Ordinary Average Guy: Joe Walsh at 75

Looking back on the career of a true American original

1991’s Ordinary Average Guy on cassette (Image: eBay)

“Come on, man. I had a rough night and I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!”

But even the Dude would have probably been alright with Joe Walsh, who turns 75 today.

Walsh was already well-known before the band with the avian name entered the picture. He grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll in its first decade and picking up ideas on melody and orchestras from his mother, a classical music enthusiast who also played piano. He went to Kent State, just long enough to decide he didn’t want to graduate, but long enough to be part of a band.

The Measles gave Walsh his first entry on record, as a couple of songs they’d recorded with Walsh — “I Find I Think Of You” and “And It’s True” — wound up on bubblegum group The Ohio Express’ 1967 album Beg, Borrow & Steal.

 

AUDIO: The Measles feat. Joe Walsh “I Find I Think Of You”

Being part of the Northeast Ohio music scene. Guitarist Glenn Schwartz was something of a guitar hero in that scene. A friend of Walsh’s, he chose to move to California, becoming a founding member of Pacific Gas & Electric. That left a vacancy in the James Gang, which Walsh approached drummer Jim Fox to fill  in late 1967.

His talent won him the job. Within a matter of months, the James Gang’s ranks were down to their classic three — Walsh, Fox and bassist Dale Peters. Walsh had to learn by necessity, being the only one of the three who could sing. He also had to learn how to play lead and rhythm simultaneously.

Over the next three years, Walsh’s growing songwriting skills gave the band a chance to stand out from so many boogie power trios that came along in Cream’s wake.

 

 

The ingredients were in place on the debut Yer Album, but the superior Rides Again was where they came together. “Funk #49” kicks off with what might still be the most recognizable riff in Walsh’s career with the nimble Fox and Peters working it into a groove. The playing overall is tighter with more standout moments in the writing– the melodic “Tend My Garden” (with a riff-and-handclap break that would be echoed in the chorus to Boston’s “Feelin’ Satisfied’ eight years together), the string-laden “Ashes the Rain and I”, the brief country instrumental “Asshtonpark”, the future live jam staple “The Bomber” and the bluesy boogie “Woman” (which wouldn’t have been out of place on an early ZZ Top album).

It didn’t hurt the James Gang that Walsh’s guitar skills were getting noticed by high-profile fans. The Who’s Pete Townshend took a liking to him when the James Gang opened some shows for them. Townshend helped Walsh play as the band’s sole guitarist even more effectively. Walsh later paid Townshend back by gifting him a 1959 Gretsch that would immediately be on every track on Who’s Next.

 

VIDEO: James Gang reunites on Howard Stern to perform “Funk #49” in 2006

Prior to that, Walsh’s generosity paid dividends for Led Zeppelin and its fans. Jimmy Page had played Fender Telecasters throughout his Yardbirds and session days, but wanted a bigger sound for the new band, who the James Gang had opened for at some of their first shows in the United States. 

Walsh, as it turned out, had two 1959 Gibson Les Pauls. With Gibson not having crossed over to England yet, Walsh gave Page his spare and it quickly became a cornerstone of Zeppelin’s sound.

1971’s Thirds didn’t quite deliver the wider breakthrough that Rides Again promised. The material was less consistent. “White Man/Black Man”, for example, was well-meaning, but clunky in execution in ways that almost instantly dated it. There were still highlights. “Midnight Man” and “It’s All the Same” were winning deviations from the power trio formula. “Walk Away” became a Top 40 hit, one of Walsh’s best rockers and a great example of peak James Gang chemistry.

By this point, the band had built up an audience, scored a hit and got airplay on stations in the still-new album rock format.

But there were growing tensions. Even with the band not limiting themselves to loud power trio boogie, Walsh was chafing at the restrictions of trying to write for a three-piece band. 

And thus, he left.

There was some interest from Steve Marriott in having Walsh replace the just-departed Peter Frampton in Humble Pie, but that never came to fruition.

The James Gang would attempt to soldier on with different guitarists, including Tommy Bolin at Walsh’s suggestion, but could never replace the best they’d had. They’d call it quits in 1977.

