Interview With the Magnetic Walter Egan
by Amelie Frank
Amelie Frank: Welcome to Retro Hell, Walter Egan! You recently did a USO tour for our troops. Where did you go, and what did you play?
Walter Egan: I played guitar for a woman named Kimberly Burns, rising Nashville vocalist. It was truly an experience to remember. When my drummer, Ron Krasinski asked me if I'd like to go play in Egypt, I thought for a moment. It was to be during Christmas break through New Years and coming home January 6th, and I had never been away from my kids on Christmas, so it was tough to decide. But ultimately the combination of seeing the world, raising the morale of the troops and making more income than I would have at home, made me decide to go.
As it turned out, we never went to Egypt, I guess these tours have a way of changing on short notice. We left Nashville at 6am December 19th (a Thursday) and reached our ultimate destination at 10:30 PM Friday night--the Sultanate of Oman, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, landing at the Muscat airport. Wow, what a strange feeling to be so far away from home in such a foreign place. Then we met some of the nicest people ever, the services crew from the Seeb Air Force base just across the runway from the international terminal. Unfortunately, our equipment and luggage got left at Heathrow in London, so we were left to fend for ourselves with just our carryons. We went back Saturday and Sunday night as the same flight came in but to no avail as we were given some stipends by British Air to buy some clothes. Luckily my guitar made it on the third night and most of the drums, but no keys, no PA, and no luggage, oh and the drum cases that arrived were all but destroyed and waterlogged (thank you British Air).
We flew out of Seeb on Sunday late on a C130 cargo plane on our way to what had been a secret base only two weeks before we got there for a show on Christmas Eve in Djibouti, Djibouti a city so bad they had to name it twice. This base, Camp Lemonier, had once been a French Foreign legion base, and it made Seeb seem like a summer camp. It was very much on the frontline of the effort over there. In fact, two hours after arriving that Monday morning they choppered us across the Gulf of Aden to the USS Mt. Whitney, the at-sea command headquarters for the whole region for a meet-and-greet. Except when we got there after a thrilling flight (I sat next to the machine gun post), they told us they were expecting us to play on the guitar and amp and P.A. they had on board. Of course the keyboard player, Rick Durrett, was the leader of the band and I'd just had a few rehearsals. The songs were mostly covers--Bonnie Raitt, Shania Twain, Joan Jett, very rock with a touch of country. Ronnie played on two steel pans with a couple of spoons and the crowd went crazy for our impromptu version of Wipeout. Again, everyone from the Captain to the seamen were as nice as could be and made us feel right at home. Then on the chopper ride back, they played with us by diving low quickly, scaring the shit out of us and giving the crewmen a good laugh.
AF: For those not up on their geography Djibouti (formerly Somaliland) is a tiny, poor nation on the "horn" of east Africa snuggled between Ethiopia and Somalia. Christmas weather there was close to 100 degrees, and the base was in the process of a huge upgrade to meet the needs of Bush's new war. The camp was the noisiest place, with generators constantly whining. We were still without our keyboard, so we searched out the capitol city for one. Eventually, we found a suitable substitute and were able to put on the show. Kimberly has been doing these USO shows for a few years now and really knew what to do to make the servicemen smile. I, for my part did my best guitar god performance, so it was a merry time for all concerned. Then, as if to prove the old adage that there is a Santa, we were able to fly back to Oman on Christmas day, one day sooner than originally planned. The tents where we "slept" in Djibouti were very rough and narrow and tended to collapse if you tossed and turned too much. So the prospect of our comfy tents at Seeb was a real gift for us.
The next gift was to be finally reunited with our luggage and equipment, after which we did a show for our friends in Oman. Due to the political climate that already cancelled our Egyptian shows, our shows in Turkey were also cancelled (no Christmas Turkey this year), but we were rerouted to Northern Italy instead. It is a beautiful country, and I was able to visit Venice, one of the world's most amazing cities (and most expensive too). We played in Aviano and in Vicenza there. It was quite a way to spend Christmas vacation, and though I was homesick for some of the time, I felt good being able to meet these young men and women defending our country and give them a few reasons to smile and forget their situation for a while. I think the song that I performed that went over best was Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA," especially when I did the old play-guitar-behind-my-head trick.
AF: So tell us: what was it like to be a key player in the California music scene in the late '70s? And did you ever eat at Lucy's El Adobe on Melrose?
