THE SHOW: Tuesday at 8 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Zero Hour encroaches on Lloyd Noble Center, sun still a high, dry petard poised to blow open the night. The shock troops have been camped out for hours, roving the circumference of the saucerlike structure in various stages of mental and physical preparedness. Occasionally the strain of anticipation gets the better of someone, and a volley of firecrackers bursts out over the prairie grass. At one entrance, a buxom brunette buys an olive-drab T, slips out of her civilian camisole, slithers into the shirt without missing a step or acknowledging the gawks of her comrades.
This is heartland rock and roll. More specifically, it's the kickoff concert for Joe Walsh's 15-city "There Goes the Neighborhood" tour, which will stop over Tuesday at Merriweather Post. Walsh, a 14-year veteran of the rock-tour circuit, is not only familiar with the kliegspiel -- Norman, Kansas City, Omaha, St. Louis, etc. -- he's on intimate terms with the cultural terrain, having spent a good part of his childhood in the Midwest.He doesn't need to be told that his rapid-fire guitar and hair-trigger satire constitute mainstreet nirvana, or that in a year when flagging ticket sales are forcing many concerts to cancel, his first one is sold out.
That could be because of Walsh's penchant for enlisting a few good men for both album and tour -- a tight crew of experienced sessionmen who understand the music, if not always the man, plus a particularly hot warm-up band. It could also be because drummer Joe Vitale and guest performer David Lindley have new albums on the charts as well, making this a sort of triple-blitz tour.
More likely, though, the arena is packed for the same reason "There Goes the Neighborhood" hit No. 35 on the charts (with a bullet) before the more remote burghers on the itenerary got their shipments of it: The music lies dead-center between East Coast angst-rock and West Coast est-roll, a Maginot Line of mainstream American rock. Joe Walsh -- survivor of Kent State, the James Gang and the Eagles, heavy-metal philistine and gentle Ravel interpreter, nimble-fingered lead guitarist and ham-fisted trasher of hotels and restaurants -- is answering the call of adolescent America.
Figuratively speaking, of course. At the moment, he's ensconced in what the promoters laughingly refer to as his dressing room, a miniature study in tile-and-cement minimalism whose centerpiece is a pair of toilets, one of which is overflowing. A double-tiered entourage of walkie-talkie-armed security guards and roadies runs a human blockade against would-be intruders on his pre-performance peacetime.
Major domo of this operation is Smokey Wendell, a soft-spoken, khaki-clad man with a well-placed spare set of eyes. Formerly a Secret Service employe from Fairfax, he made a serendipitous but successful career change to concert-tour manager, which has endowed his conversation with a curious mishmash of agentspeak and rock argot.
"Joe is a very serious individual," he says, leaning against a locker stenciled "Eagles." "He likes to have about 15 minutes to lay back before hitting the stage."
Vitale, dressed in trademark shorts and Hawaiian shirt, is on a hall phone, pacing back and forth like a dog on a short leash, holding a hand over his free ear. Bassist George "Chocolate" Perry has wandered down the ramp to the front lines to scan the swelling crowd, and drummer Russ Kunkel and keyboardist Michael Murphy are nowhere in sight.
Lindley's group, relegated to an even less spectacular dressing room, have finished their tuneup and prepare to enter the packed arena. The contrast between the noise out front and the quiet backstage lends a vertiginous quality to the air, that feeling you get watching a shaft of rain cut its inexorable path from a distant neighborhood to yours.
Tentative thunder greets Lindley's band, but it grows louder as percussionist George "Baboo" Pierre starts his perpetual piston motion, dreadlocks flying as he bangs on his five-gallon gas cans. By the time the band works its way to "Quarter of a Man," the deliberate reggae beat is a come-hither tease for the demons this crowd has paid $9.75 a head to release.
Momentum builds, giving no quarter, gathering no moss. When Walsh appears in his red '50s-style blazer, he meets a D-day din of mass exhilaration. Chairs scrape concrete as bodies press forward. The blackened arena is strafed with low-flying Frisbees and Day-Glo plastic grenades. Massive pot-smell stink-bomb permeates the air. Harness this energy and you could keep Paris lit for a week.
