Not-So-Average Joe

Guitar-slinger Joe Walsh talks sobriety, the creative process and a new album by the Eagles

click to enlarge HOT LICKS: Joe Walsh takes the stage Sunday at Mahaffey Theater with a band says inspired him to play even more aggressively. - Andrew Macpherson
Andrew Macpherson
HOT LICKS: Joe Walsh takes the stage Sunday at Mahaffey Theater with a band says inspired him to play even more aggressively.

Joe Walsh is out on the road with a band of youngblood musicians from Southern California — a group that he says forces him to play his guitar "more aggressively, with more energy." To promote the shows, he's doing rounds of 15-minute interviews timed to the millisecond, and you can just sense that answering questions on the phone posed by strangers is not how he likes to spend his time.

Making matters worse for Joe is that The Eagles are nearing completion of an all-new studio album, the first from the notoriously dysfunctional unit since 1979's The Long Run. Everyone wants to know a little something about it.

So c'mon Joe, what's the new album like? Does it rock? Is it subdued? A mixed bag? Can you give us quick summation?

"No."

Let it be known that Joe's not being a prick, not really. After a pause and with the slightest tinge of apology, he adds: "I can't. We had no idea what we were doing with Hotel California. In retrospect, it would appear that we did. All that we knew was that it was done; we didn't know if it was good or not."

He pauses again and then picks up the subject of the new album. "How in the world do you tell if these things are good or not? All four [Eagles] have signed off on it. We'll put it out there and see how it goes. It's a genuine album of new Eagles songs with everyone participating."

There ya go.

Maybe Joe has earned the right to be a little cranky. He'll be 60 in November; the Eagles sessions lasted an eternity; the band went through a "bucket of producers;" and, while the singer/guitar wizard still loves performing in front of people, he is grinding the miles from gig to gig, hotel room to hotel room. On the other hand, it's not hyperbolic to say that Joe Walsh is lucky to be alive. One of rock's most prodigious drunks, cokeheads and wildmen — the guy who wrote the scathingly satirical (and surely autobiographical) take on rock excess called "Life's Been Good" — has been sober for 13 years.

"It's OK now; I've had enough sobriety that the craving is gone, the addiction is gone," he says. "Most of the triggers are gone. I might have a 30-second daydream twice a week about the old days, but there's nothing really attractive about that."

Joe proves to be far more loquacious on the subject of recovery. I asked him what it was like the first time he played on stage sober. "It was hard at first," he says. "Doing anything was hard at first. One of my great things in terms of denial was the idea that being an artist and writing and all that, one needed to have a buzz. Hemingway couldn't have written like that without one. Hendrix couldn't have played like that if he wasn't really, really high. I was telling myself that sort of stuff to justify being nuts. It never occurred to me that all those people were dead."

In an ironic twist, Joe maintains that going out on the road actually helped his recovery. "Luckily, in the very early stages of my sobriety, [The Eagles] went out on the Hell Freezes Over tour," he says. "I had the structure of knowing what I was doing today, where I had to be and that I had to do really, really good, had to play whether I wanted to or not. It forced the issue. I didn't know whether I had a sense of humor. I didn't know whether I could play. I had to discover that I actually could do it sober."

The long-cleaned-up Joe Walsh has been particularly busy of late. Last year, he reconvened his '60s/early '70s power trio The James Gang. During the band's show at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Joe played brilliantly, all buzz and fire, gnarled blues licks and metallic slide work bursting from his Fender Strat. His fine whine of a voice was in solid shape as well.

After wrapping the Eagles sessions, he took the time to put together a brand new ensemble for this headlining tour — even though he doesn't have a solo album out, let alone planned. If, like he says, his new band is causing him to play even more aggressively, maybe they should park fire engines outside of Mahaffey Theater, just in case.

He'll have to dial it back when the Eagles embark on a major tour next year. With the band's prodigious talent and egos, especially those of principal songwriters and long-rumored antagonists Don Henley and Glenn Frey, it's imperative that the center-stage baton gets passed around.

Over the last decade or so, Eagles tours have been regular occurrences — despite tensions, the paydays were too good to pass up. But It's one thing to set aside differences and play to adoring sell-out crowds; it's quite another to manage the creative process in the close confines of the recording studio.

To hear Joe tell it, the sessions went more smoothly than expected from a band known for its testy chemistry. After kicking off the project "two or three times," because "we hadn't made an album in a long time, and we didn't know how to get started," Joe says, "we did what we always do and throw everything out on the table like a jigsaw puzzle and sort it out. It was really good. The last third of the album was big-time collaboration. We just went about it with a very patient, positive attitude. We like each other as friends, and we like playing with each other more than with anyone else at this point."

Even though today's music-making and marketing reinvents itself almost daily, it's all but certain that The Eagles' new album will come out the standard way — on a major label (although Joe says the band is not currently under contract). But ya never know: Some genius might decide the new Eagles album should be put on little racks at Starbucks.

Would that bother Joe?

"Yeah."

After a pause, he continues: "It's a whole new world out there in terms of disseminating creative projects. I like to keep an eye on it. I'm interested in minimal paparazzi, minimal hype. I think we just want the album to come out and be approved of and appreciated by the people who enjoy our music."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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