It’s an AUD, sure, but the sound’s decent and complete, and the band’s young and just-drunk-enough. Listen, or don’t, or take hostages; whatever’s your pleasure, cats and kittens.
It’s an AUD, sure, but the sound’s decent and complete, and the band’s young and just-drunk-enough. Listen, or don’t, or take hostages; whatever’s your pleasure, cats and kittens.
Promises seem to be a theme this week, huh?
YOU PROMISED THAT THOUGHTS–
–on Van Halen was over. You played Happy Trails and showed David Lee Roth’s buttocks.
Yes. I did. Two things, though.
You know when you take a piss? The little bit at the end? The shiver-shake-squirt?
These are the kind of metaphors that add to your legend.
I got, like, a couple more drops of Van Halen in me. Just a little bit, but if I don’t write about it then the boxer shorts of my mind will get stained.
And you continued the metaphor. Bravo.
Last trip to Pasadena. Swear.
Fine, but at least do it in bullet points.
Oh, of course. Paragraphs are fucking exhausting.
Especially when you think “paragraph” means “300-word long sentence with 14 subordinate clauses, seven semi-colons, and three parenthetical asides.”
I write how I write, man.
Just get to it.
When we left our heroes, they were about to rule the world. Which is a nice place to be; actually ruling the world is exhausting, and having ruled the world is sad, but a young man who’s about to rule the world can get himself some leg tonight, for sure.
Especially if they look like this:
The first album, Van Halen, came out in ’78; the band did a few tours opening up for bands past their prime (Sabbath) or who would never have a prime (Journey), and blew everyone off the stage to the point where no one would hire them, but it didn’t matter because the record had gone platinum and they were headliners.
For six years. That’s it: Van Halen to 1984, ’78 to ’84, six years. That puts them in the middle of pack, I suppose: Sex Pistols only existed for 18 months or so; Metallica is celebrating their Diamond Jubilee next year. Just as charisma has very little correlation with looks or intelligence, Great Bandness has almost nothing to do with longevity.
And besides, Van Halen kept going after 1984, right?
They were a working band: Van Halen released eight albums in those six years, and played 114.33 shows a year–I did the math–on such tours as the World Vacation Tour, the Party Til You Die Tour, and the Hide Your Sheep Tour. Big promises–sun and tits and triumph–and Van Halen delivered. Critics scoffed–they do that–but the kids lined up to dig in their blue jeans for crumpled and sweaty dollar bills to throw at the band.
Eight albums in six years isn’t even stupidly prolific, Younger Enthusiasts. (If you’re still reading about this nonsense.) The music business used to be based–like all businesses–in actual stuff, tangible products that people had to buy, and by Christ if there were a whole passel of Van Halen fans out there willing to plunk down $4.99 for a LP, then by Christ they were going to get the chance to do so.
None of Van Halen’s records hold together as art, and they’re all pretty much the same album: bunch of original material centering on the themes of “being awesome” and “pussy;” a cover or two (or three or four); a solo thing from Eddie. (Eddie always did a solo thing, no matter the venue. Album, live show, family cookout, business meeting: for a couple minutes, everybody had to shut the fuck up so he could play guitar. In Eddie’s defense, I’ve been listening to the few VH shows with acceptable sound on the internet and when Alex solos, I fast forward, and when Mike does whatever the fuck that thing he does live is, I fast forward, and then Eddie solos and I start to click the button to fast forward but then I don’t. Boy, could he play guitar.)
Their recorded output is a familiar rock and roll arc, actually: first album with all their good material on it, second one has the songs that didn’t make the first record, and then someone buys a synthesizer. There are no turds or outright clunkers, but also no true classics that hang together. Personally, I like Van Halen II the least, and Women and Children or Fair Warning the best, but one of my favorites is from Diver Down:
If you only have five minutes to explain Van Halen to someone, then play them this; it’s the perfect distillation of everything the band was. You’ve got the virtuosic opening, and then the drums and Michael Anthony hammering eighth notes on the root of the chord, but most of all there is the melody–Van Halen songs had good melodies–and the Beach Boy harmonies. And there’s Diamond Dave.
“David Lee Roth couldn’t sing, man.”
Oh, suck my improperly-wiped asshole, you general consensus-abiding slob. Stop listening to other people’s’ ears and use your own. You know who could sing, really sing, man? Steve Perry. How about Dennis DeYoung? Pipes of an angel, Dennis DeYoung. Whitney Houston had a beautiful voice, and look how that turned out for her.