Walsh is there to detonate, not to harness. He does so once and for all with the opening chords of "In the City," propelling the crowd out of their seats. "I know there must be something better," he sings, "but there's nowhere else in sight." Whatever irony is implied is consumed by the chaos he's loosed, answering the call.
And that's the contract at work here, that's the rule.The musicians create, refine, distill the energy; the audience burns it off and takes home the memory, a T-shirt, an underexposed photograph.
Tonight, Walsh and Lindley and their crews will board buses for the next foray on Middle America. They will listen to their conert tapes, criticize and make changes, play video games, eat junk food. Eventually, they'll crawl into their bunks and listen to the highway chant beneath them. Rest will be fitfull, agitated, adrenaline-infused, and they'll wake up hundreds of miles from the small corner of America that sleeps well tonight. KANSAS CITY, June 6 -- "Kids today . . . it's like 'Clockwork Orange.' I feel like I was put on this planet to play guitar, make good music. But there's a lot of garbage music out there. I understand the idea behind what the punks are trying to do, the rebellion thing, but after a while it just gets to be like a wall of noise or something. There's no individuality to it. People are getting weirder and weirder."
Walsh sits in the stateroom of the Enterprise, his tour bus, neck wrapped in a hot towel daubed with Tiger Balm. Not exactly his bus -- it was borrowed from his friend Jimmy Buffett, and it has definite signs of Margaritaville: fishnet, model ships, barometers and other maritime trappings.
Having slept most of the day, Walsh looks rested, seems in good spirits as the bus floats toward Kemper Arena. His sham-tux outfit and blue tennies with Day-Glo green laces do their best to substantiate his reputation as a rock and roll hellion, but shyness shrieks out from under the facade. It's the kind of intense reticence that's at once infectious and a little scary, eased at the odd moment by a flash of grin, a sparkle of green cat-eyes.
"Last night went fairly well, your typical opening concert, the usual mistakes," he says softly, peering out a curtain at the Kansas City dusk. A lull, then he sings a few notes, almost inaudible, looks up and grins sheepishly. "What I'd really like to do is see the light show. We've put together a really nice one, especially during the slow part, and it's frustrating to me that I haven't got to see it yet."
He rubs the velvety sofa-bed, stares at a soundless image on the TV. "This is a nice bus. Actually, it calms me down to get in here after a concert, it has a soothing effect. I've never toured on a bus before, but Vitale and I were both in a couple of airplane crashes, one private and one commercial. We're not exactly afraid to fly, but Jimmy offered us the use of the bus, and we decided it would be a nice change. j
"I've known people to take their wives or girlfriends along on a tour, but usually they don't want to come along. It's the same old thing, the hotels, the concerts, and then they see all those screaming girls. Some girl sends you a note backstage with her phone number on it and that's it: You're already guilty. My old lady's pretty good about all that. . .
"I got about 20 cousins coming to this concert. I spent a lot of time on my grandfather's farm in Wichita, and I haven't seen them for a long time. Touring, I mean, that's the only time I get to see them. That's the only time I get to see any of my relatives. So I'll probably do a thing with them after the show."
He adjusts the towel around his neck, looks toward the front of the bus where Chocolate Perry and Russ Kunkel are silently engaged in a marathon video game. "I'm not used to doing lead vocals for an entire concert," Walsh continues. This just helps sort of loosen me up."
The bus slows to a stop and Smokey comes back to reclaim his charge. Walsh stands, inhales deeply, rubs his hands on his thighs. Another town, another Zero Hour -- the addrenalin has already begun to make its visceral rounds. He follows Smokey to the front of the bus, ducking under the Betamax where Perry and Kunkel are still waging video competition. "Be careful when you go through there," he shoots back. "Make one of those guys miss and your life is in their hands."
SEEN ONE ARENA backstage, you've pretty much seen 'em all, but Kemper has a litle more to offer than toilet geysers and concrete. The faces that populate the scene seen almost interchangeable, and they put one in a state of perpetual deja vu. Roadies flash by mumbling into their walkie-talkies, groupies loiter around the snack tables, nervously munching chips. Walsh stops in the hallway to hug a couple of scrubbed-faced cousins, then disappears.