WE: Nice of you to characterize me as a key player in the California music scene of the late '70s, but of course I played guitar not keys. Seriously, as much as I would've like to be, I don't think my role was key, I may have been more like a Forrest Gump of the scene. My attraction to Southern California music was in place by the time I was in high school, when the Beach Boys reigned supreme. As the '60s unfolded I found more and more to like about the sounds emanating from there. There was Jan and Dean, coming on cool on the Lloyd Thaxton show, then came Buffalo Springfield, (can't forget Ricky Nelson), the Byrds, the Doors, Love, Spirit, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and then the Linda Ronstadt axis. While in DC I was able to meet her and get to hang out with her and her various bands that came through town. She was truly the lightning rod that galvanized the country-rock scene in LA. Through her came Don Henley and Glen Frey and they would of course be the high water mark for the kind of music to which I aspired. Not to be forgotten are Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, who brought true poetry to the art of lyric writing.
I first met Jackson in '72 when Sageworth opened for him and Sandy Denny at the Bitter End in NYC. This was a thrill for me for I had admired what songs I had heard of his, and had followed his career in the rock press, where he along with Steve Noonan and Tim Buckley were termed the Orange County Three. When I spoke to Linda about my plans for moving West, she was very supportive saying that I could play for her since her new guitarist wasn't working out. That was about six months before I made the move, and by the time I got there he was working out fairly well, that was Andrew Gold. But meanwhile I heard that Bernie Leadon was exiting the Eagles so I fired off a note to Don and Glen saying to hold the spot open for me in that I'd be there soon. Alas that was not to be. But one night at the Troub front bar I was sitting with Glen and Dan Fogelberg when Old 14 (Glen) put his slightly inebriated arm on my shoulder and said "Perseverance is the key, if you can hang on long enough you're bound to make it man."
Of a Hollywood night I would most often hang at the Rainbow, where Rene Russo was a waitress. But once I got in the Fleetwood Mac clique, I often found myself at a Chinese Restaurant called Kowloon, which became a verb--"kowlooning," for the sophomoric high jinks that often went down there, often involving the tossing of food. I only ate at Lucy's a few times and could never have been confused with the big time hangers there, although once when I brought my mother there we ran into Linda and Jerry Brown. Personally I preferred the Astro Burger across the street, and Nikodel's deli down the block. All-in-all, though my favorite LA eatery would have to the Apple Pan in Westwood.
AF: With whom did you most enjoy working during those days, and why?
WE: Although there are many with whom I enjoyed working during the West Coast years the one above the others would have to be Lindsey Buckingham. When I met him it was like meeting a long lost brother that I never knew I had. We shared a love of the same music and in many ways there were strong parallels in our lives. Before we began to work together on my first album I really didn't know who he was. I had been oblivious to the Buckingham Nicks LP, and when it was proposed to me that these people from Fleetwood Mac produce me I was not real receptive to the idea. My image of the band was of a recent performance I had seen on TV of the Bob Welch led group doing Bermuda Triangle, which I thought was quite different from the stuff I was about to record. Once I had been clued in as to the new band and their superb "white album" (as they called the first LP with Stevie and Lindsey), I was much more in accord. I met with them for the first time in Santa Barbara early in 1976 as the band was doing a show. It took me meeting them to be sure which was Lindsey and which was Stevie.
Lindsey lived in the Rancho Park area of LA and I thereafter went to confab with him there and get the basic plans for the tunes to be recorded and how we would do the project. It was a joy to meet someone who had succeeded beyond what I had and yet someone who I felt so much like. His ability to hear things in his mind and achieve them in the studio was a great thing. It was a pleasure to be associated with him.
AF: Can you tell the Retro Hell faithful the story behind "Magnet & Steel"?
WE: Ah, yes, the legend goes like this: I had been working on a song to be in the style of the Stroll, a dance craze of the late fifties where the guys line up on one side and the girls on the other and one couple at a time dances down the gauntlet. The Diamonds did the song, and there was also a guy named Chuck Willis whose hit Kansas City earned him the title "the King of the Stroll". The beat is characterized by a double snare hit on every other beat. I had the song sketched out with lyrics that had the totally forgettable hook, "Don't Turn Away Now". It was late in '76 as we were recording Fundamental Roll and Stevie, for whom I was falling more and more, was in the studio at Sound City in Van Nuys doing the background vocals for my song "Tunnel o' Love". If you've ever listened to her performance on that tune you know what I'm saying, it was truly inspiring. On my way home to Pomona in the wee hours of the morning a metal-flake, midnight blue Continental with a diamond window in the back and blue ground effect lights in the wheel wells slid in front of me on the 101 freeway. What I noticed would change my life: its license plate read "Not Shy". Somehow by the time I got home I had come up with the Magnet and Steel thing for an unbeatable attraction between two people, and then quickly fitted the new words to the skeleton of the stroll I had been working on and voila a hit was born. Although to me at that time, all that was born was a tune that gave voice to my infatuation with Stevie.
