A little over a week before the Eagles played their first concert since Glenn Frey’s death at Classic West in Los Angeles, guitarist Joe Walsh phoned up Rolling Stone for a Last Word interview, where he shared a lot of hard-earned wisdom he’s learned over his seven decades. He touched upon everything from the years he regrets wasting as an alcoholic to his thoughts on the aging process to how meditation changed his life.
He also talked about his new charitable endeavor VetsAid, which will raise money to aid America’s veterans. A benefit concert will be held on September 20th at the EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia featuring Zac Brown Band, Keith Urban, Gary Clark Jr. and Walsh. “My dad died when I was a year and a half old,” Walsh says. “He was in the Army Air Force, so I’ve always just been sympathetic to vets. My buddies went to Vietnam and came back a mess, and every time I go to Washington I visit the prosthetic limb ward at Walter Reed Hospital. I don’t see the vets getting the attention they deserve.”
What’s the best part of success? What’s the worst?
The best part of success is that it got me past the basic survival level of existence so that I was comfortable. I didn’t have to worry about stuff pertaining to survival. Once that that was taken care of, I got the chance sit down and create and work at what I do. If you have a full-time job, you won’t have that free time to let that process unfold. In my early twenties, I got the basics covered. In retrospect, one of the great things about success is that I never really had to work in a factory full-time. So that’s a blessing.
The worst part of success is that a lot of things come along with it that you didn’t really know you were gonna get in the package. There are distractions: Money, drugs, women, partying. You get a royalty check, and you go get a new car, and then you party, and then you get high – and then you forget what got you there in the first place. It’s all ego stuff. When you’re young it’s really easy to lose your perspective, which I did, really losing sight of who I was. I started believing I was who everybody thought I was, which was a crazy rock star. You know “Life’s Been Good,” that story. It took me away from working at my craft. Me and a lot of the guys I ran with, we were just party monsters, and it was a real challenge to stay alive and end up on the other end of it.
So many of your friends from that era – like Keith Moon and John Belushi – didn’t make it. What do you think caused you to survive it?
Don’t know. (Laughs). I wonder every day. People often ask me if I believe in God and I kinda have to, because I’m still here. I had not planned on living this long, and here I am.
Tell me the most important rules that you live by.
Family comes first. Also, I’m just grateful to be alive. Just to wake up every day and be alive is pretty amazing. And I’ll take just that. I have my health, I have a lovely family, which has my back and takes care of me, and I take care of them. I spent years and years as a loner. It was me against the world, but I have this lovely family now. Just being a part of this family is an important rule for me. And that keeps me out of the pity pot, feeling like “poor me,” and it keeps me out of myself.
The other thing that I’ve learned is not to let my emotions own me, because emotions are really powerful. Don’t write e-mails when you’re pissed off. You can write them, but don’t send them. Because the next day you’re gonna go, “Oh man, I did it again, what an asshole I am.” And you can’t let your emotions own you, because if you let your anger own you, you’ll just become anger. You radiate it. It’s a really bad habit, just to get so emotionally crazy.
How recently in your life did you realize that?
That became a part of getting sober, which was 23 years ago. Before that I would fly into rages or I would just feel extremely sad. In settling down and just living life, I can experience emotions but I don’t become them. I try and stay in the middle and go “Well, okay, you’re mad now. That’s okay, but don’t act on it. Don’t act on it because you’re just gonna have to say you’re sorry later.”
What’s the best advice you ever gotten?
I talked to a Buddhist monk at length, and his advice was to be aware of my breathing; every breath I take I should be aware of. Breathe in, and as I’m doing that, get ready to breathe out. And as I’m doing that, get ready to breathe in. And he said, “If you do that, you will stay here right now. You will stay in the moment. And this will save you a lot of wasted time going back into the past and digging something up or going into the future and writing a script about the day after tomorrow. You’re not here when you do that. You’re like a car with the motor running in park. If you’re here now, everything is okay.” And I do that. When I’m in the past digging around in some pile of garbage, I immediately hold my breath and it pulls me right back to being in the moment. Man, being in the moment is where it’s at.
Who is your hero?
Les Paul. He was one of the the coolest people on the planet. Basically, Les Paul invented the guitar pick-up, the Les Paul guitar and modern recording as we know it. I got a chance to hang out with him, and he was like this mad scientist that played guitar. He was in a car accident and they said, “You’ll never play guitar again” because he broke him arm in about four different places. He sat down, started playing and said, “Alright, set my arm like this. Put the cast on now.” And he played great.
What do you do to relax?
It’s boring, but I meditate. It kinda came out of the breathing. It’s like a system reset, like a little nap. We have these thoughts that go on all day, and they overlap. You’re thinking one thing and that leads to another thing and another one and that reminds me … It’s just a constant stream of thinking. And in meditation you get to put a little space in-between thoughts. Just a little bit, because you slow way down. You still think, which is maddening, but if you could open that space up, if we could open up those spaces in between thoughts. And I’m totally convinced that that’s where God is, in those places. If I can get my mind out of the way, and so when I come back from that, it’s like I’m starting my day over.
What music still moves you the most?
