Joe Walsh is calling from a Seattle hotel room. In years past, this never would have happened; the guitar legend would have been far too busy turning said hotel room into a charred mass of kindling, using skills honed during years on the road with the Eagles. But today he is all business, with his suite serving as a mobile headquarters for the second annual VetsAID concert, due to take place on Sunday, Veterans Day, in nearby Tacoma, Washington.
Last year Walsh called on the talents of Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band and Gary Clark Jr to bolster the inaugural bash, with proceeds going to his non-profit organization aimed at helping veterans and their families. This year’s roster includes the likes of Chris Stapleton, James Taylor, HAIM, Eagles bandmate Don Henley, and a special drop-in from his brother-in-law — Sir Ringo Starr.
“He said ‘It sounds like you’re going to have too much fun,'” Walsh tells PEOPLE. “I think we’re going to do ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ as the last song. That couldn’t say it better.”
Over the course of the conversation, Walsh spoke about his personal connection with veterans — and quite possibly announced a run for the White House 2020.
What made you decide to take a stand and launch the VetsAID concert series last year?
I relate with military families and Gold Star families. Gold Star families are families where somebody didn’t come home. My father died in 1949. He was a flight instructor in the Army Air Corp. I was about 16 months old at the time so eventually my mom remarried and I got a stepfather, but for the first seven years of my life there was a part of me that was missing — and that was my father. So I know how Gold Star families feel.
Also, years of being an observer and seeing people come home from Vietnam — and the people coming home from Afghanistan — made me really uncomfortable. A homeless veteran should not have to stand at a freeway exit with a cardboard sign. That’s not okay. All of this stuff led to a blanket uncomfortable-ness I had concerning veterans and I decided to really do something about it. So I co-started VetsAID and I think that’s the best thing about what we do: homeless vets should not have to stand by the side of a highway with a cardboard sign. We make it so they don’t have to.
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You grew up during the Vietnam War in the ‘60s — a time when the public largely turned their back on vets simply because the war was unpopular. Did you recognize this injustice at the time?
Let’s just say the country was divided. I was 20 and my reality was that people either went to college full-time or they were draftable. The dear friends that I went to high school with that didn’t go to college eventually wound up in Vietnam and I noticed that they came home different. I was in Ohio during the Vietnam War-era. I wouldn’t say we were anti-military, but — speaking for me and the people I was with — we were trying to get the troops home. We recognized that what was going on was different from what we were told was going on. I’m talking about the bombing of Cambodia and stuff. We wanted to get the troops home. We were not judging people who were in the armed forces. That’s a misconception. I know when vets came home, they were not welcomed home at all.
At the time the country was divided and I’m not quite sure how everybody really felt, but it was an emotional time. All I know is that the guys I knew that went [to Vietnam] came home different and since then have acquired medical problems. They’re kind of undiagnosed, but they’re pretty sure it’s complications from being exposed to Agent Orange, which was a chemical that was sprayed on the enemy troops — but they weren’t very far from our troops, so they got sprayed, too. We found out much later that that stuff will mess you up and it shows up later in your life. That’s happening a lot. A lot of the guys I went to high school with are physically really hurting now and it’s the Agent Orange attacking their organs and joints.
You were present at the Kent State anti-war demonstrations in May 1970, which ended in the shooting death of four students by the National Guard. How did that experience shape your political awareness?
Yes, I was a student at Kent State University in May of 1970. I was also a musician in a regionally popular band called the James Gang. I was still going to class and stuff, but I was in and out because we were playing a lot. But what happened at Kent State is a perfect storm — you remember that movie, Perfect Storm? A series of coincidences came together and the thing mutated into a monster. That’s exactly what happened at Kent State. It was people with authority coming together with a student body and it mutated into something that mutated into something worse. Four people that I knew were shot and a bunch more were injured and when that happened, part of my generation died with it. And part of me died on that day, and that was innocence, you know? We were students and we didn’t know they had bullets. We weren’t necessarily for or against the war, we just wanted to get the troops home and the government portrayed us as dirty communist hippies.
What happened to me was that I lost trust in the United States government and for authority in general. I have anger that’s been in me ever since. It was a traumatic experience. I was mad and I really didn’t trust people in positions of authority to make the right decisions for the people underneath their authority. I think that’s the best way to put how I felt, and that stayed with me for a long, long time.
To bring it back to current day, one would think that if we are going to go to war — and we’re supposed to do that by an act of Congress — there’s supposed to be a budget for that war. And one would think that part of that budget would be money for the troops that come back from the war, but that’s never happened.
They did a pretty good job after World War II with the G.I. Bill.
Yeah, the G.I. Bill! But what are we doing for our vets now? They’re homeless! There have been more critical injuries in this war in Afghanistan than people that were killed in combat: 20,000 people came home missing arms and/or legs or were just totally shattered. The transition back into civilian life, for the majority of the vets, is too high of a mountain to climb. And that’s where VetsAid comes in.
In the past you’ve visited wounded warriors at Walter Reed and given them guitar lessons. Do you feel there is a link between music and healing?
I think there’s a link between music and everything. Music is part of the very center core of people. There’s healing in music, yes. Music can definitely heal. Music can definitely make you happy or sad. Music can cause emotions and emotions are more powerful than any virus. But music is spiritual in nature and it’s a path to something bigger than any of us individually. Music is part of the way I’m wired and it can be very, very powerful. Music has enabled me to be in a position to help. And you know what? I’m thinking of running for president — what do you think?
I’m all for it. I think the time is now. You got my vote.
You want to hear my platform?
“I Know What Not to Do.” What do you think? That’s pretty good, right?
It’s more than most people can say.
I just want to get to the debates. If I can get enough signatures to be able to have one of those podiums in the debates and fire on those other guys, I’ll have done my job. I guarantee you, that would make a difference.