I posted this some time ago in some other place, but given that this is a Van Halen blog, I figured I’d post it here, too.
One night in junior high, I went to a sleep over at my friend Laura’s house. She gave me a record she had, one she didn’t want, and I remember her being kind of dismissive of the music. I remember being a little put out that she was giving me something she didn’t like, but it was free, so whatever, and it all worked out in the end. I wonder to this day where she got it. The album cover was red, with a white diagonal stripe, by a band called Van Halen, of whom I’d heard talk, but not enough to know anything about them. The album was called Diver Down, and while I had no idea, then, what it meant, I had an idea that it meant more than scuba.
I took the record home the next day and listened to it. It was the second album that was mine, not belonging to my mother. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it changed my life, but it was unlike anything I’d heard before. My mom’s music trended toward folk stuff, like Bob Dylan, or vaguely hallucinogenic, like Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, but only if she didn’t know what it was about. Van Halen was not my mother’s music. It was loud, fast, brash, physical, weirdly happy, and completely lacking in pretension. I spent the next several years of my life thinking Pretty Woman was a pretty good Van Halen tune, unaware it was a cover.
I listened to the album quite a lot. I started gathering Van Halen posters for my wall. I made up a personality for each of the band members based on what they looked like. I pretended I didn’t notice David Lee Roth’s pants were, uh, cut a little differently from everyone else’s. Of course I thought he was attractive, but I hadn’t grasped the nuances of what I might want, although I knew I wanted something. When I first heard him interviewed on the radio though, man, I was hooked. He got pride of place on the inside of my locker. Besides, I don’t think my mother would have let me put up that photo of him, the one with the well defining, bright yellow striped spandex pants, on my bedroom wall.
Much as I remember holding the album in my hands for the first time in Laura’s basement, I remember how I felt the first time I heard David Lee Roth on the radio. I was simply blown away by my exploded expectations. I mean, with the hair and the body, he looked like every high school boy I’d met when I was in elementary school – every cool high school boy, anyway. Where I grew up, the long hair, jean jacket, bandana, white trash look was “it.” And here was that guy, grown up, and I didn’t expect much from him other than looking pretty. He sang for a heavy metal band, for pete’s sake. He was, however, one of the most articulate interviews I’d ever heard, but I was 13, what did I know? Let me rephrase: one of the most articulate interviews I’ve ever heard. Nary an “uh” or a space filling vocalization. He either knew what he wanted to say, or he waited a moment until he found it. Everything he said was clear, sharp, and on target, if frequently veering off topic. I’d never heard anyone talk that way. I hardly ever hear it now. Surrounded as I was by 13-year-old boys who could barely utter a word without laughing nervously, David Lee Roth was a revelation: a man who was sexy and smart. This is, of course, theoretically possible, but Sexy is only an acceptable partner to Smart if it’s bound up in the right clothes and the right haircut. Headbangers are not allowed to be intelligent, and academics are not allowed to wear tight pants.
Roth was the whole package, no pun intended. He was visceral and animal, but could string a sentence together that could leave me speechless at its clarity and wit. He became somewhat of a model for me: forthright, blunt, articulate. I emulated him, but if it was conscious, I don’t know. I’ve seen him say inappropriate things, and I know I’ve done the same.
Van Halen went on tour, set to play at the Stampede Corral, and I was going to go, but my mother thought rush seating meant that everyone would, well, rush, and I’d be crushed. I was quiet with fury. I thought about sneaking out somehow, but she kept a pretty tight rein on me. I had to settle for asking someone to get me a t-shirt. “Anything but a baseball shirt,” I said, but that’s what I got. I don’t think I ever wore it. It’s in a box somewhere with all the other concert shirts I grew out of (Supertramp) or grew too embarrassed to wear (Duran Duran). I’d get my own, I thought, next time they toured.
Hard rock and hair bands started to be a bit of a joke in the circles I circled around. Liking Van Halen was as bad as wearing a wide tie or the wrong jeans. That is to say, not so bad, but others made it so. I resorted to quietly listening to them on headphones, at home, and I certainly never told anyone.
Then, suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore. Van Halen broke up, or, depending on who you talked to, David Lee Roth got his ass handed to him. I’m not sure anyone, including the band, really understood what happened. Words were thrown, anger was clear, and Roth was out. Or maybe it was the other way around. Van Halen was looking for a new singer, and they got Sammy Hagar, who sounded fine, truth be told, but I just couldn’t get behind him. It was a new band, and I couldn’t honestly decide if I didn’t like it because they didn’t have David Lee Roth, or if I came by my disinterest honestly.
Eventually, this didn’t matter either. Grunge moved to town, tastes changed. Van Halen wasn’t relevant anymore. The band that basically invented straight up North American hard rock, whose front man inspired, for good or ill, every single hair band that came later, and whose guitarist changed the face and ears of rock music, had become a band you went to see so you could say that you had, even though it wasn’t the same, because that band, the one you liked, was never going to get back together. Too much smoke on the water.
