The Tao of Joe Walsh
September 26, 2013 | by Matt Domino
Recently, Bill Simmons, the popular sportswriter and editor-in-chief of Grantland, wrote an extended feature about last year’s The History of the Eagles, the two-part documentary chronicling the “legendary” band’s rise, fall, and reunion. In his article, Simmons states that one of the best parts of the film is “The Tao of Joe Walsh,” which basically translates to the hazy, drug-reduced, unintentionally funny, aging-rock-star wisdom of the Eagles’ part-time virtuoso guitarist. As part of his appreciation for Joe Walsh, Simmons highlights the following quote:
You know, there’s a philosopher who says, “As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, non-related events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.”
From the above quote, it’s easy to understand why Joe Walsh is seen in a less than serious light. It is unfortunate that his legacy has become merely one of “rock ’n‘ roll’s survivors.” Though for many, “rock survivor” would not be an accolade to frown at, Walsh should be seen as something more than a former party animal who, though he has turned his life around, is not worth taking seriously.
Joe Walsh should be taken more seriously because between 1972 and 1979, Joe Walsh released five solo albums, three of which are bona fide classics: Barnstorm, The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, and But Seriously, Folks. He produced much of this output while also being a part of the biggest and most dysfunctional rock group in the world not named Fleetwood Mac—the Eagles. He was largely responsible for bulking up that group’s sound and allowing them to thrive and fill stadiums across the globe. It is unfortunate, then, that for many, Joe Walsh has been reduced to merely a drawling “rock ’n‘ roll survivor.” Because he is so much more than that hasty definition.
In late August and early September, I listen to Joe Walsh’s first solo album, Barnstorm. I’ve been doing this since 2007, when I first discovered the record while working in a summer teaching program at a New England prep school. Barnstorm is my favorite Joe Walsh solo album. It captures, perhaps better than any record in the rock ’n‘ roll canon, the slow, sad melancholy of late summer mixed with the excitement that the fresh, crisp start of autumn seems to promise. The entire record is packed with nostalgic keyboards and synthesizers, exhilarating guitars, immovable piano and bass, and perfectly recorded drums. It sounds like the end of summer and the beginning of school—that odd feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as the sun sets on Labor Day.
Barnstorm was recorded in 1972 after Walsh left the James Gang (his first group with whom he made the legendary riff-rock track “Funk 49”) and moved to Colorado to regroup. The album’s one notable single is the slide-guitar rocker “Turn to Stone.” That song reached number ninety-three on the Billboard chart, and that was in 1975, after it was rerecorded for the album So What. If you were not a music fan living through the 1970s, chances are “Turn to Stone” was not part of your classic rock station’s vernacular growing up. “Turn to Stone” scratches the surface of the arena-sized anthems such as “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Life’s Been Good” that Walsh would later create, not to mention the crowd-pleasing guitar fireworks he would add to all of the Eagles hits, including “Hotel California,” starting in 1975.
Even though Barnstorm has no true hits, it is not a particularly difficult or extremely subtle album—the kind that needs time and repeated listens. Instead, there is something fundamental in its music, in the way that the album flows—at times, songs are linked by the sound of blowing wind—that makes you say, “Yes, this is a rock ’n‘ roll album as an ideal; something sturdy and lasting that Plato would have approved of. There really was once an art to this.” Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin are often cited as the masters of “album rock.” Their attention to sequencing and focus on “albums” rather than “singles” was part and parcel of their success, appeal, and mystique. On Barnstorm (and subsequent releases like The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get and But Seriously, Folks …) Joe Walsh deserves to be placed in the same category as Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin when it comes to the contribution of the album as art form.
The album’s opening track is called “Here We Go,” which, as a title for a first song, speaks for itself. The first sounds on record are ominous acoustic guitar strums, with subtle touches of electric guitar. Then, the aforementioned perfectly recorded drums rumble and thunder into the mix—but only for a brief moment. The song quiets down again for a few bars, before taking off with Walsh, in his trademark light-molasses whine, singing the titular line of the track while the electric guitar crunches, the acoustic guitar hums, and an organ line lifted straight from the Beatles’ Let it Be–era propels the song and gives it a glowing, late-summer radiance. Once the theatrics end, the track turns into an extended guitar and synthesizer jam—with searing solos that hit you from every angle—that slowly becomes a haunting piano meditation complete with mountain-wind sound effects.
And that’s just the first song. “Here We Go” segues seamlessly into “Midnight Visitor,” which is replete with high-register, twanging Walsh vocals covered in echo and backed by lonesome trail acoustic guitar before turning into an organ-based, wordless chorus that sounds like a carnival on the last weekend in August—the kind you bring a denim jacket to, just in case.
