Joe Walsh in Aspen: Life’s still good (so far)
August 17, 2012
ASPEN – Joe Walsh notes that he has been “painted into a corner as the crazy guy who likes to party.” Walsh, who has been a prominent rock guitarist for 45 years, says this with no trace of rancor. Quite the opposite, he understands perfectly, has to an extent embraced the caricature and even comes up with an explanation that supports the portrait.
“When you have friends like Keith Moon and John Belushi, you kind of enjoy being crazy,” the 64-year-old Walsh says from his home on the edge of Beverly Hills, Calif.
But Walsh’s assessment of his public image is a little incomplete. Along with being seen as nuts and overmedicated, Walsh has developed a persona that is funny and clear-headed enough to be grateful for what he has. And in the cautious, image-conscious upper ranks of rock stars, he is, without doubt, a refreshing loose cannon, willing to point out the excesses and hypocrisies of his world.
Walsh’s signature and probably best song is “Life’s Been Good,” from the soundtrack to the 1978 film “FM” and later that year released on Walsh’s album “But Seriously, Folks … .” The song is satiric, but there might be a fine line between satire and songwriting verite in the lyrics: “I have a mansion, forget the price/Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.” But on the chorus, Walsh moves gracefully into earnest mode: “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do/Life’s been good to me so far.” (This emphasis on the lyrics shouldn’t obscure what an inventive and catchy musical composition it is. And it has excellent guitar parts; Walsh was ranked number 54 in Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time.)
Walsh’s latest album, “Analog Man,” released in June and his first album in 20 years, carries on that theme. The centerpiece of the album is “Lucky That Way,” which depicts him as the reckless kook who’s got enough sense to see he’s been blessed with talent, luck and just enough of a survival instinct. “If anybody asks me, Joe, how do you do it/’Cause you do it with such style and grace/I just shake my head and smile … and say, I’m just lucky that way.”
“I guess I’ve got a couple different personas,” Walsh said. “I’ve been around a long time. I’m kind of a senior statesman for the rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. I’m very lucky to still be around. A lot of guys from my era aren’t – they’re moving pianos.”
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With “Analog Man,” Walsh seems to add another persona to the deck, and it’s a risky one. After being the comic guitarist, Walsh comes close to depicting himself as the cranky old guy – complaining about the newfangled world around him, shaking his head in disgust at the idiot he used to be. The album opens with the title track, and its first line: “Welcome to cyberspace/I’m lost in the fog.” But Walsh hasn’t lost his sense of humor; a few lines later, he notes, “Something goes wrong, I don’t have a clue/Some 10-year-old smart-ass has to show me what to do.” “Wrecking Ball” looks back at the mess Walsh – who has been sober for 18 years – made or nearly made of his life.
Walsh sounds not at all like a backward-looking grouch. He’s loose, self-deprecating and bows to no scared cows. And he says “Analog Man” isn’t meant to be a rant against the modern era; it’s an attempt to cope with it. He’s not even saying that the old ways were preferable.
“I’m not saying analog’s better. I’m not an old fart who lived in the woods. I know about digital technology – I used it to make the album,” Walsh said. “I’m saying, for a lot of my peer group, they did their work in analog. This is a whole new world, and there’s a lot to learn. I’m not alone in having to adjust to digital. It has changed music, the way you make music. It ate intellectual property. It’s a virtual world that doesn’t exist. It’s a brave new world, and I don’t have advice for young musicians. I’m trying to learn it myself. Our bodies are sitting in chairs, waiting for our brains to catch up.”
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There’s another role that Walsh has embodied for 37 years, the one that has paid the best and put him most squarely in the spotlight. Since 1975, Walsh has been lead guitarist for the Eagles. It is a role he seems ill-suited for. The Eagles’ music by and large plays it safe, with an emphasis on structured country-rock and pretty vocals. Moreover, the Eagles seem at this point more like a corporation than a rock band; they have notoriously put aside major personal grievances to keep the institution going.
