Album liner notes are a lost art — which is unfortunate because well-written liner notes leave insightful clues about how and why musicians develop their art. For instance, here are five lessons I learned about the creative process after I read Cameron Crowe’s liner notes for The Very Best of the Eagles (released in 2003):
1. The right setting can unlock an idea. As a touring band, the Eagles lived in hotels. Don Henley explains to Crowe that he drew upon the obvious — the band’s daily living space while touring — in developing the landmark song “Hotel California.” He says, “The Beverly Hills Hotel had become something of a focal point — literally and symbolically.” He discusses how the language of architecture spoke to him, and the mission style of early California contained a certain mystery and romance that informs the song. To develop the song, he and Glenn Frey literally drove around looking for visual cues to stimulate their thinking, including trips into the desert. They’d drive out to a house in the San Bernardino Mountains and sleep on the floor to clear their heads and let ideas settle in. Their reliance on physical location to inspire them helped produce one of the great songs in rock history.
2. Sometimes ideas take time to develop. The classic song “Desperado” existed for years as a fragment in Don Henley’s song book, never seeing the light of day as a full-blown song until the right set of circumstances unlocked its potential. It wasn’t until the Eagles had released the band’s first album and Henley was learning how to write songs together with Glenn Frey that “Desperado” became a song ready for the public to hear. Again Don Henley relates in the liner notes: “Glenn came over to write one day, and I showed him this unfinished tune that I had been holding for so many years. I said, ‘When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles — Ray Charles and Stephen Foster. It’s really a Southern gothic thing, but we can easily make it more Western.’ Glenn leapt right on it — filled in the blanks and brought structure. And that was the beginning of our songwriting partnership . . . that’s when we became a team.” And Frey adds, “I think I brought him ideas and a lot of opinions; he brought me poetry — we were a good team.” One wonders what would have happened to “Desperado” had Henley forced its creation before he had the right partner? Fortunately, he had the patience to wait for the right circumstance — a complementary song writer.
3. Ideas are everywhere. It’s been said that great artists appropriate ideas wherever they can find them, and certainly the creation of “Witchy Woman” is a case in point. According to the liner notes, the song fragment originated with guitarist Bernie Leadon playing a “strange, minor-key riff that sounded sort of like a Hollywood movie version of Indian music.” Leadon and Henley recorded a rough version on a cassette. But the song’s beguiling lyrics “Raven hair, ruby lips, sparks fly from her fingertips”) didn’t develop until Henley came down with a flu and high fever while he was reading a book about Zelda Fitzgerald. “I think that figured into the mix somehow — along with amorphous images of girls I had met at the Whisky and the Troubadour,” he remembers. I love it: one part Zelda Fitzgerald, a pinch of L.A. club life, a strange riff, and a high fever — all coming together to create a hit song. And if you listen to the song lyrics, you can tell he created an archetype of many experiences as opposed to a literal interpretation (which would not have worked).
4. Collaboration = creativity. Too often we associate working in groups as a creativity killer. But as Lesson #2 also shows, the right team can unleash creativity, too. The song “Take It Easy” is another case in point. “Take It Easy” came about after Jackson Browne started playing a fragment for Glenn Frey. Browne had already written some of the lyrics based on an experience hanging out in Winslow, Arizona, waiting for a car to be repaired. As Frey relates, “He started playing it for me and said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know — I’m stuck.’ So he played the second unfinished verse, and I said, ‘It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.'” And that’s all it took for the song to suddenly blossom: one brief line nudged Browne to finish what became the first in a long line of Eagles classics. Collaboration need not occur in the manner of side-by-side writing, though. Sometimes you can collaborate with many thinkers far and wide through crowd-sourcing. But just pick the right crowd.
5. Creativity can be organic. “Victim of Love” derives its power from the hardest rocking guitar sound the Eagles had ever unleashed — and it’s practically a live Eagles song with no overdubs, which is amazing for a band that was famously polished and obsessed with overdubs. As Frey remembers, “We just said, ‘Look, let’s just cut this thing live and this will be it. It’ll be what it is.” I think it’s worth noting that by this time the band had released several albums. The Eagles were confident enough in their sound to take a risk and record a song in a completely different way they were accustomed to playing. They might have needed the break from tradition to jolt their creative juices. They earned the moment.
Fortunately thanks to the continued publication of box set anthologies, you can still find thoughtful liner notes. My favorite liner notes — intelligently written and insightful — include the 1991 Lynyrd Skynyrd box set (an excellent band biography), The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968, released in 1991 also, and Neil Young’s Decade from 1977. How about you?