I’ll take Diamond Dave. (No one else could take Diamond Dave, though. You know how he seems? That’s how he is. Imagine if cocaine were wearing spandex. Now imagine yourself in a business relationship with the cocaine wearing spandex.)
They were the biggest band in the world, back when there was such a title and it meant something, and when this new thing–the Tech Billionaire–came along and decided to throw a party, then Van Halen had to be the headliners, right? Steve Wozniak, the guy that started Apple who wasn’t the creepy one who’s dead now, basically pulled a Spicoli and hired Van Halen to play at his party: this was the US Festival.
The 60’s had Woodstock, right? Why shouldn’t the 80’s have a festival, and so in 1982 Woz paid for one; the Grateful Dead played a breakfast show, which sounded exactly as good as you might imagine. They looked like this:
In their defense, that’s how they always looked.
Woz lost $12 million on the show, so naturally he staged another eight months later. This time, though, the three-day festival would feature themed days: there was New Wave Day, headlined by The Clash; and Rock Day, topped by Bowie; and the third day was for heavy metal, and Van Halen was the draw. (The Scorpions, Priest, Ozzy, Quiet Riot, and the Crüe opened for them.) Van Halen got $1.5 million–which is $3.6 million in today’s money–and 300,000 kids showed up.
They looked like this:
“I forgot the FUCKIN’ words!”
Is how Dave greets the enormous crowd less than a minute into Romeo Delight, which is about taking whiskey to parties and squeezing ladies, and there was the promise: the winners don’t do their homework. Winners charm their way through, and fuck the hottest cheerleaders, and go to the best parties. Van Halen was throwing a party for the winners, and–since you were here–you must be a winner, right?
“Hey, man, don’t be squirtin’ water at me, or I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend.”
Hey, man, don’t believe ol’ TotD. Watch the whole show:
It is Van Halen at their Van Halest: everyone takes an interminable solo, and Dave keeps shouting “CALIFORNIA!” in the same timbre as a coked-up Grover Muppet, and Michael Anthony hits the highest harmony notes perfectly every single time
The only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniels bottles is The Clash, baby!”
Dave says this to the crowd as he drinks straight from the Jack Daniels bottle that had been brought to him by a midget butler. (Dave also had midget bodyguards.) It happens around 23 minutes in, and you be the judge as to whether or not there’s whiskey in Dave’s bottle. (Nope.) He would take several shots at the New Wave bands during the set, and single out The Clash. (They would never play another show.)
David Lee Roth also sang an a capella rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s God Bless the Child at 57:00 and you owe it to yourself to hear him try to hit the high note. Trust me on this one.
The show was a huge success, so naturally it led directly to the end of the band. (Woz lost another $12 million; I bet he doesn’t sit around missing it. What’s the point of being rich if you can’t hire Van Halen to play your party?) They sold a ton of records and sold out shows around the world, but this was their first real national exposure–Van Halen wasn’t allowed on the Johnny Carson show–and Hollywood types got a sniff of David Lee and poured celluloid bullshit into his ears, and Dave started thinking he was a movie star.
1984–which has only one good side on it and might be their weakest album–was an international blockbuster, mostly due to the hit singles, Jump and Hot for Teacher, and their videos. Didn’t matter: the end was coming, and after the tour (the exact circumstances change depending on who’s telling the story), David Lee Roth (still thinking he was going to be a movie star, and riding high off his solo hit cover of California Girls) left the band.
The last show was in Nuremberg. As last shows often are. This is what it looked like:
Ah, well. No one comes to see the singer, right? The Van Halen brothers, and also Michael Anthony, soldiered on; in fact, they picked up a new Origin Story. This time, it involved Ferraris. Eddie and Sammy Hagar, who had been in Montrose and recently had several solo hits and purchased several jumpsuits, shared a mechanic. This seems like a coincidence until you realize that–even in California–there are only so many garages you can take a Ferrari to. The guy around the corner isn’t going to cut it, and you can’t get your oil changed at Jiffy Lube.
Eddie and Alex met Sammy Hagar, and jammed with him; they hit it off, and Sammy joined the band. (Presumably, Michael Anthony was informed at some point.) The fans accepted this with equanimity and good cheer, welcoming Sammy Hagar into the Van Halen family with love and acceptance, and are certainly not still arguing about it in comment sections and forum boards to this fucking day, no siree.
