Monday, October 16, 2017

Walter Egan At McCabe’s | Lefsetz Letter

We sacrificed our lives for rock and roll.

Walter Egan graduated from Georgetown. His mother wondered when he’d get serious and live the straight life. But then he got a call to play guitar for Linda Ronstadt and he decamped for Los Angeles. The rest of the band stayed behind, in Washington, D.C., but Walter couldn’t turn the opportunity down.

In high school his buddy John Zambetti said if he got an electric guitar he could join the band. At the time, Walter only had an acoustic. We all had acoustics in the house. With wide necks and nylon strings, we learned chords to play folk tunes, which were rampant.

And then the Beatles hit.

We grew our hair long. We feigned British accents. And we bought instruments. Lots of them. We wanted to participate.

And we wanted to get rich and famous.

It was very different from today. All the action was outside the house. We’d go to battles of the bands, where teenagers played the hits of the day. We were addicted to the radio, no one did their homework without a transistor nearby, to hear the countdown, to hear their favorites.

And then the action switched from AM to FM and it was like going from dialup to broadband and the entire nation was swooped up by the sound, well, at least the younger generation, the baby boomers, who ruled as a result of their sheer numbers, and still believe they rule today, even though they’ve been passed by and don’t.

But the gig with Ronstadt fizzled. She said her guitar player wasn’t working out and then he did, that was Andrew Gold.

Walter Egan has got a lot of these brushes with greatness. He’s even got a big hit record. But now he pays his bills by being a substitute teacher, but he’s still got the dream, he’s still got that twinkle in his eye, even though he’s past Medicare age he’s still writing songs, still dreaming of a hit, whether it be a cover or an original, he’s plowing on, the rest of the world be damned.

We’re littered throughout society. The lifers. Who wanted to make the sound our own. Who needed to get closer. Who are sans IRAs, maybe don’t even own a home, but can tell you who played on what and who produced it even though it happened decades ago.

So, living in Pomona, with Chris Darrow, Walter starts to scramble. That’s the essence of being a musician, the hustle, the relationships, making the most of opportunities.

Not that Walter hadn’t been in the game back east, hell, he orchestrated the meeting of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in his kitchen, but now he was in the big time.

He got a record deal. Dreamed of having Todd Rundgren produce his record. A household name. Instead he got Lindsey Buckingham, who the majordomo at Sound City recommended.

And his big hit emanated from a license plate he saw on a pimpmobile driving back to Pomona long after midnight, it said NOT SHY. Inspiration has to come from somewhere, and all your songs have stories, and Walter told them last night. He didn’t talk quite as much as Billy Bragg, but he linked his career together, made the connections with the songs. And there were tons of near-misses. Having success on Columbia but then enduring an A&R change, which quashed his career. Then getting a deal with Danny Bramson’s Backstreet but losing his bullet and said deal when Bramson lost a power struggle with Irving Azoff. You hear about the successes. You rarely hear about the misses. Mostly you know the never-beens, but some people take the risk, and some people succeed. “Magnet and Steel” is constantly synched. Eminem even licensed “Hot Summer Nights.” But ask someone under thirty who Walter Egan is and their face will draw a blank. Time marched on, we didn’t think it ever would. And we keep protesting that we want musicians, bands, people who can play their instruments.

Walter Egan comes from this background.

The second half of the show was the Malibooz, the surf/cover/original band that Egan fronts. The guitarist is the aforementioned John Zambetti, who followed his parents’ incantations to go to medical school. But he became an emergency doctor, so he could take off time and play.

Which he could. Astoundingly. We spent so much time in our bedrooms and our basements, rehearsing, getting it right, and it didn’t get us anywhere in modern society, those skills are truly monetizable by very few, but the sound is the bedrock of our life. Scratch a baby boomer professional and they’ll lament that they went straight, they live for the music, they go to the show, they need to be close.

And after the deals dried up, Walter went on the road with Spirit. And last night not only did the Malibooz do a spot-on rendition of “Nature’s Way,” they killed it on “I Got A Line On You.” Bringing back those tracks that made our lives. Reminding me of when you went to hear a cover band as opposed to a DJ.

And Walter played his hits. And the band rocked. And the crowd was small. But it was a perfect example of what once was. We’re old and lumpy and gray but when the amps are turned up and the musicians pick their Fenders we’re reminded…

So I’m talking to Walter after the show. After talking to Lincoln, who runs the joint.

Lincoln’s finally getting married, at 54, to a girl he’s had a crush on since grade school. But he’s living in rental property in Venice. If he chooses to move, where’s he gonna end up, El Monte?

That’s right, once upon a time the Westside of Los Angeles had a bohemian element. Hell, Walter once made whoopee in the median separating San Vicente. But today you’ve got to be rich to live there. Truly. Good luck finding real estate under seven figures. And to make that kind of money…

You need a straight job.

Oh, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham can afford property, but they’re icons, they strung together enough hits to still sell out arenas. But there are very few of them. And so many of us still enthralled, still trying.

So Walter moved to New York when he inherited the family home.

And then to Nashville to be closer to the music.

And he tried to go straight, he tried to sell insurance, but it didn’t take, no matter how much effort he put into it, he was called to be a musician, he’s spent his whole life being a musician.

Did he throw it away?

My parents wanted me to be a lawyer. Hell, after two years starving in Salt Lake City and then getting the world’s worst case of mononucleosis, I actually went to law school, and practiced for a minute or two, but it wasn’t me.

I went off into the wilderness. Went broke. My wife left me. All this came back when Walter was telling me his story. Women are attracted to artists, but the bills always have to be paid.

And I’ve suffered to get where I am now. Unfortunately, I don’t see another path, even if I was to start over. I was a mentor for tech startups for a day and realized those are not my people, I’m not a businessman…

But I don’t own a house. I don’t have any kids. I’ve got some money in the bank, but I’m parsimonious, I’m never sure where the next paycheck is coming from.

But I still dream of success. I still dream of the breakthrough. It keeps me going.

And Walter wants to play more gigs. And when you discuss music he lights up.

And here you have an entire generation, lost by today’s standards but fulfilled by our own. Hell, I know people who made multiple six figures a year in this industry who are now broke, living in rentals, divorced, eking by.

But they can’t stop talking about the music.

It’s in their blood.

It’s in mine too.

We had no internet, no social media, not even cable.

All we had was the radio and our records. And when the Beatles showed up we jumped on the bandwagon and we never got off. And now we’re in an unrecognizable place that oftentimes freaks us out. But when we go to the show…

It feels like home.


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