Montclair High Alum and Rock Legend Joe Walsh Talks to Students about Addiction

Joe Walsh bared his struggles with addiction and advised students to control their emotions in an honest talk at Montclair High School (MHS) Friday morning. The five-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, engaged the audience and came off as everyone’s favorite cool uncle giving sage guidance.

Walsh graduated from MHS in 1965. He returned to Montclair to perform at benefit concert to celebrate the school’s 100 year anniversary and raise funds for the renovation of the school’s library on Saturday, October 3.

The guitarist for the Eagles and well-known party animal (as documented in his 1978 loosely autobiographical hit “Life’s Been Good”) started his presentation by thanking School Principal James Earle for the introduction, wryly mentioning he’s been in the principal’s office before.

Walsh then spoke about what motivated him to return to MHS. His eureka moment came courtesy of Joseph Campbell, the force behind the PBS series “The Power of Myth.”

The man who created some Rock’s most memorable guitar solos (“Hotel California”) paraphrased the mythologist, “He [Campbell] said something profound,” Walsh told the packed auditorium. “As you go through life it appears to be a series of unrelated events colliding, smashing into each other, creating chaos and destroying your plan for what’s going to happen. It’s really hard to know what is going on on a daily basis. In retrospect when you look back on your life, it looks like a finely crafted novel.”

“When I heard Joseph Campbell, I thought, if I was a student and somebody had told me about their life, it might have given me some pointers, or some tools that would have helped. And that’s why I’m here.”

Walsh never stepped onto the auditorium’s stage. Dressed in a black shirt and grey suit, he paced on the linoleum floor just in front of the first row of seats—at the same level as the students. His voice resonated through the auditorium.

Wonder Years in Montclair

Growing up in Montclair in the early sixties was a time of innocence, things were slower according to Walsh. “We didn’t have cell phones, MTV, satellites or computers,” he said. “Montclair was this little island in the middle of New Jersey where nothing ever happened. In retrospect I’m so grateful for that because we had time to be kids.”

Part of that innocence disappeared with the Kennedy assassination. “The principal came on and said President Kennedy had been shot…That was a real taste of the adult world. I don’t like adults so much, I like young people,” Walsh said.

Walsh remembered some teachers were like drill sergeants, others struggled to follow a new curriculum for algebra. He wrestled with some subjects like math, but did well in others like Music and English, despite a handicap.

“I have attention deficit [disorder], but when I was in school they didn’t diagnose that yet. You were just difficult.”
“In high school, the stuff I did great on was because there was a great teacher. That’s when I got A’s.” The crowd applauded.

“My mentor was Mr. McClellan who was head of the music department,” said Walsh, who originally played oboe before switching to guitar. Walsh also sang in MHS’s madrigal choir.

“I knew at an early age what I wanted to do. If you don’t know, go to school, don’t stop.”

That was Walsh’s first piece of advice—stay in school, high school, then college. “The option is ugly, you have to work.”

Maintaining Emotional Control

Walsh was an animated speaker—sweeping his arms and using other gestures to make his point. He then talked about his core theme, emotional control.

“If you fall madly in love with someone. You have to make the transition from being a kid to an adult. You have these feelings that you don’t understand. You have to observe this. Don’t let it own you. Never let emotions own you. They’re just feelings.” That statement drew applause.
“If you fall madly in love with someone, don’t get married,” Walsh pleaded. The crowd clapped loudly again. “I did. It doesn’t work. It’s only your hormones. You will fall madly in love a couple of times in your life. Get married later.”

Walsh speaks from experience. He has been married five times. He married his current wife, Majorie Bach, in 2008.

After preaching emotional control Walsh spoke about another kind of control.

“Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get somebody pregnant,” he said emphatically. The audience applauded.

“In the heat of the moment, safe sex protection may be the last thing on your mind, but don’t deal with children too early in your life. Here’s why—it will be the end of your dreams. And I mean that. There is an obligation and so much you have to do if you have a child to take care of. You will have to sacrifice dreams to do it. Follow your dreams first.”

Fear and Addiction

Walsh then opened up about what drove his addictive behavior.

“I was always terrified of everything. And fear is your worst enemy. Fear is emotions. Fear can own you. I was so afraid about playing guitar in front of people, I would start shaking, I would start hyperventilating. I couldn’t perform. My eyes would start watering, everybody would think I was crying; maybe I was, but that’s how afraid I was.”

