This article was originally published in RS 1007, August 24th, 2006.
MAYBE YOU DON’T HAVE ANY IDEA who Joe Walsh is, or maybe you only know him as the guitarist in the Eagles, turning in stellar hot-stuff licks on “Hotel California.” Or maybe the name: rings a bell as the guy behind two of the most beloved rock songs of the 1970s, “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Life’s Been Good,” that cheerfully deadpan paean to the overfed life of a rock star. Or maybe, more recently, you’ve seen him looking awkward but happy on a few episodes of Drew Carey’s improv comedy show. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you already know Walsh all the way back to 1969 and his place in the James Gang, the first American power trio to make it big. Walsh’s guitar was a ripping, tearing, scratching thing on “Funk #49,” delicate and brutal on “Walk Away,” soaring whenever he slipped a finger into a Coricidin-bottle slide.
He was a favorite of guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend (who once said, “I don’t want to sound ridiculous, but [Walsh] is one of the guys I go nuts-rapturous about”). And yet, strangely, and improbably, Walsh has never reaped the rewards that by all rights should naturally accrue to a guitarist such as him. In 2003, for instance, did this magazine award him a position among the “top 100 rock & roll guitarists of all time”? It did not. And Walsh looked to see, scanning for his name and sighing at the exclusion. But, really, he doesn’t care much. He knows he’s lucky just to have survived his years on the road, which were often accompanied by a chain saw and sweetened by booze and more than a little coke. His attitude about rock stardom has always been pretty much the same: ambivalent, hesitant, suspicious, averse, wavering and reluctant. In fact, he may be the most reluctant rock star ever.
But he’s always loved to play in front of a crowd and still does. He just finished touring Europe with the Eagles (the band is reportedly working on a new album) and is now about to hit the road again, with the James Gang reunited. He’s fifty-nine. It’s the first time the James Gang have toured since he abandoned the band in 1971, and it should be great fun to see, because Walsh front and center in the James Gang is a whole bunch different than team-member Walsh in the Eagles. You get to see him undiluted, playing both rhythm and lead guitar and shouting as much as singing. Does he still have it in him?
“I’m terrified,” he says, “but, yeah, I still can play that way. I mean, the James Gang used to be ‘somebody counts off, and when everything’s broken, we’re done.’ But it is scary. So well see.”
For Walsh, much will be different this time around, of course. He’s married, has kids and won’t be consorting with groupies, should any James Gang groupies even remain extant. Lines of coke and tumblers of booze — he’ll be having none of that; they nearly cost him everything- Jumping off the risers — falling, more likely. But Jimmy Fox will still be on drums and Dale Peters on bass, and at the end of the tour, after spending countless hours with Walsh, they’ll undoubtedly say to themselves what they’ve always said about him: Who is that guy? Because while Walsh is good-natured and easygoing, nobody seems to really know who he is. Mostly he slides along in silence or behind a grin. Says Peters, “He’s very funny, and his guitar playing is insane. But he’s very hard to get to know.”
And that, it seems, is the way he has always wanted it to be.
WALSH HAS A SMOKING-hot daughter, Lucy, 22, blond, from the second of his three marriages. She’s a musician too, and played keyboards in Ashlee Simpson’s band before getting a solo deal with Island Def Jam. She’s also in the midst of filming an MTV reality-show pilot focusing on her career and her sometimes rocky relationship with her dad. Walsh explains; “She’s got a famous dad who was drunk until she was twelve, and since then we’ve had to get to know each other, kinda, so MTV thought there might be an angle. It’s a big pain in the ass, but I can’t say no. She’s my daughter.”
These days, Lucy and the crew are showing up daily at Walsh’s California ranch-style stucco pad, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Typically, she wears tight-fitting T-shirts that accentuate her figure, while he wears much baggier T-shirts, shorts, blindingly white K-Swiss sneakers and calf-high white socks. Actually, Walsh has two homes, the one here and another in San Diego, where his current wife and two boys, ages ten and seven, primarily live. This is a place no wife would put up with, mainly because it’s filled with a vast assortment of dusty old tube-style ham-radio gear, Walsh’s obsession. Most of it he’s bought off eBay. A few years ago, while touring with the Eagles, Walsh was faced with the choice of going onstage with the rest of the band to play before 20,000 fans or staying in front of his PC to place a last-minute bid on eBay; he chose to make the band and the crowd wait. This says less about Walsh’s priorities, however, than about how his past tends to reverberate into the present.
