The scene was usually set within the first few lines: the dark desert highway; the sad, empty smile; the new kid in town. "Start with a picture" remains as much a part of Glenn Frey's songwriting credo now as it was through all those years with the Eagles.
That's what he's saying now, here in his Beverly Hills office, in a gray sweat shirt and still tapping his jeans with the cigarette he first threatened to light at least 10 minutes ago. "I think it was very helpful for me to become a songwriter before the age of video," Frey says. "When I first learned to write songs, people's imagination was the screen against which all the tunes would play out. It's important to be visual."
This isn't just some idle small talk from the man who with Don Henley led the Eagles to repeated visits to the top of the pop music charts during much of the 1970s, singing songs that often mixed delicate acoustic yearnings with a colder emotional politics. Soon enough he'll be lecturing on these mechanical and philosophical details of songwriting, drawing from his experiences with the Eagles and a continuing solo career, in a two-month course at UCLA Extension.
It's not exactly a detour from a post-Eagles career that has landed him in the top 10 twice with the songs "You Belong to the City" and "The Heat Is On." Frey recently released his "Strange Weather" album, just finished his first national tour in several years, and is already talking of recording his next project in Nashville, Tenn., in a kind of aesthetic move back toward his acoustic country-rock roots.
The weekly songwriting class beginning Tuesday emerged after Frey appeared as a guest speaker at a pair of other UCLA Extension music classes last year. He enjoyed that interaction with students, he says. And since his wife was pregnant with their second baby, and planned to stay near her Los Angeles doctors, he accepted an invitation to lead his own course.
"I know you can't teach creativity, and you can't show somebody how to summon inspiration," he says, finally lighting that cigarette. "But I think there's a lot to be talked about, and a lot of things to have in your mind, so you're ready when the time comes."
Although such major filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee have sometimes returned to the classroom to teach, the participation of a pop figure of Frey's credentials in a continuing classroom situation is rare, says Ronnie Rubin, director of the UCLA Extension's entertainment and performing arts department.
"He was very concerned about having a manageable-sized group, and he wanted people who were seriously committed to writing songs so that his time would be well-spent," Rubin says. "People have to sit and write, so he can give feedback. And he can only do that with a limited number of students. He wants to have an impact on their lives."
The class is limited to 20 students, Frey says, though there have been some tentative discussions about having the singer-songwriter also lead a larger one-day seminar. "Songwriting is intimate, and I think it will help to have the size of the class small," Frey says. "Everybody will get some individual attention from me."
Frey says the direction of the class will depend in part on his students, whether they are musicians, vocalists or strictly lyricists. He'll be in the midst of writing songs for the Nashville album by the time the class starts, and will probably bring in some of those compositions for discussion as they develop.
"It's a pretty unpredictable set of circumstances" that leads to the creation of a song, says Frey, whether it begins with a particular chord or a phrase, as did "Life in the Fast Lane."
This all comes more than two decades after Frey's own abbreviated academic career at a community college outside Detroit. "I majored in lunchroom, parking lot and folk club. We used to just sit around and go: 'The chicks are so much better lookin' at Michigan State. I couldn't get in.' "
But he did get some valuable, if informal instruction back then from Bob Seger, who first encouraged the 18-year-old future Eagle to develop his own songwriting. Otherwise, Seger warned, Frey would be doomed to play Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Mitch Ryder songs in bar bands his whole miserable career.
"He was really the first person I met who was really a songwriter," Frey says of Seger, whom he hopes to have visit one of the class meetings. "He was already writing songs and making records and was having local hits in the Great Lakes area.
"One thing he told me was 'You can never say the title of your song enough in your song.' Not that I've used that all the time, but it's just something to think about, to exploit a title if it's good."
As it is, Frey is expecting the class to "be like group therapy," where students will openly discuss one another's works-in-progress, writing methods, potential topics and such less tangible elements as "what makes the right atmosphere for creative ideas?"