He learned to use a crutch that would almost kill him.

“In college I found out a little bit of alcohol took the edge off,” Walsh said. “A little buzz made me feel cool and I could perform. In my twenties, I made the mistake of thinking that was a winning combination.”

Using alcohol eventually led to trying drugs.

“I experimented in college with other substances. So I know about alcohol and I know about drugs. They make you feel good. But you gotta know, and I’m screaming at you, you end up dependent on them. Alcohol, drugs if you take them regularly, very subtly they convince you you can’t do anything without them,” Walsh said.

Walsh continued to mix alcohol, drugs and music. His success playing guitar and writing songs with The James Gang, Barnstorm and the Eagles fueled the addiction.

“Here’s the short story, I drank and did drugs for 20 years, starting at the age of 25 and I ended up being a godless, hateful thing. Alcohol and drugs ate a big hole in me where God had been. Where love and compassion had been. And I barely made it. It was a great ride. They’re stories about me I hear, I guess they’re true. Crazy behavior. You start to have problems in your life that are a direct result of alcohol and drugs.”

To Walsh the seventies and the eighties were years lost to addiction.

Recovery and a Spiritual Awakening

“Addiction—alcohol, legal drugs, illegal drugs, food, the Internet, sex—addiction is rampant in this country and please be aware of that. Just because it makes you feel good. Don’t let it own you. Because it’ll take you down.”

His life spiraled out of control. In 1974 Stephanie, his wife at the time was in a car accident that killed their four-year-old daughter Emma. “I was the one who had to decide to turn the machine off.” As Walsh tells it, that gave him more reason to hate God and to drink. The benders went on until 1994, when Walsh finally entered a 12-step program and got sober. During recovery Walsh realized he gave up much of his life to alcohol and drugs.

“I had a spiritual awakening. Very slowly, one day at a time, I started to get better. One day I realized I didn’t need drugs. God became my higher power instead of vodka and I’ve been sober 21 years.”

That statement drew thunderous applause. Like his influences, Joseph Campbell author of the Power of Myth as well as many other books, and Eckhart Tolle, author of the bestseller The Power of Now, Walsh spoke about God and the spiritual, but didn’t focus on any particular religion.

“I feel like I’m qualified to save you some time,” said the creator of Rock classics such as “Rocky Mountain Way”, “Funk#49”, and “In the City”. “Watch out for stuff that makes you feel good. Because it has a sad ending. Please. And if addiction is in your family, maybe you can understand them a little more. Get them help.”

Walsh ended his talk by reminding students “Don’t let fear run your life, don’t let anger in, recognize it as an emotion.”

He suggested students check out the work of Joseph Campbell and Eckhart Tolle. Walsh praised Tolle for speaking about being clear and being in the here and now, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Principal Earle thanked Walsh for sharing his story. “We really appreciate that. It makes a powerful message for our students.”
Mayor Jackson and City Council members Bill Hurlock and Robin Schlager then presented Walsh with the Key to the City of Montclair. Walsh’s presentation, made an impression on the Mayor.

“I thought he was poignant,” said Jackson. “Great insight. Some of the bumps in the road he told them to watch out for were straight on. What I found interesting about his point about pregnancy was if you have a baby, it’s incumbent on you to take care of that child.”

As he left the auditorium Walsh posed for selfies with some students and later posted this on Instagram:

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6 COMMENTS

  1. It is such a shame that assemblies are optional for teachers at MHS and some teachers decided not to allow their students to attend. I hope this was taped and will be posted for those who missed it.

  2. Some students weren’t allowed to attend? That’s outrageous! Joe Walsh is not only a Rock god he has a very important story to tell and advice to give and he does it very well. What a disgrace. Those students missed out on seeing a living legend and hearing about addiction from someone who knows.

  3. FYI, all assemblies are optional. If the teachers thought that students would miss an important day of instruction, they have a choice not to bring them to the assembly. Also, students can refuse to go as well, which is not unheard of.

  4. For music history clarity..it’s generally believed the original Hotel California guitar opening riff and solo came from Eagles guitarist Don Felder. The song then climaxed in dueling guitars between him and Joe.

  5. fyi – yes, it was optional for teachers BUT some teachers may have not gone because there was no room (first come, first served registration and auditorium doesn’t hold whole school), not just because they didn’t want to… it was being filmed, but we were not told if or where it might get posted

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