Another way of looking at it is that Walsh is exactly what the Eagles need and have always needed – a devil-may-care guitar slinger. In the mid-’90s, I saw the band perform in an amphitheater near Denver. The concert unfolded with great consistency: Don Henley or Glenn Frey, the two principal singers, would start a hit song; the crowd would recognize it, stand up, cheer, then sit down and wait till the next familiar opening chords. The only thing that broke up the routine was Walsh, with the crowd going wild, and staying engaged, for the few tunes he got to sing.
Prior to 1975, the Eagles guitarist had been Bernie Leadon, whom Walsh refers to as a country-rock “purist.” Walsh came over from the James Gang, a power trio that had the hit “Funk #49,” and a solo career that yielded the popular “Rocky Mountain Way.”
“We are part of the same community. I like to say some of us lived in the same van,” Walsh said of himself and the Eagles.
Despite the difference in styles, Walsh was a fan of the Eagles’ early, laid-back sound.
“I always thought with their voices, which I always loved, some rock ‘n’ roll guitar in there would mesh well,” he said. “Glenn and Don wanted to turn it up a notch. Bernie didn’t want to play that way.”
The first album recorded by the Eagles with Walsh was 1976’s “Hotel California.” Walsh contributed two songs, including the hit “Life in the Fast Lane,” but his presence seemed to shift entirely the direction of the music. In theme and sound, the album had a harder, more serious edge. The dueling guitar solo between Walsh and Don Felder at the end was a highlight of the early era of music videos. “Hotel California” was named No. 37 on Rolling Stones’ list of the greatest albums, and it sold 16 million copies, becoming the 19th-best-selling album ever (though it was eclipsed by an Eagles greatest-hits collection, No. 2 on the all-time best-seller list).
“It worked, much to our amazement,” Walsh said. “After that, there was no looking back.”
Walsh says he has been a full-time Eagle since 1994, when the band reunited for the album “Hell Freezes Over” and the accompanying tour. Being a full-time Eagle has meant the occasional tour and just one subsequent album, 2007’s “Long Road Out of Eden,” but the job has left Walsh with little inclination to make solo albums. His last solo record, “Songs for a Dying Planet,” was released in 1992.
But this past year has been particularly quiet for the Eagles. Henley and Frey worked on solo albums, while the band put the final touches on a documentary film and looked ahead to 2013’s Happy Birthday to Us tour, commemorating 40 years of the Eagles. Walsh was settling into his marriage, now 31⁄2 years old, to Marjorie. Walsh was always coming up with ideas for new songs. And Marjorie happened to know a good producer.
“Marjorie and I got into bits and pieces we have in my computer,” Walsh said. “She said, ‘I think it’s time for you to do a solo album. And by the way, I know Jeff Lynne” – the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and member of the Traveling Wilburys who had produced albums by Tom Petty and several members of the Beatles – “and here’s his phone number.’ That got it going. Everything made sense to do it. I started focusing on it rather than working on it. It was time to finish it – that was a new way of looking at it.”
Walsh is in the midst of a tour that plays big casinos, state fairs, amphitheaters and one club – Aspen’s Belly Up, on Saturday, with tickets still available. Part of the purpose of the tour is to see who Joe Walsh is at 64, married, sober 18 years, on his own, playing new songs.
“I had to stay away from stuff before, in early sobriety,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to play in front of anybody live, couldn’t be funny sober. I had to learn I could play without a drink, could write a song without a buzz. That took a couple of years.”
The culture Walsh is stepping into feels different from the one that existed at the time of his last solo album.
“Rock ‘n’ roll’s not dead. But it’s off to the side. It’s not the foundation of radio,” he said.
Walsh, too, is not the same as he was then. His humor is intact, but he doesn’t see himself as the joke like he once did.
“I still have my humor, but I don’t feel I’m hiding behind it,” he said. “My humor’s changed a lot. It’s more satire, not drunkenness.”
What he sang in “Life’s Been Good” is as true as it was over three decades ago: “I keep on going, guess I’ll never know why.” And he still feel’s like life’s been good.
“I’m lucky,” Walsh said. “I’m still able to play, and people are coming out of the woods to see what I’ve got. A lot of people didn’t make it – they went back to Iowa. Sometimes I want to get grumpy. But as long as I stay grateful, I’m good.”