Excerpts From: Take Me Home - Two Musicians Return to Georgetown.
By Jeff Reger
“I can be in a grocery store and my song will come on, and there’ll be some old guy there singing my song,” Walter Egan (COL ’70) said. “It’s like my own little movie.”
Egan had a top 10 hit in 1978 with “Magnet and Steel,” and has returned to Georgetown this semester to teach a seminar on the music industry. He joins fellow alumnus and two-time Grammy winner Bill Danoff (FLL ’68) on the faculty of the music department.
Egan walked into Copley in the fall of 1966 for his freshman year and saw flyers announcing “This is Clinton country,” advertising Bill Clinton’s (SFS ’68) campaign for junior class president—Danoff’s class. Egan gravitated to Georgetown’s small art department as a sculpture major, and spent much of his time fighting with the station management to play rock and roll on WGTB, then broadcasting its FM signal over a 60-mile radius from the basement of Copley.
Egan came to Georgetown under pressure from two of the other three members of his high school band, the Malibooz, who also attended. Egan credits one of them, John Zambetti (COL ’70), with starting him on the electric guitar. The Malibooz had already experienced modest success, having made a record and played the first color TV special from the 1965 World’s Fair in New York.
Toward the end of his freshman year, the band changed its name to Sageworth—hoping to evoke the sounds of California bands like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield—and added Annie McCloone as the lead singer. The band rehearsed in the boiler room of New South, where Egan lived for his sophomore year. Egan began to be drawn toward the new country rock sound of Gram Parsons, whose seminal country albums Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the Byrds and Guilded Palace of Sin with the Flying Burrito Brothers greatly influenced him.
By early 1971, Emmylou Harris had considered leaving the music business, but according to Meek, Danoff and Nivert managed to convince her otherwise and got her a gig at Clyde’s Restaaurant. Sageworth, Egan’s band, continued to play around D.C. after graduation, opening for acts such as the Allman Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Poco and the Grateful Dead.
Chris Hillman saw Harris sing at Clyde’s and told Gram Parsons, who had left the Flying Burrito Brothers and was looking for an accompanying female vocalist. “The first time they sang together was in my kitchen,” Egan said. “And I was pretty much the only one there … they sang ‘That’s All it Took’.”
Shortly thereafter, Egan wrote his first country song, “Hearts on Fire.” Parsons recorded the song with Emmylou Harris on his final album, just before his death from a drug overdose made him a music legend.
Sageworth moved to Boston in 1972, hoping to find steady gigs in New England college towns, but broke up when they were unable to secure a record deal. With his credit for “Hearts on Fire,” Egan thought about pursuing a solo career.
Chris Darrow—a member of influential underground sixties bands like Kaleidoscope, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Corvettes—had met Egan in D.C. while playing with Rondstadt, and encouraged Egan to come to California. In Boston, Egan auditioned for Linda Ronstadt’s band without success, and sent a letter to the Eagles asking to hold open the vacancy left by Bernie Leadon.
When he arrived in California, the Eagles told him to “just stick it out, persevere, that’s the key, you’ll make it.” Egan was simply happy to be where all the music he loved came from.
“It was the promised land to him,” Darrow said.
California agreed with Egan, whose hair became increasingly feathered as the decade progressed. While touring England with Darrow, Egan met a talent scout named Andrew Lauder, who later saw him play with his band Wheels at the Troubadour in February of 1976. He offered Egan (but not the band) a deal for six songs on United Artists UK; with this deal in hand, Egan went to Columbia, who then offered him an album deal. The only remaining obstacle was finding a producer.
Egan’s first choices—John Fogerty and Brian Wilson—were unavailable, but he found that he had a lot in common with his final choices, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac.
“I always loved the interplay between male and female voices,” Egan said.
On the way home from recording “Tunnel o’ Love” for his first album, Egan was behind a Lincoln Continental with a diamond window and neon lights, and a license plate reading “not shy.” Like Danoff, Egan took to the found idea, which inspired the title of his next album and the chorus of his biggest hit: “With you I’m not shy.”
“‘Magnet and Steel’ was very much tongue out of cheek,” Egan said. “That was when I was madly in love with Stevie Nicks.”