“I was living in Columbus, Ohio, in 1958 and quite happy there with vacant lots and BB guns,” he says one afternoon. “But around fifth grade, my parents and I moved to New York City in the summer, with nothing for me to do, and I’m freaking out. On the roof of my building, though, I found a wire leading down to the first floor. I knocked on the apartment and told the guy I wanted to know what it was, since it was the most exciting thing I’d seen since leaving Columbus. It was an antenna. He invited me in, and I saw him talk to people around the world on his radio. Soon I became an operator. His name was Jim Walden, and he saved my life.”
Walsh’s current collection consists of an old Collins KW-1 transmitter; a Hallicrafters model HT-32; a Multi-Elmac AF-67 exciter; a copy of Basic Electronics Theory With Projects and Experiments, fourth ed.; an old Racal RA6790/GM; an old National high-frequency receiver; and an old coil set, “type C.” And that’s not a fraction of it.
“I mean, there was a whole long period of being an alcoholic, when I didn’t pursue any hobby other than vodka. I like to say I only got drunk once — for 30 years. It was a good run. But that’s a whole other story. This is my hobby. I’m a ham-radio operator. And I finally got all those radios I dreamed of since I was twelve, every last one of them.”
HE’S A FAIRLY BIG, FAIRLY BEEFY GUY now, with short, wavy blond hair, whereas in his early guitar-playing years he was rail-thin, scrappy-looking and long-haired In 1968, he was attending Kent State University in Ohio, studying music theory, electronics and welding, with so much happening all around him — Iggy Pop, the MC5, Mitch Ryder and a band called the James Gang that suddenly found itself in need of a new guitar player and enlisted him. Walsh and the Gang soon were opening gigs for the Who, in their riotous “Pinball Wizard” years. While Pete Townshend instructed Walsh in the finer points of playing rhythm-lead — a neat trick that accounts for much of the great multilayered James Gang sound — Keith Moon went about teaching him exactly what it means to be a rock star.
One thing it means is that, out on the road, you go find some fertilizer, some detergent with those little oxygen granules in it, a few other choice items, and then return to your hotel room, where you mix it all up, pour it into a condom, knot the condom — “Watch! Just watch!” Moon said — and flush it down the toilet. “Now listen. Just listen!”
Walsh put his ear to the wall. Then, three floors down, a toilet blew up, kaboom!
Moon turned to Walsh. “Voilà!” he said, pleased beyond measure.
Fun-loving guy that he is, Walsh went on to develop his own repertoire of you’d-go-to-jail-if-you-did-that-today high jinks. Hotel-room wallpaper offending your aesthetics? A knife blade assiduously applied can work wonders. Don’t like the hotel-room furniture arrangement? Chairs, desks, phones and Bibles can easily be stuck to a ceiling with the help of a common everyday glue gun. But mainly Walsh learned that his true extra-musical calling lay in the varied magical uses of a McCullough chain saw.
Everyone has a Joe-and-the-chain-saw story to tell. Larry Solters, Walsh’s longtime PR man, for instance, remembers the first time he went on the road with Walsh. Walsh’s manager Irving Azoff told Solters to get adjoining rooms with a common door, but the hotel didn’t have any, so they had to settle for adjacent rooms. “I’m in my bed,” says Solters, “and all of a sudden, grrrrrr, and the plaster is falling off the ceiling. Not eighteen inches from the bed, I see a chain-saw blade come through the drywall. Joe said, ‘We’ve got adjoining rooms now, don’t we?’ I called Irving to ask him what to do. He said, ‘Go to the front desk. Tell them everything’s OK. And give them your credit card.’ “
“You have to understand,” says Walsh. “I was very impressionable, and I’d been hanging out with Keith and he wouldn’t let me go. He kept giving me little white pills and I’d feel great, and then it’d be tomorrow. A lot of my buddies aren’t here anymore. Moon. Entwistle. Belushi. But it was a wonderful time, and I was off and running, carrying on this great tradition of bang! and crash! It was a never-ending party. And it seemed like that was the way it always would be.”
