Lucky That Way: An Interview with Joe Walsh
The Eagles' celebrated guitarist has been through it all: a successful solo career, critical respect, and a rough battle with sobriety. Nowadays, he's happily married, recording with Jeff Lynne, and has a new album that talks about his own journey and his thoughts on our crippling culture. Walsh speaks to PopMatters in this insightful, revealing interview ...
In the Coen brothers' classic The Big Lewbowski, The Dude is thrown from a cab for expressing distaste for the driver's affinity for "Peaceful Easy Feeling".
"It's been a long day and I hate the fuckin' Eagles," says The Dude, right before the cab comes to a screeching halt, he's ripped from the cab, and left on the side of the road. All because he hates the Eagles.
Any thoughtful pop culture consumer would examine The Dude's personality and sentiments regarding the Eagles and conclude they likely don't apply to Joe Walsh. "Peaceful Easy Feeling" was pre-Walsh, after all -- the Eagles had yet to diverge from their easy listening, 70s-approved country roots and leave them behind for an identity leaning much more towards rock.
In late 1975, Walsh joined the Eagles and helped them deliver Hotel California. By that point, Walsh had already established himself as a premiere guitar talent through his solo career with charters like "Rocky Mountain Way" and his work with the Cleveland-based power trio James Gang ("Funk #49" would almost certainly get the nod as a pick from The Dude's edgier tastes.).
Walsh reignited his solo career with 1978's But, Seriously, Folks, featuring the rock radio staple "Life's Been Good". In detailing the life of rock stardom, excess, and cocktail-influenced good times, Walsh pinned down the formula that he'd become known for: metaphor withstanding, he would mix slick guitar with goofy personality and clever wordplay. Walsh was deep without needing to be subtle, reflexive without shame.
In lieu of the Eagles' bitter breakup lasting through the 80s and early 90s, Walsh released a string of clever albums. He eventually dubbed himself an Ordinary Average Guy and jokingly announced his candidacy for Vice President on "Vote for Me" from 1992's Songs for a Dying Planet. The album pushed Walsh's comedic lens and social awareness to new heights, yet the album ultimately served as an abrupt stopping point for his solo recording career.
It's been 20 years since he released Songs for a Dying Planet and, as expected, a lot has changed for Walsh. Hell froze over and he's toured regularly with the Eagles since 1994. Even more surprisingly, Walsh reinvented himself by shedding the alcohol-fueled persona in exchange for a stable relationship and a clear head. Yet, that's not to say that he isn't fun anymore.
Recently, Walsh released his latest batch of quirky social critiques via fundamental rock with his 11th solo effort -- Analog Man. With subject matter culled from his newfound sobriety and the complexities of living in the digital world, Walsh seems to be on top of his game and quite happy to still be here.
PopMatters caught up with Walsh and talked with him about his new, Jeff Lynne-produced record, writing and performing sober, and even how it feels to be in a band dissed so harshly by The Dude.
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In getting things started, I think it's important that I mention that I've been streaming Analog Man from a password-protected site from your record company. I was almost hoping for it to come shipped to my house on a reel of magnetic tape.
Yeah, I know. It's weird isn't it? Maybe they should've sent it on an 8-track that you could play in your car. [laughs]
In the past, your album titles have included a sense of reflexivity, including Ordinary Average Guy and But, Seriously, Folks. Your new album is titled Analog Man. This seems a little ironic given that you recently signed up for Twitter and have released the title track to your fans online for free. So, is Analog Man a political statement or a personal treatise on your relationship to technology?
It's an observation not a judgment. The last album I made was on recording tape and we had knobs. Now there's a mouse. So, I've had to make some adjustments. I think we all kind of have. I'm fine with it -- I just have to figure it out. It's a whole new world of technology but it doesn't exist. It's just an illusion that a computer makes and we all spend a lot of time in there while our bodies sit in chairs waiting for our minds to come back. It's new to me. I'm trying to keep up with it; it is what it is. There's no more record companies, so I have to get on the internet and let people know the album is out there. I don't know if we're working for it or if it's working for us. People are texting and smash into the car in front of them -- I think there is some humor in that. And the virtual games. People are playing these virtual games but they're real -- I mean, the people are really playing, but it's not a game. Then, two days later they have a beard and they wonder what happened. It's just all kinds of observations about the virtual age and in learning the new technology as an Analog Man, I have to write about this new world because that's what I do -- and there's two of them now.