Switching out a lead singer is tricky: AC/DC did it, but they had to; Bon was simply not up to making another record. Genesis kinda did, but mostly they just turned into a different band entirely. (We will not mention the spate of legacy acts that have replaced their singers with dudes who used to imitate them in tribute bands.)
I distinctly remember my fellow Rock Nerd Jay Dorfman and I discussing whether or not the name would be changed: Van Hagar? Could be worse, right? Imagine if they had hired Leon Schlongenheimer? No one is going to the local sportatorium to see Van Schlongenheimer. What if Eddie, in addition to inventing all his guitar toys, also invented a Time Sheath and went back to hire Jim Morrison? You can’t be named Van Morrison, because that is Van Morrison’s name. And he’ll sue your ass; he’s mean.
They kept the name; they had to, and besides: you could never come up with another logo as good.
Look at that shit. Even better than looking at it: draw it on your desk in math class with blue ballpoint pen. Stealies are tough to get right, and Metallica’s was cool, but no one beat the mighty Van Halen’s dirt-simple iconography. (Maybe the Dead Kennedys, but they sucked; political bullshit; the Dead Kennedys were for the weird kids. Van Halen was for winners.)
Anyway, Sammy was a Van Halen now, and the band looked like this:
Look how happy they all look about the situation.
(Who you think punched Eddie? I bet it was Alex. A lot of bands have a Puncher–the Dead had a couple–and Alex was Van Halen’s. I don’t know if Alex is still getting drunk and punching people–he’s 63, so I truly hope not–but it used to be one of his favorite activities.)
The sound changed, obviously, it had to: it was still Eddie and Alex playing real loud with a blonde guy shouting harblegarble about tits over the top of it, plus Michael Anthony on the high harmonies–you couldn’t hear the bass on the first two post-Dave VH albums–but something was different. Alex had started using these non-musical electric drum sounds.
But they were still something. Watch this–and I know I keep telling you what to do, but you know you like it–and I think I hit the button that will start it at the right song, but if I didn’t then go to 22 minutes in.
The song is 5150, a deep cut from the record, but it’s one of Eddie’s greatest guitar lines; the solo he takes in this version is jaw-shattering. Also, everyone onstage is wearing genie pants, and Sammy Hagar is wearing every bandana in the world. Sammy Hagar could wear a bandana in ways that you did not know bandanas could be worn.
And Eddie has a burning cigarette wedged under the strings on the headstock of his Magic Guitar.
Then it all went to shit. (Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern with the Van Halen brothers.) The first follow-up to 5150 took 2 years and was called OU812, which even as an impressionable dipshit struck me as cheesy. The third Van Hagar record took 3 years, and was called For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, which was even worse than OU812, and had the Crystal Pepsi ad Right Now on it. I went to see this tour, me and Matt Tahaney, and the whole crowd chanted “EDDIE, EDDIE!” at the openers–Alice in Chains, who were a terribly boring band–and then I yelled myself hoarse, and went to the bathroom during Sammy’s solo acoustic number, and after that I stopped giving any sort of shit about Van Halen.
In my defense, so did everyone else. Van Halen kind of stopped giving a shit about itself: how else do you explain hiring Gary Cherone? Look at this bullshit:
I mean, really. Fucker looks like a contest winner. He lasted one album, not that anyone noticed.
However, a picture from Cherone’s brief tenure in the band does help to explain the twenty years that have followed:
See it? C’mon, you see it.
Look at Eddie.
Yeah: sometime in the late 90’s, Eddie Van Halen lost his fucking mind. His wife, Mackenzie Phillips, left him and he started
doing crystal meth becoming unreliable, and entered a phase in his life where he was completely and utterly incapable of seeing a microphone without talking shit about his bandmates into it.
So they had fired Sammy–or Sammy quit, it depends on who’s telling the story–and hired the scrub from Extreme, and then they fired him; David Lee Roth was back! And then he wasn’t, and then Sammy came back but left again, and then it was Dave’s turn once more. Then, Sammy AND Dave came back at the same time, and take one wild guess how that turned out?
And one morning in the past few years, Eddie Van Halen woke up and thought,
“Who haven’t I fired, alienated, and talked shit about in the press?”