AFTER THREE STUDIO ALBUMS WITH the James Gang (Yer’ Album, Rides Again and Thirds), Walsh grew frustrated with the limitations of a three-piece band and quit. He moved to Colorado, turned out a string of solo albums, among them 1972’s Barnstorm, 1973’s The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get and 1974’s So What, the cover of which displays a shirtless Walsh, big fat goggles mashed to his eyes. It’s typical goofball stuff, the dominant image Walsh likes to put forth, like he’s truly having a grand old time, what with owning a mansion he’s never seen, going to parties sometimes until four, writing hit records, gold records on the wall, leave a message, maybe he’ll call, and all the rest of it that he sings about on “Life’s Been Good.”
In 1976, though, the tedious business of running a business began to wear on him, and he joined the Eagles in the wake of original guitarist Bernie Leadon’s departure. Lots of people thought the union was odd if not ill-fated — the Eagles were pillow-soft self-serious balladeers of slo-mo songs like “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” Walsh the high-spirited ringleader of rabble-rousers like “Rocky Mountain Way,” featuring the first major appearance of the gurgling talk-box guitar — but both profited, with Walsh’s guitar adding sting and verve where they were needed most. For Walsh, it got him out of the limelight and back into the shadows, his natural home — even if, on tour with the Eagles, he quickly became the crowd favorite.
Meanwhile, the other two members of the James Gang carried on as best they could.
“Pete Townshend told us to just find a kick-ass replacement,” says Jimmy Fox, “so we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just get another guitar player.’ We were too stupid to understand the ramifications of Joe leaving. I was bummed on a personal level, because, man, that trio was the most fun I ever had. But Joe Walsh isn’t just a guitar player. He’s a singer, a songwriter and more specifically a personality. What is that personality? I don’t think I’ve ever analyzed it. It’s Joe! And that’s what I don’t think we fully understood.”
IN 1980, HE ACTUALLY RAN FOR president of the United States, on his very own Free Gas for Everyone platform. He printed bumper stickers and beat the hustings until he suddenly decided to pull out. “But, Joe,” said Solters, “kids are showing up at shows with their ‘Joe Walsh for President’ banners, and it’s really starting to take off. Why do you want to do this?” Joe said, “I’m afraid I’m going to win.”
And that’s how he is, loosey-goosey, first one thing, then another, kitten-skittish.
“I was in L.A. when I heard that Keith Moon was dead,” he says one day, with the MTV crew taking a break nearby. “Did I go out and get drunk that night? I might have. I don’t remember.” Just then, he sees the MTV producer lady and jumps out of his seat. “Do you need me?” he asks her, and looks relieved when she says she does.
He’s openly proud of his sobriety, however, and talks about it easily. “I think my early experiments with alcohol and cocaine were an attempt to self-medicate a case of ADD,” he says. “Coke really allowed me to focus, and alcohol took the edge off the cocaine. I could go into the studio and stay fresh for hours. I was crazy on alcohol and drugs. But I made the mistake of thinking it was a winning combination, so then later in my career, when the albums weren’t doing as well, I thought, “Well, I must not be doing enough!’ ”
He would have stayed a coke-snorting drunk, too, if it hadn’t been for the Eagles. The band broke up in 1980 but decided to get back together for a tour in 1994, a vast moneymaking proposition for all. The only stipulation: Everyone had to be clean. Walsh checked into rehab, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, gave up certain old friends and came out of it a changed man.
“I couldn’t imagine not drinking,” he says. “But I had no choice. I took it as far as I could go. There was nothing left to do. And here I am, twelve years later.”
IN ANY SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH Walsh, the next comical story is never long in coming. Pretty soon, he’s telling about the time he took a leak next to Stevie Wonder while recording the James Gang’s second album at the Record Plant in L.A., and Stevie Wonder wasn’t exactly hitting the mark. “I introduced myself and said, ‘I just want you to know it’s a privilege to meet you. And you’re kind of splashing the wall. Could you just aim a little more to the left?’ “
So he was peeing on your leg?
“Well, splashing a little bit.”
Is this a true story, Joe?
“Well, he was missing the urinal. But, no, I didn’t say anything. OK, so sometimes I’ll say stuff I don’t mean just because it’s fun.”