In a room marked "Chateau Le Band," David Lindley is admiring a sad-looking plant. His pastel T-shirt is soaked to the waist from the efforts of his just-finished performance. He sits down, wipes his face, opens a can of juice. "Last night it was terrible," he says, shaking his curly mop of hair. "It went much better tonight; I think it's really starting to lock in now."
As a highly ranked sessionman, Lindley has performed on countless albums (including Walsh's and Vitale's) and toured extensively with other people's bands, most notably Jackson Browne's. This is his first time out as a solo act, and the restlessness he exudes is of a different nature from Walsh's -- less jaded edginess, more galvanized enthusiasm. It's this enthusiasm as much as his richly textured music that endears him to audiences that come mainly to hear Walsh's heavier brand of rock.
He speaks about the set -- all of which is derived from his album, "El Rayo-X" -- with a self-effacing humor and humility, an edge of uncertainty that undoubtedly comes with second-billing territory. But he becomes animated, excited when he discusses his music, his band.
"I grew up listening to all those different kinds of music, it's the kind of music I always wanted to play." Baboo's on-stage craziness, he says with a grin, contributes visually as well as musically to the show, since many of the songs are reggae-tinged. "Once you learn how to play that stuff, it's in your blood forever."
Manager Steve Pillster pops in with a couple of huge lemon slices, and the conversation turns to the sameness of towns on a tour. "I'm gonna take to writing the name of the town we're in on the mirror with shaving cream, so I'll be sure where I am," says Phillster. Somebody mentions Omaha, and a look of panic widens Lindley's eyes.
"Wait a minute. We are in Kansas City, aren't we?" Everyone assures him of this, and he heaves a relieved sigh. "You know, Jackson did that once. Went out and said, 'Great to be in Kansas City,' and it wasn't Kansas City! Bumba!"
Smokey puts his head in the door to announce that Walsh's set is about to begin, and Lindley departs for his own bus, somewhat less plush than the Buffett-mobile. ("We're on the low budget," explains one of his roadies). There, sitting in front of a Betamax that's lost its rewind capability, he'll listen to the concert tapes again and again until the thought of one more rehash becomes unbearable.
Perhaps because the band has had some rest today, perhaps because Walsh has had contact, however brief, with his relatives, the show tonight is cleaner, tighter, a money's-worth proposition for the thousands of Kansas City concertgoers. The crowd is rowdier than last night's, an occasional firecracker drops dangerously close to the stage. But Walsh commandeers the pace with ease, cocky under the elaborate light system, yet acutely sensitive to audience expectations.
The show's highlight tells the tale. Moving from harder-edged James Gang material and "In the City" to a sequence that includes a tasteful rendition of "Bolero" and a beautifully finessed guitar version of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," he placates the decibel-lust of the troops with a diplomatic maneuver: "Right after the slow stuff, we're gonna come back and party out. I mean, really party out, OK?"
The audience accepts the deal, and Walsh's guitar gets downright eloquent. SOMEWHERE IN NEBRASKA, June 7 -- So here's Kunkel, Perry and Murphy, hunkered down over their video controls like a trio of zoo inmates afflicted with peculiar stereotypes. Down the slope, through the trees, over the hurdles, around the gates with a determined silence that suggests they can ski this thing to goddam Iceland if they have to.
And here's head roadie Ronald and a rumpled Vitale, entombed in their respective bunks, trying to shut out the brutal light of day. And Harris the Bus Driver, humming demented tunes at the helm; and Smokey in his khaki shirt, grinning into the middle distance and remarking to no one in particular, "Sure is a long way from Air Force One."
Ah, and Walsh in the stateroom, looking a little rough about the edges himself, as if there might have been a monster or two among those clean-cut cousins, a blood-true relation to a guy so prone to hotel-ravaging that his agent once gave him a chainsaw for those heavy-duty jobs. Still, the Hyatt-Regency had looked pretty much intact, growing smaller through the rear window.