AF: A lot of styles pour into your work: rock, pop, folk, doo wop, rockabilly, surf, country, even a whiff of Springsteen if I'm hearing your song "Lullabye" correctly. I saw a cool phrase to describe your music: "harmonic confluence." What influences contributed to the Walter Egan sound, and what is it that sets your style apart from your influences?
WE: Well, I guess style is what emerges when the influences are all mixed together in your brain and cooked with the sum of all your experiences. My songs are a result of all these things and the trick is to remember everything then forget it as you try to give expression to the soul inside you. I first loved the music of Elvis, Chuck Berry and the early rockers, then became enamored of folk music, and then the Beach Boys. The explosion that was the Beatles and the British invasion hit just as I joined the Malibooz, so there's no denying how much that meant to my absorption of influences. It was at this time that I began to write songs and the important factor here was that my best bud John Z was also beginning to do that. We became one another's best audience as each new composition emerged, and this positive re-enforcement and motivation sustained me through the easy to dismiss early stages of the act of creation. I mean it's hard enough to express yourself without inhibition then if you get a negative reaction to what you've done, well, you can just as easily shut down rather than risk the embarrassment of playing a new song for someone else, or even of allowing yourself to write anything else.
I eventually got to writing songs I wanted to hear and said what ever it was in me that needed saying, I guess this is where your style would emerge if it is ever going to. Harmonic confluence, I like that, it has a nice ring to it. I used to term my stuff "lyrical raunch."
AF: How did Brian Wilson's work influence the way you put a song together?
WE: Brian Wilson would have to be the person with the greatest influence on me. From the time of the albums like "All Summer Long", "Summer Days and Summer Nights", and the "Beach Boys Today", John and I would increasingly take note of the way the songs were put together and that the person in charge was Brian. "Pet Sounds" is still one of my favorite albums. Brian was of course given almost god-like status by the time that came out and the proported next one "Smile". His great gift of melody and arrangement coupled with the way the lyrics were simple yet spoke to us was also important. Of course then came the later stuff, which had lyrics that went metaphysical, but that was cool too. In my recording career I have referenced many things from Brian's work, from the organ sound on "Wendy" to the vocal arrangements to the structure itself of certain parts of certain songs. The love of Brian was also one of the unifying factors with Lindsey.
AF: What was it like to work with Dean Torrance?
WE: Jan and Dean had been one of my favorites since the days of watching them on the Lloyd Thaxton Show, and of course their great appearance on the TAMI Show film. I must admit though that it was Jan who seemed to embody that California cool/James Dean kind of thing. Then when he had the accident, well it was at terrible and an ironic tragedy (a la "Dead Man's Curve").
By the time I got to LA Jan had rehabilitated enough to be doing a few gigs, and my new friend and soon-to-be manager Greg Lewerke took me to see them at Palos Verde High School. That was where I met them. It was interesting to see the new group dynamic now that Dean was in charge, and he seemed happy to exact some measure of revenge on his partner for all the years of his subservience to Jan. Dean however was a great guy and I was thrilled to meet him.
A year or so later Dean had his Kitty Hawk graphics going and in fact had his office in Greg's building. So I would often take the time to hang out with him and listen to his very entertaining stories of the old days, and got many tidbits about not only Jan but Brian W. as well. Dean was the art director and photographer for my Not Shy LP and did a fabulous job on that. He also was kind enough to be a participant on not only "She's So Tough" (one of my favorite tracks on Fundamental Roll) but on some Malibooz recordings too. I was able to play with him as he did the soundtrack to his biopic the Jan and Dean Story (my white Strat was also in the film, although the appearance of yours truly was scotched at the very end). To this day he remains one of my favorite acquaintances from those days.
AF: Which do you prefer - creating, crafting and recording your work, or performing live?