He pauses, his shoulders slumping slightly, “My dad was an Air Force instructor in Okinawa, in a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, and when I was one and a half, he bumped wings with another guy and didn’t come back. After my mother remarried, we lived in a whole bunch of places: Wichita, Evanston, Columbus, New York, New Jersey. It was really traumatic, having to start all over again each time and be the new kid in school. So I had to go out of my way to be funny. If you’re Crazy Joe, you can fit in.
“But things are silly, aren’t they?” he goes on. “You know, sometimes I get feeling sorry for myself, poor me. But I’ve been so damned lucky. What do I have to complain about? Why be serious? I mean, isn’t this a great life?
“Boy, I get nervous,” he continues, drumming his fingers on the table. “I mean, it’s a little scary to share so much about oneself with someone one just met. I’m more comfortable with people not really knowing a whole lot about me. I feel safer.”
And then he says, “I lost a child in 1973. It’s the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone. She was in a car accident, not wearing a seat belt. My wife at the time was driving. At the hospital, there were no signs of brain activity. The doctors made me aware of donor situations, and I made the decision to turn the machine off. They put her on ice and took her away. One kid got her corneas; another got her kidney. And I’ve had to live with the decision to turn the machine off.
“That’s one reason why I named my next solo album So What and why I joined the Eagles. I just wasn’t strong enough to pursue a solo career. It’s also the reason I went into self-abuse for a long time, having to live with that and hating myself. But that was a long time ago. She was two and a half. She’d be around thirty-five now. Well, there you go,” he says. “Won’t dwell on that one.”
ONCE AGAIN, THE MTV PEOPLE ARE filming. Walsh is down in his music studio, on hands and knees, removing a bad DVD drive from one of his computers. His daughter Lucy slides into the picture carrying a jar of olives. “Dad? Olive?”
“Yeah,” says Walsh. “The only reason I drank martinis for thirty years was just to get the olive.”
Lucy laughs. As it turns out, Lucy is thinking about moving in here and already has some ideas for sprucing up the place. “We should get really coo! curtains.”
“You think?” says Walsh. Then, without looking up, he says, “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too,” says Lucy. “Because you’re leaving again soon. For a long time?”
“You know, I’m glad you got to tour with Ashlee. You see what I do. And maybe that explains why I was gone a lot when you were little. And I suppose for a kid that could translate that I wasn’t interested in you. That’s a great frustration of a musician.”
“That you can’t live a normal life?”
“That you can’t be domestic very well.”
But of course the peripatetic life of a musician is only a partial explanation for his absence. There’s the drinking, as well as the fear, perhaps, that having lost one daughter tragically, he could lose another, which would be unbearable.
“We didn’t know each other all that well until I was about thirteen, when he came out of rehab,” Lucy says a few days later. “Growing up, my mom really kept me out of all that. I thought my dad was in the Beatles. But now I’m learning stuff about him. People will come up to me with stories, like, ‘I heard one time your dad chain-sawed a hotel room and pushed a grand piano into a pool!’ And I think it’s great, because I have that in me too. People have such love for him. They’re like, ‘I lost my virginity to your dad’s music!’ It’s the soundtrack of people’s lives. So at this point we’re close. But it’s a gradual process. You can’t rush it. And it wasn’t easy.”
HE SITS IN A CHAIR IN FRONT of a ham radio, noodling with dials, bringing it to life, bleeping and squawking. In the past he’s made contact with Croatia, Russia, Estonia, Norway. Today it’s a fellow named John, in Montana, wanting to check on the strength of his signal. Joe rattles off his call sign (“W-B-6 Alpha-Charlie-Uniform”) and says, “Well, hi, John. Great signal. Name is Joe. J-O-E.”
They chat for a while. Joe eagerly relays news about the L.A. weather situation (“We’ve got this marine layer that will not budge”). Walsh signs off. Like the marine layer, he doesn’t budge. He stays right where he is, static filling the air, maybe hoping for another voice to come and once again brighten his day from some far, distant place.
“I’ve always been kind of afraid of success,” he says at last. “I used to be really shy playing in front of people. On a bad night in a three-piece band like the James Gang, the frontman sucks eggs. So tequila loosened me up before I went on, and then after the show, I’d party and stuff. I’ve always wanted to do an American Express commercial, in a completely trashed hotel room, with smoking embers and things sparking. And I’d go, ‘Hi, do you know who I am? I don’t have a clue. That’s why I carry this. The American Express card. You can’t go home without it.’ Ha, ha,” he says. “Ha, ha.”