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Joe Walsh: My Life in 15 Songs

Guitar legend looks back on more than 40 years of music and mayhem with James Gang, Eagles and beyond

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Joe Walsh performs onstage during the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California, on April 16th, 2016.

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Joe Walsh has called himself an "ordinary average guy," which is something of a stretch for a man who's written some of rock's greatest riffs, from the James Gang's "Funk #49" to the Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane" and his own "Rocky Mountain Way." Walsh's offstage exploits are similarly the stuff of legend: He's hung with Hendrix, freaked out Elton John, leveled hotel rooms with the likes of Keith Moon and John Belushi, and even ran for president (his platform: Free Gas for Everyone) – all while consuming enough vodka and cocaine to fell an elephant. "I never imagined how far down one could go," Walsh told Rolling Stone recently about his years of abuse. "But I went there. And it was a long way back."

Now 68 and sober for more than two decades, Walsh has righted his course. He released a well-received album, Analog Man, in 2012, and is currently out playing sheds on a co-headlining run with Bad Company, on the aptly named "One Hell of a Night" tour. He checked in with RS from a (presumably intact) hotel room in Arkansas to look back on his roughly half century in music. "It's a pretty good list of songs," he remarked about the ones discussed here. But, he added, "I don't think I'm done yet. There's still some more stuff I want to say."

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“Song for Emma” (1974)

I was married at the time and living in Boulder. My wife was taking our four-year-old daughter to school and some lady ran a stop sign and creamed our car. And I lost my daughter. And it was gory and all that. To help with closure, I wrote this song for her. And over the process of the next year, my wife and I, we just weren't strong enough to get through the grief and so we separated and eventually got divorced. But I met a girl in Los Angeles, and my song "Help Me Through the Night" was to her about being there for me. Because I was a wreck. But she was there so that I could grieve Emma.

Both of those songs were on my next album, So What. I called it that because I had this "so what" attitude. I was angry. I was really mad at God. And I felt that was a great reason to drink. "Poor me. God took my daughter away." And so I got an attitude, like, "This is the worst thing that's ever happened. I don't care about anything." Just to justify that it was okay to get screwed up.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane” (1976)

We were looking for input from me – Joe Walsh, rocker – that could be the foundation for an Eagles song. We had a couple false starts on stuff and hadn't really found anything. But one night I was in my dressing room getting ready for a show, and I had this one lick I'd play over and over as part of warming up. Because it's really a hard lick to play. And that's "Life in the Fast Lane." And [Don] Henley came in and said, "What the hell is that?" He went and got Glenn [Frey] and I played it for them. They said, "Is that yours?" And I said, "Yeah." And they said, "Well, there's our Joe Walsh Eagles song!" Don and Glenn, but mostly Don, put the words together, and Glenn kind of arranged it. And there it was. So it's a Walsh/Henley/Frey tune, and I'm really proud of it.

Glenn was such a great musician, but if there's anything I remember most about him, it's his friendship. He helped me in a lot of ways. He helped me sing better, but he also helped me with matters pertaining to how to live. I just miss Glenn.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“Life’s Been Good” (1978)

The lyrics, I didn't want to use 'em. I was gonna replace them with something more rock and roll. But [drummer] Joe Vitale and Bill [Szymczyk] said, "No, these words are wonderful. They're legitimate and you gotta use 'em. And I was thinking, "Well, they're kind of dumb, and the song will either be looked at as a satirical, funny song or it's gonna not be funny at all and it'll go down the toilet as one of the worst things ever written." That's what I was afraid of.

The stuff about hotels ["I live in hotels/Tear out the walls"], years earlier the James Gang got asked to open some shows in Europe with the Who when they premiered Tommy. And over that period of time one of the scariest things that happened to me – ever – happened. And that was that Keith Moon decided he liked me. And, you know, when he liked you, you just smiled and nodded yes. Especially if you were in the opening band. So he became my guru. Over the course of that tour, he taught me the art of hotel damage, of destroying things, of making things that blow up, of superglue madness and mayhem, of trashing rent-a-cars … just causing as much trouble as possible.

After the tour was over, I came home and just continued that tradition. Later on when I went solo from the James Gang I hooked up with my manager, Irving Azoff, and I was opening some shows where it was me and then the Eagles and then the Beach Boys and then Elton John … the whole summer of '75. And I was wild and crazy. I was very entertaining to everybody, except Elton, who was very nervous around me. Because I was very unpredictable. He didn't particularly want to stay on the same floor I was on at the hotel. Right after that it was my birthday and Irving thought it'd be funny to get me a chainsaw. I was supposed to leave it at home but then I joined the Eagles and I took it on the road. One night we checked into a Holiday Inn and he and I were supposed to have connecting rooms. But we didn't. So I started up the chainsaw and made my own door. And I walked through it and said, "Hey, we have connecting rooms now!" Irving never dreamed I'd use it. But now he knows about that.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“In the City” (1979)

I did junior high school in Queens and high school in New Jersey. But I lived in Santa Barbara for about four or five years and I met a guy there named Barry De Vorzon. He was working on this movie called The Warriors, and he explained to me that it was about gangs in New York. Would I do a song for it? Sure. He and I came up with the words after reading the screenplay.

That movie still has a cult following. Shaquille O'Neal once told me it was his favorite film ever. But when it first came out it didn't really get any recognition, and the song was just on the album. But Don and Glenn thought it could be a brilliant Eagles song, too. They said, "Well, look, let's redo it and give it the recognition it deserves." So we did [for the 1979 Eagles album The Long Run].

