It was a foggy autumn night in New York’s Rainbow Room when Joe Walsh took center stage — no guitar in sight. So he addressed the elephant in the room: “I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s a half-joke, meant to set the room at ease while gently reminding the room full of suits that addiction is not some distant, dark memory; but on the contrary, very much present in the room. It’s a constant specter hanging over fifty million Americans. Even the ones who sell out Madison Square Garden.
After checking to rehab for the final time in 1995, Walsh had to put his guitar down — possibly for good — in order to put his life back together. Early on, he didn’t think he’d ever play again. Over the course of 20 years, Walsh got married and, eventually, he did find his way back to music with the help of Ringo Starr, his unlikely brother-in-law and in sobriety. In 2012, Walsh released Analog Man, his first solo album as a sober musician. “People tell me I play better now sober than I did before,” he said. “But the only thing that matters to me now is that I can say I haven’t had a drink today.”
That night the 71-year-old old Eagles guitarist — 25 years a “sober alcoholic” — received the highest humanitarian award for activism in the addiction recovery community, jointly awarded by the nonprofit Facing Addiction and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). His wife, the elegant Marjorie Bach, was also honored and she stood behind him, wiping tears from her eyes with a napkin even when he cracked jokes. Bach is 27 years sober. Earlier, she spoke with unflinching gravitas about fearing at one point, her husband would die. Walsh’s in-laws, Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach, presented them with the award. Between the four of them, they have over a century of sobriety.
Sitting side by side backstage, Starr and Walsh are an odd pair: one a voluble English drummer in violet-tinted spectacles, the other steely, platinum-haired guitar god. Although the Liverpudlian is only nine years older than Walsh, he has a sweet, avuncular way of leaping to answer questions as if moving the target away from his more withdrawn brother-in-law. Walsh sits silently, turning the words over in his mind. But like a pitcher with a long windup, when Walsh speaks, it’s with surprising power.
Rolling Stone: You’ve both spoken at length about your alcohol and drug addictions. What was it like to become a public figure for something you tried for years to keep hidden?
Starr: Well I didn’t really come out publicly. They had helicopters flying over the arena, so that was how I came out. [Laughs.]
Walsh: I always tried to hide it. I had my vodka in a bag. Nobody knew. When really, half the world knew I was a mess. So, anonymity didn’t exist for me.
What changed your mind?
Walsh: I got sober because of a fellowship of men and women who were sober alcoholics. That’s how I got sober. After a couple years, I talked about [my sobriety] with other alcoholics and tried to help them. The only person who can get somebody else sober is somebody who’s been there and done that.
When did you make the decision though to become a public advocate?
Walsh: I realized that I do more good showing people that there’s life after addiction. So I decided it’s okay to go public because everybody knew anyway, and if I save one life showing that there’s life after addiction I feel good about it. I believe that’s part of why I lived.
[To Ringo], before you got sober, was there a fear that choosing sobriety would end your artistic life?
Starr: I was afraid at the beginning. [I thought] I don’t know how you do anything if you’re not drunk. That’s where I ended up. I couldn’t play sober, but I also couldn’t play as a drunk. So when I did end up in this rehab, it was like a light went on and said you’re a musician, you play good.
After rehab, that’s when you put together the First All-Starr band in 1989?
Starr: Yes, but it was weird. My lawyer in Los Angeles called me that they wanted to back me on a tour. I’ve never toured [solo]. But I put a band together. He [pointing to Walsh] was in it. It was practically an orchestra.
Walsh: He didn’t think everybody would come.
Starr: I didn’t think anybody would come. I only knew three drummers and I was one of them. But you know, a lot of people in that band weren’t sober. They were all sort of on something. But we pulled it together. For me personally, that’s all it’s about. I got over the mad first, second year, and now, this is how I live. It’s a normal way of living now, and I have a lot of fun.
Walsh: And now most of those guys [Levon Helm, Clarence Clemons, Billy Preston and Rick Danko] are dead.
Starr: Yeah. All the band’s dead.
What are your thoughts on the opioid crisis?
Walsh: Well, I don’t think America’s aware of how bad it is out there. And I’m talking about addiction across the board. Opiate addiction, it’s killing young kids by the hundreds – by the thousands.
A lot of young musicians, in particular, are overdosing. Do you think the pressure to constantly be on tour, to always be “on,” is connected to this trend?
Starr: Well in my case, early on, the pressures were just there. You’d have a drink and later on, it got to be cocaine or whatever.
What about for older musicians, who may push themselves with painkillers to keep up unsustainably rigorous schedules?
Walsh: We need to have a look at this, yes. The problem is if you hurt physically, you can get prescription pills for that. If you hurt mentally, you can drink – drink your way through it, you know? The problem is that after that pain is gone, whatever substance you used very subtly convinces you that you can’t do anything without it and then you have to deal with that. And people don’t know that.