The song "Analog Man" is almost a prime example of your career -- it's legitimate commentary presented in a comedic style. In this case, you're poking at technology, the recording industry, and how saturated modern life is with it these days. While it's sort of lighthearted, there's some serious criticism there. A lot of media scholars could have a heyday with this.
Well, that's okay. That's kind of what I'm trying to do. I don't know if you've heard the song "Band Played On". I don't know if you've come across that one yet in the stream.
For the song I'm talking about the Titanic going down. There's a lot of Titanic stuff on TV and Discovery Channel and stuff. I heard that when they knew they were doomed, the orchestra went up on deck and played until they couldn't anymore. That really got me in the heart.
Underneath that song -- if you listen to the words -- it seems to me that we're like ostriches with our heads in the sand pretending that nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the economy is a wreck and the government is basically useless -- it's broken. Everybody's waiting for things to get better and in the meantime nobody is doing anything about it. I just see that we're all complacent and we're all just going along with the way it is and waiting for it to get better. To me, that's a lot like the Titanic starting to sink.
So, there's some social commentary there. I didn't want to write a radical protest song. I think the best way to get a message across is to just embed it in a good song without getting too out there about it.
I could rant and rave about the government and all that stuff. I suppose we all could if we're given a soapbox to stand on. But, I guess I'd rather answer your questions first.
But, yeah, there is some concern on my part. Like I said, about how fast things are going with the digital age. It seems like we're fighting to keep up with it. Also, things are not right. We're accepting that and I'm not sure we should.
One of the things that sticks out about the new record is a noticeable change in your outlook on life. While you've always been known as a fun-loving personality, this album seems to achieve that in a very different way. It's upbeat for a different reason than in years past, isn't it?
Yeah, it is. I disappeared kind of. In 1994, two things happened. Hell Freezes Over happened and the Eagles decided to get back to work. We've toured pretty much since then and I've been around the world a couple times. I had never really gotten any momentum going in a solo project during that period of time -- Eagles was pretty much a full time job.
But the other thing is, in 1994, I decided that it was time to get sober. I had to reinvent and I had to start all over again, from the very bottom up, and learn how to do things sober. It was terrifying to play music in front of people sober. I thought all the fun was over. I didn't think I'd be funny. I didn't know what was going to happen. So, I had to learn how to live sober and learn how to deal with everything.
Once I had gotten some sobriety, I saw a whole world that I had been ignoring, because in the darker hours I kind of isolated and drank -- towards the end there. So, I just I just had to go find out about sobriety and how to do what I do sober.
The other thing is, about three years ago, I got married to a wonderful person. My wife, Marjorie, grabbed me and said, "I really believe in you and I think you ought to get off your butt and finish this solo album. And by the way, here's Jeff Lynne's number." That really lit a fire under me.
In marrying her I got this extended family that's really close and everyone has each other's backs. This is a dynamic I had never been around. I ended up kind of being a loner, touring and all. I had some relationships that never really worked and, like I said, I isolated in the last couple years of my drinking. And that's all I did -- I just stayed home and drank.
Being part of this family is something that I'm learning. It's opened me up a lot. I'm sober now. I'm positive, I'm confident, I have some new music and I have something to say, and I have a lovely family now. I think that's what you hear in the music.
The song "One Day at a Time" is a pretty pointed reference to the fact that you've cleaned up and are now sober. That song almost sounds like it's straight out of 12-step world.
Yeah, it pretty much is.
Were you nervous to put it down like that?
Well, as an assignment to write a song about it, it was a challenge because I just wanted to tell the program what it was like and what it's like now, basically. To get that in the minimal amount of words so that it was effective -- it was fun to work on. That's part of Joe and I wanted to say something about it as kind of a little beacon of hope for anyone who's having trouble.
