On the afternoon of July 20th,
1969, everyone was looking up at the sky: Neil
Armstrong was taking his first steps for mankind on the moon. A day to
remember. A historic day (one that will never repeat itself). The whole world
had their eyes glued to their televisions, their ears trained on their radio
sets…the more romantic of them gazed up at the stars, as if from where they
were standing they could see something. Everyone was waiting for the 'small step
for man, one giant leap for mankind'. Well, nearly everyone. Actually, there
were 2,574 people that weren't. They had paid $5 to see a different kind of
event (sold out, of course). But these stars were made of flesh and blood.
We are at the Warrensville Heights Musicarnival in Ohio, USA, some 1,000 miles away from Cape Canaveral, Florida, from where Apollo XI had blasted off four days before. The Brits Jimmy, John, John Paul and Robert, with their first LP which had been out on the streets for a few months and the second about to be recorded, go up onto the stage…'Ladies and gentlemen, Led Zeppelin'. Jimmy Page and company are ready to strut their stuff in front of a crowd that is already wild with delight. They have been set on fire by the warm-up act, a local band named James Gang, led by a youthful Joe Walsh (who would celebrate his 22nd birthday exactly four months later, on 20th November) on guitar and voice, with Jim Fox on drums and Tom Kriss playing the bass. Walsh was on a high – his new band had just released their first LP (Yer' Album, with such tracks as Funk #48 and I Don't Have The Time) and are about to go back to the studio to record their second (James Gang Rides Again, with tracks including Funk#49, The Bomber and Woman). Sales are good, the public are loving their live performances, his left hand glides over the neck of his Gibson Les Paul with an effortless ease that will stay with him for many years to come. His creativity when songwriting is out of this world. It doesn't matter if his voice is 'different' (neither good not bad, as he himself says) – his guitar will get to the notes that his vocal chords can't.
That 1969 was to be a great year – James Gang opened for Led Zeppelin and on 26th October of the same year, they did the same for The Who in their first North American tour to promote Tommy, the British band's fourth studio album. The band wowed Pete Townshend so much that he would then want them to be the opening act for all the dates of their European tour.
Joe Walsh is a likeable type. A down to earth, 'ordinary, average guy', an analogical artist. And his sound…what he did was the sound of the '70s. A sound that convinced the critics on the one hand and the world's guitar greats on the other (clearly he had earned the admiration of Page and Townshend, but also that of musicians such as Eric Clapton, who years later would say that he is one of the best stage guitarists there have been for a long time: "I don't often listen to many records, but I do his").
Joe's sound had something special to it, as if he could transmit some of the magic in his fingers to the instrument itself, and lock it in there forever. As if it were voodoo, Joe Walsh's rock impregnated the instrument's wood. Perhaps it was no coincidence that one of his Gibson Les Paul (seemingly, made in 1959) would end up being Jimmy Page's famous #1, bought from him sometime in April, 1969 for $1,200. Nor that The Who's sound in their 'post-Tommy' era en Who's Next (1971) and Quadrophenia (1973) came from a '59 Gretsch 6120 'Chet Atkins' Hollow Body that Walsh gave to Pete Townshend together with a '59 Fender 3x10 Bandmaster in 1970.
A good friend of John Belushi, partner and lover of the queen of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks (who remembers him as 'the great love of my life'), Joe Walsh was a man of excesses who has survived a life in which he has climbed mountains of drugs, swum rivers of liquor and had his way with endless queues of groupies and prostitutes. And there has been death, too: that of his three-year-old daughter, Emma, who died in a traffic accident when a drunk-driver collided head-on into the car driven by the girl's mother (who was soon Joe's ex-wife).
Joe Walsh is the comical genius who has penned such great songs as Life's Been Good in 1978 and I.L.B.T.s (I Like Big Tits, that he himself admitted 'started off as a love song, but something got twisted along the way') in 1983. In 1980, despite not having the minimum legal age requirement to be president, he presented himself as an independent candidate for the presidential elections in 1980 (later won by the dire actor Ronald Reagan, despite the good musician's unbeatable offer of 'free gas for all'). Walsh was the first guitarist to literally give voice to his guitar through the Talkbox in his '73 classic, Rocky Mountain Way.
His versatility with the six strings ranges from the crystal clear sounds on his acoustic (especially during 1972-73, his Barnstorm years after James Gang and some tracks 'dangerously' similar to the style of the folk singer James Taylor) to the ballsy rock that electrified the Eagles in the second half of the 70s.
Joe had been a friend of the Eagles for some time. They had shared a stage on more than one occasion before 20th December 1975, the day on which Irving Azoff, the manager of both parties, announced the guitarist's incorporation into the band, replacing Bernie Leadon. Quite a Christmas present!
Walsh's unbridled energy and uncontrollable personality was not a perfect match for the boring, measured precision and executive perfection of the country/rock birds of the famous Take it Easy. After a few inevitable clashings of heads, Walsh finally learnt to play his part and tow the line on stage under the orders of the two leaders of the Eagles, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, allowing him his crazy moments of spontaneous and exhilarating schizophrenia during the band's down-time. Being a member of the band (that reached its height with the LP Hotel California in December 1976 before imploding just four years later during their The Long Run tour) was good for him. The rest is history: The Eagles went flying each their own way, Joe leading a solo career until all (well, nearly all) flew back to their communal nest first in 1994 and then again in these years of the 21st Century.
It doesn't matter what guitar he hangs round his neck – be it a Gibson, a Fender, a Gretsch, a Carvin or a Duesenberg. The only thing that matters to him is being able to plug it into an amp and play - with or without a slide, with or without a tube in his mouth. It doesn't matter if he's playing Ravel's Bolero in the middle of his never-ending The Bomber or the best guitar duo in Rock history (in Hotel California with Don Felder). Joe Walsh was born to play and enchant his snakes.
Now older, Walsh has gotten over his dark years, his addictions, his excesses. In this way, he is not the same man as he was. He doesn't even dress the same – gone are the loud, gaudy shirts and trousers, '70's cowboy boots and aviator glasses. Now, the musician has a serious dark-suited 'MiB' look. In November 2008, he married once again, for the fifth time (he is now brother-in-law of ex-Beatle Ringo Star). His wife, Majorie Bach, is the person to be thanked for pushing the guitarist, now at the ripe old age of 66, back into the recording studios to record his first new material in 20 years.
What is most promising about our hero's story up to now is his most recent work (Analog Man, 2012), in which we find links to his past, such as Funk #50 and Lucky That Way, the younger brother of Life's Been Good, both full of the spirit of that magnificent guitarist from the 70s, that extraordinarily likeable guy, always able to bring a smile on his public's faces from up on the stage. A faithful public who will wait patiently (as if it were for some cosmic event, like that 1969 moonwalk) for the arrival of a Funk #51, a #52 and a #53…