Through the course of Barnstorm, you get a chance to revel in the thick, devil’s food cake funk, of “Mother Says,” with its suddenly popping bass lines and incredibly chunky guitar and organ and intervals of absolutely soaring—there is no other word—piano- and guitar-based instrumental breaks. Then, there are the melodic dynamics of “Birdcall Morning,” full of textbook slide guitar playing and staggering drum sounds. The fluid and near-pastoral nature of the song bring to mind the overwhelming sensation of the last beach day of the year, when the waves are choppy and strong, but the water is warm and the beer back on the shore is cool and ringed with sand. And later, there is the McCartney/Brian Wilson on steroids ballad, “I’ll Tell the World” with plenty of the playful and stacked backing vocals that you would want from one of those two pop masters.
This all leads to the album’s denouement—the back-to-back of “Turn to Stone” and “Comin’ Down.” The former is an epic guitar rocker that rides on the back of a furious, hair-of-the-dog lead guitar line and supportive but still aggressive slide playing. The entire song is menacing, slightly desperate with the residue of the night before and full of dark guitar fireworks. But it lacks the smiling, winking buzz of Walsh’s later hits, which makes it no surprise that it only reached number ninety-three as a single. Meanwhile, “Comin’ Down” is a perfect album ender, just as “Here We Go” is a perfect album opener. It is a barely-two-minute acoustic meditation with vaguely poignant lyrics such as, “Comin’ down, comin’ round to see you / To see if maybe you know who I am.” The song, and entire album, ends on a fading harmonica and lightly picked acoustic guitar.
There’s one song I want to focus on, though; that song is “One by One/Giant Bohemoth,” which I consider to be the album’s thesis statement. This track combines Walsh’s trademark exuberance with an otherworldly, haunting, synth-based instrumental. If there is a reason why Barnstorm seems to fit the end of August and the beginning of September (besides the fact that it’s tied to my own strong memories of that time of year), it’s due to the lyrics and feel of this song. First, the lyrics:
Mama’s in the kitchen
Cooking up a storm,
I ain’t tasted nothing better
Daddy’s in the bedroom,
Keeping us all warm
Pretty soon we’ll get up for school
I wish they were here again,
Tell me what to do,
I still miss them now and then,
One and one is two
Now, these may be basic lyrics, but they are devastating in their simplicity—anyone can listen to these words, along with the quiet, soulful piano playing and mournful double-tracked vocals, and make up their own version of their first days of the school year (as the evenings start to get shorter and soccer practice eats into your afternoon) and place it on the song.
Once the lyrics finish, the song explodes into a joyful flourish before suddenly veering into a synthesizer, organ, flute, and guitar-led instrumental passage with a hook that, once you listen to the song a few times, you will always associate with a clear, country summer night when you can see plenty of stars. You may be an adult and not have to worry about the “first day of school” anymore, but you still feel some of that strange longing and excitement deep within yourself, as you look at the silhouette of trees and faraway, low-lying roofs against the navy and silver sky.
Last year, Joe Walsh went on Howard Stern’s radio show to do an interview. The entire hour-long conversation is available on YouTube. Stern and Walsh are old friends and their banter is enjoyable enough. However, Howard is able to draw a certain candor out of the now-sober Walsh. They bring up old stories and hash over his days of drinking and drug abuse. When asked about what he used to take, Walsh says the following:
Whatever you had was what I did … until you were out, and then I left.
It’s quotes like this, the quote Bill Simmons pulled from The History of the Eagles documentary, the drawling voice, amiable nature, and basically the entire lyrical content and vibe of “Life’s Been Good” (though that song is touched with the greatest sense of melancholy as well), that have led Joe Walsh to be seen as nothing more than a “rock ’n‘ roll survivor”; a hired gun who was there to party and provide a classic rock riff that would one day be used in many a movie montage.
And that’s a shame, because the Joe Walsh that I have come to appreciate is a musician who is capable of making an album like Barnstorm, an album that I feel inclined to play at a specific time every year because it makes me feel the strangest sense of longing and excitement; it makes me mourn and thrill at the same time. It makes me think of the last summer sunset and the feel of the first sweater pulled overhead in the autumn. I love Barnstorm because it is an album that, to quote Allmusic’s Thom Jurek, “leav[es] the listener literally stunned at what has just transpired in the space of thirty-five minutes.”
That’s the Joe Walsh I’ll always know; Eagles documentaries and any nonbelievers be damned.
Matt Domino loves the NBA and writes fiction in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in various places, and he runs a blog called Puddles of Myself.