Interview: Joe Walsh Discusses His Career, Gear and New Album, 'Analog Man'
Joe Walsh discusses his gear, his career and his new album, Analog Man, which is out today.
“He had invented the talk box by placing a speaker driver, the back part of a speaker, in a cardboard box and connecting a piece of surgical tubing to it. So the sound came up the surgical tubing.
"Then he wrapped the cardboard box in electrical tape. A guy named Pete Drake used it once in the Fifties for a song called ‘Forever,’ and then it went back in Bill West’s garage for 20 years. So we were at Dottie’s with her family and all, passing guitars around.
“Bill came out of the garage and gave this thing to me. I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, just take it home and plug it in, put the tubing in your mouth and plug it into your speaker jack. I don’t know exactly what it is.’
“Of course, I had to see how it was built, so I took it apart. And I was hanging out with Bob Heil at the time, ’cause he’s a ham operator. He had a sound company back then. He did all the Who shows in the U.S. And so we had a look at this thing, and Bob decided he had a good way to make ’em, so he put out his version of it. But the real one I still have — except the tube smells so horrible that nobody can use it.
“And then Peter Frampton came to me and said, ‘How the hell did you get that sound?’ I explained it to him, and he used it on his song “Show Me the Way,” and big things happened for him. He trademarked that sound.”
By 1975, however, Walsh had tired of being a solo artist. He was ready for another momentous and risky career shift. As when he left the James Gang, he found himself in a time of change, uncertainty and trepidation.
But once again, everything would work out fine: he joined the Eagles. “When you gain an amount of success,” he says, “a lot of nonmusical things come along that you don’t really think about before the success. You’re too busy trying to survive. It’s
nice when you get some money, get famous a little bit and get recognized. But as a solo artist, that comes with a lot of nonmusical things.
“There’s the business side of it — the hiring and firing, payroll and all of that. Not to mention the pressure of writing something that’s gonna make the next album as big as the one that got you there. And I found myself feeling alone and creatively a little stagnant. I’d had a good run as a solo artist, and I was thinking, God, it would be really good to be in a band again.”
Walsh had become friendly with the Eagles on the road, having shared bills with the hugely popular country-rock group on numerous occasions. They also shared the same manager, Irving Azoff.
Around that time, Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon, a country purist, had become uncomfortable with the more rock direction that the band’s principal songwriters, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, wanted to take.
“So when Bernie decided that he just wasn’t interested very much in continuing,” Walsh says, “Don and Glenn thought I would plug in really well with where the Eagles were eventually going to go. And at the time I was going, ‘Aw fuck, it’s time to do another solo album. Oh shit. Anybody got any ideas?’ You know? So it all just kind of came together, I joined the Eagles and the result, of course, was Hotel California.”
A landmark album, and arguably the Eagles’ greatest ever, Hotel California offered an eloquent depiction of the decadence and ennui of L.A. culture in the late Seventies. Walsh’s hard-edged rock sensibility was integral to the album’s aesthetic and appeal. Among his songwriting contributions was the signature guitar riff for the hit “Life in the Fast Lane.”
“That was actually a coordination drill that I’d come up with on guitar to warm up to play live,” he says. “I was just playing it one time and Don Henley goes, ‘What the hell is that!’ Well, it was just an idea floating around. With the Eagles, we would all bring in bits and pieces of music, throw them in a big pile and sort through them.
“Don and Glenn got a hold of that ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ riff. Glenn kinda arranged it, and we did a demo of it. Then Don had the idea of ‘life in the fast lane.’ He put the words together, and we recorded it for real. And then Don Felder and I figured out the guitar work. Once we knew it was an Eagles song, they turned me loose a little bit.”
Walsh and Eagles co-guitarist Don Felder coalesced into a formidable team. “We worked really well together,” Walsh says. “It was competitive. We brought out the best in each other. He would play something, and I’d get an attitude like, ‘Oh yeah? Listen to this.’ And he’d go, ‘Wow, listen to this!’ We would work that way. You can kind of hear that.”
The apotheosis of Walsh and Felder’s guitar magic with the Eagles is unquestionably “Hotel California.” Central to the symbol-laden epic track’s mood of desperation and la dolce vita gone slightly sour is the artful tapestry of intertwined guitar leads that Walsh and Felder weave throughout the track, bursting into Technicolor brilliance in the extended outro solo section. They trade licks for a while, then merge in glorious harmony. “Hotel California” had begun as a 12-string acoustic demo that Felder had put together.
The Eagles began to craft an arrangement, using the working title “Mexican Reggae.” After Henley came up with the song’s masterful lyric, Felder and Walsh were once again let loose.
