Fountain of Grace

20 Sep


SMITH: I stick up for the thing every man has a right to. Perhaps the only thing that every man has a right to.

MORRIS: And what is that?

SMITH: The benefit of the doubt.

(G.K. Chesterton)

I have a short list of songs I’d love to play on the drums. There’s “Good Times Roll” by the Cars, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Stones. “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band makes the cut as well, but I don’t think I could ever duplicate drummer Gary Mallaber’s syncopated hi-hat magic, even back in my high school heyday.

Joe-Walsh-Rocky-Mtn-feat-imageThen there’s Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” his slow-churning paean to life in Colorado. For one thing, it’s straight-on rock, but with a bluesy tinge, giving it a measured pace – more my speed in other words. Plus, it came out when I was a young transplant to Boulder from New Jersey, so I readily identified with Walsh’s love of the mile-high state. “Couldn’t get much higher,” he sings. “The Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.” No offense to Jersey, but it’s hard to beat living at the foot of snowcapped peaks.

The song appears on Walsh’s 1973 album “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” and I wore it out on my stereo – even playing along on my Ludwig drum kit, much to my family’s dismay. It’s a happy, exuberant tune, and still fun to sing along with when it comes up on the classic rock station. But Walsh himself? Obviously he was a fine musician and songwriter – something that even a middle-class pop star wannabe like me could recognize, especially once Walsh joined forces with the Eagles during their “Hotel California” days. Otherwise, I never gave him much thought, I suppose, and if anything I probably assumed he was just another rowdy rock star – and, keeping with stereotype, a druggie to boot.

That changed this week.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an older news item in the Boulder Daily Camera. “Did you ever know about this sad and interesting connection between Boulder and Joe Walsh?” he asked. I read through the feature, and suddenly Joe Walsh went from generic rock star to real human being – an individual, with a story and a history, complete with the same emotional wrenchings up and down that life throws at all of us.

It turns out that about the time I was bingeing on his music in Boulder, Walsh was living there himself, recording at the Caribou Ranch up in Nederland, and enjoying a rich family life with his wife, Stefany Rhodes, and their young daughter, Emma. While Walsh toured, Rhodes would stay in Boulder, taking Emma to a park near their north side home, or bringing her to other homes for playgroups.

125134599_1392404907In 1974, just weeks shy of Emma’s third birthday, Rhodes was driving Emma to one of those playgroups when another driver ran a stop sign and crashed into them. Emma’s injuries were massive and she never recovered. Both Rhodes and Walsh, who was on his way home from a concert tour when the accident happened, were understandably devastated.

The story doesn’t end there, however. In addition to writing and recording a song in honor of his beloved daughter, Walsh went about establishing a physical monument to her as well – a water fountain in the park she played at so often, along with a memorial plaque:

This fountain is given in loving memory of 
Emma Walsh 
April 29, 1971-April 1, 1974

“The fountain was all Joe’s doing, really,” said Emma’s mom, Stefany Rhodes. “Joe was a very romantic person.” The whole story moved me to tears, and I was frankly embarrassed by my surprise that a hard rocking mega-star could be so tender and vulnerable.

And Walsh’s depth of feeling after Emma’s death wasn’t a fluke borne of fleeting intense grief either. Like so many pop stars, he did have his struggles with substance abuse and serial marriage, but it’s evident that through it all, he still managed a fair amount of reflection and self-awareness. “One thing I found in the music business is if you pretend like you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks you know what you’re doing,” Walsh admitted to 60 Minutes, “and I just never wanted anybody to find out that I didn’t have a clue.”

Clearly I was the one who didn’t have a clue. My surprise at Joe Walsh’s ordinary human frailty and profound grief belied assumptions and prejudices that made me ashamed. It brought to mind the famous “Who am I to judge?” rhetorical question posed by Pope Francis – especially since it had just come up in an NPR story last week. Journalist Paul Vallely revealed a detail about that controversial papal soundbite that I’d never heard before: That the Pope had been responding to questions about his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank and his selection of Monsignor Battista Ricca as his point man. “He was asked about Ricca [and] the man’s gay past – if he seeks the Lord and repents, who am I to judge – that was the context,” Vallely said. “It was interesting that he was not going to be steered away from his intent to radically reform the bank by people leaking things like this.”6c8437783-130729-pope-plane-8a.nbcnews-fp-360-360

When the Pope’s comment hit the headlines in 2013, I, like many others, had a knee-jerk moment: What does he mean? How am I going to explain this to my kids and non-Catholic friends? Is Church teaching going to change?!

Nothing of the sort. It was just Pope Francis being Pope Francis: pastoral, merciful, and unpredictable. Now I come to find out that it was also Pope Francis showing his managerial backbone by refusing to allow vicious rumormongers from derailing his radical reforms.

In other words, “Who am I to judge?” applies to my assumptions about the Pope as much as anything – or anyone – else.

Back to Joe Walsh. The more I read, the more I discovered that there was way more to the notorious partyer and rowdy rocker than I could’ve ever ever imagined. He’s sober now, and more settled, which allows him to channel his tremendous talents and sensitivity in a myriad flourishing directions. “I look around and the people are very happy,” he said of his latest concerts. “We can elevate everybody’s overall feeling of good will and everybody has a great time — including me.”

Sounds like grace to me — and who am I to judge?

For the Lamb…will guide them to springs of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rv 7.17).


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

5 Responses to “Fountain of Grace”

  1. Ed G. Power (@Avnrulz) September 23, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Pope Francis’ final statement quote was ‘Who am I to judge him?’

  2. Brian September 23, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

    Rick Becker: your posts are idiotic and useless. Please stop blogging.

    • Jeff Gordon September 23, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

      Stop reading them if you can’t handle it. Sounds to me like you are hooked by grace. Figure it out.

  3. John September 23, 2015 at 9:12 pm #

    I’m with you. I’ve given up rock, but I always liked Joe Walsh. His lyrics often were thoughtful, even poetic. I had that album “So What” which had Song for Emma. I suppose in my oblivious teenage consciousness I might have realized it was for a lost child, but it made no deep impression at the time. Now, having lost a child myself, and “it made [her] Momma cry,” it really hits home. Thanks for writing this. Let’s pray for Joe and his former wife that they can find consolation and comfort in the Lord.


  1. Fountain of Grace | One Thousand Words a Week - September 20, 2015

    […] Read more… […]

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