One morning last January, my dad called, sad and disgruntled. Sad because news outlets had begun reporting that Glenn Frey, Eagles guitarist, had died at 67, and disgruntled because no one had yet ordered a wreath to be placed on the statue in the Standin’ On The Corner Park in Winslow, Arizona.
I grew up in Winslow, a town that took one lyrical mention in the song “Take It Easy” written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey and turned it into a claim to fame.
Well I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / Such a fine sight to see ...
Legend has it Jackson Browne wrote the song after car trouble stranded him in Winslow. His neighbor in Los Angeles, Frey, provided the unforgettable lyrics to the then-unfinished second verse, based on Browne’s sighting of a woman outside a Der Wienerschnitzel in Flagstaff.
It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.
If you were a kid in rural Arizona in the 1970s, like I was, the Eagles’ songs were everywhere: “Hotel California,” “Desperado,” “Take it to the Limit.” With their mix of rock and country influences, with their lyrics about the pursuit of the American Dream, chasing the high life, and nights spent in the desert, lots of people in Winslow felt like they could relate. The 1970s took a toll on Winslow when construction of Interstate Highway I-40 bypassed the town. Seemingly overnight, the historic downtown, located on old Route 66, started to look forlorn and shuttered.
Not to mention, the 1970s lasted a very long time in Winslow — well into the 1980s, even. Before the democratizing effects of the internet sped up the rate at which we received news of the latest trends, change there took time. The town limped along.
Then, in 1999, as a way to attract tourists, the Standin’ On The Corner Park (there is no g) was opened to the public. The park included a two-story mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford and a life-sized bronze statue of a 1970s-era troubadour, who locals call “Easy,” wearing a vest and holding a guitar while standing casually cool on the corner.
The park was an opportunity. A photo opportunity, certainly, but it also represented a plan to lure tourists off the freeway that sped past the northern edge of the city with its off-ramps and on-ramps allowing access to Wal-Mart and fast food, skirting past everything else old downtown Winslow might have to offer.
That same year, a music festival was started. Initially a dedication celebration for the park’s opening, the Standin’ On The Corner Festival grew into an annual two-day live music celebration, held each September and concluding on Saturday night with the performance of an Eagles cover band.
All this to say, that morning last January 19, my dad needn’t have worried that the town would drop the ball. By the afternoon, a makeshift memorial to Glenn Frey was well underway.
My dad texted pictures (I had moved away from Winslow to Phoenix after having spent several years in Brooklyn, New York) and sent updates charting the progress of candles and wreaths being placed in the park next to the statue. I used to think of my long-haired dad, a railroad engineer who drove freight trains from Winslow to just outside of Albuquerque, as so quintessentially a “Winslow” guy (he was a founding member of the Standin’ On The Corner Foundation) that once, in my 20s, I took a series of photos of him standing on each corner along my hometown’s streets.
That night, dozens of people gathered to sing along to Eagles tunes, sway to the music, and pay their respects, some dropping off flowers and notes. The homegrown event got national press.
Down in Phoenix, 100.7 KSLX’s morning radio team, Mark and NeanderPaul, also wanted to do something to honor Frey, something aside from “hey, we’re going to play an album side,” says radio host Mark Devine. The pair approached the Standin’ On The Corner Foundation. One thing led to another and, when KSLX kicked in a sizable $15,000 donation for the project, plans to acquire a life-size bronze statue resembling Frey were put in motion. The city of Winslow and the Standin’ On The Corner Foundation also pitched in with contributions for the project’s estimated $22,000 price tag. Friday, September 23 at noon, a statue unveiling and dedication will take place to kick off the 18th Standin’ On The Corner Festival, a live music event that will run September 23 and 24 in Winslow. Mark and NeanderPaul will be there broadcasting their morning show and the dedication ceremony.
Winslow has made a cottage industry out of its mention in the song “Take It Easy,” and Frey’s death certainly created an uptick in attention for the little town in northern Arizona. But call me a cynic: I wonder how long could this song be relevant enough to help my hometown stay on the map.
It wasn’t even a whole song about Winslow. It was just two lines.
“Oh gawd!” says my friend Amy, “the Eagles!” She’d just been on a road trip, which included a stop in my hometown where she’d discovered what I already knew. There is a store on the main drag with outdoor speakers that plays the Eagles over and over on a continuous loop. All day. Actually, there are two stores, on either side of the intersection, that sell souvenirs and play the Eagles. “You must never want to hear them again,” she groans.
She’s partially right. There was something schlocky about it, sure, maybe because it’s easy to be jaded about the place where you grew up. But I wasn’t exactly sick of it — more curious about my town’s commitment to what could seem like a damn foolish idea. Both the song and my hometown were like historical markers of the 1970s, and I wondered: Could a song make a town?
All of this is on my mind as I pull into Winslow in late August, weeks before the Frey statue is to be dedicated. I park my car and step out. “Life in the Fast Lane” is being piped across the intersection: “Surely make you lose your mind / Life in the fast lane.” A half-dozen biker types, all old enough to be grandparents, are gathered around “the corner,” wearing black leather vests with patches sewn all over them, foreheads covered by tightly tied bandanas. I get closer and see they are a group of combat vets riding Harley Davidson trikes.
The corner in question is located at Kinsley Avenue and Second Street in downtown Winslow. The Standin’ On The Corner Park sits on the northwest side of the intersection; across the street is the souvenir shop Dominique’s, the one playing the Eagles on a continuous loop. As I cross the street to the southwest corner toward the Arizona 66 Trading Company, I realize they, too, are playing Eagles tunes. Dominique’s has a mural of the Cars character Lightning McQueen painted on its windows, and the shop on the other side of the street, not to be outdone, has a giant red guitar on the sidewalk outside the store. The final corner of the intersection houses the Sipp Shoppe, serving coffee, ice cream, milkshakes, and sandwiches out of the historic 1904 Bank Building.
