In the classic Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, an ordinary-looking wardrobe grants a group of children access to a fantastical world full of adventure and magic. My Uncle Mike's record cabinet offered a similar portal for me to explore the alluring world of rock n’ roll, and experience a wildly diverse selection of music oddly curated from a totally unique perspective that broadened my mind in ways I'll never forget. I plundered my uncle’s record collection on a regular basis. Unlimited access to it was definitely the perk for babysitting my cousins who lived across the street on Irene Road. Thanks to Mike's taste in music, I met Sgt. Pepper, went on a Magical Mystery Tour, experienced the vinyl six-sided glory of Woodstock, and was introduced to both the lean and fat version of The King. In addition to the core artists who made up the bulk of my uncle’s collection, there were also a few obvious ventures off the beaten path like Jimi Hendrix; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Guess Who and Cat Stevens. I think Jimi Hendrix Greatest Hits was actually still sealed in shrink wrap when I first pulled it out, surreptitiously slit it open and gave it a spin.
I remember one night, sitting on the living room floor, flipping through familiar titles for the umpteenth time on an ever hopeful quest to uncover an overlooked musical treasure concealed in the darkness of the record cabinet. Flip-flip-flip… a pristine version of A Hard Day’s Night that might be worth some money one day. Flip-flip-flip… the Woodstock soundtrack; always worth opening the triple gatefold cover for a prurient glance at the warm, sunlit photo of festival skinny-dippers. Flip-flip-flip… studying the credits on the back cover of Cat Stevens' Mona Bone Jakon and wondering, without benefit of the internet to provide concurrence, if the Peter Gabriel listed as the flute player on “Katmandu” was the same Peter Gabriel who fronted Genesis. Flip-flip-flip…I'm not sure what I expected my fine-toothed comb would suddenly uncover since the last time I babysat, but I still shuffled through the albums hoping something new would materialize. The fact is, my aunt and uncle had stopped adding new records to their own collection, and had made more contributions to the size of my record collection in the past few years with over-generous Christmas gifts. Flip-flip-flip… four records I routinely thumbed past were: Yer’ Album, Rides Again, Thirds and Live in Concert. Based on the band's name and their album cover designs, I was convinced The James Gang represented a misguided dalliance with country rock; a genre I had less than zero interest in as a teenager. The four albums clearly suggested a deliberate series of purchases from 1969 through 1971, but the whole western schtick conveyed by the band seemed incongruous with the rest of my uncle’s collection. Had I been mislead by the western-style fonts on the album covers and fringed vests and cowboy hats on the band? What about the horses tethered outside Carnegie Hall on the cover of the live album? But wait, Mike wouldn't steer me wrong… wasn’t that Joe Walsh on the back cover of Rides Again sitting on a chopper in a snowy Metro-Park landscape? Shit! Had I totally misjudged this band by its album covers?
Before the Rocky Mountain Way was better than the way we had… and before he checked into the Hotel California with The Eagles, guitarist Joe Walsh was part of a kick-ass band from Kent, Ohio known as the James Gang. Kent is a university town located just down the road from Cleveland and just up the road from Akron that will forever be associated with the shooting of 13 unarmed students by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970 that left four dead and nine wounded. The James Gang didn’t start out as a power trio. Initially the band was a standard five-piece with a revolving door of members coming and going; including legendary guitarist Glenn Schwartz who would leave the band while AWOL from the Army, and move to California to form the blues rock band Pacific Gas & Electric. In 1968 the James Gang was scheduled to open for Cream at a concert in Detroit. At the last minute, guitarist Ronnie Silverman informed the band he was out. Desperate for gas money to get back to Ohio, Walsh, Jim Fox and Tom Kriss were forced to perform as a trio—just like the headlining band from London. Everyone liked what they heard, so the band remained a three-piece (with Dale Peters replacing Kriss on the second album, Rides Again) until Walsh departed for Colorado in 1971 to start Barnstorm with Kenny Passarelli and Canton, Ohio native Joe Vitale. In addition to releasing three excellent albums in two years, Barnstorm also served as the backing band on Michael Stanley’s second album, Friends and Legends, which certainly clarifies the amazing guitar interplay that permeates that album, and a friendship that has lasted decades.
In 1970, the James Gang was assigned to support some shows on The Who’s American tour. Pete Townshend was so impressed he invited them across the pond to open for his band on their UK tour as well. Townshend and Walsh became fast friends and Pete once told Rolling Stone magazine that he thought Joe was the best American guitar player he had ever heard. Both Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton had equally complimentary things to say about him. When I finally dropped the needle on side one of Thirds and heard the opening guitar riff of “Walk Away,” I understood why Pete and the others were such enthusiastic fans. I also realized how shortsighted I'd been prejudging the band's sound and not listening to the records sooner. The James Gang with Joe Walsh at the helm was a quintessential high-powered rock n’ roll band; critically acclaimed and highly respected by fans and musicians alike. The icing on the cake was their hometown status; a source of pride that Cleveland music fans revere and rally behind to this day. That's why “Walk Away” by the James Gang is an ideal choice for the Happy Medium Song of the Day, and a fitting song to conclude (for now) my tribute to bands from Cleveland, Akron… and a few points in-between.
Addendum: I made the decision to post this song of the day fully aware of it’s trivial position in the universe and its insignificant relationship to the grand scheme of things presently unfolding across America on an hourly basis. When I began writing this post a few days ago, I thought it had the potential to be entertaining, meaningful and and maybe even, with a bit of luck, insightful. Now, in the smoldering firelight of recent events I am not fishing for compliments when I say: I'm not so sure anymore. Writing the Happy Medium Song of the Day—stitching together stories and observations with my love for music as the constant thread—is always a creative and a cathartic exercise. It provides a momentary diversion from the world for both me as the writer, and you as the reader and listener. I don’t mean a diversion designed to shut out or ignore the outside world — just one that allows a tiny step back for a brief moment of clarity and reflection where the harsh reality of the world can’t intrude; a revitalizing deep breath and gentle exhale with musical accompaniment, so to speak. This morning I can’t help wondering if diversions of any kind are beneficial. When civil disobedience is no longer an effective and respected way to speak out against injustice, any steps back, no matter how small and for whatever reason, feel like the wrong direction. Perhaps its time to hit the pause button so we can take stock of the situation with clarity, compassion and common sense. Perhaps its time to punch the play button on a new song: one that everyone can dance to. Please excuse any presumption on my part, but one thing seems abundantly clear: now is not the time to turn your pretty head and walk away. The music of the James Gang was born amidst the tumult of peaceful protests and violent clashes that erupted into unforgivable mayhem and death on May 4, 1970. Joe Walsh was on campus that day. The haunting events he witnessed made him re-think a lot of things; including the value of continuing his college education. “…we were peacefully demonstrating but because of a total dysfunctional authority trying to handle a situation they didn’t understand, it mutated into elevated emotions and anger, chaos and fear escalated into violence. It was a long time ago but the reason it is so important and should be remembered is because history repeats itself — and we are as divided as a country now as we were then — and people demonstrating have no chance against people with guns. The solution then, as it is now, is to be able to peacefully assemble and understand each other and accept our differences, without fear, without hatred, without violence.” Thank you Joe, well said. Now take a deep breath everybody… and exhale. (Please use the comments box below to share your thoughts.)