The rock legend will host his annual VetsAid benefit concert in San Diego on Nov. 12
He lived life in the fast lane for years—but with a renewed focus on giving back, a happy marriage and a long-awaited Eagles reunion tour, Joe Walsh is enjoying these days with a peaceful, easy feeling.
Though the rocker, known for his shredding guitar chops and wry sense of humor, has been known for his work in various lineups over the years (James Gang, Barnstorm, the Eagles, to name a few) none make him prouder than the one he assembles each year for VetsAid, his annual veterans benefit concert.
“California has the biggest homeless vet population—what’s up with that? A homeless vet? I can’t do the math on that,” he tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I thought, ‘You know what? This is a place I can make a difference. I can do something about this.’ So we do what we can, and I feel good about it. Everybody comes, and it’s beautiful, because it’s just one big family.”
This year’s VetsAid will feature Jeff Lynne’s ELO, The War on Drugs, The Flaming Lips, Lucius and Walsh himself with special guest Stephen Stills when it hits the North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre in San Diego on Sunday.
Helping veterans is a cause near and dear to Walsh’s heart — when he was just 20 months old, he lost his father Robert, an Air Force flight instructor, in a plane crash in Okinawa. He was raised between Kansas and New Jersey, and as he grew older, Walsh, 75, says he noticed a distinct lack of resources and support facing American vets and their families.
“There was no support group for my mom and me,” he says. “They were just, ‘Oh, that’s a shame. That’s too bad.’ But I grew up without a dad, always wondering what he would’ve thought, and always wanting to make him proud of me. So I have always been resonant to the families when dad doesn’t come home, or when a loved one doesn’t come home from war.”
And so in 2017, VetsAid was born, and it’s since raised $3 million for smaller, vet-run support groups and organizations across the country.
Finding an inspiring light at the end of the tunnel has been a long time coming for Walsh, who sought refuge in music after a lonely childhood, and who battled alcoholism and cocaine addiction as an adult.
Growing up, the musician says he likely had attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s, but was never diagnosed, as that’s not how the world worked in the 1950s.
“You were just different than the other kids. There was me, and there was the rest of the class in all the schools I went to,” he says. “I was all over the map. I’d start all these projects and never finish any of them. I acted out. So I decided to be funny, because I wanted people to like me so much. And that changed the way I look at things.”
In addition to humor Walsh leaned on music, which he says was “my crutch—I listened to the radio constantly… I was wired for music.”
By 1969, he was playing with the James Gang, and later played with the trio Barnstorm before launching a solo career in 1973. Two years later, he joined the Eagles after becoming friends with Don Henley and Glenn Frey while living in Los Angeles. Before long, they’d rocketed to superstardom.
“We achieved an amount of success beyond our wildest dreams, and we got to the point where we could do anything we wanted. So we did,” he says. “We were young, we were naïve, everything was great. And I lost track of what I was doing in the first place that got me there.”
Though overwhelmed by the trappings of fame, Walsh never lost his sense of humor; on his 1978 hit “Life’s Been Good,” he sarcastically celebrates the perks of being rich and famous (Sure, he can afford the speedy Maserati, but he can’t actually drive it after losing his license). The star says he was initially “so scared” to release the song, which eventually became his signature solo hit, and wasn’t going to, until his collaborators convinced him otherwise.
“I’m just saying that life isn’t as glorious as it appears,” he says of the song. “When you achieve an amount of success and recognition from your music, a lot of things come along with that, small print, that you don’t know are included in it, like a huge ego, lots of money. Everybody likes you, and it’s so easy to lose your perspective.”
As his star rose, so, too did Walsh’s dependence on alcohol and drugs. Though he sang lines like “I go to parties sometimes until 4/It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door,” with a wink and a nudge, substance-fueled setbacks weren’t so far from the truth.
When the Eagles broke up in 1980, Walsh struggled to make sense of the split, and it sent him spiraling further. Though he continued to make solo records, his condition worsened, thanks in part to severe stage fright that he soon found was eased by alcohol.
“I couldn’t process that [breakup], so I pretended they didn’t, and I just kept partying,” he says. “Everybody in the ‘70s experimented with drugs. But I discovered that cocaine works good for me. It was an attempt to self-medicate—I could stay up late, I could complete songs. I could go in front of an audience, and I could have an attitude, rock and roll.”
Before long though, “all of those substances stopped working for me, and I started working for it,” he says.
By 1994, Henley and Frey had plans to get the Eagles back together — but they’d only do it with a sober Walsh. The pair, along with manager Irving Azoff, approached the musician with their proposition, and the band eventually reunited for the album Hell Freezes Over, which topped the charts upon its release.
“Right then is when I was hitting bottom, and I didn’t know how to stop. I was a mess,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, I can get sober for that.’ That’s a darn good reason. And so it was a godsend. I was so relieved, because I thought I was going to drown in a bathtub in some hotel alone somewhere like all my buddies had.”
Sobriety, which he’s maintained with help from Alcoholics Anonymous, hasn’t been easy. But it’s certainly been worth it for Walsh, who says he learned to replace vodka with God as his higher power.
“When I first got sober, I never thought I’d be funny again,” he says. “I never thought I could play guitar in front of people without a buzz. And one day at a time, you learn how to do it.”
In sobriety, Walsh has also found domestic bliss with wife Marjorie Bach, whom he married in 2008. She, too, is sober, and the musician says the fact that she can relate to his struggles is a godsend (Marjorie has also given Walsh quite the set of in-laws — her sister Barbara is married to Ringo Starr, whom Walsh jokes is “a lot of work—but he’s pretty cool”).
“That’s a gift of sobriety, is that there was a place in my heart for love instead of, ‘I got to get some more cocaine.’ Alcohol ate a hole in me where loving and caring had been. But all of that came back,” he says. “I met Marjorie, and she’s the other half of me that I had always been missing. I have some children, but I wasn’t around for them. I was too busy being a rockstar. But I rebonded with them. And another part of what I got with Marjorie was this extended family that she’s in—I had never been in a family like that.”
Walsh released his most recent album, Analog Man, in 2012, which marked his first solo release in 20 years. He’s been hard at work on new music, though he has no plans to release anything in a traditional album format. Instead, he plans to take Starr’s lead and put out an EP.
For now, though, he’s rocking each night with the Eagles on their Long Goodbye Tour, which began in September and will end in March (“I just close my eyes and Glenn’s there,” he says of late bandmate Frey).
And it’s music he made with the Eagles that Walsh says is his proudest career moment: “I must say, having been able to play guitar on ‘Hotel California,’ to me, is a big deal. That’s a perfect record. And the guitar work, I think, is world-class. I’m real proud to have been a part of that.”
“When the Eagles play, people come and sit next to each other and everybody gets along. And for two-and-a-half hours, we play, and they know the words better than us,” he says. “There’s so much love coming at us from the audience that we play our ass off and everybody goes home happier. I’m so blessed to be able to do that at 75 years old. And that’s a gift of sobriety—I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on People.