Here's a man who thinks it's entirely possible to talk too much, and too loud, so that when he does say something one wants to lean into him a little, park the hair behind the ears. "There's such an incredible build-up during a concert. So much adrenaline. You sit around and wait and wait to go on, then you go out there and create all this energy, which the audience gets to release, but you've still got it all inside. Then you're expected to go to your hotel and sit there looking at the walls.
"That's why I used to tear up hotels. Boredom. Boredom and anger. I once did $70,000 damage in one hotel alone -- took all the pictures down, stripped all the wall-paper off the walls, put all the pictures back up -- "a nostalgic grin -- "I've always wanted to do one of those American Express commercials, you know? 'Hi, do you know me?' Then I bash up a bunch of hotel furniture. 'I'm Joe Walsh, and I have to pay for all this.'
"I don't do that stuff so much anymore. Now I read. It helps.
"I guess you could say the reason for the military theme on the new album cover is that I like camouflage, I always find great stuff in those army-surplus stores. I just want America to feel secure, like in those Marines ads: 'Sleep well, America.'
"Between industrial pollution and nuclear reactors, though, I think we're going to destroy the life-support on this planet. The interesting observation about the election is that people don't really have a choice. It's too late.
"I'm really not a pro-Nazi. But I draw a lot of parallels between the present-day situation in the world and World War II. I don't endorse the philosophies of Nazism, but everybody talks about how Hitler was such a bad guy. You gotta realize that we wiped out an entire race, the American Indian. I feel that on my conscience.
"There are so many things wrong. It's out of control. I'm not saying the world's definitely gonna end, but it probably will. I do what I can behind the scenes, but if I were to become an activist, I'd be so radical, I'd be in trouble. And I think my purpose on the planet is to play guitar and make music.
"I get incredibly depressed sometimes. I would really like, down the line, to look back and see that I was a valad person of the generation I grew up in. Technology has become such an important part of the arts. Mozart wrote all those symphonies and nobody really noticed. He died poor. Nowadays, I mean, look at me. I realize incredible benefits from writing music. Royalty checks, you know? I guess I'm rich.
"I try to stay away from that. I don't even know how much money I have, but I've seen so many contemporaries get so caught up in it their music suffers. So it's a whole new responsibility in this day and age just to stay valid, to live valid. But how the hell do you stay valid as an artist when all the benefits and royalty checks and stuff are so totally distracting from making music?
"I'm not just talking about my record company, it's one of the best. But you tear yourself to pieces and use a lot of brain cells to make what you think is a beautiful album, and to the record companies, it's product. They don't care if it's good or bad. Will it sell? They don't care if the Eagles' songs are any good. You know why we're so good? Because we make money for some corporation. Elektra/Asylum is owned by Warner Brothers Corporation, which is owned by Kinney Corporation -- shoes and parking lots -- I don't even want to know who owns them.
"So I feel tremendously used, I feel like a tool. Records are vinyl, vinyl is oil, and the quality of records is getting worse. They're taking albums and throwing them in a big shredder, and they don't even take the labels off, the paper goes right in. You bust your ass to put out a quality album, and then it sounds like garbage, and then they raise the price of albums. I feel guilty sometimes about being a part of something that's ripping people off so much, that's cleverly disguised as music.
"So I'm kind of Zen about it. I just hide behind humor and satire. It's kind of a front, you know? Just a wall to keep myself away from everything that's wrong because I don't know what to do about it."
The words trail off and Walsh wanders back to the front of the bus, where the scene is unchanged except for the addition of Vitale, who has given up on sleeping and is making Smokey and Harris queasy with his bluegill recipe. "You just head and tail 'em, don't scale 'em," he tells his captive audience."Then you put 'em in a blender with eggs and crackers, fry 'em up and mmmmmm. I'm telling you, Harris, you'd love it."
Smokey asks Harris to pull into a roadside stop, "The Trail's End" restaurant and grocery. Walsh wants a hamburger, "some grease," and he gets off the bus with Smokey and Ronald to stretch his legs.
Vitale watches the video action, fidgets. Chocolate has just set a new record: 44.4 seconds down the slope, no gates missed.