Walsh instead decamped to Colorado, forming Barnstorm with drummer Joe Vitale and bassist Kenny Passarelli, augmenting with other musicians. Despite his desires otherwise, his label marketed the Barnstorm albums  — 1972’s self-titled and 1973’s The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get — as solo affairs.

 

 

Walsh didn’t sound restrained in the James Gang, but he did sound freer on Barnstorm. He utilized his acoustic skills more. His writing was more open. “Birdcall Morning” showed the funny guitar hero could write a gem of a love song. “Here We Go” kicked off the album with a nice slow build with some new synthesizer sounds to boot. Not that he’d abandoned all that came before, as the epic “Turn to Stone” showed.

The Smoker You Drink was even better, starting with the instant standard “Rocky Mountain Way”, which became his first solo hit, effectively saving his career at that point. If you ignore the brief forced wackiness of Walsh’s scat-singing and screaming that kicks it off, “Meadows” merges Walsh’s pop and rock sides wonderfully.

And to Walsh’s point, Barnstorm was a band, one where he didn’t have to have his fingerprints on every song. Thus, Vitale and keyboardist Rocke Grace got their chance to shine with “Book Ends” and “Midnight Moodies”, respectively.

1974’s So What was less of a democracy, as all the new songs were written or co-written by Walsh.

Not every Walsh song was new. There’s no denying the version of “Turn to Stone” was more radio-ready here, but revisiting a song that was only two years old did feel like Walsh might have been struggling to come up with new material.

Joe Walsh So What, Geffen Records 1974

“Welcome to the Club” opens the album with some attitude. “Help Me Through the Night” was the most vulnerable he’d been to that point, which pays off. The album’s ending wasn’t planned, but late in the sessions, Walsh’s three-year-old daughter Emma was killed when the car she was riding to a playdate in was struck in the passenger side by a drunk driver.

Walsh put his grief into “Song For Emma”, in which his pain and love clearly came through.

The end to Barnstorm came thanks to Bill Szymczyk, who’d produced the James Gang’s first two and all the Barnstorm albums. The producer had begun working with the Eagles after replacing Glyn Johns during the sessions for 1974’s On the Border.

The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner appeared on backing vocals on a few So What tracks.

The following year, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon, increasingly dissatisfied with the Eagles moving more in a rock direction, left. Szymczyk, knowing Walsh would have no such issues, suggested him.

And thus Walsh became the Eagles’ newest weapon, primarily as a lead player and foil for fellow guitarist Don Felder. It was a lick he played warming up that became the riff for “Life in the Fast Lane.” The dueling and simultaneous soloing with Felder lifted “Hotel California” to hit status.

If anything, he was underutilized as a writer. 1980’s The Long Run, in retrospect, would have been improved with the lesser Henley/Frey material giving way for what Walsh was doing at the time.

“In the City”, a re-recorded version of a song Walsh contributed to the soundtrack of 1979’s The Warriors, was a Long Run highlight.

 

AUDIO: Joe Walsh “In The City”

The real case-in-point was 1978’s But Seriously Folks…, which featured collaborators both old (Vitale, members of the Eagles) and new (bassist Willie Weeks and former Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne member Jay Ferguson, soon to have a couple solo hits of his own, on keyboards. Picking up where he’d left off four years earlier, Walsh captured his many moods well. “Over and Over” was tunefully optimistic. “Second Hand Store” was more full of introspective career doubt. “Indian Summer” takes a turn into evocative nostalgia. And that’s just the first three songs.

The album remains one of Walsh’s most delightful, even with the absence of “In The City”. Its consistency gets overshadowed by his quintessential song — “Life’s Been Good” — at the end.

It merges his more rock-oriented stylings (another on the short list of his best riffs and that classic extended ending) with reggae-influenced verses, all with one of his catchiest choruses. It’s all set to Walsh’s funniest writing, as he parodies the rock star lifestyle, self-aware enough to make himself the butt of the joke.

Even though the Henley-Frey axis had little room for Walsh as a writer, to the band’s detriment, he wasn’t eager to leave. Since 1976, whenever the Eagles have been an active band, he’s been there, including every cash cow reunion tour over the last 28 years.

The Eagles weren’t sustainable as a new decade started, collapsing under the weight of massive egos and cocaine by 1980’s end.

