The Rise of Joe Walsh in the 1970s

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His James Gang and solo work showed him as far more than an Eagles guitarist and occasional songwriter

jamesgang1(Bikes)Way back in 1970 when I was writing for Zygote magazine, I pitched an article on the James Gang based on a record I couldn’t get off my turntable, Yer’ Album. The trio’s debut had an experimental vibe shared with so many releases at the time. The psychedelic strings-and-guitar “Introduction” led into guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Joe Walsh’s Beatlesque “Take a Look Around,” with its Hammond B3 organ washes overdubbed against ethereal Echoplex guitar figures and Walsh’s Alice-in-Wonderland vocals. Just as the listener settled into this groove the band followed with the punch-in-the-face of “Funk #48,” snappy metal syncopation with Walsh’s flashy stutter-step chording in a crisp duck and weave with Jim Fox’s precision drumming.

What really sold me on Walsh, though, was his audacious decision to cover the Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” and the Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman” back to back. I’m always suspicious of covers but Walsh attacked these with purpose, demonstrating that he could assimilate styles without being merely imitative. Taken together these two performances explain the light/heavy dichotomy of Walsh’s unique conception, “Bluebird” displaying his mastery of softer, melodic textures and “Lost Woman” showing that Walsh could go toe to toe with heavy hitters Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Clapton and Page later became public admirers of Walsh’s playing.

The summer of 1970 was asphalt-melting hot and the stench on St. Mark’s Place was particularly ripe as I climbed the stairs into the Electric Circus to hear the James Gang. As a power trio the live band had no room for the more subtle aspects of Walsh’s presentation. But the Electric Circus was ridiculous, a rattling dome of acoustic madness with a mangled PA pushing post-distortion levels and strobe lights reaching for epileptic release. When the band started the din was an indistinguishable roar of pure industrial sound. Not the worst thing I’d ever heard, but nothing like I was looking for.

Walsh creditsI met Walsh the following afternoon in Central Park and he was ecstatic, not about the gig, but the album he had just finished recording, James Gang Rides Again. “This album really reflects where we’re at right now as a band,” Walsh said in his laconic drawl as he sat on a grassy hill overlooking Sheep Meadow. “On the first album we didn’t really have any concepts or anything. We had songs that we did live. With the second album we have a little more direction. We know each other musically…. We’re gonna try to be the most versatile three piece group around. We’re gonna be able to do every song on both albums, and that’s hard for three people. We’re gonna add an organ so we can do the organ songs like ‘Tend My Garden’ and ‘Take a Look Around.’ More than most groups, the three of us have a really broad knowledge of rock… we’re into Buffalo Springfield and I’m really into The Beach Boys and The Beatles. All these things come out in our music more than just being a loud three piece electric band.

I pointed out that Cream was the standard against which groups like The James Gang were measured, which was true at the time, but Walsh had a quick retort. “A lot of people have said we reminded them of Cream,” Walsh noted. “We don’t remind me of Cream at all. We have the same instrumentation. Well, Traffic’s three guys. If we’re going anywhere it’s in that direction.”

When Rides Again hit the streets, Walsh’s remarks were easy to understand. It was a daring, almost schizophrenic record that essentially presented two groups, one on each side of the LP. Side one was the power trio, brilliantly produced by Bill Szymczyk, “made loud to be played loud” as the liners say. “Funk #49” took this syncopated monster riff to the next level, followed by the spacy “Asshton Park,” the riff rocker “Woman” and the side closing suite, “The Bomber,” incorporating Ravel’s “Bolero” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

The songs on side one represented the group’s fundamental live sound at the time the record was released and were credited equally to the three members. Side two was all Joe Walsh except for “Ashes the Rain and I” which he co-wrote with bassist Dale Peters. “Tend My Garden,” indicative of Walsh’s fascination with the Beatles White Album, segues into “Garden Gate,” then comes “There I Go Again,” an Abbey Road inspired guitar overlay on “Thanks” and finally “Ashes…”

1973JoeWalshTheSmokerYouDrinkThePlayerYouGetInsidepage21The contrast between the two sides was magnificent, making James Gang Rides Again one of the most influential records of the 1970s. It also defined a fault line between what would be the band’s calling card as a power trio and Walsh’s aspirations as a songwriter.

The very success of the James Gang started to irritate Walsh. “I can come off the stage having the worst night I ever had,” he said, “and if you jump around a lot and play loud you can fool the audience…. I really get off playing loud and hard and I really get off playing soft. I’m just really wary of playing soft because I’m afraid it won’t go over…. I think I’ll probably end up acoustic. I’ll play loud probably a year or two more and then get more into songwriting.”

Walsh would leave the band after making another studio album and the obligatory live recording. The featured song on each was the hit “Walk Away,” a sentiment that seemed to sum up the ambivalence in Walsh’s ability to rock out and his dismay in the results it produced.

Walsh was headed inexorably toward a collaboration with the Eagles, which seems inevitable in hindsight as his songs and recordings grew in sophistication.

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Walsh left the James Gang in December of ’71 and holed up in the Colorado Rockies to make a solo record. He wanted time to reflect and came up with an astonishing sequence of songs to match a completely revamped sound on Barnstorm. This self-reflective and philosophic record shows Walsh evolving personally and artistically. Taking time out to consider his relationship to nature, family and his own aspirations, Walsh seemed to find peace in just being himself and pursuing his muse.

