Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rocky Mountain Way, Joe Walsh (1973)

It's so disorienting every time I hear about a Tea Party politician who shares the same name with a rock and roller from my youth. For example, this Gov. Scott Walker from Wisconsin has been giving the Scott Walker I know a bad name for months. Now an Illinois congressman, Joe Walsh, is all over the place talking about cutting social programs so that we can raise revenues. Sounds like a plan, but not the right one.

Never mind. Let's talk about the real Joe Walsh. This is a guy who puts his money where his mouth is. A few years back, he funded Kent State University's first talent-based scholarship for its College of the Arts.  It pays for five full years of tuition for a worthy student, the first one being David Jaramillo, a pianist. Funding education - that's how to grow the economy, the other Joe Walsh.

One of my generation's true characters of the music scene, and still going strong, Walsh was born in Wichita, Kansas, and is a classically trained musician (his mother was a pianist). Those of us who live around Northeast Ohio know well that he attended Kent State and joined Cleveland's James Gang in 1969, whipping it into shape for two years with such tunes as Midnight Man.

Despite the James Gang's success, he felt a need to move on, and repaired to Colorado, not really sure how he would next make his mark. "They were strange times and it was hard, but it took me back to basic survival, which is always very positive in terms of creative energy. When you have to get yourself together, you play differently from when you're rich," he was quoted as saying in Colorado Rocks!: A Half-Century of Music in Colorado by G. Brown.

To that end, he formed a group called Barnstorm in 1972, which didn't last too long either but it was in this time frame that the song Walsh is probably most noted for, Rocky Mountain Way, emerged. Who among us - I don't care how old you are - does not insanely play air guitar to this extravaganza of sound? Always a sucker for flamboyant and no-holds-barred guitarists, I love this lead guitar workout more now than I did then. Probably because I can actually appreciate what it is he's doing in it.

Rocky Mountain Way is also noted for the appearance of the "talk box," a device that makes the voice sound like the guitar is talking, later adopted by Peter Frampton, Rick Derringer and others.  

A solo career seemed to be in the stars, however, at least for awhile. Then in 1976, producer Bill Szymczyk had the brainstorm to inject Walsh into the laid-back ethos that was the Eagles at that point, to replace Bernie Leadon. At the time it was received as something of a joke by the public. But with Walsh's guitar, keyboards, writing and vocals bringing that harder edge to the group, the Eagles put out their best work for years, starting with Hotel California.

Described by one commenter on Pandora as "an unassuming virtuoso of the axe," Walsh certainly knows his way around a fretboard but more than that, is the living embodiment of a true music appreciator, something I'm coming to understand now that I'm really listening to his oeuvre intensively. One of the legends about him is that, in his first band, the Measles, he became famous for his ability to play the blistering guitar licks on the Beatles' And Your Bird Can Sing, before becoming aware that it was, indeed, two guitars, or maybe three, I'm not sure if there's any agreement on this point, that we heard in the recorded version.

I'll play Walsh out in rhythmic splendor with his composition with J.D. Souther, Last Good Time in Town. Hey Joe, maybe it's time to run for president again on that "free gas for all" platform from 1980!

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