"You guys are absolutely addicted to that thing," Vitale says with a trace of irritation. No reply.
"Those controls are going to be permanently imbedded in your hands." Kunkel looks up and smiles, says permanently imbedded in your hands." Kunkel looks up and smiles, says nothing.
"Of course, I imagine when you get real good at that one, you'll go on to another one. We do have other ones."
Kunkel finishes a heat and looks deadpan at Vitale. "No we won't. We'll just turn up the speed."
Vitale gives up and moves to the driver's seat, picks up the CB radio mike. "Big Bopper, that's my handle," he grins. "You got the Big Bopper here, come on back," he says, trying channel 15, channel 17, channel 11. No reply.
Walsh returns carrying two large sacks. "Hey, don't be getting in trouble with that thing," he says to Vitale (Walsh holds a ham radio license).
"I'm not getting in any trouble, Your Hamship," says Vitale, drawing a laugh even from the videomaniacs. The two have been friends since Vitale attended Walsh College (math major) and Walsh attended nearby Kent State ("I was majoring in English and minoring in LSD").
"I was in a hippie band and he was in a greaser band, and we both had the same bass player," explains Walsh later. "We hated each other. He'd been playing with Ted Nugent, and he hated him. After a while we decided to play together because we hated each other less than we hated everybody else."
He shows the contents of the bags all around, to appreciative oohs and ahs: Gigantic eyeglasses, fake beards and other disguises in one, and the ultimate boredom-reliever in the other -- firecrackers, M-70s, bottle rockets. Kunkel holds out a control to Walsh. "All right," says Walsh. "But nobody better laugh, or it'll affect your bonuses." Walsh scores a hilariously sloppy 188.7, going uphill more than down. Kunkel hits a brass ship's bell lightly each time Walsh's man hits a gate, but Chocolate is stone-faced. "Look, man," he tells Walsh, "I'm not laughing."
Back in the stateroom, Walsh takes off his T-shirt and plops onto a sofa-bed. He sings a little, grins shyly. "I don't know where ideas come from. Some of my songs just come to me entirely written, words and music, the whole thing. I wrote the music for 'Things' (from the new album) before I wrote the words. I think it's a great song, but I couldn't get started. So I stayed up for a couple days, I got a legal pad and filled it up with all the things that I might make this song about. Then I picked up the pad and I said, 'Hey, do you realize how many things there are?' So I made 'Things' about all the things I could have made the song about. On my next solo album, I'm gonna have a song called 'Things Part II.'
"Sometimes it's good just to hear yourself talk about things. Couple years ago, I really was depressed, totally spaced, confused. I thought I was going nuts. I put myself in a hospital and had a complete physical, and I found out I have hypoglycemia, my body makes too much insulin. My normal blood sugar goes up, then it goes way down, and that's when I get depressed. It's not my fault.
"But then I investigated about sugar, and I found out it's nothing more than a drug. Like coffee's a drug, cigarettes are drugs, alcohol, caffeine. All these things are addictive, and the government makes money off keeping everybody in this country hooked on coffee and sugar. And then they decide that marijuana is no good. I don't understand that.
"These things bother me a lot, and it shows up from time to time in my music, like 'Life's Been Good.' Kids in America are so lost. They want to have something to relate to. That's why somebody like me, or anybody in my position, gets put on such a pedestal. They want to identify with a winner."
Walsh sighs, lights another cigarette. "If I go to a party or something, people are standing around telling me how great I am. I don't want to hear that, I want to talk to pretty girls. I feel sometimes like I'm banging my head against the wall.
"You been around the world a couple of times, people say, 'Gee, how do you like Paris?' 'Nice airport.' That's about all you remember."
Walsh pokes aside a curtain and sees the sweltering streets of Omaha looming closer. Tonight the band will wear their new disguises for the first number and play a near-perfect, three-encore set. Walsh will make his most spectacular performance yet, as if to spite this drab, dusty town.
He lets the drape fall. "Everybody thinks it's such a glorious lifestyle, and it stinks."
Vitale enters the stateroom, surveys the firecracker arsenal. "Got a match?" he asks, and the two share a hearty laugh.