Walsh’s thoughtful perspective appears at the outset as he contemplates dawn in “Here We Go.” The new day offers the possibility for change, but also a return to the old mistakes:

I feel us falling
Back where we came
It all astounds me
Is it a sad thing, bad thing?

I don’t know
Oh no….

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From the understated opening guitar chords of “Here We Go” the record is a masterpiece, a direct extension of the mood on side two of Rides Again. Guitars, filtered through effects boxes and Leslie speakers, are used more for textures and fills than open-ended soloing as Walsh builds up layer after layer of phased sound in cascading rhythms. Guitars, organ, piano and ARP Odyssey synthesizer lines mesh with the sparse accompaniment of Kenny Passarelli on bass and Joe Vitale on percussion and flute. The moody, melodic result was just as Walsh predicted, a lot closer to Traffic than Cream. “Here We Go” built to a single guitar solo that lasted only a chorus before breaking into the piano intro to “Midnight Visitor,” an eerie song about a chance encounter in the wilderness based on The Hobbit, which Walsh was reading at the time. The clap along chorus featured Al Perkins on steel guitar.

Reflections on starting over trigger heart-wrenching childhood memories on several Barnstorm songs. Joe’s father died when he was five years old, and he relives an emotional memory from early childhood on “One and One.”

Momma’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.

Related: Walsh and Barnstorm to reunite for one night

His thoughts about the comforts of home life and the sadness of losing it come to the fore again on “Mother Says:”

Mother says, “Be careful
And don’t stay out too long
Don’t do things you shouldn’t
Miss me when I’m gone.”

Daddy says, “Not now, son
Just do the best you can
And you’ll make out somehow, son
Be just like I am, just like I am.”

You won’t need a reason
She don’t let you choose
And so to make the game easy
Mother makes the rules

We all know how the rules are
Changin’ from day to day
That’s the breaks, and I’m sorry
Some of us must be going
Some of us have to stay
Some of us may be showing
Some just fade away

Sad to say, it’s the ending
And all the feeling’s gone
If you don’t like pretending
You can come along
And Mother says she’s ready
And if you have the time

She’ll help us all get steady
Make us all feel better
Make us all feel fine
Make us all feel better
Make us all feel fine

Then, Walsh once again finds that solace in “Birdcall Morning”:

Early birdcall morning
In a milkweed cloudy sky
Sets me free without a warning
Wonder why

And if my eyes aren’t open
Or if I’m too blind to see
Would you show me birdcall morning?
Set me free

And if you don’t want to, I do
You know I do
Sing the song, sing along
It don’t matter if you know the tune
That’s the way it goes, I don’t know…

And when the storm is upon me
And my ship is blown to sea
Would you show me birdcall morning?
Set me free
Set me free, set me free, set me free, set me free, set me free
Set me free

I was living in a ground floor apartment at Broadway and 150th St., right across from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It was Thanksgiving weekend and my partner Barbara Mathe was in the next room when a package came hurtling through the hole we had cut in the front door to fit LP mailers. Sam the Cat was in his usual listening position on the left arm of the couch, perfectly situated between the two speakers, ears forward. I opened the package to find Barnstorm and immediately placed it on the turntable.

I’ll never forget the powerful emotions I felt on first hearing it, and I can never listen to it without revisiting that feeling. Walsh has written numerous first person songs over the years, but the emotional honesty matched with the beautiful orchestrations creates an intensely personal saga of suffering and loss redeemed by the simple perception and enjoyment of the world around you. On Barnstorm, Joe Walsh came face to face with what it means to be human.

large.060tou06b9ddThe experience must have done Walsh good because he returned immediately to the studio to make the more aggressive The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, with its signature song “Rocky Mountain Way.” For Walsh it was “time to open fire,” and he put together a great band to play the new material in concert. After a particularly fine show in Central Park not far from where he told me about Rides Again, Walsh knew his decision to move on from the James Gang had been vindicated.

“I followed my convictions,” he said. “I’m kinda getting back into it. I totally withdrew…. I wanted not to be the guitar player but the songwriter, to get away from that young boogie audience. But I’m really starting to play on stage a lot better and I’m really starting to get back into some guitar work. You can’t cross the river without wanting to get back.”

Walsh predicted that the next few Barnstorm records would be even better. But his new manager, Irving Azoff, had another idea. Azoff’s biggest client, the Eagles, was looking for a new lead guitarist to replace Bernie Leadon. When Walsh went in to make his next album, So What, the Eagles sang background vocals on “Help Me Thru the Night.” Within the year Walsh was in the band and helping them make the Hotel California album.

John Swenson

John Swenson

John Swenson has been writing about popular music since 1967. He has worked as an editor at Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World and OffBeat magazine and been published in virtually every classic popular music magazine of note, and edited the award-winning website jazze.com for Knit Media. He was a syndicated music columnist for more than 20 years at United Press International and Reuters. Swenson has written 14 published books including biographies of Bill Haley, The Who, Stevie Wonder and The Eagles and co-edited the original Rolling Stone Record Guide with Dave Marsh. He is also the editor of The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide. In another role, Swenson is a veteran sports writer who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years, writing pieces for outlets from Rolling Stone to the Associated Press. Swenson is also a veteran horseracing columnist and handicapper who covered the New York racing scene as a columnist for the New York Post and the New Orleans Fair Grounds meet for The Daily Racing Form. His profile on jockey Steve Cauthen, "Rise To Stardom, Fall From Grace" in Spur magazine, was nominated for an Eclipse Award.
John Swenson

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