Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh is the anti-Eagle. Make that the anti-ego.
You know about the big shots in the Eagles—Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Purposeful singer-songwriter Henley is the band’s conscience; free-spirited singer-songwriter Frey its heart. Bassist Timothy B. Schmit, the quiet one, brings a peaceful, easy feeling. And Walsh, the loud one, brings much-needed humor, energy and personality.
Take, for instance, when Walsh phoned recently from Texas. Hurricane Ike had forced cancellation of the band’s show the night before in Houston.
“I’m in Dallas, which is the first place the hurricane’s going after it hits Houston,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re here. I think it’s our own personal hurricane and it’s going to follow us wherever we go.”
When stormy weather and the Eagles are mentioned in the same sentence, it usually refers to the inability of Henley and Frey to get along. Remember that classic quote from the acerbic Henley when the group broke up in 1980? He said they’d play together again “when hell freezes over.”
After reuniting as a touring act in 1994, the Eagles finally released an album of new material in October 2007, reestablishing themselves as a viable artistic entity, not merely a lucrative business arrangement between fractured friends. “Long Road Out of Eden,” a two-disc, 20-song epic, quickly became a big seller, topping 3 million in sales—a blockbuster by today’s standards but a shadow of the 29 million copies sold in the United States of “The Eagles—Their Greatest Hits 1971-75,” the biggest selling album of all time.
“We are getting along better than ever,” said Walsh. “We’ve just really settled down.”
“We’re just really comfortable around each other now. We’re all sober. We’ve discovered sleep,” said Walsh, 60. “There’s a different feeling when you’ve played with musicians for 30 years. A lot of stuff doesn’t even need to be said, especially onstage. We just read each other so well. We’re like the ‘Grumpy Old Men’ movie. We’re like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon—except there’s four of us.”
Walsh, known for his work with the James Gang and solo recordings, joined the Eagles in 1975 as a replacement for co-founder Bernie Leadon. He knows his role.
“It truly is Don and Glenn’s band,” the guitarist said. “I knew that when I joined, and it hasn’t changed. They call the shots and decide policies. I think the world of them as a team. So that’s OK with me.”
Here’s how the Eagles fly, according to Walsh: “Don usually has an overview of a concept or a complete statement. Glenn helps him turn that from abstract to a real thing. My job is to feed that input and put some kick-ass guitar on it and try to keep them sane and focused.”
Not that Walsh is afraid to speak his mind. For instance, he doesn’t dig the stage outfits for this tour—black suits, white shirts and black ties.
“I don’t know exactly why we’re doing it. I guess Glenn came up with it,” said Walsh, who had grown accustomed to wearing whatever he wanted onstage. “You feel a certain way with a suit and a tie on. My problem is my tie gets stuck in my guitars strings and all of a sudden my guitar doesn’t work anymore. I’ve got to get a tie clasp but I never get around to it.”
Not that the Eagles ever play it straight. Besides the suits and ties, the most conservative thing these left-leaning Californians have done is give Wal-Mart the exclusive retail-store rights to “Long Road Out of Eden.”
“That was pretty much a business decision,” Walsh explained of allowing Big Blue to sell the CD for $11.88. “We found Wal-Mart to be a fairly green company and at least open to dialog on some of their policies. It was kind of a bold step. It worked pretty good. It may open the door for a bunch of frustrated artists to distribute new material as an alternative to iTunes. And it’s a pretty darn good deal; if it was (done via) a record company, (the CD) would have cost twice as much.”
Of course, the Eagles, especially the outspoken Henley, are still critical of the Bush administration. It’s obvious in the 10-minute title cut on the new album, which the band plays in concert. It’s a song about U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq.
“We tried to do that through the eyes of the guys who are over there. They’re gung-ho when they get there and as time goes on, they don’t really know why they’re there,” Walsh said. “Without ever talking about revolution and getting down too much on anybody, we were trying to say ‘We’re in a big mess.’”
The album features other social commentaries (“I Dreamed There Was No War,” “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture,” “Do Something”) as well as songs about relationships (“Busy Being Fabulous,” “What Do I Do with My Heart,” “I Love To Watch a Woman Dance”).
Of course, slow-working perfectionist Henley wasn’t totally happy with “Eden.” “Egos must be fed,” he told the Houston Chronicle this month. “Objectivity and perspective can go right out the window. Art suffers. For better or worse, survival often depends on placing egalitarianism, diplomacy and compromise above all else. That is the reality of group dynamics.”
Is that true?
“Yeah, pretty much,’ said Walsh, who, like Schmit, gets to sing lead on two tunes on the new album. “Left to our own devices, we’ll never be done. There were some compromises that everybody had to make.”
At first, the Eagles tried to reinvent themselves by exploring new sounds that might be more compatible with contemporary radio, Walsh said. Then they decided to just be themselves.
Except their approach to recording this time was different. It was no longer “lock ourselves in the studio for three months and stay up for most of it. Whatever that was, we released and called art,” Walsh said. “We’re sober now and we all have families and obligations of being senior citizens. Oh, that’s hard to say. We have grown-up responsibilities. We used to all live in the same car.”
Walsh, like his bandmates, welcomes the new songs. The Eagles were “getting frustrated” regurgitating the hits “like a Vegas show or like the Beach Boys,” he admitted. “We knew we had another album in us. It was a painful birth. But it’s great to have new material.”
Also a bit painful is this year’s tell-all book by fired Eagles guitarist Don Felder, “Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001),” in which he writes about trashing hotels, abusing drugs and suffering the wrath of Henley (who once chewed him out for wearing the wrong shoes onstage) and Frey (who teased him about his bald spot), who railroaded him into taking a smaller part of the lucrative pie in the band’s latter years.
“To be honest, I’ve tried not to worry about it too much,” Walsh said of the book. “We couldn’t say anything for a long time because we were in a lawsuit with him. Down deep, I like him. He was fun to stand next to and play with. A bunch of (what Felder wrote) that didn’t concern me because some of the tension came from events before I joined the band.”
But is the story true about Walsh throwing a grand piano out of hotel window?
“Not the whole piano went out the window,” he recalled of his pre-sober days. “But a lot of it—the legs and the lid and a bunch of the keys and the pedals. I wouldn’t want anybody to think the wrong thing.”