Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This Gun's For Hire

Joe Walsh--"Life of Illusion" (mp3)
Nils Lofgren--"Keith Don't Go (live) (mp3)
Joe Walsh--"Rivers (Of The Hidden Funk) (mp3)

The concept of the hired gun, as old as the mercenary, the ronin, the gunfighter who wanders into town and is convinced to join in the cause on one side or the other, does not work for me where rock and roll is concerned.

By all means, pursue a side project, start a new band with old friends, do session work, unplug, add new musicians, whatever it is that keeps you fresh and growing. But do not, I repeat, do not give up what you're doing to become a hired gun for an established band. Not if you're good.

I understand that bands change their outlook, want to beef up their sound. Crosby, Stills and Nash want to electrify, so they add Neil. But Neil didn't have to change--he walked in with his scattershot electric and his own songs, becoming the fourth songwriter in a band with three songwriters. When Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Stones, it wasn't like he was giving up a thriving solo career or that the Faces weren't played out.

But what about guys with careers and identities? No way. Two cases in point: Joe Walsh and Nils Lofgren.

Joe Walsh, one of the "lovable" loonies of rock and roll, had an established career when he joined the Eagles for their later years. (Note to readers: I hate the Eagles!) Years as a leader of the James Gang, then a solo artist with a number of successful albums and hit songs. Though he may have, after "Rocky Mountain Way," used the talk box a time or two too many, his sound was distinguished in other ways, especially that thin, nasal, idiosyncratic voice and that melodic slide guitar.

Walsh, at his best, is a terrific songwriter. Is he a philospher? No. A great lyricist? Not really. But he can turn a cliche on its head, mix a metaphor with the best, and I mean in the best way, and he has a wicked sense of humor. "You lost your color/ when you painted the town," he says on "Second Hand Store." And the man has created some of the most memorable licks and riffs in rock. How'd you like to have "Funk 49," Walk Away," "Turn To Stone," "Rocky Mountain Way," "Meadows," "Life's Been Good" on your resume? You're never going to go, 'That's Joe Walsh?' He's more predictable than that, as comfortable as a bowl of macaroni and cheese.

Walsh also has a vision, a vision that isn't realized by including one of his songs on a group album. "In The City" was perfect over the closing credits of the movie The Warriors; on The Long Run, it seems out of place; it's too romantic for the jaded California aesthetic of Henley and Frey. Walsh's songs have a kind of innocence to them, a sense of justice for the average person, a hopefulness towards romance even when singing about failed love, and never anything but self-deprecation towards his own fame and fortune.

Since joining the Eagles, both his output and the quality of his output has diminished.

Nils Lofgren's story is not that different. Excellent early band called Grin that never really got much notice, but played tight, guitar-driven rock: "Like Rain," "White Lies," and "Moon Tears" all stand among my very favorite rock songs. Being asked to play on Neil Young's After The Goldrush (on piano) got him noticed a little more. He's also in Young's Tonight's The Night band, adding sizzling leads to several tracks. His guest solo on Young's "Like An Inca," off of Trans, transcends space and time.

After Grin, Lofgren, too, pursues a solo career, though, unlike Walsh, he doesn't ever have the hits. However, songs like "Back It Up," "Keith Don't Go," "Cry Tough," and "Mud In Your Eye" are all evidence of strong songwriting skills. His live act, bolstered by updated versions of classic Grin songs, is about as solid a rock set as you'll ever hear, and he has to be making some money, because he puts out a lot of albums, many of them with major backing talent

Like Walsh, Nils Lofgren also has a romantic vision, a world where Keith Richards is the inspiration for what he does, where friends and brothers stick together, where women may do you wrong, but that doesn't mean that you quit trying. He also has a distinctive high voice and a fluid playing style that, if you know it and you hear it, you go, "Oh, that's got to be Nils."

Then Miami Steve van Zandt leaves the E Street and Nils takes his place, right after Born In The USA and twenty-five years go by. At least, Lofgren has continued to have a fairly-prolific output. Most recently, he released a CD of Neil Young covers.