WE: I'm not sure I can pick one of those activities as a favorite, they are all a part of the big picture of creativity which characterizes my life. Each stage in turn represents a satisfying element of what I do. To write a new song is a wonderful, if sometimes excruciating process; but to sit back and view a fresh new expression is tremendous. Then when you hear it recorded for the first time, after putting the pieces in place, wow that is great too. Then to hold it in your hands as a label release putting it on your stereo or in your CD player, and having it in a somewhat objective situation, man now there is a thrill. Of course playing live is a whole other experience, putting it out there (and yourself) in front of real people and getting that immediate, ego-feeding reaction, well you know that too is a great thrill. So at the risk of sounding Pollyanna about the whole question, I truly love it all.
AF: How does Nashville compare as a place to make your music as compared to Los Angeles and New York?
WE: I have played and lived now in New York, Washington DC, Boston, Los Angeles, and then New York again, and finally Nashville. I was worn out on LA when I went back to NY in the early 90s and felt like it could be a good place to really ply my trade in that when I was there before I was in high school, and now I had all that success to bring to the table. But I have to tell you the Apple is a tough place to make it, unless you are way up the ladder of success. As I was doing country rock this time, I was again swimming upstream and more and more. I felt there must be someplace better. So I began making forays into the south to Nashville. What I found in N'ville was a town that really respected songwriters and I liked that. I planned on exploiting my songs and functioning more as a writer than as a band performer. The reception was warm in a cold sort of way. People on Music Row heard my stuff and expressed a love for Magnet and for Hearts on Fire, but when they heard my country stuff told me that it was just "too country." Really. So this was a bit disconcerting. I don't know what to tell you, I began to do gigs and to do collaborative writing, which in many ways is like dating. Now the clubs here in town are in much the same situation as in NY and LA where due to the excess of willing participants they are able to pay very little and have recently began pre-charging the acts to play at their venue. I don't love that.
So I have to say that I like Nashville for its absence of stress, and the camaraderie of the other writers, and especially for the ability to raise your children in a fairly benign place, (but) ultimately it is not Paradise and in fact the whole Southern mindset that is always lurking around the edges does make me long for the open-mindedness of my previous two places of residence. I guess maybe if Music Row had embraced me, I'd feel a little more like this would be my long-term home rather than another stop on the journey of my life.
AF: Nowadays, you also teach. What do you teach?
WE: I do teach guitar to a select group of students, but my non-musical gig is substitute teaching. This is a cornucopia of experiences, most of which have little to do with actual teaching. I find this is a good job in that I can leave it when music calls and still have employment waiting when I get back. I quickly learned that subbing in the lower grades was usually more work than I was getting paid for so I have settled into a nice niche here at a school called Centennial High, in Cool Springs TN, where the kids are pretty cool and they appreciate my varied experiences which earmark me as the "cool" sub. I love to pull out some of my old videos and blow their minds with an excerpt from my stint as a fill-in VJ on MTV or whatever.
However I do have this liberal arts education and my BA in Fine Arts (metal sculpture was my thing in college) and so I do love it when I get the chance to really impart some knowledge to the kids, however this satisfaction is few and far between.
AF: How do you feel about the Internet as a tool for independent recording artists?
WE: Well if it weren't for the net I wouldn't be doing all this typing that's for sure. There's never been anything like the combination of technologies that makes up the Internet. A band can bypass the old major labels and really get their stuff out there. I think it's great as a tool. The trick is just getting through the clutter that's out there now.
AF: It seems that all of your work, from the '70s through today, is now available on CD and can be found on the Internet. Is the Internet a good resource for marketing and distribution? Do you feel it gives you, as an artist, more control over marketing and distribution?
WE: The fact is much of my catalog is not available on the net yet, nor on CD. Of my first five LPs, only Not Shy, my second, is available on CD in the states. There is a release in Europe from the Bear Family that contains the third and fourth: HiFi and the Last Stroll. So maybe you all could join me in trying to get the others out there. Send your opinion to Jim Gavigan at Sony Legacy in New York. Or to Rcorich@aol.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Internet has definitely helped me with the marketing of Walternative, and Apocalypso Now, and yes it affords the artist much more control over all the aspects of getting your music out there. Of course it also makes you responsible for all these things, and that can take a lot of time.
AF: What do you think of music radio today?
WE: Music radio today is many things. I see a movement back to melody in general, and a movement back to rock, which I like. But it isn't easy to listen to it all. You know I try to keep up with as much as I can, but you tend to start to listen to what you know you'll like. I do like the growth of the Americana format which are often college stations, but not always. It's hard to listen to top "forty" country or pop for any length of time. Even the oldies stations are self-destructing by playing the same songs over and over, effectively eroding any of the song's "evocativity." I mean the best thing about the old songs is to be able to let them take you back in time, which they do better than anything.
