Joe Walsh performs during the 52nd Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala in New York on June 15, 2023.

Joe Walsh performs during the 52nd Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala in New York on June 15, 2023. (Angela Weiss, AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Joe Walsh is understandably proud of the lineup for his VetsAid benefit concert in San Diego on Sunday.

It includes fellow Rock Hall of Famers Stephen Stills and Jeff Lynne — who will perform with his band, ELO, for the first time in five years — along with Flaming Lips, The War On Drugs and Lucius. Comedian and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Drew Carey will host the marathon show at North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in Chula Vista.

Proceeds will go to Southern California nonprofits that aid U.S. military veterans and their families. Stills, who is being billed as a special guest, will play several songs backed by Walsh and his band.

“Oh, I forgot to say I’m playing, too,” Walsh added with a chuckle. “I forgot to say that!”

The concert will be the seventh edition of VetsAid since Walsh and his wife, Marjorie, launched the event in 2017 near Washington D.C. Now, as then, he personally contacts the performers he recruits.

“I’m very humble to ask people: ‘Hey, want to come and play for free?’ But all I can do is ask,” said the veteran guitarist, singer, songwriter and band leader, who lived in Encinitas from 1995 to 2001.

“I work with my son, Christian. He helps me put these (shows) together ... It’s like the old days, where you had (multiple) headliners and you got to know the other bands by being on the same bill with them and hanging out together. We don’t get the chance to do that so much anymore.

“During the VetsAid show, we’re all watching whoever is performing from backstage or side stage, or I’m talking to vets.”

San Diego County is home to multiple U.S. military bases, including Camp Pendleton, Naval Base San Diego, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and more. Their proximity was a key factor in Walsh’s decision to stage this year’s edition of his benefit concert here.

“The first six VetsAids were held in the vicinity of major military bases,” he said. “And we worked with the (vets) communities more locally than nationally so that we’ve been able to help organizations in those areas.

“San Diego is a big one, because it’s a big military town and because California has the largest homeless veteran’s population of any of the states. Because California is so big, there are a lot of organizations in the state that are veteran-run that we are trying to help.”

Walsh sighed in frustration.

“I can’t get my head around the idea of homeless vets,” he said. “I can’t do the math on that.”


Kent State tragedy

At first glance, Walsh might seem an unlikely rock star to devote time and energy to helping military veterans.

He was at Ohio’s Kent State University in 1970 when four students at an anti-war demonstration were fatally shot by National Guardsmen.

Walsh — who was majoring in English and minoring in music — was so distraught that he dropped out for good and focused solely on The James Gang, the three-man band that propelled him into the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight.

Or, as he put it in a 2012 Union-Tribune interview: “The shootings really affected me profoundly. I decided that maybe I don’t need a degree that bad.”

Speaking by phone from his Los Angeles home in a mid-October interview to promote VetsAid, Walsh, 75, reflected anew on the Kent State tragedy.

“It was (an instance of) completely dysfunctional authorities dealing with a situation they could not comprehend with a bunch of naive, innocent kids,” he said.

“And it mutated into something (violent) — and four people died. It was that mutation that I witnessed, and it scared me. The president (Trump) before the one we have now was headed in that direction, where things can mutate. That’s all I’ll say about that.”

Walsh’s 1972 song, “Turn to Stone,” was inspired by his frustration with then-President Richard M. Nixon and the policies of his administration. Nixon had pledged to end the war in Vietnam. Instead, he accelerated U.S. military actions in that Southeast Asian nation before the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, a year before Walsh joined the Eagles.

The Eagles’ landmark album “Hotel California” was the first to feature Walsh. While on tour with the Eagles — from 1975 to 1980 and again after the band reunited in 1994 — Walsh began paying low-key visits to wounded U.S. soldiers.

“When the Eagles played in Washington, D.C., I used to go to Walter Reed Naval Medical Center and visit the guys who were waiting for their prosthetic limbs,” he recalled.

“Some of them didn’t know who I was and some did. I took a guitar with me ... no, I didn’t take a guitar. They had a guitar there and a couple of guys asked me to play songs, (including) ‘Hotel California.’ I didn’t know how to relate to them — they were waiting for a prosthetic limb... (but) when I left, we were buds. We were buds (because of music). And that was a really good feeling ...

“They just wanted to get their new arm, or leg, and get on with their life, and that really impressed me. They were a community of guys who had each other’s backs. And communities of people who have each other’s backs are always really good.”

In peace time, Walsh’s visits with wounded soldiers might have been unnecessary. But the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and, subsequently, Iraq, Libya and Syria led to more fatalities and more wounded soldiers.

