SIMON MORRISON, AUTHOR OF ROXY MUSIC’S AVALON, ON 70S ICON WALTER EGAN AND SUPER-GROUPIE PAMELA DES BARRES.
This year, Walter Egan released an album partly about a crush he had on Pamela Des Barres, a famous rock ’n’ roll “super-groupie” with a long list of friends and lovers in the music, film, and television industries. She came of age on LA’s Sunset Strip, in Laurel Canyon, and on the beach, relishing the full landscape of Southern California sensations. Egan met her briefly in 2001 and then again over a weekend in 2013, noting in his journal at the first encounter that she “was famous for ‘hanging out’ with rock luminaries.” He made a gentle play for her and was gently rebuffed. “It seemed perfect,” Des Barres cheerfully recalled. “Same age group [both are now in their seventies], musician, Nashville. All of it seemed right. But you know what? Either there is a physiological desire, or there isn’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it. So, that’s what happened.” Des Barres returned to her erotic musings about Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and Robert Plant, while Egan recorded his 2021 album Fascination. “I couldn’t help but be flattered by it,” she told me, adding that she considered the songs Egan’s best in years. The first of the thirteen on the album is “I’m With the Girl,” a reference to Des Barres’s 1987 memoir I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Egan revealed that the order of the songs roughly corresponds to his visits to Los Angeles and his courtship of Des Barres. Through music, he added, he hoped she might come to “feel about me as I did about her. It’s what we songwriters do. It was my attempt to win her heart.”
Egan sings of a relationship at once remembered and imagined along with his fascination with fascination. “I’m With the Girl” lopes contentedly through a familiar country rock mode known as Americana. Egan, an able and affecting tunesmith, knows the style like few others. The song’s pleasant hooks worm their way into the ear. The second song, “Miss Pamela,” cements the connection to Des Barres, with Egan describing being picked up in her Pontiac GTO. The reference to the automobile is figurative: The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) was the name of Des Barres’s short-lived rock band. “Gonna miss, Miss Pamela,” Egan sings in the chorus, with characteristic internal repetition. The music that follows flickers with images from Egan’s long career, its diverse places and persons. Fascination is a record about consolation, performed with contended self-assurance, and time’s romance with experience.
Egan grew up in Queens, New York, relocated to Los Angeles, and settled in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. He has a cousin almost the same age who took up the banjo as a teenager; rivaling him, Egan embraced guitar. He taught himself by leafing through songbooks and picking out the melodies on nylon strings. At the 1964/65 World’s Fair in New York, he performed with a high school band The Malibooz and still playswith them four decades on. At Georgetown University, Egan formed Sageworth, which toured in the northeast during the early seventies. An offer from United Artists and gigs with Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne brought him to Los Angeles, where he met Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham at Sound City studios. They jointly produced his first solo album Fundamental Roll (1977). He had a brief fling with Nicks and wrote a song about her that made him famous, “Magnet and Steel,” which is cast in a retro doo-wop style with soothing vocals, golden harmonization, and a laidback 6/8 tempo suitable for roller rinks. His other hits include “Hot Summer Nights,” a driving song about driving songs all but plagiarized by John Stewart in his 1980 song “Gold” and sampled by Eminen, plusthe exquisite “Hearts on Fire,” which country singer Gram Parsons covered. Parsons, who grew up in Georgia and briefly attended Harvard, died very young, and critics usually associate his fragile singing style with the excessive drugs and alcohol that ended his life. He sometimes sang out of key to create a faux sense of exposed rawness, but Egan, a courtlier figure, privileges Nashville’s more refined production values. Still, Parsons’s death in 1973 gutted him. While singing duets with Emmylou Harris, Parsons had used Egan’s house for rehearsals.YouTube shows Egan and Harris singing together in Nashville in 2017 as a distant tribute to the young songsmith.
Egan’s Fascination unapologetically embraces the roots of rock, effortlessly admixing Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Moody Blues, Everly Brothers, and the Kingston Trio. Egan attunes himself to his old pals and his inner self as someone who has long been in love with being in love even after ardor has cooled. His singing sounds like an echo of Tom Petty, but remember thatEgan predates Petty. Randy Newman’s acerbic timbre in “I Love LA” also comes to mind. He often begins with an acoustic strumming part (eighth notes, double tracked) with one or two overdriven electrics added in. On the first two songs, the licks and changes happen satisfyingly as expected, but by the conclusion of the album the forms have become more eclectic and production fuzzier as events blur into their opposite in a kind of languishing. The music tells us that things haven’t gone according to plan; they never do, and if that brings you down just start the album over. “Treat Me Nice” is an Elvis cover with another Elvis recording, “Don’t Be Cruel,” cleverly tucked behind it. (Quiet syncopated bop-bops emerge over the walking bass in his homage to a song and era close to his and Des Barres’s hearts.)“Fading Love” is Texas dance hall music, stylistically akin to Hank Williams and perhaps even Led Zeppelin’s “Hot Dog,” a song about a Dallas groupie.
Over the course of his long career Egan has also toyed with surf, reggae, and synth-pop yet avoids such borrowings here, sticking to the basics while relying on formidable electric guitar technique to affirm, contradict, or obscure the meanings of the words. The most intricately and beautifully played song is “Fruit of Fascination,” which presents three discrete guitar lines beforei nterweaving them. “Lovers” fixates more coarsely on an overdriven three-chord riff. It precedes “Woo and Woe,” the peppiest and prettiest track, somewhere between ironic and self-effacing in its sentiment. The opening Peter Gunn-like strut of “Pride” also has an arch element, given the explicit reference in the lyrics to fallen pride as the antithesis of strutting. He ends with “Hell I Know (It’s Over),” a waltz that is also a lullaby and a dirge built on four sad chords. The song and the album don’t quite know how to let go, not necessarily because of a lingering attachment to Stevie or Pamela but because every ending might—and will, at some point—be the end.
Simon Morrison is a music historian specializing in 20th-century music. He is the author of Bolshoi Confidential (2016) and Lina and Serge (2013). The latter was featured on BBC Radio 4 (as “Book of the Week”), BBC World News (TV), and WYNC. He was written the New York Times, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, the TLS, and Time.