frey, and one more than Henley and Leadon) and composing or co-composing three of the tracks, too. It was his song Take the Devil that began the album’s genesis, as all four musicians sang harmonies to it while playing acoustic guitars. The album producer Glyn Johns later enthused that “there it was, the sound. Extraordinary blend of voices, wonderful harmony sound, just stunning.”
Yet on the Eagles’ subsequent albums, it was clear that Meisner’s contributions were being sidelined in favour of Frey and Henley. The latter duo composed or co-composed eight of the 10 songs on their second LP, Desperado, and Frey or Henley sang on seven of the tracks. Meisner co-wrote two songs, sang lead on one and sang along with Henley on the other. Nobody, least of all him, could have believed that he was a truly equal partner in the group.
The establishment of the song writing partnership of Frey and Henley would inevitably cause tension within the Eagles, as any ideas of democracy were swiftly swept away. As Henley remarked: “That was a real crucial time for us. When we formed the band, it was supposed to be one of those ‘everybody’s equal’ affairs. We’d all sing and all write and so forth. But the fact is people aren’t all going to be able to do everything the same. It’s just like on a football team . . . . Some people quarterback and some people block. So we went through a lot of hassles for a while.”
Meisner was similarly marginalised on the Eagles’ third album, On the Border, again appearing on two of the 10 songs, and only writing one, the plaintive ballad Is It True, which he also sang lead vocals on. Although ostensibly a song about a lost lover – that old standby of the country rock that the band were then specialising in – listeners may have been able to discern dissatisfaction with the group that he was part of in such lyrics as “Is it true- you’ve lost that feeling?/ Is it true- you might be leaving?” As Frey and Henley became increasingly influential and powerful figures, Meisner began to feel that he was surplus to requirements.
He released his sole single with the Eagles, the soaring ballad Take It to the Limit, on the group’s next album, One Of These Nights, although even this was a co-composition with Henley and Frey; it reached number four on the US Billboard 100. The LP it was taken from was hugely successful and, according to Frey, a “painless” experience to write and record.
Nonetheless, Leadon left the band, dissatisfied with the group’s move away from country music towards the more mainstream rock sound that Henley and Frey saw as commercially essential – the four million copies that One Of These Nights sold suggested that they were correct in this regard – and was replaced by new lead guitarist Don Felder.
The band embarked on a world tour, after which they wrote and recorded their bestselling album Hotel California in 1976; it enjoys the distinction of having sold 32 million copies worldwide. Meisner was increasingly a bit part player, only writing and performing one song on the album, Try and Love Again, although he later claimed that Henley asked him to write the lyrics for the title track. He was unable to do so, on the grounds that he found lyric-writing difficult, and thereby missed out on millions of dollars in royalties. Although he later said that “we were getting along pretty well doing that album”, Meisner was going through marital difficulties caused by his being away from home for extended periods on tour.
The relationship between Meisner and Frey, in particular, was now increasingly fractious. In 1977, while touring Hotel California, Meisner became worried that he would no longer be able to hit the high notes on Take it to the Limit, in part because he had embraced a bacchanalian lifestyle that saw him drinking heavily and taking drugs. “I was always kind of scared basically. ‘What if I don’t hit it right?’” he said. “It was a pretty high note.”
It has become a well-documented part of Eagles legend that, at a concert at Knoxville in June 1977, Meisner was unwilling or unable to sing his signature ballad as part of the encore. When Frey said, encouragingly, “Randy, it’s going to be okay, you can sing it, let’s just go back out and do it”, an exhausted, hungover and possibly intoxicated Meisner snapped “No, man, I’m not going to sing the f______ song”. An irritated Frey replied “Well, f___ you then”, after which Meisner hit him.
According to Frey’s (inevitably self-serving) account of the fracas, the writing had been on the wall for some time;. When Meisner was refusing to sing his best-known song, he said: “Ok, don’t sing it. Why don’t you just quit? You say you are unhappy, quit.” Although there were police backstage who were startled by the attack, Frey reported Henley turning to them and saying “Stay out of this! This is personal and it is private, real ______ private!” `Yet as Frey admitted: “The writing was on the wall and Randy was going to leave.”
Meisner’s recollection of events was subtly different. Although he did not deny hitting Frey, something that he called “one lousy mistake”, he stated that “there were never any fights. Disagreements, yes. Fights, no.” He also claimed that he was provoked by Frey; in one account, he suggested that the singer had called him a “pussy”, leading the aggrieved bassist to take a swing at him. In a more evocative version of the story that he recounted in 1982, he added more detail: “Glenn came on a little heavy… He got right up in my face, pushed me and called me a pussy. I was tired, I told him I’d had enough, and I punched him in the face and knocked him against the wall. The cops had to come in with their sticks and break it up.”
Meisner formally quit the band in September that year, citing exhaustion. “All that stuff and all the arguing amongst the Eagles is over now,” he said. “Well, at least for me.”
Although it was later suggested that Meisner left the Eagles of his own volition, rather than being fired, subsequent interviews indicated that, according to him, that this was not the case. Meisner described the final days of the tour as “pure hell…nobody was talking to me”, and felt like a hired (and therefore disposable) musician rather than an integral member of the band. He later said that “I wanted more of my opinions to be accepted…I wanted to sing more. I didn’t know the right way to criticise them.”
He insisted that “I was right to leave when I did”, and that “I look at the Eagles as just good compadres that I’ve worked with in the past…I have no will towards any of them”, but struck a different and more resentful note five years after his departure from the band. “I’ve always been real good to those guys,” he said. “I’ve tried to cover up for them, some of the things they’ve done, and they will not forgive…they will not forgive.”
Although the success of Hotel California alone ensured that Meisner would be a wealthy man for the rest of his life, he never again enjoyed anything like the same success, largely working as a session musician with such acts as James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. He was denied the chance to play with the Eagles in their 1994 “resumption” tour Hell Freezes Over – its title an allusion to Don Henley’s comment that the band would play together again “when hell freezes over”.
Meisner was furious: “You’d think that you would be mentioned if you helped with six of the albums, but they act as though I never even played with them.”
Yet over a decade later, he was more philosophical about his departure. “Leaving the Eagles is like leaving the Mob; once you’re gone, that’s it,” he told Rolling Stone. “There’s no coming back, there’s no reunion concert, there’s not even a guest appearance at a single gig.”
He did perform with the act one last time at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in 1998, playing Hotel California and Take it Easy with the band that he had co-founded. But did he forgive and forget? We may never know.