As I’m standing there checking out the bikers busy taking pictures, two younger women get out of a car with California plates and make their way to the corner. Both are wearing straw cowboy hats, the kind tourists wear, not actual cowgirls. They pose in front of the statue, hamming it up. Not a minute later, another couple is out of their car, and they line up to join the queue. It’s a random Thursday in late August, and a continuously steady stream of tourists get off the freeway and find their way to downtown Winslow.
Back in Phoenix, I call up Jason Patrick Woodbury, music journalist and former music editor of New Times to talk about what made the Eagles so hugely popular in the 1970s.
“The Eagles,” says Woodbury, “for a band that’s so musically benign, they engender super-strong opinions. People deeply love the Eagles, and some people despise the Eagles.” It’s like the band became a stand-in for yuppie culture, for ’70s soft rock, for a laid-back, take it easy approach. So maybe people are talking about hating the “idea” of the Eagles more than the Eagles themselves.
By the group’s heyday, “the idealism of the ’60s psychedelic hippie had soured,” says Woodbury, “but we were still left with a landscape acclimated to guys with long hair and dirty jeans.” There was no revolutionary message in the music, no hungrily upsetting the status quo. The Eagles’ gorgeous harmonies are aspirational, meaning “you want to be as chill as an Eagles song,” he adds. But it’s this same quality that makes some people view them as phony.
There’s no better pop cultural reference to this than the scene in The Big Lebowski where Jeff Bridges’ character, the Dude, is riding in a cab and the Eagles are singing, “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight.”
The Dude pleads with the cab driver, saying, “Jesus. Man, could you change the channel?”
“Fuck you!” says the cab driver, “If you don’t like my music get your own fuckin’ cab!”
“Man, come on. I had a rough night and I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!”
I ask Woodbury, “Do people born after 1990 know who the Eagles are?”
“Yes,” he says. “Everybody has heard, and is still hearing, the Eagles constantly. That music is still being played on the radio.” Meaning some of those songs are still close, the repetition of them looping around in our consciousness. Lisa and Melissa, who operate the Eagles fan website L&M’s Eagles Fastlane say the reason the Eagles’ music is so enduring is probably put best by Glenn Frey in the History of the Eagles documentary.
“He said that during the ’70s, people did things to the music of the Eagles. They fell in love, they fell out of love, they hung out with friends, they went on road trips, and started families. That music was there while they did that, so people have a very tangible connection to those tunes.”
Do you think people will be singing these songs like, say, we sing Hank Williams?
“Gut response is ... maybe,” says Woodbury.
The Eagles, he points out, have baffling sales figures. They are one of the greatest-selling bands of all time. Almost every record collector has one of these albums, Woodbury says. “You’re not even sure how they show up, it’s like a bible or a relic that, who knows? They’re just there.”
So I ask Greg Hackler, chiropractor and founding board member of the Standin’ On The Corner Foundation in Winslow, who’s been there from the park’s start, “Do you think you’ll ever get tired of listening to the Eagles?”
“Me? No. You know it’s just great harmony — good music. That’s why this group continues to resonate. I can’t say I’ll always listen to, um, Bat Out of Hell, by Meat Loaf, (released in 1977; one year after the Eagles’ Hotel California) but I’ll listen to the Eagles for the rest of my life.”
If a town was going to bank on something, why not this?
To get a sense of numbers — how many people were stopping at the park in a day — I spoke with Sabrina Kislingbury Butler, another board member, who happens to work at the Arizona 66 Trading Company gift shop, which gives her a fantastic vantage point to see, and interact with, people stopping at the park.
“It’s been so busy this summer,” says Butler. “Summer is usually a busy season, but this has definitely been busier than I’ve seen it.”
“Do you think that has something to do with Glenn Frey’s death?”
“Probably. Last year, traffic was about 50/50 between Route 66 fanatics, and Eagles fanatics. This year it seems like a lot more Eagles fans.”
“How many people stop in a day?”
“I’d say hundreds, maybe thousands, in a day.”
“That’s incredible.” I say, almost disbelieving. “So, thousands in a week?”
“Oh, easy,” she says.
This is echoed by Steve Pauken, city manager for the City of Winslow, who tells me Glenn Frey has doubled tourism in the town this year.
“Really?” I ask. “Is it that noticeable?”
“No doubt about it,” he says. “Everyone in town has noticed it. No matter what they do.”
That means the park is receiving well over 100,000 visitors a year. And that is not an insignificant number.
The Standin’ On The Corner Festival, always the last full weekend in September, is easy to book ahead. Attendance at the festival, depending on the weather, is estimated to be anywhere from 4,000-8,000 in a town with 800 hotel rooms.
Later, walking through the La Posada Hotel, I ask the front desk clerk, “Do you get a lot of business the weekend of the Standin’ On The Corner Music Festival?”
“Oh yeah!” She says. “We’re completely booked for that weekend.”
“How far in advance do people book rooms?”
“We have people who come to the event, and book their room for the next year before they check out.”
Still, not long after arriving, I hear that at a mid-August meeting, held in the festival pavilions, board members were still voting on what the statue would look like, and where it should be placed in the park. Would it be done in time for the dedication? I felt a little relieved, knowing that the town was cutting it close. Too much unchecked boosterism was making me uncomfortable.