There's a lot of young musicians and it's really easy to [put] your perspective out there when you're trying to be successful. A lot of musicians end up really high really young and really want to find a way out. I'm just trying to say that there is life after all of that stuff and it's good. And if I help one person, well, that's what we do.
You worked with Jeff Lynne producing the new record. He's produced some of Tom Petty's finest "solo" efforts as well as a number of other well-respected records. How does recording with Lynne differ from others that you've worked with in the past?
We didn't really know each other, but we go way back. He's an analog guy, too. I'll put it that way. My wife has known him for a long time so, socially we got together and hung out and that was nice. At some point, he said, "Why don't you bring your tracks over to my house sometime and we'll have a listen." We kind of had show and tell and all but when he heard what I was doing, he had a few comments and a few ideas. So, we just did some work and the more we worked it gathered more momentum.
I kind of gave him free reign when he had ideas and stuff and he ended up producing the better part of the album. I think it was fun for him, too. When he came up with ideas, I was very receptive to it. He has a great gift of seeing the finished thing when it's not finished yet. When it's incomplete, he sees what it's going to be and he helps you get there. That was exactly what I needed to wrap things up and get it done. Having someone like that on board, I'm really grateful for his friendship and his involvement. He took the music in a direction that I would never gone without him and I think it's much, much better for it. He's pretty much a new friend and we enjoy working together and I hope we're not done.
You also brought in some other names like David Crosby, Graham Nash, and of course Ringo Starr. What do guys like that bring to the table other than the obvious element of star-power?
Well, these are guys I've known for quite awhile and I would say we're on the same wavelength. Guys like that, you don't really have to explain in depth what you're trying to accomplish. That saves a lot of time. I'm a firm believer that, if you're going to get somebody to play on your record, you let them play rather than tell them exactly what to do or have it written down. David and Graham -- I'm not going to tell those guys what to sing. Whatever they do is fine with me. [laughs] I've loved their music since day one, both of them. And of course, Ringo, I'm not going to tell him what to play. He already knows what to play. Just to have him play is all I need.
And I've played guitar for a lot of people, so I remind them of that and then I don't feel so bad about begging them to play on my record. [laughs] Everybody that played put on what I think is a really meaningful part and I tried have songs that would work that way. They made the songs that they were on special. Special for me, anyway.
Speaking about names you've worked with, the Eagles are -- without a doubt -- the biggest one you're most associated with. One might say the film The Big Lebowski has contributed to some ill will inflicted on the band. Have you seen that film and how do you respond to being associated so closely to something that's been criticized so harshly by a younger culture that adores that film?
[laughs] Wasn't that a great movie? [laughs]
It's an excellent movie.
If there's any criticism of the Eagles, it's that they are perfectionists and when you go to see them live it sounds like the record. And I guess all of that's true. The Eagles are four very alpha personalities. We've all done solo work and we've all played with very good musicians but when the four of us get together, it becomes something that's much bigger than any one of us. I think if you look at it as a body of work, it holds up in court. And Hotel California, we never dreamed it would affect as many people on the planet as it did. So, between that and being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there's a real sense of accomplishment on our part.
And if it sounds like the record when you hear us live, I mean, that's what we're trying to do. That's one way to do it and I think we do that as good as anybody. I don't know. You're going to get criticism no matter what you do. But we love each other. Love-hate, but we love each other. We find that when there are periods of time that go by where we don't work together, we really miss it and we don't realize how much we miss it until that happens.
I'm proud to be an Eagle and it's a way for me to express a part of me that I don't get to any other way. To have those vocals on a song and to be able to play rock and roll guitar behind those vocals is something any guitar player would want and I've had some good luck doing that. I think the world of Don and Glen and their songwriting and the vocals -- the Eagles harmony -- is something special.
So, I guess there's all of that from the criticism I read -- and of course everyone is entitled to their own view. But I'm proud to be in the band and I think we've made, overall, some really good stuff.