The Eagles icon reflects on how a childhood tragedy inspired him to give back to veterans and their families
Life is indeed good for Joe Walsh, and now he’s working hard to make a difference in the lives of the men and women who served. The guitar legend is gearing up to mount the third annual VetsAid concert on Sunday in Houston, Texas — just in time for Veterans Day.
In prior years, Walsh has called on music luminaries including Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band, James Taylor,, Eagles bandmate Don Henley, and even brother-in-law Sir Ringo Starr to bolster the one-night-only bash, with proceeds going to his non-profit organization aimed at helping veterans and their families. This year he’s going to wow crowds alongside Sheryl Crow, ZZ Top, the Doobie Brothers, Brad Paisley, and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.
“I’ve played a bunch of other people’s charities over the years and I never was on the ‘do-it-yourself’ end of it. It’s a lot more work than I thought!” Walsh, 71, tells PEOPLE. “But it’s really worth it when the event actually comes, if you do it right. It’s special for a lot of people. So I’m looking forward to coming down to Houston and rocking it.”
Over the course of the conversation, Walsh spoke about his personal connection with veterans, his upcoming Hotel California tour with the Eagles, and how his 2020 Presidential bid is shaping up.
Can you talk about why this cause so personal for you?
One of the things that encouraged me to have the VetsAid shows is that I was a Gold Star kid. My father died in active duty when I was about 2 years old. I eventually had a stepfather, who I love and I’m grateful for, who had my back, but I grew up never really knowing my father. So I’m a member of the Gold Star families. I know what that sadness is. We didn’t have the Gold Star terminology when I was growing up. It was just, ‘Oh you lost your father? That’s too bad.’ But there’s a special place for me with the Gold Star families because I am one. When we get all the kids together during the concert, they have their own place. They have their own room where they can go off to the side and meet each other and play video games and talk. That’s something I never had, so I’m grateful to make that possible for them.
How has VetsAid grown since you first began in 2017? Are you happy with the impact?
We’ve been able to help a lot of people. It’s grown in that vets had a chance to meet other vets and Gold Star families had a chance to meet other Gold Star families. It’s a big coming together of the vets community. Over three years people come back. It’s starting to become a family of people who come together every year. And I’m thrilled because just coming together is part of the healing process. The networking that goes on between the various vets communities has really made a great bond between everybody.
Not just once a year but continuously over the year, people continue to stay in touch with each other and help each other. And that’s great. I think one of the problems is that vets come back from their service and all of a sudden they’re back home and no one quite understands what they went through. It’s very difficult to make the transition back to civilian life after you’ve done what we ask of the vets to do. When you’re alone, it seems like a higher mountain than you can climb. But when people come together and lift each other up, it makes it much, much easier. I can see a world of good that’s being done by holding these shows every year.
Prior to the concert, you hold a job fair for veterans — tell me a little about that.
There’s an incredible number of veterans who come back injured. About four times the mortality rate of the war are people who come back injured. Prosthetics have moved so far ahead in what they can do; people missing limbs are no longer unable to function. So there’s a job fair for people who need a job or need training. And that’s what we try and do; we try and have companies and corporations show up at the job fair so vets can have an interview and maybe start a whole career. Just because you’re in a wheelchair, you can still be of tremendous value to a corporation if you’re trained and utilized.
What are some of the biggest needs for veterans right now, and how can the rest of us help?
Well, what they went through is very traumatic. I would say that a lot of them come back hyper-vigilant, hyper-active, hyper-aware, and they need that kind of understanding. We wouldn’t really understand that. We’ve found that we have a whole program of bonding with dogs that really helps. And also horses; working with horses has been a tremendous healing thing with veterans, it calms them and allows them to care for and bond with animals.
The transition back to civilian life is hard. There are more suicides than combat deaths. You know, if you’re in the Midwest and you come home, there’s nobody that’s been through that or understands. You need to talk about it and you need to be around other people. With guide dogs and working with horses, we’ve had great luck in just taking the edge off when vets first come back. And we also have suicide hotlines and numbers that people can call. You can find out more at VetsAid.org. There are vets organizations all around us. Ask around and find something near you, because that’s who needs help. You don’t have to send your money to Washington, find some vets locally wherever you are and see where they’re going for help — and that is the place to help.
You’ve done so much the veteran community over the years. Is there a compliment that you’ve received from a vet that was particularly meaningful to you?
We’ve brought together people who combined their energies and accomplished stuff that they couldn’t have done by themselves. There’s groups of vets now who have a purpose and are working hard, and accomplishing a lot of things. We’ve saved some vet organizations from going under. The smaller organizations that don’t really have a budget, we’re able to keep them going and that’s saved lives, and helped people who are running out of money or who are homeless. We’ve helped a bunch of homeless vets. When you’re down and out, it’s awful hard to dig your way out of that and get a fresh start. But that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for ways to help. And we continue to.
