Joe Walsh Interview: Paying It Back for Veterans

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Joe Walsh (Photo: Myram Santos; used with permission)

Hardcore Joe Walsh fans know of his quiet history of benefit shows and charity works for causes ranging from solar energy to political candidates. It wasn’t until 2017’s full-blown launch of VetsAid.org and a benefit concert for veterans that Walsh finally went front-and-center with his own charitable organization, VetsAid, inspired by pal Willie Nelson’s long-running work for FarmAid.

But even the most ardent of fans were unaware of Walsh’s role as a Gold Star kid; his father, a military flight instructor, was killed when Walsh was just months old. Walsh took his surname, Fidler, as his middle name and was adopted by his stepfather.

Walsh has a long family history of military service, and he felt it was time to pay that back. Years in the making, VetsAid was launched last year with a concert featuring Walsh and guitar pals Keith Urban, Zak Brown and Gary Clark Jr. It poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into grassroots veterans organizations.

Walsh explains on the VetsAid website: “We’re all in this together as Americans and seems to me lately that people are forgetting that. So I decided to put on a show, raise some money, bring people back together and celebrate our vets.”

This year’s sequel—the next in what Walsh plans to be an annual event—features pals Don Henley, James Taylor, HAIM and Chris Stapleton, at the Tacoma Dome in Washington on Nov. 11. [Tickets are available here.] Brother-in-law Ringo Starr just joined the lineup as well. Tickets and information are available through VetsAid.org; you can also donate there if you can’t make the show. Walsh has expanded into even more charities; a full list is available here. This year a job fair for vets has been added, casting out more helping hands for the military.

Walsh took a few minutes with Best Classic Bands to open up about honoring his own father and other veterans with his fledgling charity.

I didn’t know about your dad’s military background. Is that something you’ve kept close to the vest?
I didn’t talk about it for a long time. I thought it was fair. I got a stepfather when I was about 7 and out of respect for him—he always had my back and he was great—I just didn’t go there.

Why now?
What really kicked it off was I met a lady in Illinois who was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who was shot down. She lost both her legs and has partial use of her arms. And she wanted to run for the House of Representatives. Her name was Tammy Duckworth. This was in Chicago. She asked me if I’d consider helping and I thought to myself, she put herself in harm’s way and lost two legs. If she wants to run for Congress, she ought to run for Congress.

And she won.
She’s a senator now. But that just slammed at me that there are lots of vets like her who can do—who should be able to do—anything they wanna do when they come home. There’s that, OK? Then there is me being a Gold Star kid. It makes it resonant with all the Gold Star families and there’s a lot of them. I never talked about it, but my real father died in 1949. He was a flight instructor for the first operational jet, which was an F-80. I spent those years before I got a stepfather as just not having a dad. All the other kids did. I didn’t have anybody to roleplay as a dad for me, anyone to play catch with, any of that stuff. It was just an empty sadness inside of me. Never really knew him, always wondering. He was a hero to me but he died when he was 24. I’m just really resonant when I see a Gold Star family. I’ve been there, right?

Joe Walsh makes some new friends at VetsAid 2017 (Sept 20, 2017 / EagleBank Arena, Fairfax, VA) (Photo courtesy of VetsAid.org, used with permission)

And there were more connections, right?
My wife told me that her dad flew five or six missions in Europe. He was a bombardier. He got shot down three times. He never talked about it. He would not watch war movies. I realized that my stepfather was in the Army—in Army intelligence—and he was the third team into Hiroshima. He never talked about it. In talking to friends, nobody’s dad ever talked about World War II. They just kept it in. They just didn’t do that. And, holy smokes, you know? The Vietnam guys, all the guys I knew in high school…They were just different when they came back, a whole different person. They got laced with Agent Orange. All of a sudden they’re sick and they don’t know why.

Every generation faces a different type of warfare.
We’re at war (in Afghanistan). And it’s a different kind of war this time. I’m 70 now, so I can say they’re kids, those kids, who go over that are shattered. And there’s more people came back without arms and legs.