“To me, the high water mark of my whole career in those days was September when ‘Magnet and Steel’ was riding high in the charts,” Egan said. “I felt like this is where it should all go … of course it didn’t work out that way, but … ”
On February 22nd, 2008, a lonely pair of snowy footsteps were tracked through the lobby to the lower level of the Davis Performing Arts Center. The clicks and winding of a disposable camera led to Egan—now white haired—documenting his exhibit of paintings and prints.
“Basically this is a culmination of a life spent in creativity,” Egan said “I’ve tried to be an artist in whatever I do.” Since his commercial heyday, he has continued writing—songs, an unpublished book (Top 10, a thinly veiled autobiography) and an unoptioned screenplay called College Radio ’68. Egan released two more albums before being dropped by Columbia, but continued to play intermittently with the Malibooz (which reformed in 1981), and with Sageworth for college reunions. He also toured with Spirit in the eighties, his own bands the Brooklyn Cowboys and the Walternative band in the nineties. He’s been with Burrito Deluxe—the latest incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers—since 2006.
And he has become a four letter word, an answer in crossword puzzles for the New York Times and T.V. Guide.
“I’m really lucky that ‘Magnet and Steel’ did what it did, I’m really lucky that Hearts on Fire got covered by Gram Parsons,” said Egan. “I wish I didn’t have to supplement my income doing substitute teaching and whatever else I have to do.”
Radio stations that played “Magnet and Steel” after its March release moved on to another track off the album, “Hot Summer Nights,” by the summer. When “Magnet and Steel” peaked in September at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, Columbia released “Hot Summer Nights” officially as a single, but those radio stations had already moved on.
“It was misfired, mistimed,” Egan said. “It got to the mid 50s, and it was disappointing for everybody.”
Zambetti has known Egan since he visited his house in Forest Hills, New York, in high school.
“It didn’t matter if [he lived in] a dorm room in Copley or in a multi-million dollar mansion in Beverly Hills,” Zambetti said. “He’s been exactly the same, all the way through. He is a true artist. All the other stuff can either be there or not be there, it doesn’t really matter that much to him.”
“It’s so beyond our wildest dreams how things turned out,” Zambetti said. “I remember out in L.A. in 1976, Walt had a publicity picture taken for Columbia. And as a joke, he signed it ‘Top 10 in ’76.’ Of course, two years later, it actually happened.”
“It’s bittersweet after it goes along,” Egan said. “And I got married after all that, so she always felt like why isn’t this happening now for you?”
The director of Georgetown’s fledgling music program, Dr. Anna Celenza, introduced herself to both Danoff and Egan after their performances at the Georgetown Entertainment and Media Alliance’s first annual show at the Orpheum Theater in New York City. She was impressed by their stories and experience, and floated the idea of teaching to both of them. Danoff came to Georgetown last fall to teach songwriting.
Egan teaches a seminar on the music industry, which is a natural fit for him “He’s played a lot of roles, put together his own bands, songwriting, so it’s perfect fit for a music industry class,” Dr. Celenza said.
“The way that I structured this course is my point of view of the music business, which started from the songs,” Egan said. The 16 students in the class have formed four bands, which will be performing a concert on April 25th. “Not everyone in the class wants to be that performer. There are a couple who want to be managers and promoters, so they’re gonna promote the show.” The class also features many guest speakers, since the business has changed significantly since Egan’s most extensive involvement with the industry. Its atmosphere is laid-back and pretty loose, not unusual considering its late afternoon time on Fridays.
“It’s kinda like School of Rock, you know, like the movie,” Rich Webster (MSB ’11) said. The dynamic encourages a certain amount of goofing off—members of one band sitting across the room from one another discussed ‘90s rock while Egan attempted to explain the plan for the rest of the semester.
“I know few people in this country that are better rock and roll historians, with encyclopedic knowledge,” said Annie McCloone. “He’s got passion for it. I don’t think you can find any better person with more passion, more knowledge … on his pedagogy, I’ll reserve judgment.”
Walter Egan will be performing a free concert for Friday Music in McNeir auditorium on April 4th at 1:15 P.M. Walter Egan’s art will be exhibited until the end of April on the lower level of the Davis Performing Arts Center.