AF: Which of the current popular artists do you like?
WE: I love Avril Levigne, and The Queens of the Stone Age. I think Jimmy Eat World is really good, and the Donnas. I like the Dixie Chicks and Dwight Yoakam, and BR549. I like Sara Evans and Norah Jones. Sometimes I even like Jewel. I like Green Day and White Stripes. I like Ryan Adams though I think I like the Whiskeytown stuff best.
AF: You're quite a renaissance man: sculpting, woodcut, silkscreen, collages, painting. What does creating visual art do for you that music does not?
WE: I think once you buy into this creativity life (as I have), you want to express yourself in as many different media as you can, because each one brings a new avenue to stir up and get out your inner, you know, you. I see paintings and I want to paint because I love the way a painting makes me feel, and I want to do that. Same with woodcuts, metal sculpture, screenplays, stories, songs, guitar playing. When you're painting the process is different in that it sits there and constantly urges you forward, and when you paint the colors are yours to choose and decide, very godlike feeling, and you can always paint over it. But best of all it is just you and the painting no one else to tell you what to do. It is very liberating. I've been painting recently, having just finished portraits of George Harrison, Brian Jones and Carl and Dennis Wilson. As part of my RnRiP series--that's rock'n'rest in peace--my tributes to the Martyrs of rock and roll. Some of the pieces appeared in the booklet of WALTERNATIVE.
AF: What advice can you offer for indie musicians out there - both the newcomers and those like you who have been around and managed to keep their careers going?
WE: My advice is: keep your publishing, own your masters, and don't give up. Oh yeah and try to have fun while you're doing it.
AF: Apocalypso Now seems to be a CD for the times - we're living in an age of extreme anxiety, yet we are still a nation of music-loving, fun-loving people. What sort of message do you want to send out to your listeners with Apocalypso Now?
WE: I think that my listeners can take their own message from the CD without my advice on the subject. The title came to mind sometime before the putting together of the package, and seemed to embody my kind of hopeful optimism while in the face of catastrophe. You know, enjoy today to the limit because you just don't know about tomorrow. But as much as I disdain and eschew proselytizing, in the times in which we live we cannot be citizens or artists without feeling one way or the other about what is going on in the world. I would be remiss if I didn't say I think this administration is making a big mistake, pre-emptive war is not the policy of the America I love. I pray that he doesn't tear down the things that I appreciate about our nation. There I said it.
AF: Are the stories from Apocalpyso Now by you? Do I detect a little subversion about the music biz in the character of Colonel Koda?
WE: The stories on Apocalypso are all by me. The story of the same name as the CD has two parts in the booklet and the first part was written quite a few years ago, while the second part with its hidden references to all the songs on the CD (and to one that was excised at the last minute) was done just last year. The Koda character was a dark fantasy when I dreamed him up but in many ways the fear has come true in the tightening control of the business that has come through the mergers and the infringement on our old more simple ways. I saw a story the other day about people who are patenting and copyrighting human genes! It was a kind of musical 1984 story. Of course the story about meeting Bob was about Bob Dylan, at the Bitter End in NYC in 1972.
(This is my own edit - For clairification: The question that the following paragraphs answer was not posted on the Independent Reviews website. I assume that Amelie Frank asked something to the effect of "What is your favorite song that you have done? What is your favorite song from each of your albums?")
I hate these kinds of questions because it varies from time and place. Of course I have a great affection for all my creations. I mean the obvious answer would be Magnet and Steel (and Not Shy) because of what it has done for me in my life; or Hearts on Fire for much the same reason. I really don't listen to my old records that much so the answer to the question really is a brand new song destined to be on my new yet to be recorded (supposed to be this year) actually two or three of them at the moment. There titles are meaningless now but they are: "Free", "Love Me Tonight"and "Covering Ground".
My favorite on Fundamental Roll would be "Yes I guess I Am"; on Not Shy, "Make It Alone"; on HIFI "Like You Do"; on Last Stroll " Motel Broken Hearts"; on Wild Exhibitions "Maybe Maybe"; on the Lost Album "Silvery Sleep"; on Walternative "Strange Love Affair"; On Apocalypso " Better Days". Then there's the Malibooz Beach access "California Days"; the Brooklyn Cowboys' Dodging Bullets"Dodgin' Bullets". Simple question, long answer.
AF: Final question: if you were a refrigerator magnet, what kind or shape would you be?
WE: I'd be the refrigerator, of course.