The James Gang’s debut, Yer’ Album, opens with a 40-second track called “Introduction,” in which we hear a slice of in-studio prattle among players and producer, followed by a count-in and about a half-minute of a swirling, dissonant string quartet, like random excerpts from two Mozart quartets in different keys played simultaneously. It also sounds a bit like the radically unpopular Second Viennese School composers Schoenberg and Webern – or least like a goof executed by someone who was familiar with them.
It was Joe Walsh, of course, the man who has always defined the point of greatest eccentricity allowable within the perimeter of classic rock. Throughout his career, the renowned blues/rock guitarist and satiric songwriter with a big, messy soft side has betrayed hints that he would rather have been a 20th-century composer. There’s his all-synth cover of Ravel’s “Pavane de la Belle au Bois” on the 1975 solo album So What? There’s also the proto-prog and psychedelic chamber-rock leanings in evidence throughout the first three James Gang records, and especially on Walsh’s first unofficial solo album after breaking from the Kent State trio, 1972’s lovely and overlooked Barnstorm. And, throughout his 40 years of quirky wailing on a Les Paul, there’s Walsh’s curious attention to voice leading and impressionistic orchestration within his slabs of guitar and keyboard tracks: a classical concern within the riffage and a trait that he shares acutely with his friend and champion Pete Townshend.
Walsh probably joined the Eagles with the intention of hipping them up. Instead, they hipped him down a bit, and he has never fully regained his cred as one of classic rock’s subversive tricksters and Surrealists, except among those of us who remember and forgive. Truth be known, Walsh was never all that weird to begin with, never above a mawkish, Henleyesque sentiment, a white blues cliché or a bit of the yacht. If something consigned him to eccentricity, it was the reedy vibrato of his voice more than anything outlandishly oddball in his sensibility.
Still, I am glad and fortunate that when I was a 12-year-old signing up for the Columbia Record club, taping my penny to the mail-in form and selecting my fist 12 records (the bounty before the indentured scam), two of those selections were Joe Walsh solo records. I already had the James Gang’s Greatest Hits double album, which is the essential document of an important American power trio. And while most people remember solo Walsh for the talk-box blues of “Rocky Mountain Way” or the withering sarcasm of “Life’s Been Good,” it was the artful arrangement and aspiring impressionism of those solo records that spoke to me.
Joe Walsh welcomed a lot of currents into his music. He also stumbled the line between satirist and sentimentalist with a boozy grace that we would all do well to emulate. Still, I wonder: Was he the weirdest normal guy or the normalest weird guy?
Live Nation presents legendary classic rock iconoclast Joe Walsh at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie on Friday, September 25 at 8 p.m. Reserved-seating tickets cost $79.50, $49.50 and $39.50. For tickets and more information, visit www.midhudsonciviccenter.org. The Mid-Hudson Civic Center is located at 14 Civic Center Plaza in Poughkeepsie.
Joe Walsh, Friday, September 25, 8 p.m., $79.50/$49.50/$39.50, Mid-Hudson Civic Center, 14 Civic Center Plaza, Poughkeepsie; www.midhudsonciviccenter.org.