I’ve been on the 1950s channel on Sirius, and I’ve been going back to 1953 to about 1960. All that stuff that I grew up on, all that old doo-wop, rock and roll, and all that early, early guitar work, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins and Bill Haley. That was all my influences. I’m trying to figure out how they recorded it. Because they didn’t have any technology, none. They all got in a room, and somebody pushed record. They all played together and if the drums were too close to the mic, it was too loud, they moved the mic away. That was their technology. I love to get inside those records like I’m in the room watching.
What advice do you wish you received about the music industry before you began your career?
I wish somebody would’ve told me, “Look, this is a business.” Because I was naive and I just thought it was an art form, but it’s a business and there are people who are making money off you. And the way you define honesty in the music industry is: the guy that’s stealing the least from you is honest. Also, don’t sign anything. I’m still sucking eggs from stuff I signed when I was 23. And they just said, “Oh here, sign this.”
Other people own your early publishing?
Yeah, and they’ve still got the masters. They own them. There’a lot of stuff going on legally. You’re supposed to be able to get them back, but it takes forever. Anyway, I wish I would’ve had an overview of all of that. Somebody should’ve sat me down and said, “Look, it’s okay to be an idiot, but be a smart idiot.”
What’s the most indulgent purchase you ever made?
When I got a nice royalty check from the Eagles, I had always had this fantasy, basically, of “Oh man, I’m gonna get some land and I’m gonna get out in the country. I’m gonna live off the grid. I’m gonna hunt like Ted Nugent and chop my own wood.” So I found this farm in Vermont that had an 80-year old farmhouse, it had a lake, and almost a square mile, like 800 acres. And I thought, “That’s it, that’s it.” And it cost a lot of money, but I got it. And I showed up and I thought, “Wow.”
Then I had to live it. And it was too hard. There was no time for music. I had to get up at five in the morning because there was so much to do. Chopping your own wood ain’t fun and the winters ain’t fun. Just to take care of the place is a full-time job, and I couldn’t find anybody to do that for me so I could just visit my cool place. Some things are just better off being a fantasy. I spent a lot of money to find that out, but I sold the farm in three years because it was too hard. I just saw the cool part of it, I didn’t see the “living it.”
How do you feel about turning 70 in a few months?
Well, not happy about it! There’s a joke I make that at 69, I don’t know how to be 69. I never planned on being 69. And I went to the store to see if they had a 69 For Dummies book. And my joke is that “No, the guy told me I needed to go to an adult bookstore for that.” But there’s no 69 For Dummies. Luckily my brother-in-law is gonna be 75, so some guys are leading the charge. B.B. King, he was playing when he was 90.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. I was about 10 or 11 when I read that after I got into science fiction. That came out around 1951, and I read it in 1958. It’s the most amazing book because it suckers you in. You started reading the book and inside the book is about eight other books, and each one of them is about one of the guy’s tattoos and the tattoos move around at night and shit. Imagination and a book full of books, what a concept.
Do you mourn all the years of your life you wasted drinking?
I can’t say I mourn them, but there are about four or five years I really wish I had back. But darn it, I can’t really have regrets because, you know, I gotta stay in the moment. That said, 1985 to 1990 was wild and crazy. I was younger and I lived in a time when it was okay to do that if you were a rock star. It’s not okay now.
What advice do you wish you could give yourself before you had your first drink?
Don’t drink, drunk.
Any chance the James Gang will tour again?
I just saw Jimmy [Fox] and Dale [Peters] because we played in Cleveland. I just don’t know if the James Gang can be seventy years old and do what they used to do. The drummer might just die up there, I don’t know. But we should probably try it. I don’t think we’d wanna go on and headline big places, but we could play little places like we always used to do. I think we could own the room. So yeah, I think there’s a good chance. It’s just finding the damn time. To do much of anything is hard these days. It’s going fast, isn’t it?
How are Eagles rehearsals going?
We’ve got some new blood. We all know the songs pretty good, but we just have to run the drill. It’s like being an athlete and doing the reps to get into shape. The new guys [Deacon Frey and Vince Gill] have to get to the point where it’s automatic or it’s transparent.
It must be bittersweet to be playing without Glenn [Frey].
There’s all kings of feelings mixed in, but I think we’re gonna be really good.
How is Glenn’s son Deacon doing?
He’s great. He’s never done this. He has no attitude whatsoever. He just shows up and does it. I wish more of us could be like that.
It’s a real trial by fire for him, first playing in front of 60,000 people at a stadium.
We’ll probably find out a lot about him by the third song. [Laughs]
Do you think the Eagles will more shows than just these two stadium gigs?
Yeah, I do. I don’t think we’ll ever tour again, but I think we’ll do six shows a year, something like that.
You described the Eagles before Glenn passed away as a “democracy with two dictators.” Was being in a group where you weren’t really in charge ever hard on your ego?
Well, I joined their band. I would say it was a democratic dictatorship. How’s that? That means, we all got to vote and then they did whatever they wanted.
You famously ran for president back in 1980. If you won, do you think you would have done a better job than Donald Trump is doing right now?
Yeah. [Laughs]. That’s because of common sense. I don’t think Trump really knows how the government works and I don’t think he cares. Therefore, he’s not gonna get much done. I think I know how it works. I know how to live in a complex decision-making organization. For example, the band. We got stuff done!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
~ Thomas Jefferson