And Eddie Van Halen thought,
But Eddie Van Halen realized he could not do that to Alex. So then he thought,
And the fucker fired Michael Anthony. Who never hurt a single soul, and seemed like the only tolerable human out of the whole grinning lot.
Eddie’s little fatass kid is in the band now, and Dave’s back. They look like this:
But it doesn’t matter. It hasn’t for a very long time, in fact. No more Rock Stars, and no more Guitar Gods. Presidents do the winning now, and get the pussy. No more cocky young boys from California, and no more promises made, and no more promises kept.
There used to be a band from California; they were called Van Halen and they looked like this:
Wait, I forgot. Van Halen had one other thing in common with the Dead. Remember how the Dead would end shows–if they felt like it–with And We Bid You Goodnight, a sweet send-off to the crowd, sung sweatily and with cigarette burning in the guitarist’s hand?
Just like that:
And that was Van Halen, who were an American band from California. I apologize for this being so long; sometimes you catch a band like a cold. We’re done here. Party’s over.
Say goodnight, Dave.
Til we meet again.
This needed to be seen as large as possible; Leapyear made it and put it in the Comment Section, but this ‘shop is a headliner. Every time you think you’ve seen all the jokes, there’s another one lurking half-hidden behind the bus’ bathroom.
The Great American Bands. Dear sweet Iterated Christ, save us from pontifications on the Great American Bands. None here, I promise.
But I will say this: they had to be from somewhere.
You’ve got New York City, which is an ethnic European island, and then everything else is California or Texas; all white America is California or Texas. Wyoming is in Texas, and so is the majority of Idaho that rich people haven’t bought; Boston is in Northern California, and Miami is in between Los Angeles and San Diego. Americans light out for the territories, or they circle the wagons. California and Texas.
Van Halen was from California, and maintained a half-acre zone of sunsoaked sovereignty around themselves at all times; they’d play England or Japan, and blondes in wet tee-shirts would materialize in the corner of your vision, and then you’d turn your head and there would be an empty swimming pool filled with fatless dervishes on skinny skateboards made from orange plastic. It never rained in Van Halen songs, and winter was a discarded rumor.
How do we judge art? What is art, and what is entertainment; and do we measure these two categories with different rubrics? Are bonus points awarded for great hair?
Does it keep its own promises?
Van Halen didn’t offer any sort of journey–that was the Dead–and they weren’t dangerous, and they certainly had no wisdom to share; Van Halen promised a party. And they delivered: albums, shows, their image, their videos, all of it; a real, live California party right in the tape deck of your shitty car in the shitty town your parents forced you to grow up in, instead of California.
So: California. An American band, even moreso than it appears at first: two Dutch-Indonesian immigrants, a Jew, and Michael Anthony.
They all grew up in Pasadena and Altadena and Lomadena and various other Denas, and it is in those towns that all the Van Halen Origin Stories take place, the liturgy of half-true stories all fans know by heart; every band has ’em: there’s Mick and Keith meeting on the train, and Bobby and Garcia at the music store on New Year’s Eve, and KISS putting an ad in the Village Voice.
Van Halen has Eddie starting off on drums, and Alex on guitar; then there’s something about a paper route, and they switch instruments. David Lee Roth was a rich kid, doctor’s son, and he semi-weaseled his way into the Van Halen brothers’ band by renting them his PA. Then Michael Anthony showed up.
After that, they played house parties and suburban backyards; the cops came every time, and several riots broke out. This cheered the Van Halen boys, as all Great Bands have started at least several riots: they were on their way to the clubs, first the outer-boro places where they did five sets a night of cover tunes, and then moving inward to Hollywood, and upward once they got there. The band started at Gazzari’s, which was grimy and shabby and run by a cadaverous lech, and proceeded to the Starwood, and then the Whiskey. Whiskey’s still there; the other places aren’t
They own Los Angeles: time to make a record, but in an odd echo of Guns n Roses early days a decade later, first Van Halen had to avoid being helped by KISS. Gene Simmons had heard them, loved them, and wanted to sign them to his vanity label; Van Halen was impressed, and went to New York to record some demos with Gene, who was–predictably–so obnoxious that the deal soured. Think of how obnoxious you have to be to piss off people in a band with David Lee Roth. Also, Gene was probably just trying to poach Eddie for KISS.
(GnR would go through just about the same bullshit with Paul Stanley, but Van Halen seemed to have thought that Gene was their big break, while Guns made fun of Paul the entire time, and Izzy might have stolen his wallet.)
