In January, the quasi-original lineup of Van Halen sent tongues awag with an hour-long set at Café Wha? No strangers to savvy marketing strategies, there might not have been a better way to announce the return of a David Lee Roth fronted Van Halen or whet appetites for a “reunion” tour than to blow the doors off a tiny club in front of a smattering of music journalists.
For a large majority, David Lee Roth is the only lead singer that will complete their vision of a properly constituted Van Halen. The replacement of Michael Anthony with Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang may have been as significant a personnel change but it never threw off the public equilibrium to the extent of the contentious split between Roth and the band that made him famous. The Sammy Hagar version of the band may have had its moments but in light of the Gary Cherone fiasco, Roth’s descent from the rarefied air of rock star and the band’s general fade into obscurity, it seems strange that it took until the late 2000s for the inevitable lucrative reunion to come together.
Setting aside whether he was a competent EMT, Roth has only been qualified for one job: the lead singer of Van Halen. Even during his brief flirtation with success as a solo artist, the DAVE TV Crazy From The Heat videos for California Girls and Just A Gigolo were simply an extension of the DLR persona he cultivated during his years as Van Halen’s frontman. Once time placed some distance between Roth and his old band, the context for Roth’s outsize antics and gargantuan ego vanished, turning Roth from character into caricature. As his misconceived radio show proved, Roth likes to offer pithy platitudes in the guise of worldly insight. While he’s never come across as grossly uninformed, Roth’s pearls of wisdom were (and still are) nowhere as sage or perceptive as he imagines, the germs of logic to his axioms making him come across like a lesser moron from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. This failing though has never extended to Van Halen; if there is any organization Roth seems to understand implicitly, it’s the workings, relationships and success of this one band. At this point in their career, for Van Halen to attempt a tour without Roth would be an exercise in futility, like Queen touring without Freddie Mercury.
Roth’s blend of hedonistic braggadocio and confident swagger made him the perfect ringleader for Van Halen. Never quite the band for the underdog, early Van Halen formed a high-adrenalin soundtrack for underage keg parties in vacant lots and grassy fields. They were always slightly cheesy but with a Dirk Diggler innocence that made the spectacle seem earnest even at its most lascivious. Even those leading the Life of Riley (or nowadays the Life of Kanye) were unlikely to find a simpatico with the band whose lead singer constantly crowed about their bacchanalian lifestyle.
Van Halen set themselves apart not by being one the hardest rocking bands of the Eighties but by reveling in the lifestyle that came with it. Presenting an idealized image rather than a goal within reach, Van Halen wrote the playbook for maximizing the revenue to be made from actual and perceived hard rock decadence. Choosing to take swipes at Roth, Van Halen and their missteps without noting their foresight in carving out profitable niches for themselves and those that followed in their footsteps is to truly miss their significance.
With the set lists for their North American tour varying little from night to night, their recent Madison Square Garden outing had the practiced sheen of a polished band (even if Roth occasionally spaced on a lyric or two). Unsurprisingly, the show consisted of Van Halen classics from the late Seventies/early Eighties and a couple songs from the recently released A Different Kind Of Truth.
For the most part, the two hour set could be segmented into: 1) those songs that skitter along on Alex Van Halen’s clickiticlack drum beat from Hot For Teacher, 2) those that ride on Eddie Van Halen’s multiple derivations of the riff from Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love, 3) hyper-adrenalized, steroid-infused covers of classic rock songs like Oh Pretty Woman and You Really Got Me and 4) the MTV hits from 1984. This is at least three more categories than most bands are capable of delivering.
The true piece de resistance of seeing Van Halen play is witnessing one of its namesakes play guitar. It makes no difference that Eddie Van Halen may be playing the same guitar solo for three decades running, it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Musical World. Whether the stories of his selfishness in Sammy Hagar’s autobiography are slanted by the vagaries of memory, it’s a shame that Eddie Van Halen never thought to broaden his reach beyond the sphere of his own fans. With the exception of lending his tone to Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Van Halen’s contributions towards the music of others has been scant to non-existent and with the exception of the original Farm Aid, the band hasn’t been much of a festival attraction. If he had networked a little better, picked his spots, broadened his range and possibly hand-picked his own Woodstock moment, it’s quite possible he could be universally discussed with the same reverence as Jimi Hendrix. Putting Professor Farnsworth’s What-If Machine aside, seeing Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and the rest of Van Halen should be on the bucket list of every self-respecting connoisseur of rock and roll.
If Bradford Cox accomplished anything this past week, he raised his Q rating as quantifiable nutcase. Overreacting to a call from the audience for My Sharona, Cox guided Atlas Sound, his non-Deerhunter project, through a one hour version of The Knack’s magnum opus. Cox then followed it up with a bizarre, though entertaining, interview with Pitchfork that seemed geared towards alienating an audience as much as explaining his actions in Minneapolis. Of interest, Cox may have offered an explanation as to what set him off when he told Pitchfork that “[t]he only person I asked to strip was the person who commandeered my stage [by requesting My Sharona] and made the show about his self-interest. . . He asked me to strip when he called out the name of the song. It was a joke; he’s basically throwing a dollar bill at the foot of the stripper.” Illuminating. Not only does the audience think the guy who yells Free Bird needs a beating, the artist on stage does as well.
On a final non-music related note: NBC is letting Sue Simmons go? Let’s take to the streets and riot!!