“These wars keep hitting and these guys are coming home, broken,” Walsh said. “(Seeing) the lack of recognition, support and help that they need, I thought: ‘You know what? I can make a difference here. This is something I can get my head around and really make a difference, so I decided to start VetsAid.

“We’re not big, but we are mighty. And all the money goes to smaller, vets-run organizations that work off donations. We find the good ones that have helped make a difference, and we help keep them going.”

Artists who have performed at previous editions of VetsAid range from James Taylor, Gwen Stefani and Nine Inch Nails to Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr. and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, a former San Diegan, and Ringo Starr, who is Walsh’s brother-in-law.

The annual event has thus far disbursed $3 million in grants to veterans charity groups. The grants are vetted in collaboration with Combined Arms Institute, a Houston-based organization that provides and coordinates resources for veterans.

Son of a pilot

Though Walsh is not himself a veteran, he is the son of one.

His father served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He died in a 1949 plane crash while working as flight instructor for the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star — the first U.S. operational jet-powered aircraft — while on active duty in Okinawa, Japan. Walsh was not yet 2 years old at the time.

“I qualified to be a Gold Star kid, I guess,” he said. “But they didn’t have that then. They didn’t have any support groups. You got a flag and a letter (of regret) from the president, and that was it.

“So, I’m present for all the families when a dad or a loved one doesn’t come home ... You gotta watch what’s happening to the troops, because they are part of us.”

In 2012, Walsh gave his support to the first U.S. senatorial race by former U.S. Army helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs in 2004 during combat in Iraq. The Illinois Democrat was elected and is still in office. The Republican senator she unseated in 2012 was ... Joe Walsh (a staunch conservative who is not related to his rock-star namesake).

Walsh’s 2016 song, “No Man’s Land,” was written for the feature film “Citizen Soldier.” The movie is based on the true story of a tour of duty in Afghanistan by soldiers in the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Thunderbirds Brigade.

Walsh also composed the score for “No Man’s Land.” A year later, in 2017, he and his wife launched VetsAid. Coincidence?

“They were both incubating at the same time,” he said.

“I have no political agenda; I don’t care about the politics of it. I’m going to help the men and women that put themselves in harm’s way, came home, and need help where there is very little help. And we’ve been able to help these guys.”

Walsh’s devotion and carefully chosen words may surprise those who only know his zany stage persona — or recall his wild-man of rock years, when his drug and alcohol use took a debilitating toll. He has been clean and sober since 1994.

“I have so much fun and enjoyment on stage,” Walsh said. “There was a time when I was wild and crazy. I’m sober now. But a good way to reach people is to get them away from their problems for a couple of hours.

“So, on stage, yeah, I’m that wild and crazy guy. Off stage, the other 22 hours of the day — if you look at the big picture — I have to be serious for some of (the time) to make it work.”

And what has he learned from doing VetsAid since 2017?

“I know what not to do!” Walsh replied with a laugh.

Such as?

“Well, make sure that the sound men don’t get in a fight!” he said, laughing again. “Too many guys at the sound board doesn’t work. You’ve just got to with the flow.

“From the inception of the idea to do VetsAid to the event itself is a long journey, and it mutates.

What you think is going to happen is not what’s going to happen. What we’ve learned is how to take chaos and turn it into something that works really well, Across the board, it’s been a special evening for the bands that have done the other six (editions of VetsAid).

“And I think that, on Nov. 12th, the same thing will happen in San Diego. A lot of musicians will meet, many for the first time, and that’s always good,”

Another lesson Walsh has learned from putting on VetsAid is the importance of keeping the show moving smoothly — and to use some of time between each band’s performance to focus on the purpose and inspiration for VetsAid.

“While the next band is setting up, we show videos on the (venue’s) big screens of vets we have interviewed and what they are up against,” he said. “They share their experiences, about four or five of them, and they might even introduce the next band.

“We have messages, maybe from the mayor or some generals who show up. There are so many people that show up, and some relatives of veterans may fly in from other states. It’s like a big family that meets up. And we have two days before the show where vets can get job interviews. There’s a lot going on before the concert, people networking and exchanging phone numbers. VetsAid is more than just a good time.”

The Eagles this year launched the storied band’s “The Long Goodbye” farewell tour. No San Diego date has been announced, but the itinerary includes four upcoming January concerts at the Kia Forum in Los Angeles.

With or without the Eagles, Walsh has no intention of retiring.

“I don’t know what else I would,” he said. “I may have an ‘Assisted Living Tour,’ but I’m still going to play! I’m not done yet.”

VetsAid 2023

With: Joe Walsh, Stephen Stills, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Flaming Lips, The War On Drugs and Lucius

When: 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, 3050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista

Tickets: $39.50-$305.50, plus service charges


©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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