So they sign with Warner Brothers in 1977; this is what they sounded like at the time:
Go listen to it: it’s a real decent SBD from 10/15/77 at the Pasadena Civic Center; they sold out the 3,000-seater without a record out, but their first one was being released soon, and they play most of it. They are young and brutal and bashing, but they don’t plod–the songs don’t actually speed up, but they sound like they do–and the revelation is the vocals.
“David Lee Roth couldn’t sing.”
FUCK YOU, go listen to that show. He wasn’t Freddie Mercury, but no one other than Freddie was: Dave has as many notes in his range as Mick Jagger does, and he screams better than any white boy has a right to.
Plus he looked like this at the time:
Which will take you far. For the journey, you want a bearded mystic; for danger, you needed a skinny junkie; but this guy’s at the best party. By definition: whichever party this dude is at is the best party.
And the rest of the band looked like this:
(Enthusiasts, it is here that I will level with you, and say that when this began I did not think that I would be seeing quite so much of Eddie Van Halen’s dick.)
Obviously, Dave was the Bobby and Eddie was the Garcia, and then there’s the rhythm section, and rhythm sections are like assholes: their appearance is not the point. Michael Anthony was shaped like a balding fireplug, and Alex looks like the fucking devil, or maybe Keanu Reeves’ mean and shiftless brother. Like, if Keanu Reeves had a Frank Stallone: that’s what Alex looks like.
(Two good-looking guys might be the most any four-piece band had. Cheap Trick had two, and so did The Doors; Morrison and Manzarek were both beautiful, and the other two were total mutants. Joe Strummer and one of the other guys who wasn’t Mick Jones were handsome. Zeppelin? No one had a crush on John Paul Jones, did they?)
I didn’t mean for Thoughts on Van Halen to last as long as it has, and apparently it isn’t over; sometimes you catch a band like a cold. Tomorrow: California conquers the world, and then it all just peters out into shit.
Have you ever wondered what the Dead and Van Halen have in common? And did you desire that information in an easy-to-read bullet point presentation? Well, you’re a lucky little fucker tonight, ain’t ya?
And that’s pretty much it, except for this, Enthusiasts, which is the only tangible connection between the two bands other than Bobby and Sammy Hagar’s long friendship: the Drums from 5/21/92 at the Cal Expo. Listen at 3:10 for the sample from Runnin’ With The Devil.
There’s an adorable part of this picture, Enthusiasts, I swear. It’s not the platform clodhoppers, and it is not the always vaguely-Satanic Alex, and it certainly isn’t the pistols lying around for no good reason. (Seriously: those little tables are made of lacquered pressboard; they’re slippery, and so if the bus brakes suddenly, then now you have flying guns. Flying guns do no one any good, Van Halen. Holster those weapons.)
See it yet? It’s cute, I promise.
Right before the picture, David Lee Roth made fun of Michael Anthony for drinking a soda, and told him to drink a beer like a Rock Star, and so Michael Anthony put his Pepsi under the seat and popped open a Colt 45. Told you: adorable.
I speak once again, if I may, to the possibly apocryphal Younger Enthusiast. (Most of you geezers are just as old as my crinkly ass.) But there used to be a job called Rock Star, and another one titled Guitar God.
There may still be rock stars, but there are certainly no more Rock Stars, and no one has seen any Guitar Gods for a while and we won’t again, probably. The only reason for the continued existence of rock stars, though, is the malleabilifying of the term: “rock star” has been stretched like cheap taffy to mean “anyone who did anything even vaguely cool at any time.” It’s more of an adjective than a noun lately.
Rock Stars were winners, amplified triumphant, and they would put their feet up on the monitors and lean out so the crowd could see just how cocky they were; they were never the underdogs: Rock Stars were the cool kids. They would come to town, fuck the hottest chicks, burn down the Ramada, and make you look at their crotches for two hours at the local sportatorium.
There was no one who looked like this where you lived, and they did not sell these clothes at your local mall. They were prancing erections with good hair and the ability to throw tantrums. (There are entire sub-categories in the Encyclopedia of Rock Stories dedicated to various Rock Star tantrums: backstage, offstage, onstage, in the studio, on a plane, at a party, during an interview. A true Rock Star could throw a tantrum no matter the environment: they were like Marines when it came to being petulant; they improvised, adapted, overcame, and then threw a chafing dish full of ribs at the promoter.)