Because of the nature of the fighting.
Yeah. Yeah. The IEDs. It just seems to me if we are at war and Congress sets up a budget, why don’t they add to it when the troops come back? And have some kind of organized help for them? In the Eagles, when we played in Washington, D.C., I’d always go to Walter Reed Hospital. That’s the prosthetic-fitting hospital, and the rehab where you learn how to use the limb. I’d always go and I’d walk around…I just always felt awkward because I did not have a clue what to say. But I just said, “Thank you for your service and sorry for your loss.” I brought them Eagles sweatshirts and hats or something. One of these times a guy who knew who I was brought me his guitar and said, “Hey, man, would you play ‘Hotel California’ for us?” So I sat down and I played it and we all sang. Then I had to answer some questions about guitars and chords and keys and stuff. But when I left those guys were shining. Those guys were up. They felt like man, that was cool.

That’s what’s magical about music, the ability to change people’s mood or even lives.
It’s a powerful thing. To make a difference in somebody’s life is the kindest, best reward I’ve gotten so far for my music.”

Then you took it further.
So all this just piled up on me and I said, “You know what? I’m in a position to make a difference here.” I talked to my wife’s son, Christian, about it. And we put together last year’s VetsAid. We had to set up a non-profit—that takes a while to qualify for that and get approved. I had played a lot of functions for other people, friends and stuff for various charities they were involved with. But I never had my own…it’s really awkward to ask people to come and play for free.

Related: Behind the scenes on Walsh’s But Seriously, Folks album

But they come out anyway. Henley and Ringo were probably easy calls.
Last year Keith Urban and Zak Brown and Gary all said, “Sure.” We raised $350,000, something like that…I played a songwriter’s thing in Nashville. James Taylor, me, Vince Gill and Chris Stapleton were just passing a guitar around, play a song, explain how they wrote it. I hit it off with Chris really well. By the end of the show we were buds. I’d helped Don a lot with his Walden Woods (charity) and all that. He said, “I owe you one so I’ll come.” James Taylor couldn’t make it, but he changed his plans for me and now he can.

And a lot of that cash went to grassroots charities that few have ever heard of. Salmon for Soldiers, Hire Our Heroes and the rest sound like amazing organizations.
I’d bump into a unit, usually run by vets, some organization where they were helping people like in Iowa, or in Georgia. They were just spread out through the Midwest. If you’re a veteran and you’re hurting and you’re in Iowa, help’s a long way off.

Watch the “Down By the River” finale from 2017’s VetsAid concert

Your VetsAid.org website quotes your concern about vets feeling alone. I read a piece recently about the loneliness epidemic that is the root behind so many social issues—alcoholism, the opioid epidemic—that all have loneliness as a root cause.
Exactly! Exactly! What we did was we resourced as many of these centers as we could. We had them looked at, got some comment from people the center had helped, and we gave him money to keep going.

What is one of your biggest concerns?
Homeless vets. We found the Midwest Center for Homeless Vets. It’s run by a vet. He enlarged his house, opened it up, and people came there because they’re homeless. There are organizations that hook vets up with animals like dogs or horses, because it calms them down. There’s meditation that goes with that. There’s a suicide hotline. There’s Gold Star organizations. We’re helping them because they get scholarships for kids who are gonna go to school. There are Gold Star families, these summer camps for kids from Gold Star families. They get a chance to realize they’re not alone.

And you’ve been there with hard transitions of your own.
It’s the transition back to civilian life that those people really need help with. Left to their own devices, they sometimes give up.

You’re an example of how people can gain control of their lives.
When I decided I needed to get sober. I didn’t think I’d be funny. I didn’t think I’d be able to write music. I didn’t think I’d be able to play rock ’n’ roll onstage. I didn’t think I’d be able to brush my teeth, basically. But I learned how to do all that, after stacking up continuous days of sobriety. Now I can’t imagine playing fucked up.

Watch Joe Walsh play “Life’s Been Good” at the 2017 VetsAid concert

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Mark Brown

Mark Brown

Mark Brown's misguided youth and decision to buy music instead of food in college led to a life covering the music industry. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orange County Register, Rocky Mountain News, San Francisco Chronicle, Trouser Press, Addicted to Noise, MSN Entertainment, Harp and countless newspapers worldwide.
Mark Brown
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