Starr: The good news is, though, a lot of new artists are sober people. The part of it where musician felt it was their right to get crazy has changed. And we lost a lot of really good [musicians] because of that. Why we’re [gestures to Walsh] still here, I don’t know. That’s just how it is. But I think now in the new music age, it’s getting a bit cleaner. I think their rebellion is to stay clean. Like they’re going back to vinyl [smiles].
At this point, if you see or suspect a musician, with whom you’re close, is struggling with addiction, do you say something to them privately?
Starr: I don’t say a lot.
Walsh: That’s very frustrating because you can’t help somebody unless they’re ready. You can point it out to them. They might listen, they might get angry. You can be there for them and if they bring it up, talk to them. You can set an example and show them how much better it is to be sober. But no, we don’t drive around in cars looking for people and yanking them off the streets.
When you first got sober, was music ever the enemy?
Walsh: I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified to go in front of people sober and not have a really good buzz going.
Starr: We didn’t know how to do it.
Walsh: I was really uncomfortable maybe the first 10 times.
What about playing by yourself, just seeing if you could do it?
Walsh: I didn’t write for a year. I couldn’t write for a year because I’d sit down and try and write something and get frustrated, and my mind would say, “well you know what works…”
Walsh: And that wasn’t an option.
So you couldn’t write.
Walsh: Sobriety came first. And I thought well, maybe I will never write a song again, and that’s gotta be okay. It was the same thing with playing live. I was uncomfortable, but then other musicians would start coming up to me, saying, “Joe, you used to be really good, but there’s a profound difference in the way you’re playing now.”
What did they say?
Walsh: They said it made them want to get sober. And I have been able to get some people sober that way. But I was just in my own way. I was all about me. I was uncomfortable, and then one day I realized I could do it. I can do this. And after that, I can’t imagine doing any substance that would affect my playing sober now. I don’t even think about it.
What was playing sober first like for you, Ringo?
Starr: What happened to me is that playing was all right and being onstage and being in the front, but afterwards, my whole body screaming: let’s get crazy. [Alcohol] had always been the prize, do a gig and then you get crazy.
Walsh: It was your reward.
Starr: I used to have to sit on the [drum] seat and just hold [still]. Barbara couldn’t talk to me. People around me couldn’t talk to me. I’m just holding on because all my sinews and veins and brains were like, “Let’s get fucked up.” But I didn’t. That’s how it works. If [sobriety] is something you want, you can get it. Here it is. Come and get it.
[To Walsh] can you tell me about the epiphany you had in New Zealand? You said that you’d had a bunch of relapses and nothing had been working until that moment in the hills.
Walsh: It was in Hawke’s Bay, the ancient capital of the Maori nation, the indigenous people there. I befriended them in New Zealand and they took me to the capital fortress that is abandoned and in ruins now, but it’s a very holy place. I stood on top of that hill. I looked at the ocean and I looked at all this farmland. New Zealand is beautiful. I had a moment of clarity, which was you can either die or you can stop.
How old were you roughly then that happened?
Walsh: About 45.
Have you had other spiritual experiences like that in your life?
Walsh: I have had moments before, like “I’ve gotta do something about this,” but by noon I was drunk again. This time, I believe it was God saying, “Hey, why don’t you try me?”
So you literally walked down the mountain, determined to go back to rehab, and that time it took.
Walsh: Yes. I went back to the United States. I made arrangements to go in. It terrified me. Terrified me.
Walsh: Because I didn’t know what sober was. I thought I was going to have to wear a tie and have a job and go to work every day, and that’s not the case. No, I can do what I always do really well. I just had to learn how. When you get sober, you learn how to do everything one day at a time, and when you get enough things that you know how to do sober, you’re good to go.
Mr. Starr, you once said in reference to the Beatles: “the world made us mean something.” You seemed to be hinting at the objectification and pressure wrapped into being a so-called “legend.”
Starr: I think in my case, the blessing was I was in a band and we had each other. Yeah, after a couple months, one of us would be going off the rails whether someone was having to drag me back or drag George back or John. One of the saddest moments, nothing to do with drinking, was when we went to see Elvis. I felt really sad because he had 12 guys with him, only doing his bidding. He’d say something like, ‘Let’s play football.’ They’d all run out and play ball with him. Being a solo artist, it’s gotta be really hard.
Walsh: Yeah, and lonely.
Starr: I’m afraid I never had that in my life. I’ve always been with a couple of good bands and now still always in band. So I’ve had friends around. I think that’s very important.
Walsh: Well you can’t confuse success with validity. I just want to say when we — I mean folks like me — when we go onstage for two-and-a-half hours, we look really cool. We’re cool, you know? The rest of the day, people make the assumption that we’re cool then too, and we’re not. We’re just people with all the problems that everybody else has. It’s not as extravagant a lifestyle as it appears when we’re onstage. So don’t think being a rock star is the answer to all your problems. It’s the beginning of all your problems.