Rock Stars were allowed to kill people, Younger Enthusiasts. (Go look up “Razzle Dingley” and then come back and apologize for doubting me.) And fuck 14-year-olds, and walk around in short-sleeves with caked blood in the crook of their elbows. They emigrated to avoid taxes, put on charity concerts to avoid jail time, and fled the jurisdiction in a Learjet to avoid prosecution. (I make no value judgement about the very last thing in the preceding paragraph; everything else, I reserve the right to be self-righteous about. If the DA wants to ask you questions and you have a Learjet, then you should get in the plane and fly away.)
The 50’s had the Angry Young Men, but the 70’s and 80’s had Horny Young Men: it is impossible to overstate pussy’s pervasiveness. Getting pussy, looking for pussy, on the pussy hunt, pussy pussy pussy. Groupies and chicks and stone-cold teen foxes, and road skank: Rock Stars got more pussy than you, and better pussy than you, and they let you know it simply by the tightness of their trousers.
You’re saying, “TotD, these behaviors still exist,” and I congratulate you on your cynicism; the difference is the celebration. There no longer is applause for open substance abuse, and fucking everything that moves, and punching strangers on airplanes; in 2016, that’s not a sexy rebel, that’s next year’s reality show (and not even on a good network).
Rock Stars were braggarts, fit for the Roman Republic. We’re an Empire now. Their like won’t be seen again: there are no more Horror Hosts, and there are no more Pin-Up Girls, and there are no more Pen Pals, and there are no more Rock Stars. What’s the point of being on the cover of the Rolling Stone any more?
And there are most definitely no more Guitar Gods. Garcia was one, and so was Eddie Van Halen. You needed an origin story (wood-chopping accident with brother; switching instruments with brother), a distinctive look (muppet beard, goofy smile), and it helped to be standing next to a handsome guy with great hair (Bobby, David Lee). Angus Young, Jimmy Page, etc. All iterations of the same Christ.
A Guitar God also needed a magical guitar. Excalibur, the General Lee, Luke’s lightsaber: heroes get a gift at the beginning of their journeys; it identifies them as the protagonist, and enables them to defeat the bad guy in the third act.
And damn the facts, of course. B.B. King had Lucille, but Lucille was actually over a dozen Gibsons, replaced over the years like Lassies on a backlot. Jimmy Page played a Les Paul through a dozen Marshall amps, except he didn’t. Go ahead, think of a Led Zeppelin song. Chances are the guitar sound you were thinking of was made by a paisley-pink Telecaster run through a tiny little Fender.
Perhaps you could have a unique guitar: Randy Rhoads had his Jackson Flying V, with its asymmetrical points, painted with polka dots; Brian May built his legendary Red Special out of wood from medieval fireplace and smelted the copper for its pickups in his shed. Like May, Bo Diddley was his own luthier, but he was a bit less elegant and went with “rectangular” for the shape.
Eddie Van Halen was the greatest of all the Guitar Gods–Zeus, if we’re to continue the metaphor–and so his Magic Guitar was the most specialest of all. It looked like this:
He called it the Frankenstrat, but there were no Stratocaster parts in the thing, just local Southern California shop pieces: Eddie got a discount on the body because there was a knot in the wood. It’s in the Smithsonian now, but the object itself is a bit of a ship of Theseus; Eddie replaced parts on the sucker constantly: new necks and pickup and electronics.
But the paint scheme stayed. It’s tough to go wrong with red, black, and white; it is fairly easy to go Nazi, though. (You have to be conservative with the black; that’s the key. What you want is a lot of red and white, with some black highlights. If the three colors are in equal parts, then you’re evoking unpleasantries.) Eddie would play other guitars in his career, but the paint scheme stayed.
The Guitar God got a solo in every song, and a spotlight, too. Sometimes–often, actually–the whole show would stop so that the Guitar God could deedle and bwee for ten minutes in front of a stadium, unpestered by pedestrian bassists and workaday drummers. He would make faces while playing his guitar, and then he would lean way back–the guitar has so much power!–and sometimes his picking hand would be blown skyward by the fierceness of his riffery. Were he to drop to his knees, it would be understandable.
Before Eddie Van Halen, there was Jimi Hendrix (and Clapton, I guess, fine, whatever); after Eddie Van Halen, there were no more; not for lack of trying on C.C. Deville’s part, or Don Dokken, or Steve Vai, or any other of those Guitar Center wieners.