“Don had his distinct part and I had my distinct part in the body of the song,” Walsh recounts. “And we thought, What if we merged those together? And that was the dual guitar work that develops during the course of the song. Felder had a lot of ways to go with it, and I tried to focus on that.”
The track’s unforgettable dual-guitar harmonies were played live in the studio by Walsh and Felder. “We took a couple of hours to work all those harmonies out and put them on,” Walsh says. “But over that we did individual solos. Like I said, Felder and I were competitive, but in a good way.”
To the best of Walsh’s recollection, he played a Telecaster on “Hotel California,” while Felder played a Les Paul, and of course the 12-string acoustic part. “We always tried to have a single-coil and a humbucker as the personalities of the guitars,” Walsh explains.
“We found that with two Les Pauls, you couldn’t really hear either of them, and two single-coils was too thin. So I ended up being the single-coil guy on ‘Hotel California.’”
From the late Seventies up to the present, Walsh has alternated between work with the Eagles and solo projects. In 1978, he was back in the limelight with another signature solo track, “Life’s Been Good,” a comedically understated account of stardom that went a long way toward establishing his persona as an ordinary guy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
The song’s verses also bear witness to an abiding interest in reggae on Walsh’s part. But Walsh might never have recorded or released this classic had it not been for the intervention of some friends.
“Sometimes musicians write songs just for themselves,” he says, “and they don’t really intend to record or release a song like that, or necessarily have anybody even hear it. That’s how it was with ‘Life’s Been Good.’ I wrote these words. They were lying around for a while and I just happened to show them to Bill Szymczyk and my friend Joe Vitale, who was the drummer for Barnstorm and now plays with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Joe and Bill both said, ‘You gotta make a song out of this!’”
Walsh’s new album, Analog Man, contains what is essentially a sequel to “Life’s Been Good,” a song entitled “Lucky That Way.” It is one of several songs on the new disc that the guitarist co-wrote with tunesmith Tommy Lee James, who has penned numerous country hits for artists like Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood and Taylor Swift. Walsh and James were brought together by Barbara Orbison, widow of rock and roll legend Roy Orbison.
“Tommy and I got along really well right from the start,” Walsh says. “And he actually brought in a verse for ‘Lucky That Way.’ He said, ‘I don’t know if you’re gonna like this, but I kinda wrote it with you in mind.’ From there, I just filled in the verses with situational stuff that was relevant to my life. But that really was a gift from Tommy Lee James. And, you know, the last verse is really true. In my experience in the music business, if you kind of pretend that you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks you know what you’re doing. So I have been kind of lucky that way. I haven’t been busted yet.”
With close friends like John Entwistle, Keith Moon and others long since dead of alcohol- and drug-related causes, Walsh is indeed lucky simply to still be around. He got sober in the Nineties, and two songs on Analog Man — “Wrecking Ball” and “One Day at a Time” — deal with the themes of addiction and recovery.
“I used to do all that stuff,” Walsh says. “Those of us from the Seventies who are still here just outgrew all of that. But in the music business, and in Hollywood in general, the party never stopped. A lot of these young celebrities are on parole. So ‘Wrecking Ball’ is addressed to the people who are partying in the 21st century.
“And in ‘One Day at a Time,’ I just wrote about my experience of getting sober. The one thing that made a difference in my life is Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a tradition of AA that you don’t flaunt the program in media, records, television and stuff. But I had to make an exception in writing about getting sober and what happened to me. I kinda thought somebody should.”
Of course, many of Walsh’s rock and roll peers are still around and doing quite well, including Paul McCartney. At their Grammy appearance, they played “My Valentine” from Sir Paul’s new album, Kisses on the Bottom, as well as the three-guitar rave-up “The End,” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for which they were joined by Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and, from McCartney’s own band, Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray.
“For ‘The End,’ it was just two-bar phrases,” Walsh points out. “So there wasn’t time to think. Just be ready. ’Cause as soon as you say something, you’re done.”
Given the roster of legendary musical artists with whom Walsh has worked, is there any one left on his wish list? He ponders the question a while before answering.
“Gosh darn, I really would have loved to play at a Ray Charles session,” he says. “Opportunities still come up for me to play with musicians and singers I really admire. But I don’t have anyone specific in mind at the moment. About what’s left for me now is to work at my craft. I’m blessed to be able to play my music, instead of somebody else’s music, in front of people. And I always try to tell young musicians that there’s life after addiction and it’s good. It’s been a great journey for me so far. I’m just this analog guy gettin’ used to this digital world. And I’m not done yet!”
Photo: Ross Halfin
Joe Walsh appears on the cover of the May 2012 issue of Guitar World, which is available now at the Guitar World Online Store.
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