The one-hit wonder
By Jennifer Dodge. Showbiz gossip from across ‘the pond’.
Being a musician who is labelled as a “One-Hit Wonder.”, Walter Egan has worked with some of the greats of music.
Technically ‘one hit wonder’ means in the Top 10 with a song, so… I said to Walter: “Usually, nowadays anyway, the generation I’m in, ’70s and ‘80s, a one- hit wonder has a hit and then they’re done. They go away. I would never put you in that category, but I do wonder what it’s like to be so well-known for a song, and if that’s a blessing or a curse.
Egan: Well, I don’t know how much of a curse…they only curse to it would be what you alluded to there, is the fact that I haven’t gone away and I’m still doing what I did. In fact, the songs on this new CD I’m releasing are very close to being as close to all those other ones that I’ve done, and the more famous ones. It is what it is. I never, when I started out, it wasn’t, “Oh, I’m not going to be a one hit wonder!” but it’s better than a none hit wonder. It really is. I do these writers rounds in Nashville and I’ll play “Magnet and Steel” and people will always say, “I love that song! Who did that?” And I’ll say: “Me, it’s my song!” They’ll say: “I know you play it, but who did the recording?” It’s a strange kind of fame that I’ve accrued over the years. I got into the supermarket here and it’ll come on the muzak and people will be singing along to it. It’s a strange, surreal movie that I get to live in.
Me: It’s like a strange Woody Allen moment.
Egan: It is. If my daughter is with me, we can share it, but when I’m just by myself, it’s a strange kind of, “Wow, this is cool. You’re getting the lyrics wrong…” (laughing) “Listen. Listen to those words.” But I’ve been a very lucky person most of my life as far as things that have happened, things I’ve been able to do, people I’ve been able to work with over the years. That’s not to say that I feel satisfied that it shouldn’t have been more, better, which I do. At the end of 1978 which is when “Magnet and Steel” was at its peak, right around September, I did a tour with Tom Petty. We would alternate night to night as to who would headline and who would open. I look at that point as kind of a high water mark, where it’s: “Why is he the legendary rocker now and why am I the substitute teacher?” I don’t dwell on this. It’s my lot in life. I keep trying to write another chapter to that and so with every new release I put out I feel like I can do that. If you throw enough things up there, something is bound to stick. My theory of art. Just throw stuff up there.
Me: Like making spaghetti. Something’s going to stick to the wall eventually.
Egan: That’s it! That’s what I think. Through sheer perseverance is my long-term goal, as Steven Wright said: “I plan on living forever. So far, so good.” (laughing) That’s kind of my approach to things. I’m sitting here looking at this painting I did of Ritchie Valens and it isn’t quite right yet. I just recorded five new songs last weekend, and I’m very excited that this new CD is coming out. I did it at home with my drummer, and I did all the rest of the instruments and voices on it. Coming to Nashville, the way you’re supposed to go is through collaboration. You’re supposed to collaborate with people. For whatever reason, that’s the way business is done here. I played that game for a number of years after I got here and I put out an album called Walternative around the year 2000. That’s pretty much a summation of these co-writes that I did. I think a lot of them are really good, but I’ve always written by myself and so I just went back to that. I got a hard disk, 16-track recorder at home and that’s how I’ve been doing these. I feel I don’t know who that person in the mirror is a lot of the times. “Who’s that old guy?” Because I don’t feel that different. I’m doing what I’ve always done and I’m trying to do it as well as possible. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m playing better than I could back when I was me. (laughing)
Me: And it’s also interesting in that I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, fans and people in your shoes, but it seems like there’s an enduring quality to the ‘60s and ‘70s music scene. There’s something special in those two decades that the music keeps coming back, keeps gaining momentum. And since you’re a part of that…
Egan: I try not to be one of those adults who says: “You know, music of my day…” because I really do think there’s a lot of good music that’s going on even today, Lorde, The Neighborhood, The Arctic Monkeys. I really like Bastille, it’s a really good band. I think it’s important because what it was, was kind of like the booster stage of rock and roll. Rock and roll took off in the ‘50s and just had a real honesty to it, this kind of raw expression of youth, if you want to put it that way. Being young. Then it was kind of grabbed and twisted by the powers that be and it was: “It can’t be too raw. Let’s get it more palatable,” and it sort of lost its real energy in that era where Elvis went into the army and for my generation, Kennedy was elected and there was this whole feeling of the world was picking younger things. It was our time to come, and all that stuff. Then of course when he was shot and killed, it was, “What’s going on?” The Beatles arriving right at that time with what they had which was this really honest energy and love and feel for this music that had been neglected and pushed aside or tamed down so much in the mainstream of American pop. They were just the right people at the right time, and I don’t even think it was a hype situation because…if there was a hype to it, and of course there’s promotion to anything, not anywhere near the scale of hype that goes on these days where it’s just so formulized and: “This is how you do this.” In those days it just happened. They were natural and they were real. They were writing their own songs and they were really appealing people. Obviously to the young girls they were very appealing, but to the young boys who wanted to be musicians it was also very appealing because it was, “Great. I can do that! They’re not doing anything that crazy up there that can’t be done.”
It encouraged a lot of people to go out there and have bands. The band I was in, in high school was a beach band that stemmed out of The Beach Boys and The Ventures. When The Beatles came along we started doing as many covers of the English acts as we could. Surf music and in fact I don’t know how far you’ve looked into The Malibus but we’ve done CDs and the last one was our effort to show that part of our repertoire in those days, but do it with our own original songs: The Queens’ English. Because I was born in Queens, it was a pun. The apostrophe is after the “S”. We got everyone from Chad and Jeremy to Andrew Loog Oldham, basically 15 legitimate British rockers do cameos on this record, so it’s a really cool tribute for us to that time and what it meant. I think it endures also because it was kind of a reinvention of the music and it wasn’t all just teeny bopper stuff at that point. People that were making it were trying to take it to another level and The Beatles were of course in the forefront but weren’t necessarily the ones who came up with the socially-conscious lyrics of where they absorbed Bob Dylan a little bit, where they kind of would take trends that were going on but not quite in the mainstream and they would make the mainstream. And they were great for being that kind of avatar. I think that’s why the music is special. It was a lot more real, I suppose you could say. It was the first real group that had more than just a lead singer and a backing band. It was a group that was self contained. It was creating its own music, and it had three heads or four heads. It had all of those things going for it. They were just real good at it to make it successful.
Me: I was going to ask you, looking at the list of names, and I’m sure we’re just scratching the surface of people you’ve worked with. For me, as a fan I’m sitting here with my jaw on the ground. I imagine you being present, in the moment, being around people like Gram Parsons or Jackson Browne or Stevie Nicks or Dean Torrence. I loved Jan and Dean and I think he produced one of your records: am I correct?
Egan: Dean sang on a lot of the records, but didn’t produce. He was the art director of the Not Shy album. Again, the concept of the Not Shy cover was instead of four Beatles, there was one. It was supposed to mimic the With The Beatles picture where they’re shaded. It was a big thrill for me, all these different celebrities that I’ve experienced. To meet these people and basically be hanging out with them as equals is a great thing. I played bass in Spirit for three years which was a pretty cool band.
Randy California was the lead guitar player. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do all these different kinds of music and I feel fairly natural doing all of them. I’m not trying to do country when I put on The Burritos and I’m not trying to put on surf. To me it sort of all flows together and my influences over the years. A thrill for me, I got to play behind Wanda Jackson, and Wanda Jackson was the original female rocker, and dated Elvis. She’s quite a trip. Feisty lady.
More of Walter Egan soon. www.walteregan.com