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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The Blues Brothers, “Jailhouse Rock” (1980)

I start the riot in the final scene of The Blues Brothers. [Ed. Note: Walsh plays a prison inmate who begins dancing on a table while the band plays "Jailhouse Rock."] The part of the movie they were filming in L.A., there were hours between set changes. And John [Belushi] would call me up and say, "I can't sit here. I have nothing to do. Can you come over and hang out?" So I did. I hung out in the trailer with Danny [Aykroyd] and Belushi and they decided they had a scene for me in the movie. So that's how that happened.

By that time, John and I had been friends for a while. I met Belushi on the road in Chicago. He came to an Eagles concert. He showed up in my room and didn't leave for two days. He wanted to show me how cool Chicago was, and he took me out to the finest restaurant. There's a whole story with that with how they wouldn't let us in because of the way we were dressed. So we went and spray painted our jeans black and went back. Then we did about $28,000 worth of damage to my hotel room.

When the Eagles stopped in 1980 … I kept going. I didn't really want to admit it had ended, so I just kept the same mentality and lifestyle. And the way I wound up was that the only thing that mattered to me was not running out of cocaine. And also vodka. Vodka, cocaine and Camel Light cigarettes. Those three things.

Gradually, I stopped writing music and I stopped taking care of myself. I burned bridges. I was not dependable. I didn't make any sense a lot of the time. Musicians didn't really care to work with me anymore. I had an "I don't care about anything" attitude. My day – and it was really hard work – was spent trying to find a dealer who would front me some cocaine when I still owed him for the last batch. And if I was awake, I was drinking. I was just empty. I was godless and I took it about as far as a I could go. And I'd seen buddies go away. Keith Moon took it all the way. Belushi, he had gotten sober. And I helped him do it. He said, "Look, I gotta quit. Do you know a sober companion?" I said, "Yeah, I know somebody. But you're gonna hate me for getting him for you and you're gonna hate him. But he'll get you clean." And John was doing great. Then he fell off the wagon, and on and on.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“I.L.B.T.s” (1983)

I was with Joe Vitale at his home studio in Ohio one night. We were feeling really good and we decided to write this. It's "I Love Big Tits," but we named it just with the letters. Then we put it on one of my albums [1983's You Bought It – You Name It] and the record company missed it. They never bothered to play the whole album and they just thought it was about some kind of a sandwich or something. Like a BLT. It came out and then they heard it and they called up and said, "You can't do that." And I said, "Well, you shipped it three weeks ago. It's a little late to just be listening to it for the first time!"

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“The Radio Song” (1987)

I decided I would make a song that explains how I write music. Because I got tired of people asking me. And if you read the lyrics, it tells you exactly how I do it: "I like to sit in a silent place when no one's around and listen inside it/Inside the silence is the melody/Voices singing harmony." That's it. 

As far as the album title [1987's Got Any Gum?], I was in New York City and I was walking down the street. And this guy was coming toward me and he was obviously homeless and looking for change and stuff. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out a handful of change, and when he got to me I held it out and said, "Here." And he said, "Nah, I don't want any money. You got any gum?" And I thought, "This guy's a genius! That's brilliant!" It was like a Zen riddle and that was the answer [laughs].

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“Ordinary Average Guy” (1991)

You know, that whole Los Angeles thing, that lifestyle, it isn't real. I'm in Arkansas right now. That's real. Ohio, where I came from, that's real. I grew up just a kid on the block, doing all the stuff that kids do. I wanted to re-identify with that life, so I wrote a song about it.

And here's the thing: What we do as rock & roll stars, everybody thinks that's a whole lifestyle that we live, and that it's glorious and extravagant and wonderful. And they think that 24 hours a day we're famous and wearing expensive clothes and riding around in limos. But that's not really true. We're really cool for about an hour and a half onstage. And the rest of the day we're taking out garbage and picking up dog crap and washing cars and sucking eggs like everybody else on the planet. We're ordinary average guys.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“One Day at a Time” (2012)

For a long time my alcoholism and use of drugs was manageable. By that I mean I would hang out with people and they would say, "Well, you're not so bad!" But you know, it is a disease and the last two or three years of [my addiction] were terrifying. It gets bad beyond your wildest imagination and then you crash and burn and then it gets worse than that. An awful lot of my buddies died before they hit bottom. I hit bottom before I died.

Getting sober was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Because alcohol had convinced me that I couldn't do anything without it. And they say "one day at a time," but really it's one thing at a time. You start with not knowing how to do anything sober and you just build up your toolbox. For a long time I thought there was a possibility I might not be able to write music sober. And I said, "If that's the case I'm just going to have to accept that." So I stopped trying to write, and one day this song kind of wrote itself. I ended up telling my story about what it was like to be an addict, and my road to getting sober. It just came out of me. But the trick was I had to stop trying. And so many addicts and alcoholics have contacted me to say they know exactly what I'm talking about in this song. I'm saying there's life after addiction and it is good.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“Outside” (2014)

Dave Grohl told me once that Nirvana was, at the most, a really bad James Gang. I thought that was a fantastic compliment. When the Foo Fighters were making that series [Sonic Highways], they were doing the episode about L.A. and they asked me to play on this song. They said to just do something in the middle and gave me free rein. I did and it worked out really good. So now I'm like an alumni Foo Fighter.

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INDIO, CA - APRIL 16: Musician Joe Walsh performs on stage with The Arcs during day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

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“No Man’s Land” (2016)

I wrote this for a documentary that's coming out called Citizen Soldier. It's about a National Guard unit in Oklahoma that out of nowhere got called up to go to Afghanistan. They got put behind enemy lines, in some really deep shit. And they kicked ass. They took GoPros with them, and then someone made a documentary with the footage. So it's their story, through their eyes. And not all of them came back. The really sad thing is, Afghanistan is still going on. It's a forgotten war. And these guys – I wanna say kids, because that's what they are – they're coming back really confused. So I hope the documentary raises some awareness. I mean, God, what are we doing?

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