Growing up in Chicago, I listened to WLS-AM before it became all-talk radio. It served as one of my earliest introductions to rock and helped form my musical tastes. In 1981 they often played an unusual track that featured mariachi horns, mysterious lyrics, and a distinctive bass line. The DJs never announced the title and artist, so I spent the next three decades searching for this track. Last year, I finally searched “mariachi horns” and the only phrase I could recall, “life’s little surprises.” At long last, Google provided the answer: “Life of Illusion” by Joe Walsh. A single from his album There Goes the Neighborhood, the track peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100. While a relatively minor hit, “Life of Illusion” sounds as distinctive today as it did 32 years ago.
While released in 1981, “Life of Illusion” dates back to the early 1970s. Walsh recorded a version of the song with his first solo band, Joe Walsh and Barnstorm. Written with Barnstorm cohort Kenny Passarelli, they laid down an initial version but never released the tune. According to the booklet accompanying Walsh’s “best of” compilation Look What I Did!, Walsh later decided to resurrect the track for There Goes the Neighborhood. “I couldn’t find the master tapes of the song, so [producer] Bill Szymczyk took a 2-track mix of the original basic track, we cleaned it up and overdubbed over that. Kenny played the mariachi trumpets on it … in a drunken stupor,” Walsh explained.
Instrumentally, the drums, bass, and trumpet mix rock with Latin flair, the rhythm guitar complementing the beat. The slight echo on the drums emphasizes the unforgettable beginning riff, and then Walsh’s high voice crashes in with a slight whine: “Sometimes, I can’t help but feeling that I’m living a life of illusion,” he complains. He advocates seeing “through the hole in this wall of confusion,” although he acknowledges that “nature loves her little surprises.” Things may seem “logical now,” but that in itself is an illusion: “It’s just one of her better disguises, and it comes with no warning.” Instead of logic, he states, we live in “continual crisis.”
After dropping that bombshell, Walsh executes one of his typically rocking guitar solos, quite reminiscent of his work with the Eagles. He then reassures listeners that conjuring “endless solutions” is “a waste of the day.” These meaningless actions lead us back to a “wall of confusion” and, of course, “living a life of illusion.” These lyrics leave ambiguous impressions: Is Walsh advocating that we should acknowledge how some elements of life are out of our control? Instead, should we just accept that life constantly changes and may throw obstacles our way Ignoring or avoiding chance and randomness, Walsh apparently argues, is an illusion by which we are frequently deceived.
No matter the interpretation, “Life of Illusion” represents some of Walsh’s best work, and demonstrates his musical versatility. I was shocked to discover that the same man who wrote “Life’s Been Good” composed such a philosophical tune. Despite not being a major success, “Life of Illusion” has found new life in films like the “40-Year-Old Virgin,” and has been covered by groups such as the Foo Fighters.
After a 31-year search, I was delighted to finally discover the song title and artist of “Life of Illusion.” Solving the mystery has only heightened my appreciation for this distinctive track and its timeless message.