Seriously? I’m supposed to try to explain how I first learned about Joe Walsh? I grew up in the 1970s, when the air was literally saturated with Joe Walsh; even now, it’s hard for me to think about anything from the decade without picturing those aviator goggles. It would be like asking me where I first learned about “All in the Family” — it was just there, man.
But I suppose not everyone who grew up in the 1970s has any Joe Walsh in their record collections. So, on to the investigation:
In the beginning, there were the Eagles. Not literally, obviously, and I do remember a time when I had not yet heard of the Eagles. (It was a time when I’d only heard of the Beatles, the Osmonds, and Josie and the Pussycats, and two of those were because they had their own Saturday morning cartoons.) But the Eagles somehow took over FM radio when no one was looking, much like and in parallel with Fleetwood Mac, to the point where their records ended up in my parents’ record collections (which were not extensive) by some sort of cultural osmosis. Dinosaur Rock was not yet a thing, I wasn’t old enough or sophisticated enough to be a punk aesthete, and I accepted the Eagles as part of the cultural landscape just as I did Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder and John Denver.
(An aside: My friend Brandon recently tipped me off to the existence of archival episodes of the live music show “Midnight Special,” and it is an absolute trip to see the diversity of music styles that are crowbarred into a single episode — the one featuring Ray Charles, Billy Preston, Steely Dan, Fanny, and Waylon Jennings, and hosted by Bill freaking Cosby, is enough to break your brain. By a couple of years later the music was far more regimented, but the early-mid ’70s really did embrace breaking down genre barriers, at least for a hot minute.)
Then came “Life’s Been Good,” which devoured FM radio whole in 1978. On the surface a novelty song along the lines of those popular in those days (good lord, “Convoy“), it told a self-mocking tale of rock star excesses, all delivered in a tone that let you know it was clearly a joke even as it wasn’t. And it was accompanied by some ferocious guitar playing, sounding a bit like, hey, isn’t that the guy on “Hotel California”? Huh.
Jump forward in time six more years. I am living in Berkeley, California, after an ill-advised decision to attend college at UC-Berkeley, mostly under influence of the leftover fumes from the ’60s. (Political fumes, that is, not cannabis. I did manage to attend one Free Speech Movement 20th anniversary rally during my one semester there before fleeing.) While I found the campus unexpectedly packed with business majors, the surrounding city still had a fair bit of detritus from the preceding decades, including a ton of record stores selling off the collections of those who had gone before.
One in particular where I spent a lot of time was a place on Telegraph Avenue whose name I’ve long since forgotten, if I ever knew it. It had a normal collection of records (we didn’t yet call it “vinyl”) downstairs, but upstairs was the treasure trove: an enormous room with bins and bins of used albums, all in no particular order and all for $1 apiece.
If UC-Berkeley’s massive intro lecture halls were a disappointment, this was why I had been drawn to the campus. I don’t know how many records I bought at this store, but it had to be in the dozens, mostly early-album-rock era classics like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. I recall dozens if not hundreds of copies of Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus, though I never risked a dollar to actually buy one. And it was where I bought my first Joe Walsh albums: So What?, You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind, and the perfectly titled The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, the last title a perfect expression of Walsh’s uncanny blend of absolute mainstream rock and resolutely weird. My closest companion during my four months of Berkeley exile was my record player, and it spent a lot of time playing “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Turn to Stone.”
More time passed. I transferred to a less ill-fitting college, my record collection expanded, and Joe Walsh found his way to the back of the vinyl crate. I had barely thought about him in decades when I finally got around to seeing Tom Petty in concert (on what turned out to be his final tour), and lo and behold, the opener was Joe Walsh. This should be interesting, I thought.
I didn’t know the half of it. From his opening greeting of “How ya doin’?” to the incomprehensible call and response, it was the Joe Walshest performance possible; as I wrote to Brandon afterwards, “Walsh both talked and sang like he’d forgotten to put in his teeth, but was hilarious and played guitar as brilliantly as ever.” There is a magic trick to Joe Walsh, which is that things that might come off as creepy and self-indulgent for anyone else of his age and classic rock legend status instead somehow feel charming and funny — probably because it’s clear that he doesn’t take himself seriously, or his persona doesn’t, at least.
Did I go home from that show and immediately put those Joe Walsh albums in heavy rotation? Maybe for a day or two, then i forgot about them again. The true joy of Joe Walsh is that no matter how much time you spend forgetting about him, he’s always there.