It wasn’t the guitar (though Eddie has the coolest guitar), and it wasn’t the hair (he had awesome hair), and it wasn’t the trousers (so very tight): he was a musician, while his imitators were guitar players.
Here, listen to this. You’ve heard it before:
Now listen–fucking listen–to it: it’s a three-act story. Classic Rock radio has inured you through repetition, but hear it again deeply and for the first time, with zits on your face and a mullet cascading proudly down your neck.
It starts loudly, the whole band, but by ten seconds on we’ve gone to a confusing and questioning chord; at 00:30, Eddie does the fast-picking thing–like Garcia’s fanning but way speedier–and the hero is in danger. The chord–minor? diminished?–is discomfiting and the notes sprint through the woods ahead of monsters and madmen.
And now go back–please go back, it’s worth it–go back and listen to 00:47. After the danger, there is silence. A second-and-a-half of atmospheric nothing, just the sound of thick air, and then BRANGdiddleiddlediddle Eddie attacks: it is a brilliant sound, and violent, but listen underneath the notes because like a boxer he is only seemingly flailing and punching; the chords underneath set up the next bit, the famous bit, the cool bit, the star-making bit. The finger-tapping section.
For years, guitarists had thought they knew all the ways to play a guitar: pick, fingers, lap, etc. Then, at 00:58 of Eruption (and that is a perfect name), guitarists discovered that their knowledge had been incomplete. If, instead of plucking the string with your finger or a plectrum, you bipped at the sucker with your fingertip right onto the fretboard, it made a completely new noise. Playing with a pick real fast sounds like DEEDLYDEEDLYDEEDLY, but this new thing sounded like BOODLYBOODLYBOODLY, and many record buyers were interested in these new findings.
That’s the famous part, the mold they cast an idol out of, but the passage isn’t famous for just technique. Fuck technique: tricks last for a night, but stories last forever. Go back again, just one more time, for your buddy TotD, and listen to 00:58.
Don’t listen to the notes. Listen to the chords. Listen to the melody, which is not spelled out for you like you’re a moron; it is more than a little Bach, obviously. A current in the stream of the same story we’ve been telling ourselves for hundreds of years. Johann Sebastian, whose children grew up to be musicians, refracted through a grinning and coked-up guitarist from Pasadena, the son of Jan, who was a musician.
That which is glorious iterates, and never dies.
There are no more Guitar Gods. Songs don’t even have guitar solos now: the featured rapper takes a verse. Eddie Van Halen was the last one, and I don’t know if he is any more, Younger Enthusiasts; I don’t know if you can keep showing up at a job that no longer exists; I don’t know so many things.
I know that there are no more Rock Stars, and certainly no more Guitar Gods; they used to look like this:
But they don’t make buggy whips any more, and the factories that made mimeograph machines are long closed.
People goof on David Lee Roth like it’s his fault he didn’t die in a car crash in 1982. Hipsters would be wearing tee-shirts with his face (and torso) on it today if he had, but Diamond Dave got old and weird; told all his jokes twice; lost his voice, hair.
But he had a voice: listen to this isolated track from Runnin’ With The Devil, especially when he screams at 1:20. Go listen. I’ll wait.
I remember having a disagreement with my 8th grade music teacher, Mrs. Ising. She said that the human throat could not produce two notes at the same time, and she was a tall lady who had perfect pitch (and enjoyed telling you about it) so I probably lost the argument. I did not know about the Tuvan throat singers at the time, or any number of non-Western traditions wherein people harmonize with themselves, but I did have every Van Halen record ever made–and two prized bootleg cassettes of their unreleased early demos–so I knew that David Lee Roth could hit both a head note and its overtone at the same time.
Now, I didn’t know those terms at the time. I did know that Dave looked like this:
And I figured that counted for something.
Oh, don’t do what you’re about to do.
I hereby call upon the Rock Nerds to critical reexamine David Lee Roth.
No one needs that.
And Rick Rubin needs to produce an album for him.
Please, God, no.
Call Pitchfork. This should be a longread. What is Jonathan Safran Foer doing?
What about Jonathan Lethem?
Congratulating Jonathan Safran Foer.
What about Jonathan Marquand?
You made him up.
He’ll work cheap.
Are we really doing Thoughts on Van Halen?
It’s come to this.
This is the best Billy has ever looked.