In the early 90s, I got a free ticket to one of their shows. I sat in the little enclosed seating area in the beer supplier’s suite, with some guy I didn’t know. Everyone else drank the free beer inside. I didn’t buy a t-shirt.
There was one moment, at that show, that I clearly remember: Eddie playing Cathedral, which I’d always thought was played on a keyboard, but only because I’d seen him play one on the Jump video. I think the guy I didn’t know thought so, too, because we were both amazed at him playing it on the guitar. I didn’t appreciate Eddie’s artistry then, and artistry it is. I hadn’t listened enough to be aware of how he makes the guitar speak on Jamie’s Cryin’ or laugh after the first two lines of You Really Got Me. It was my first time, and I loved it.
The rift between Van Halen and David Lee Roth, the reasons behind it, and speculations as to how it would end up reached legendary proportions. Roth’s first few forays on his own, with his patched together supergroup, did well. He was still Diamond Dave, after all, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he? He played to sold out arenas, at least initially. His persona got a little sillier, but he did it his way. Van Halen’s work, though, always seemed to imply “Look Ma! No Dave!” Their interviews seemed bitter, despite their protestations that they’d fired him, who, for his part, seemed more disappointed in their behaviour toward him, or comments about him, than anything else. He said things like “You keep raining, I’ll still be the parade.”
As his career ebbed, though, so did his façade. He began to look like a caricature of himself: the long hair thinning, fragile, and more platinum than anything found in nature; the smile broader, but more artificial, although some might say it was intentional self-deprecation. He got older, he changed, he kept touring, kept making music one way or another, playing smaller and smaller venues, but never compromising on anything, and his solo work, in my opinion, only improved with time, even if it wasn’t what many of his fans wanted.
Van Halen kept making records, and selling them, and it looked like they won. Both camps said they wouldn’t get back together, but for different reasons. When Dave started on radio, never mind his stint as an EMT, it seemed like he’d given up on music, even if that wasn’t the case, as he’d given up a tour to start his radio gig and had just made a new album.
Speculation on the subject of the split never ceased, but not among my friends. Van Halen was still Not Cool. I still listened to my albums in secret. I still didn’t wear tight pants.
Interviews with David Lee Roth, with the benefit of hindsight, are revealing. During the 1984 tour, you can see he was worried a little, saying that rock bands are fragile entities, who knows what the future will bring? Once he was on his own, and doing the talk show circuit, the old bluster was gone, replaced by a class clown. Van Halen was together for 11 years (6 from the release of their first album), and you can see in the way his persona changed how much of his identity had been wrapped up in being the front man for Van Halen. That’s who he was, and without it, he couldn’t seem to find solid footing. Even after he left the group, that’s who he was, but without them behind him, he was just David Lee Roth. He was the lead singer of Van Halen. Sammy Hagar was only a temporary replacement.
Eventually, Hagar had to go, too. A reunion was announced, but an awkward interaction at the MTV Awards, and hurt pride lead to “anything but Dave” and another guy got the gig, only to leave soon after a disastrous album.
As recently as January 2007, David Lee Roth was saying that any reunion of Van Halen would end in a NASCAR-style wreck, despite only a few months earlier saying a reunion was inevitable. In March 2007, Eddie Van Halen went into rehab, and maybe that did the trick. A few months later, a press conference was held, announcing the new band, not a reunion. Typing those words alone still gets my heart going.
The band filed into the room, Dave wearing a hip length, dark blue, toreador jacket, embroidered at the neck, front, and cuffs. He was 52, spandex doesn’t do it like it used to. They stood together, Alex, Dave, Eddie, and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang (Michael Anthony having been fired over something to do with something else). They all had microphones in front of them, but really, with Dave there, what’s the point? Dave is the front man, even at a press conference.
Eddie referred to Dave as “my new brother.” The biggest applause came, though, to Eddie’s response to a question about if this is just a tour or if there will be an album. He said, more or less, that Van Halen is a band, and they’re going to do what bands do, which is make music and tour. Dave acknowledged Van Halen’s responsibility to the fans’ desire for their particular brand of rock. Every guitar lick, every drumbeat, will be just where they left it. He knows their audience. After 22 years, they want the fun back. Roth’s attitude had always been that Van Halen was about rock and roll, not saving the whales. (“That tubercular look is ok, baby, nothing wrong with that, but we’re from California.”) In his words at the press conference, “It’s Bono’s job to save the world. We just want to save a hundred cities.”
The class clown is gone, and the bluster is back, if muted. This is David Lee Roth. He’s back where he belongs, and everyone in the band seemed to agree. Wolfgang seems a little disinterested, but the band broke up before he was born, so who cares? Dave answered all the questions, answered them well, and then deliberately turned attention to Eddie and Alex, seamlessly giving them the stage, wanting to make sure any question of his dominance of the group went unasked. His identity returned, he wants to keep it.