There Goes The Neighborhood got Walsh’s 1980s off to a good start, even with its one hit dating back to the Barnstorm days.

“A Life of Illusion”, originally recorded in 1973 but unfinished for eight years, manages to be catchy and reflective.

 

 

“Rivers (of the Hidden Funk)”, co-written with fellow former Eagle Don Felder (who plays the talk box) might not be “In The City ”, but it absolutely could have fit on the Long Run,which it was written for. Seriously, nobody could usher Henley away from the studio long enough to “accidentally” erase the masters of “Disco Strangler”?

Walsh’s writing and playing were still there for the most part on the album, so the ’80s should be a great decade for him, right?

It was not. The law of diminishing returns hit Walsh hard.

There were scattered highlights over the next decade. “I Can Play That Rock & Roll” off 1983’s You Bought It, You Name It is obvious, but infectious anyway. The title track to 1985’s The Confessor is one of his best longer epics (and it sounds great).

Walsh seemed content to coast as the clown prince of rock. But the sardonic wit of “Life’s Been Good” had been replaced less than a decade later by the lazy “I.L.B.T.s” (sample lyric, and, I am not making this up: “I like tits for dinner/Or a noontime snack/I like tits for lunch/A big tit attack”). Fine if you’re writing for Spinal Tap. Not good if you’re Joe Walsh.

The artistic decline went hand-in-hand with Walsh’s ongoing addictions. One can only be the life of the party so long before the celebration turns sour.

An early ’80s relationship with Stevie Nicks ended because of mutual addiction. Nicks talked about the relationship in her biography. In an interview with Q Magazine, she said, “Joe and I broke up because of the coke. He told my friend and [backing] singer Sharon, ‘I’m leaving Stevie, because I’m afraid that one of us is going to die and the other one won’t be able to save the other person, because our cocaine habit has become so over the top now that neither of us can live through this, so the only way to save both of us is for me to leave.’”

Walsh started to think more seriously about needing to get sober in 1989, during a tour in New Zealand. The self-admissions continued to pile up. The reality that Walsh’s addictions (vodka and cocaine his vices of his choice) were negatively impacting himself, his family and his career was the elephant in the room he could no longer avoid. 

Partying sometimes until 4, being unable to leave because you can’t find the door is one thing when you’re in your 20s. But still being there as you’re into middle age is less sustainable.

Walsh also knew that the only way he could take part in an upcoming Eagles reunion would be if he were sober.

He went to rehab. He kept going to meetings, humble enough to listen to alcoholics who’d been sober for decades pointing him in the right direction.

Walsh started staying sober one day at a time to the point where he’s at 28 years of sobriety. He continued going to AA meetings and helping other alcoholics, speaking openly about himself because,in part, his life under the influence hadn’t been secret anyway.

 

 

Walsh has spent most of his years of sobriety touring, either solo or with the Eagles. There were occasional James Gang reunions, usually one-offs except for a 2006 reunion tour. He reunited with Fox and Peters for appearances at the memorial shows for Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins.That led to the band doing a headline set at a show raising money for veterans in Columbus, Ohio a week ago, part of Walsh’s ongoing charity work. That last appearance may be a farewell, but nobody’s ruling out more shows yet, either.

Walsh still being here and being able to talk about the future is a testament to the success of his ongoing recovery. A number of people he indulged with over the years, some famous (John Belushi), some not, didn’t make it.

The only thing Walsh hasn’t done since getting sober is become prolific in the studio. 2012’s Analog Man is the only album he’s released since the mid-90s. It’s a pleasant addition to his catalog, better than most of his ’80s and ’90s output. But it would have benefitted a different choice in producer. Saying this as someone for whom New World Record was the second album she ever bought, Jeff Lynne can bring a lot of good things to production, but grit and dirt are not among them.

Even with his best work mostly limited to a period between the James Gang Rides Again and There Goes the Neighborhood, Walsh remains one of the most respected players of his generation. He still knows his way around a guitar and when the mood and inspiration have struck him, he’s a better writer than his amiable goofball persona suggests.

Yeah, the Dude would be okay with Joe Walsh, the kind of guy who’d be there with several classic songs and a helping hand if he were serious about laying off the white Russians.

 

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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