It’s great to find a small organization, often run by vets, that’s trying to help. Then you give them a booster shot so they have the funds to keep going, and that allows all kinds of good things to happen. So I am grateful that they’re grateful, because I think it’s really important.
I know you’re actively involved in the music therapy programs at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center]. It’s fascinating how therapeutic music can be.
Well it is, you know? This whole thing that I’m doing is not political. There’s no politics in it. We don’t discuss or really care about elections and such. I’ve found that people who don’t see eye-to-eye will come together for music, and they get along just fine if they come together for music. That’s why it’s so powerful in getting a message through, it kind of breaks down the boundaries. In this day and age — in a divided country — if we can do something to help bridge that division, it doesn’t do anything but good.
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How do you go about putting together a lineup for your VetsAid shows?
A lot of people were able to rearrange their schedules so that they could make this show, and I’m really grateful. It’s awkward to call people and ask them to come and play for free, but an amazing number of musicians are glad to do it.
You know, I’ve played a bunch of other people’s causes and was glad I did. I kind of learned what to do and what not to do. And so, for VetsAid, if I can make it special for the entertainers who come and play; if we get backstage and we all get a chance to hang out and visit; if they have what they need so that they can shine on stage in terms of equipment and lights and sound and stuff; if I can make it special, then everybody goes away with a really, really good feeling. I know with the charities that I play every once in a while, there are some that you just don’t forget. I’m trying to make that happen with the VetsAid shows.
Last year was pretty amazing. We had Don Henley and James Taylor and my brother-in-law Ringo came and we all did “With a Little Help from My Friends” onstage at the end of it. That was special for everybody. So I’m thinking Houston is just going to be magic. It’s such a good music town and it’s a military town. I think it’s really going to work this year. It looks like it.
Do you have any surprises in store that you’re able to share?
I’ve got to keep them under wraps! But yeah, there’s a couple. There’s a couple old boys. Yeah you never know who’s going to show up, but I’m aware of a couple of surprises that are going to make a big difference to the crowd.
You’ve got a killer lineup announced already. Sheryl Crow’s going to be there — you recently teamed up with her on her new album Threads with the track, “Still the Good Old Days.” What’s it like making music together?
She’s a great songwriter and a great singer. We’ve known each other for a long time, but never really had a chance to go into the studio. We bumped across a really nice thing to cover, which is, you know, we’re not young — we’re not old, but we’re not young! We’ve been around for a while, and it’s hard to watch all the new bands and the new kids. You kind of, sometimes, can feel like, “Well we had our day…” but we sang about it and that turned into a really good song. And the good old days were the good old days. You know, the memories I have of being wild and crazy in the ’70s and ’80s. We know how to rock and roll. We maybe don’t as much anymore, but we sure know how.
Speaking of your brother-in-law Ringo, I was lucky enough to spend some time with him and the All-Starr Band over the summer. He mentioned the first All-Starrs tour when you glued furniture to the ceiling of your hotel room. Do you have any other fun memories of those times on the road?
Oh yeah! If you’re in a hotel room and you’re bored, it’s amazing how much fun you can have with super glue. I don’t want to be a bad influence but there’s amazing things you can do…
Do you still feel like the guy in “Life’s Been Good”? What’s that song mean to you now?
You know, it still holds up. I could write a couple more verses I think at this point that would be relevant! But that’s a song everybody relates to, and it’s real fun when the audience knows the words. We all sing it. That song just was a comment on rock ‘n’ roll being as extravagant of a lifestyle as it appears to be. I think people really enjoy it. I cop to it.
The Eagles just announced their Hotel California tour for next year. You played a few dates in Vegas earlier this year, but now you’re taking it on the road. How’s it feel tackling the whole album front to back?
It’s really fun. We never thought about performing the album top to bottom and there’s parts of Hotel California that we never played live. You know there’s segues between songs and little bits and pieces. But to assemble the whole thing and play it like you were putting the needle on the vinyl, it’s a challenge. It’s pretty profound, pretty profound. We work so hard at trying to be able to do it and have the lights and the sound. We also have an orchestra, so we were busy trying to synchronize all of that so it all works together. We didn’t get a chance to really sit back and look at the piece of music that we were performing, and then after a couple tries at it was amazing to hear the whole album presented all at once.
When we spoke last year you mentioned you were getting your 2020 Presidential campaign off the ground. How’s that going?
I’m getting a “Joe Walsh for President” website. You should be able to look at that pretty soon. JoeWalshforPresident.com. There’s another guy named Joe Walsh. but he’s pretty much an idiot. I’m the Joe Walsh that’s not the idiot.
There’s your slogan.
I think everybody’s missing the point. This country took a major hit in terms of being a democracy and we’re divided. A lot of things need to be fixed and set right. I think Congress is broken. So my campaign slogan is: “Give me the football.” I’m going to keep it low-key. I don’t need donations. But I sure would appreciate some votes.