This time, I thought, nothing would stop me from going to the show. I bought the eponymous Van Halen album, as well as Women and Children First, having heard them mostly on FM radio, but I still had to listen to them alone. My mother, hearing Van Halen’s cover of Pretty Woman said, “They butchered it!” I hardly thought she’d be into Running with the Devil, if she could even make out the words. I bought a single ticket, but mostly because I could only get the expensive ones at that point. Solitary in my passion for the band, solitary I would see and hear them.
Bob Marley’s son opened the show, but no one cared.
I bought a t-shirt.
The lights go down, the crowd goes wild. An explosion of light and there’s Dave, at the top of a ramp, waving a big red flag, and wearing a bright yellow jacket, the same shade as the spandex pants on the photo in my locker in junior high. Alex is center-rear entrenched among his drums, with Eddie directly in front of him, the brothers at center stage. It is called Van Halen after all. Wolfgang is way off to the left, like an orbiting moon. Alex and Eddie are planets, but Dave is the sun. He walks down the ramp, and Van Halen is back. There are no more splits, no more kickboxing, but a still a few perfectly respectable roundhouse kicks. He’s 53 now, and when he takes off the jacket and unbuttons his shirt, he’s still amazing. He no longer moves like a snake, but the animal is still inside, waiting: you can see it behind the eyes. He’s thrilled to be here, and we’re thrilled for him.
Dave and Eddie had huge grins on their faces throughout the entire concert, only growing larger the closer they got to each other, like they can’t believe they waited this long; like high school sweethearts who broke up over a misunderstanding, and now it’s all been cleared up. I held my breath before this concert, not sure it wouldn’t implode before it got to Calgary, but I think Eddie’s right, it is a band again, and every one of them is right where he should be.
The band was tight. The music was still hard, instinctive, fast, and fun. It still made me smile and giggle. I realized at the show that Van Halen is essentially a blues band that can’t sit still, and isn’t sad because their woman left them. Blues trickled out between songs, testing to see if anyone was listening. I even heard some Eagles in there.
Van Halen was together for eleven years before the split. It took twice that time for them to reunite. You’d think we’d have all gotten over it at some point, but watching them together, the reason we didn’t is clear: because they never got over it, either. It’s not Van Halen without David Lee Roth, and he’s not completely Diamond Dave without Van Halen.
Given the success of the tour, and how it’s destroyed every other reunion tour this year, I feel comfortable coming out: I love Van Halen. There, I said it. Given the ticket sales, I know I’m not alone. Their thrill in the playing is still obvious. It’s not old, it’s not tired, and it’s not lacklustre. It’s not even a stereotype. Dave’s not kickboxing the air anymore, or prancing much, but you know he wants to, and I want to, too. I’ve recently realized that I’m a hard rock chick. Or rather, not realized it, but admitted it to myself. Out loud. I love the high velocity, the drumbeat, the ritualistic chant. I love how I can’t help but move to it. If I’d gone to my area school, it might be more obvious, but where I went, Those Kids hung out at the edge of the field. I mean, I’ve got the hair.
I’m still not allowed to wear tight pants, though.
I’ve had intellectual heroes, but they didn’t affect my manners. They didn’t inspire me to say what was on my mind, damn the torpedoes. David Lee Roth might not be able to help me with my thesis, but he’ll help me with my presentation. I might still rub people the wrong way, but I don’t think anyone who knows me begrudges me the fact, really.
Society stands on the sidelines, telling us what we’re allowed to wear. Everyone has a uniform. No one is allowed to colour outside the lines. We’ve all seen Those People, we’ve all looked at them funny, and told our friends about them later. Only those with a sense of style big enough to crush us can get away with it. David Lee Roth can wear a Pucci-inspired body suit and get away with it. I’ve seen it. It’s his personality, though, that really takes us on the ride. He’s pompous, arrogant, egotistical, down to earth, witty, lucid, expressive, and sharp. Few people are allowed to live at both ends of the neighbourhood. David Lee Roth lives there, invites us in, and dares us to kick him out.
He invites us in to play, but how many of us are willing to do anything other than watch? His challenge to my young senses took me unawares. I know people look at me funny, and I blame him. I know people are looking at me funny right now. “Fuck. All this over David Lee Roth?” which kind of proves my point. Everyone has something they’re a little embarrassed about liking a little too much, and if they don’t, they’re missing out. If I said I’d been inspired by David Suzuki, or Noam Chomsky, or even Al Gore everyone would think that was Perfectly Appropriate. “Primal” is not high on anyone’s list of inspirational qualities.
I want Sexy. I want Smart. I want the tight pants and intellectual challenge, and I don’t want to feel embarrassed for wanting both. I don’t want someone to look at my outfit and call “bimbo” and I don’t want someone to look at my glasses and call “dull.” I want to have visible tattoos and still be able to get a job. I want to wear a violently coloured spandex body suit and still be taken seriously. I want to be judged for the content of my character, not the colour of my stiletto heels.
But mostly, I just want to fuck David Lee Roth.