You know, all I will say is this: there are Lancelots out there who are too talented to remain in the service of the king(s). There are players who have more to offer than just stepping out for a few solos in somebody else's band. Walsh should have quit the Eagles when they fired his buddy, Don Felder. Lofgren should have ended his stint on E Street when van Zandt returned. I know you've got to feed the kids, I know there is money to be made, but if you've got your own vision, as these men do, then let someone else play the guitar from "Hotel California" note for note for the umpteenth time, let someone else play the simplistic slide guitar on "Lonesome Day." Let them hire somebody. Not you.

These songs are not available at Itunes. Walsh's There Goes The Neighborhood appears to be out of print. Lofgren's Authorized Bootleg never was in print. Both have been converted from vinyl using the Ion TTUSB.


troutking said...

Points well made, but I disagree about Nils. He still has plenty of time between tours to pursue solo work, and he doesn't have to worry about if they sell. I think he just likes playing with Bruce and the Band. Who wouldn't?

Billy said...

From my limited exposure to both, it seems like the trade-off was more costly to Joe than to Nils. While songs like "Ordinary Average Guy" are in some ways overrated, they also do hint at someone with a voice, with something worth saying in a different way.

As for making cash to play the same song a bajillion times... well, it seems like a small compromise for musicians, most of whom can only dream of making enough cash to survive without also working at Kinkos or Starbucks.

While Kay Hanley (former lead of Letters to Cleo) might not have the voice or vision of these two gents, I also can't blame her for making cash by being the guitarist and backup for Miley Cyrus for two tours.

Don't most of us find a way to make our living first and then explore ways to express ourselves next? It might not be heroic, but guitars and poems don't often feed little mouths. Or big ones, for that matter.

Bob said...

1. Trout, I think Nils is in the tougher situation: Springsteen may be the perfect guitarist for his own songs, but Nils is a virtuoso. It's like he's an elite runner who ends up, much of the time, blocking for a back who isn't as skilled.

But, what you should really know is that I've converted all of Nils' Authorized Bootleg from vinyl and look forward to burning you a copy.

2. Billy, I don't disagree. That's why I work as a male prostitute on weekends. I thought you knew.

troutking said...

True, Bruce doesn't give up his solos too easily. But, I have noticed at shows that Nils is adding some cool subtle touches that you might not always notice are there, but would definitely notice if they aren't. The main worry for Nils, I think, is getting completely squashed if Clarence falls over on him. Maybe Nils just likes the intro Bruce always gives him---"one of the greatest guitarists in the world." Anyway, I'm happy to change my mind and agree with you in order to get that Nils album...

Goofytakemyhand said...

Alex Chilton turns down an offer towards the end of the Box Tops to become the lead singer for Blood, Sweat & Tears because it's "too commercial." Sure, Big Star became an influential act for future generations of rockers and music snobs like myself, but at what cost to Chilton? I'm guessing David Clayton-Thomas laughed all the way to the bank.

Speaking of cost, does anyone have Big Star's expensive "Keep an Eye on the Sky" box set that came out in Sept.? I'll be glad to work out a trade.

jed said...

i've got the Big Star box. i'll burn it for you.

Bob, another great post. as you know, Joe is one of my favorites and i totally agree with you. but don't you think his staying with the eagles is borne of a comfortable place to be in his sobriety?

Keith Richards as an inspiration to Nils? i thought you hate the Stones. cock rock and all....

Bob said...

I like the romanticized concept of Keith Richards. After Keith got busted for heroin, I think, in Canada in the late 70's, Nils would sing this song as "Keith don't go (to that town called Toronto)."

jed said...

Bob, i saw a you tube Westerberg thing where Don Was, in 1999, called Westerberg the greatest rhythm guitar player he's ever heard. this comes after he produced some stones records. strong.

by the way, did you know the Meat Puppets are coming to town?