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Joe Walsh brings the funk to Playbook

6/7/2012
Joe Walsh says the material on his new album, "Analog Man," is unlike any of his previous work. Getty Images

Joe Walsh just might be the James Worthy of rock.

Both the famed Eagles guitarist and the legendary Lakers forward are gifted artists whose immense talents have translated to success that goes beyond the wildest dreams of any rational human being.

Both are Hall of Famers. Both are icons.

Yet although each is a superstar in his own right, each played in the shadow of supernovas for years. Walsh teamed with Don Henley and Glenn Frey to sell tens of millions of albums, and Worthy teamed with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win three NBA championships.

Walsh, who just happens to be a Lakers fan and occasional courtside visitor at Staples Center, would probably be just fine with the comparison, too, seeing as how Worthy is his favorite player in team history.

“I liked James Worthy a lot,” Walsh said in a recent interview with ESPN Playbook. “Of course, there’s Kareem, Magic, Kobe and Shaq. But I always thought James Worthy was a real class act and continues to be. Besides basketball, I just kind of thought, ‘This guy is cool. I’d like to be like this guy.’”

Of course, musicians typically have a distinct advantage over their athletic counterparts when it comes to career longevity. So while Worthy, who’s 13 years younger than Walsh, retired from the NBA in 1994, Walsh remains active in the studio and on concert stages around the world.

But while Walsh has occupied his writing and performing skills with the Eagles and several side projects in recent years, he hasn’t released a solo album in 20 years.

That streak ended Tuesday with the release of “Analog Man,” a body of work Walsh said is unlike any of his previous material. The album was co-produced by Walsh and Jeff Lynne, of Electric Light Orchestra and Traveling Wilburys fame. It also features some drumming by his brother-in-law, Ringo Starr, who earned some acclaim by playing in a certain band from Liverpool back in the day.

“Sometimes, you write a song, and it sounds like something you’ve written before,” Walsh said. “But this is a fresh start. I’m healthy. I’m confident. I’m happy. I’m positive. I’m focused, and I think the music shows that. It was a good creative period I was in that managed to get out on hard drive.”

So while “Analog Man” was indeed recorded with computer assistance, the release is true to its title in being available on good old-fashioned vinyl -- as well as CD and digital format. It’s also the first solo material Walsh has recorded since becoming sober in 1994.

That’s significant for someone whose former lifestyle would make a season playing alongside Metta World Peace seem extraordinarily tame by comparison.

“It’s different doing it sober, because there’s no party,” Walsh said. “It’s just work. But it’s good. I feel really good about the songs and the whole experience. I really like what I’ve done.”

Walsh’s sports ties aren’t confined to the Lakers.

Like many elite athletes, Walsh can appreciate a fine automobile. It was in his 1978 hit “Life’s Been Good” that he famously sang, “My Maserati does 185, I lost my license, now I don’t drive.” Although Walsh no longer owns the 1963 5000 GT Allemano Coupe that inspired the lyric, Playbook asked if the car actually ever reached that ungodly speed under his direction.

“I don’t know how fast it goes,” Walsh said. “I will say it goes 90, but I’m still in third gear at 90. So I’m not sure how fast it goes. I chickened out at 90.”

Walsh has performed the national anthem, both as a singer and as a guitarist, at sporting events – most notably at Game 5 of the 1995 World Series in Cleveland.

“That was one of the scariest appearances that I’ve ever done,” Walsh said. “In a stadium, because of the echo coming back at you, it’s hard to tell which one you are. I think the toughest assignment for a musician is the national anthem. … It’s about as naked as you can get singing out in front of all those people, singing a pretty difficult song. … Who nailed it? Marvin Gaye. He’s the best performer I’ve ever seen.”

Walsh is a big football fan that supported the Oakland Raiders back in the days of John Madden and Fred Biletnikoff. But with the advent of free agency and rapid player movement, Walsh said he no longer has a favorite NFL team. Instead, he waits until midseason and picks a team to follow for the remainder of the year based on its style and personality.

“Being from Cleveland, I’m supposed to hate the Ravens, but they were pretty cool last season,” Walsh said. “They flamed out, but I thought they were going to make it to the Super Bowl. I was impressed with them, but I’m not supposed to like them. … [Tim] Tebow had a great run. I like him. It’s too bad [John] Elway doesn’t.”

Last year, “ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown” used the new Walsh song “Funk #50” as a theme. In a nod to the venerable rock classic “Funk #49” that Walsh recorded with the James Gang in 1970, he specifically recorded the song for the show. Since then, Walsh said he went back and wrote words for an extended version of the song that appears on “Analog Man.”

In addition to his impressive body of work with the Eagles, Walsh also played a role in the music of another of the world’s greatest groups.

Walsh and the James Gang opened a handful of shows for Led Zeppelin on the band’s first American tour in 1969, long before the British foursome became a global rock juggernaut. It was during those concerts that Walsh handed over the 1959 Gibson Les Paul that Jimmy Page would use to record countless Zeppelin classics.

“There was a period of time before Les Pauls were really focused on,” Walsh said. “They weren’t that expensive. They were just really hard to find. There were no Guitar Centers. You’d find them in the basement of a music store or an ad in the newspaper. I happened to have two. … [Page] wanted a Les Paul really bad. They were unheard of in England, and he asked me for help in getting one. So I kept the one I liked the best, and gave him the other one. He loved it, and it wound up being his No. 1 and used on a large body of the work of Led Zeppelin.”

Walsh also provides pop culture footnotes in television and movies. He appeared in several episodes of “The Drew Carey Show” and also enjoyed a memorable cameo in the “Jailhouse Rock” scene of “The Blues Brothers.”

“I’m the prisoner that starts the riot,” Walsh said. “I was hanging out with all these extras, [about] 250 extras. Here’s the thing -- we rioted three times. My part comes, and I incite everyone, and we TRASHED the placed. They were yelling, “CUT!” but we weren’t done. Then we had a 2½-hour break and they had cleaned everything up, and we did it again for different camera angles. By the end of the third one, I was trashed. Two hundred and fifty guys were trashed. … [John] Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd were great to hang around, and that band was fantastic, too.”

Meantime, back in 2012, Walsh is currently touring in support of “Analog Man,” playing dates across the country through the end of September before reconvening with the Eagles for a November concert in Las Vegas.

“I’m playing some of the new stuff, and of course some of the older songs people come to hear,” Walsh said. “I went down to Austin and found a band. … They play laid back like Levon Helm [of The Band], but they’ve also got the ZZ Top four-to-the floor [sound]. And they’re just a joy to play with. My music gets a real kick in the pants playing with those guys.”