How ya doin’? If you are Joe Walsh, pretty good. Joe is a survivor. He could easily be a rock and roll casualty. Getting sober, kicking drugs and finally settling down, probably saved his life.
Joe is in his fifth decade as a rock and roll star. Hard to believe. If you’ve seen him with the Eagles or as a solo performer, he has an amazing energy and lucidity for someone his age and with his miles.
He began with a power trio, The James Gang, scoring some hits like “Funk #49”, “Walk Away”, “The Bomber” and “Tend My Garden”. His guitar riffs were as classic as The Who, Rolling Stones or the Doobie Brothers.
He next moved to Barnstorm, another band of power chords mixed in with a few melancholy ballads. While this was a group, the albums were really marketed as Joe Walsh albums. You might remember: “Turned to Stone”, “Mother Says”, “Here We Go”, “Rocky Mountain Way”, “Meadows”, “Country Fair” and “Help Me Make it Through the Night”.
Then, Joe got a call from the Eagles, to replace departing guitarist Bernie Leadon. First up was Hotel California, the album that would put the group into the megastar category. The album contained these Walsh written or co-written songs, “Pretty Maids All in a Row” and “Life in the Fast Lane.” More than his songwriting, the Eagles wanted his guitar swagger. His name recognition didn’t hurt either.
Joe has been a member of the Eagles ever since, or as long as they’ve been recording or touring. Their tours are cash machines, despite the absence of much new music over the past 35 years, and the death of co-founder Glenn Frey. Through the years, Joe and Don Felder co-existed as the prominent guitarists, fortunately in a band that often featured a lot of heavy guitar work. After Felder’s acrimonious departure, Walsh, moved to the center, although the Eagles have been using sidemen to help flesh-out the band’s sound.
Joe never stopped his solo career, although he downshifted it to focus on the Eagles. Ironically, the year after the Eagles released Hotel California, he released the biggest solo album of his career, But Seriously, Folks... The album reached number eight on the Billboard chart and “Life’s Been Good” climbed to number 12 on the singles chart. Each song on this album is well-crafted and fits into the whole like pieces of a puzzle. The mood of the album is light and breezy, a departure from James Gang and Barnstorm days. There are no guitar anthems on this album, just polished layers of guitars stacked on easy melodies.
His next solo album, There Goes the Neighborhood, didn’t appear for three years. It was not quite as successful as his previous album, but it sold well and continued the Walsh absurd sense of humor. The following album was called, You Bought it – You Name it, and included the unusual song (although not unusual for Joe), “ILBT” (“I Love Big Tits”).
For me, this album signaled the decent in Joe’s solo career. The Eagles would allow him a solo credit on their albums and a co-writing credit, so most of what Joe wrote would be relegated to his solo career. The late 1970’s was a transition period, the ambition and experimentation was going out of mainstream rock, replaced by a more polished sound. A rougher style of music was looming on the East Coast and England that would draw the line between the past and future. Joe’s days as an experimenter were over, especially with his role in one of the top commercial bands. Joe was living large as a rock star, enjoying the success of the past decade, but not advancing his craft. He could thrill audiences and his past songs still go a lot of airplay. Life was still good as the party never ended.
“The worst part of success is that a lot of things come along with it that you didn’t really know you were gonna get in the package. There are distractions: Money, drugs, women, partying. You get a royalty check, and you go get a new car, and then you party, and then you get high – and then you forget what got you there in the first place,” he told Rolling Stone.
In the early 1980s, Joe and Stevie Nicks began a relationship. “I would have married him,” Nicks admitted later. They obviously did not marry and it would be some time before either of them kicked their habits.
Joe continued to release albums at intervals of two or three years, and began using different producers, who brought in musicians Joe didn’t know. Joe’s music seemed rather uninspired. The results were lowering sales and critics abandoning ship. In 1991, he released Ordinary Average Guy, with the title track as memorable as anything in the past ten years. That’s not a rousing endorsement.
In 1992, Joe re-teamed with former producer Bill Szymczyk, who he has worked with on his more successful albums in the 1970s. Songs for a Dying Planet was a more serious effort. Besides the title track, “Decades”, a 12-minute epic, were the highlights from the album. Despite the intention, the album sold poorly and was panned by most critics. Joe would not release another solo album for 20 years.
What happened to the guy whose acerbic sense of humor was lauded by audiences and the guy who wrote riffs better than Keith Richard? Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. These were at least co-conspirators. When a new Joe Walsh album was released, I hoped it would resemble something from the early to mid 1970’s, when Joe was a creative force.
About the time his solo career bottomed out, the Eagles regrouped and began their second career. They produced a double-CD of new music but mainly focused on their live show, which filled stadiums and arenas around the world.
In 2012, Joe teamed up with Jeff Lynne, to help produce Analog Man. The album didn’t exactly reignite Joe’s solo career, but it didn’t hurt it either. Getting back in the saddle took him a long time, as he told Interview magazine.
“You have to learn how to do everything all over again. What I didn’t know at the time was how to write music and do rock-‘n’-roll and live rock-‘n’-roll and record sober.”
Joe never really stopped his career outside of the Eagles, he played with the James Gang off and on, toured as part of brother-in-law Ringo’s All-Starrs, appeared on the Drew Carey Show, and played his own concerts.
The Eagles were the best and worst thing to happen to Joe Walsh. He was bigger than any member of the group when he joined but he had to adapt to a role. Henley and Frey were literally the major shareholders of the band. This is not a bash on the Eagles, it offered Joe a lucrative and stable role. Once they reformed in the 1990’s, the band recorded when they wanted to and toured to enthusiastic, and well-paying crowds.
If you see Joe in concert these days, and I did when he toured in support of Tom Petty, on his final tour, you saw Joe at his best. Sober, funny, and playing his arsenal of hits. Joe could stretch it out with some amazing guitar work, but he never got self-indulgent. He was given a time limit to perform and he hit the mark.
In 2017, Joe appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show to reminisce, but also talk about the work he does to support veterans groups across the country. Joe’s father was killed on active service. Life’s been good. “My message is there is life after addiction, and it’s really good,” he said. “If I had known, I’d have stopped earlier.”