It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

Joe Walsh Rides Again

Posted on | October 22, 2008 | No Comments

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 tubestyle
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 thirty 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. “VoilÃ!” he said, pleased beyond measure.

Fun-loving guy that he is, Walsh went on to develop his own repertoire
of you’d-goto-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 living 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 living 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,

“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 RecordPiant 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.”

Written by Erik Hedegaard


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