I’ve been a fan of Howard Stern’s radio show for many many years. The show certainly has a huge number of memorable moments. However my favorite moment is one most people probably won’t remember at all.
It was back in the K-ROCK days, before satellite, during one of the F-Emmy awards shows. The award was for Best Musical Performance, and Howard was playing clips of the nominees. When Howard played a clip of Alanis Morisette (I forget what song it was for), he was silent for a brief moment, and then said “Dammit, I love musicians. Music is the only thing that stirs any emotion in my soul anymore.” He said this loudly, passionately, and for the most miniscule moment you could almost hear his voice crack with emotion. And then his tone changed slightly, veering off to a self-mocking tone that seemed to attempt to mask what a true statement it was.
Maybe it’s Stern’s almost Svengali-like ability to pull such great performances out of the artists; maybe it’s simply the fact that he’s been on the air for so long that he’s bound to collect a number of great performances over so many years. Whatever it is, there is no denying that Stern has in his collection an incredible array of stellar musical performances.
While there are many to choose from (the Alanis performance was indeed fantastic, and fans picked Dave Grohl’s performance of Everlong as the best), for me the best of the best is Joe Walsh’s performance of the Eagles tune “Desperado”. There’s a long story behind the performance, which I’ll try to relate here, but I may be missing some details. Hopefully someone out there can fill in if I miss anything.
This was back in 1989 or 1990. Walsh was on the show when Stern asked him to play something. Walsh had no guitars, just a crappy Casio keyboard that was hanging around the studio. He set it up and started playing, and turned out the best rendition of the song I’ve ever heard.
Now apparently, at the time the Eagles were just beginning discussions about reuniting for the first time since they broke up in 1980. And apparently Don Henley, who wrote the song (Glen Frey co-wrote some of it), is (or was) very sensitive about other people performing this song. So when Walsh left the show that day, it seems he had a change of heart about playing the song, and tried desperately to get Gary Dell’Abate (the show’s producer) on the phone to pull it from the air.
Unfortunately for him, Gary had already left for vacation for the weekend, and Walsh left several increasingly violent and angry messages on Gary’s phone. So the song aired, and of course Henley heard it and exploded. Shortly after, the reunion was off, and it was not until 4 years later that they reconciled long enough to do the Hell Freezes Over tour.
Now, there’s some confusion on my part on one point. There are actually two performances of Walsh singing “Desperado” on Stern’s show – one solo, and one with Sam Kinison on guitar. Now, I believe the incident with Henley was over the version with Kinison, which aired on Stern’s infamous Channel 9 show. However the version I’m referring to as the best ever was the solo version. Unfortunately Kinison just ruined the other version with his unending, meandering guitar lines. I love Sam as a comedian, but he was not a musician. Anyway, I am not clear on when the two performances took place. I know the Kinison version was around 1990, but I’m foggy on when the solo version happened. I think it was a little earlier than that, but I’m not sure. Hopefully someone can shed some light out there.
So enough of the drama and back to the performance. What makes this one so special? Well for me it was an eye-opener. Truth be told I was never really a fan of Joe Walsh. I had always heard his name mentioned among the periphery of great guitar players, but I never understood why. He always seemed like a decent guitarist, but nothing special. I thought he was more of a spectacle sideshow for the Eagles rather than a true musician.
To begin with, “Desperado” is a great song. It’s a timeless melody with evocative lyrics of loneliness, sadness, pain, and a little hope. The stark instrumentation of Walsh’s version – just a keyboard – provides an intimacy that matches the song perfectly. The cheap organ sound also lends an almost plaintive, gospel/spiritual tone to the overall sound.
But the thing that makes the performance special is Walsh’s voice. On his solo records, his voice always sounded like a whiny drawl to me. Not a pleasant sound. Here, however, his voice is gravelly and nuanced. The original recording of the song sounds far too polished by comparison. In Walsh’s voice you can hear the late nights, the booze, the depression and sadness that embody the song.
While it’s a shame that this performance caused Joe Walsh so much anguish, I’m glad it happened. I will forever be grateful that he did it, and that I was able to hear it. I sincerely hope that this performance, and the other great performances from the Stern show, will be available in some form for all to hear for a long time.