Starr: The discussion is very difficult, because we did as much as anybody did and we’re still here and we’re sober, and there’s no telling when that day is when you leave. I don’t know why Tom [Petty]’s gone and I’m here. It’s unanswerable. But I know in the bands I hang out with, there’s a pretty — not absolutely — but a pretty large sober mentality going on now.
Joe Walsh’s full speech:
How you doing? I’m Joe, I’m an alcoholic. And I’m fond of other things too. Thank you, I didn’t think anybody would come. Thank you all for being here. Thank you Ringo and Barbara for presenting me with the award. We figured out in Shea Stadium the Bach sisters and I were, maybe, 40 feet from each other. Boy I wanted to meet one of the Beatles someday. Now one of them is my brother-in-law, careful what you wish for. Everyone’s grateful.
I know a lot of people … thank you all, thank you all. I love you and I’m humbled that anybody came.
I was born in 1947 and in the early ‘Fifties I had, without knowing, attention deficient, obsessive compulsive, probably a little Asperger’s, and I had them. There was no awareness of what that was. Medical science had not diagnosed any of that then. You were just, “difficult.” I was difficult. I could not complete tasks, I was all over the place. I had all these ideas and I get about a third done, and then I had another idea. I put that thing on top of all the other ideas and round and round I would go. I could not do math, I couldn’t complete my term paper. I would tell my parents the day before my science project was due, that I had to do a science project. I was different that way from the other kids. Because of that, I was terrified. I was truly terrified, because I felt stupid, and alone, and that nobody understood. I knew something was wrong with me, but I knew I was okay. That’s how I grew up, terrified.
I decided to be a musician in my late teenage years. I tried to play guitar in front of some people, but I couldn’t do it. I was so scared. I could not do it, I hyperventilated, I started shaking, I started crying. I couldn’t do it. So I gave up guitars for awhile and I knew that was something I was going to have to deal with, or not play guitar anymore. It came across eventually the fact that a couple of beers, and I could do it. I really could. I didn’t feel scared, I felt good, I felt confident. I said, “Yeah,” and I was able to play guitar in front of people. Well, that planted the seed, that planted the seed. I thought alcohol was a winner. I thought, “I found something now, I’m it, I’m there.” I continued to do that.
In college, I came across cocaine and other substances. Wrote an album … drinking and getting high. It did pretty good. I wrote another album that way, it did really good. I just thought, “Hey, this is it. I can hide that I drink a little bit. I got this!” Later on when I did an album that didn’t do so good, I thought, “Well, obviously I’m not drinking nearly enough.”
So, that was me. I chased it for years, I chased it for years, and it worked pretty good.
Any substance you abuse will subtlety, gradually convince you that you can’t do anything without it. I had to do more and more to get the same result. I had to do more and more and get more. “How am I going to get more? I owe everybody money.” My higher power became vodka and cocaine. I went, and it got worse than that, and it got worse than that. I stopped doing music, I stopped writing. I didn’t care about anybody. I burned all the bridges, nobody wanted to work with me. I was angry, I was mad, I was alone and unique, and individual. If something good happened, I did that. If something bod happened, it’s because you didn’t listen. I turned in to this Godless, hateful thing.
That’s how I came in, and I came into Alcoholics Anonymous. I can’t say my life got better, but it stopped getting worse. That was enough, I’ll take it. So I stuck around. I met some guys in a men’s stag group, and they were old timers. They lost a lot of money on me, but gradually they showed me that I’m not a unique individual, one of a kind person. I’m just an alcoholic. For the first time in my life I felt like I was somewhere where I belonged. If I had a problem or something I couldn’t handle, somebody in AA had gone through it and knew what to do. My most horrible secret, most embarrassing, terrible thing, secrets, dirty dark secrets, that I did, that I had, somebody could top it.
Gradually, over a period of time, I read the book, and I started doing the steps. I did the steps, and I had, what the book calls, a profound spiritual awakening. That was, that Godless, hateful thing that I came in as, wasn’t me. I was this scared little kid who nobody understood and nobody … that’s me, I’m this scared little kid. I took my power back, I took my power back from my alcoholic mind who had been in charge for 35 years. That’s how I got here. Because of God, I reconnected with God and a recovery program, and other people, other recovered people, that’s the secret.
I’ve been sober for 25 years. And I just want to say, you can’t tell a normal person what it’s like. Normal people, they can’t comprehend what it’s like waking up from a blackout, and they can’t help, they can’t help. People in congress, they can’t help. The only people that can help people like us is us. Because we know, we’ve been there. We know where it goes, and we know how to get sober. I don’t know why I’m alive. I should not be alive. I hadn’t planned on living this long, I don’t know what to do! Do they have Seventy For Dummies?
Because those guys got me sober, and because other people have asked me for help, and a couple them guys showed me. I decided to drop my anonymity, because most of the world knew I was a mess anyway, and go public and speak out, and try and help other alcoholics, because that’s what we do.