A friend once told me that you could learn a lot about a person in just a few minutes. I hope that’s true. In the outside backstage area, I am waiting for the green light from Joe Walsh’s manager. I will have five minutes to speak with him. On this humid Saturday night, thousands of fans, who have basted in the golden sun for several hours, already feel a sense of relief as they watch the crew set up.
I had just brushed through that crowd. Like industrious packs of army ants, people were starting to inch more closely to the stage. The occasional breeze diminished the stench of tobacco, as the heat emboldened other senses. Plastic cups of icy beer began to taste more like champagne as the amber sun drifted below the horizon.
A group of marines had also gathered in back of the stage area, waiting to meet Joe. One confided that he was nervous because he’ll be going onstage to be part of a presentation. He’s never appeared in front of a crowd this large, but they’re a friendly bunch, so I Fed-ex him a smile that says, “Glad you are here.”
The Naperville Rib Fest, which includes the celebration of July 4th, is in its 25th year and has raised more than 12 million dollars for the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence. There are abundant food choices and consecutive days of classic rock headliners. We have a short summer here. No wonder it’s packed.
Joe’s manager curls his index finger towards me. Any minute now, I will have access to the trailer. But was I ready? I had heard stories about crazy Joe – he carried a chainsaw on the road so that he could “modify” his hotel suite, or how he would show up in his bathrobe on radio personality Steve Dahl’s show. A fan said, that once in a Florida dive after hearing strains of incredible guitar, he ambled back to the bar proper, and, to his disbelief, he found the once on-top-of the world artist playing his heart out, for tips.
I imagined that there might be some bitterness in those eyes. After all, Joe Walsh had seen “fire and rain” as had another classic songwriter. His alcohol abuse had triggered a downward spiral after the Eagles broke up. But, even before that in the James Gang era, his original songs were the ones that flew up the charts and competition between peers is never an easy road to navigate, though those conflicts happened long ago…
Joe is the consummate innovator. In the early 1970s, he made clever use of the “talk box”, a device that synchs up with the electric guitar and enables the voice to create amazingly funny sounds, as in ‘Rocky Mountain Way.’ He’s used Morse code in several tunes he recorded with Barnstorm and, in a mock election in the early 1980s, he declared he wanted to run for president using his song ‘Life’s Been Good’ as a political anthem. He can hotwire pickups, play bagpipes and operate a ham radio and his music ends up in the most curious of places. ‘In The City’ was on the soundtrack of the American 1979 cult film, 'The Warriors'.
That said, Joe Walsh’s earlier background was not an ordinary one. His mother was a classical pianist – maybe she was the muse that encouraged him to climb out of the sometimes-staid rock repertoire that some other musicians eat for breakfast. Who else would think of quoting ‘Bolero’ the way he does in the middle of ‘The Bomber’?
Joe’s life has been blessed by giftedness and diminished by excess. Like the rest of us, his true character might be evaluated not by specifics, but by how he pulled through the challenges. Would the wear and tear of that history be present in those eyes? Would his rock star status preclude a down-to-earth conversation?
Nah. Walsh’s lime-green eyes were warm and focused and his handshake was firm. His is an easy smile. The fact that thousands of fans were waiting for him with high expectations or that if he, for any reason, decided not to play, we might witness scenes from 'Les Miserables', seemed remote - Joe was completely in the here and now.
As we sank into the plush sofa, I asked Joe about his experience co-writing songs on his new solo album, 'Analog Man'. Excitedly, he replied: “It was really good. Tommy Lee James is who I wrote three or four songs with. He’s from Nashville and he’s very gifted in the craft of writing.”
He pauses, and in his wonderful gravel-tinged voice adds: “I had it, but he saved me a lot of time by making it rhyme and (telling me) this goes here and this goes there and, that right there, is another story.”
“I had seventy pieces of paper lying around with words on each of them and he helped me get one piece of paper with seventy words on it. So collaborating helped me just to get through the process of songwriting; it helped a lot and producer Jeff Lynne, of course, is wonderful to write with.”
When I ask him what song describes his attitude lately, he pauses again and then smiles. ‘Lucky That Way’, I think, right now and maybe after the show, it won’t. I’m lucky I’m here, I’m still here and a bunch of people have come here to hear me play my music. I just want to go out and make sure that everybody goes home happy.”
These days, Joe has taken a more serious stand on American politics, and, ironically, the candidate that he does not endorse, shares his name. In a culture where so many celebrities steer clear of taking sides, or, if they do, they risk the chance that the public will misinterpret their motives, his decision intrigues me.
I wouldn’t normally participate in any of it,” he says, his voice gripping each word with equal weight. “But I happened to cross someone who I believe deserves a chance to go to Washington - it’s Tammy Duckworth, (who is running for Congress against the Republican candidate, Joe Walsh - LT) and I checked her out at length and I see nothing but integrity and untapped ability; regardless of everything, I just really believe in her and I think her voice would be a voice of just plain common sense and a voice of reason in a Congress that’s all over the map, and she will represent, I truly believe, where she came from, because a lot of congressmen - they’re lost when it comes to what the people around them think.”
Joe lays out his reasoning in bullet point, almost as though he were comprising a set list. “So I just think she’s the real thing and for what she has done for her country, she has put herself in harm’s way. I think she deserves a shot if she wants to represent people in Washington.”
I’m dying to know more, but conscious of the time. Over the next few hours, Joe Walsh will morph into a human wah wah, a cultural ambassador; a six-string God whose optimistic outlook will draw the distant near. He’s clearly passionate about the state of our country, but what does he think of those fans out there?
His lime-green eyes glisten. “I love playing in Chicago. It’s always good and I couldn’t think of a better thing than a rib fest for various causes and I think it’s great. I want everyone to go home happy and I want everyone to drive careful. They probably hear this a lot before they drive home, but if they do hear this then they should be careful when they drive home.”
I tip-toe out and then watch from a distance as Joe leaves the trailer. He flashes a smile and heads towards the group of excited Marines. The shy guy is somewhere up in front. My friend was dead right.