Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, son of Air Force lieutenant, shares inspiration behind VetsAid benefit concerts
(Tribune News Service) — Long before Joe Walsh found rock 'n' roll fame as a guitarist and singer in the James Gang and the Eagles, he was a boy whose Air Force lieutenant father died while on active duty in 1949.
"I am a Gold Star kid," Walsh says in a recent phone call to talk about VetsAid, his annual benefit concert raising funds for veterans organizations. "One day, my dad didn't come back.
"There was no real explanation of it to me," he says. "I grew up just always wishing I knew what my dad was like. Just the sadness and the experience." Walsh says he relates to other Gold Star families, understanding what it's like when a loved one doesn't come back from war.
Later on, when the Eagles would swing through Washington, D.C., on tour, Walsh often visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md., meeting veterans waiting on artificial limbs in the prosthetic wing.
"You know, four times the death toll in Afghanistan, four times the amount came home injured," he says of the need to recognize the sacrifice of injured veterans, too. "We've never fought a war like that."
But it was witnessing the plight of homeless vets, visible on street corners in many American cities, that really sparked the first VetsAid concert in 2017.
"Everywhere I go, I see homeless veterans," Walsh says. "That's just not OK to me, so I figured maybe this is somewhere where I can make a difference."
Putting on a show
In its first three years, VetsAid was held in Virginia, Washington and Texas with acts such as Chris Stapleton, James Taylor, the Zac Brown Band, Haim, and Walsh's brother-in-law Ringo Starr part of the show.
A year ago, VetsAid went virtual during the pandemic, and Walsh is keeping this fifth installment of the benefit online one more year for safety's sake.
"Last year, we didn't really have a clue," he says of the 2020 virtual event that included artists such as Gwen Stefani, Eddie Vedder, Willie Nelson, and James Hetfield of Metallica. "But I think we got it this year."
"The Basement Show," as he's billing the prerecorded livestreaming program, has a little bit of everything, Walsh says of the show. It will be available Dec. 18-25, with tickets available for a minimum $15 donation available at vetsaid.veeps.com.
"Most people have a basement, but I have a man-cave, which is a mad scientist laboratory where I keep my guitars," he says. "I've been a ham radio operator since 1961, so I have all kinds of wires and tubes and stuff.
"I kinda invited everybody into my basement, and I'll give them a tour of my studio and my guitars and all," Walsh says. "It's kind of my headquarters where I hosted the virtual broadcast."
All three of the live VetsAid concerts were taped, and never-before-seen performances from artists who played in previous years will be streamed this year.
"There's a great, great song from ZZ Top, and that was getting close to their last show," Walsh says, noting the July death of that band's bassist Dusty Hill. "There's tons of stuff to watch that nobody's ever seen."
He's also been working on solo material for his first new album since 2012's "Analog Man," and he had cameras filming some of that as it was being recorded.
"We filmed me making some new music with the best of the best of the session guys in Los Angeles," Walsh says of players such as Waddy Wachtel, who often plays in his solo band, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar.
"I had a couple of guests come by," he says. "Edge (of U2) came by and my brother-in-law Ringo. It was kind of open house for a while, and I'm just going to give everybody a little glimpse of my new music."
Walsh, whose solo hits include songs such as "Life's Been Good" and "Rocky Mountain Way," says the new material isn't so much a result of the time he had on his hands during the pandemic as it is in spite of it.
"I'd been writing bits and pieces before that," he says of the pandemic, which abruptly took the Eagles off the road after a March 7, 2020, concert in Houston. "I needed some motivation to get in and get 'em finished.
"I thought during COVID I'd have a great chance to write, but I really didn't," Walsh says. "Being in the middle of COVID, I didn't really know what to make of it. I didn't know if live music was over for a while in the dark months. I didn't know what was going on.
"So I couldn't really write about it," he says. "You know, the third verse hasn't happened yet, so how can you write about it?"
Eagles take off again
The Eagles in August resumed the Hotel California Tour, playing that iconic 1976 release in full to open the show each night.
It's good to be back on the road, he says, but different, perhaps more serious than the usual frolic of live entertainment.
"Everything's kind of weird," Walsh says. "It's a lot more like a job, you know, to stay in a bubble and make sure nobody tests positive. If one guy tests positive, the tour is over. But we're starting to figure out how to do it."
And doing it is absolutely worth it for the band and fans alike.
"Those three hours on stage are so worth it," Walsh says. "People who would not normally talk to each other, and if they did, it would probably result in a fistfight. All those people sit next to each other and everybody just takes a break.
"We play our music and they go home so happy. Seeing that makes the complex day getting ready to play, makes it worth it."
"Hotel California" was also Walsh's first album with the Eagles, and as such he remembers making the record and touring behind it with great fondness.
"I'm very blessed that I was with really good musicians, and we had that creative six or seven years," he says of his initial run with the Eagles before the band took a long hiatus. "We're all amazed that it affected that many people on the planet. But it's really great."
Great, but not necessarily easy for the band, at least at first.
"There's a couple of songs we never even played live," Walsh says of "Hotel California." "To perform it, top to bottom, like you're listening to the album, that took a lot of work. There's songs I had to go back and try and figure out what my part was. It was profound."
When "The Last Resort," the ninth and final song of the album arrives each night, Walsh says even he is still moved all these years later.
"I still get goosebumps, you know," he says. "It's great we can share that with everybody. But those were the days, and I think that album still holds up."
Helping vets get help
One last piece of the VetsAid show this year is a filmed visit by Walsh to the Long Beach branch of U.S. Vets, an organization that works to get homeless vets off the streets and into housing.
"I wanted to capture, you know, the reality of what the vets are up against," Walsh says. "I wanted everybody to see that."
U.S. Vets is a good program, Walsh says, typical of the mostly smaller organizations, often run by veterans for veterans, that VetsAid tries to help.
"About 20 of them and myself, we sat around in the assembly hall and everybody just kind of shared what they did in the service, and their situation, and what it's like now," he says. "I'll never forget it. These were great people.
"If I can show that in our Zoom stream, that's what I want to do," Walsh says. "Make people aware of the vets and what they're still going through.
"What it's like to be a vet. It's not easy."
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