I see where Van Halen is finally getting back together (for the most part–if you haven’t heard yet, original basist Mike Anthony wasn’t invited on this tour, to be replace with Eddie’s teenaged son, Wolfgang). It seems fitting to me that my first post concern Van Halen. I grew up with them, as a soundtrack to my misspent youth. (Just to be clear here: I’m talking about the original, the real, Van Halen, not the decade-long misfire of the Sammy Hagar iteration, or worse–heaven forbid–the very misguided, and frankly disturbing, “Van Halen III” debacle (no point going into it). I give Sammy marks for the good ol’ college try, but his interpretation of the lead singer role reduced a once-legendary band to a hollow imitation of the original VH’s imitators. Not good. By the mid-90s, Van Halen the band was nothing short of a joke. Such a long way to fall.
So, for the period of the first six albums, from 1978 through 1984, with flair, guitar razzle-dazzle, football jock fashion chic, and, frankly, good tunes, Van Halen contributed significantly to the pantheon of great rock’n’roll, transitioning the great classic rock of Led Zep, the Stones et al into the 80s, and standing as one of the lone legitimate rock alternatives in a pop industry that was quickly moving away from songwriting performers to embrace the Madonnas and Culture Clubs of the world. I’ve always said that when, in 1984, lead singer David Lee Roth left the band to pursue a solo career on the strength of his mini 4-song solo album Crazy from the Heat as well as his desire to leave the other, slacking members of the band (who didn’t want to go back into the studio anytime too soon), Van Halen was but an album away from being in the same stratosphere as the Rolling Stones, at least in North America (I acknowledge that they were hardly recognizable in, say, Europe, where, inexplicably, AC/DC ruled–better them than Iron Maiden, I suppose…).
But, yes, Van Halen was that popular and influential. Album sales figures alone don’t tell the tale (six releases, six straight multiple platinum albums). Eddie’s guitar crunch (what he later called his “brown” sound) alone changed the voice of Hollywood and TV advertising soundtracks for decades. (It still goes on. Heavy, distorted electric guitar is still the default soundtrack on just about everything. It wasn’t always that way: check out some pre-1980s Hollywood movies, if you don’t believe me. You’ll find classical, jazz, folk, all kinds–but not distorted electric guitar.) The VH boys spawned an interminable list of truly pathetic imitators (Ratt, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, etc.), which is nothing to be proud of, I know, but it is an indication of VH’s popularity and success that everyone was trying to squeeze into spandex and try their hands at double-tapping guitar techniques. In the original Van Halen, and hopefully in this latest edition, too, they could genuinely boast the best front man going in rock ‘n’ roll and the best guitarist. Not bad for one band.
And here’s the thing: David Lee Roth made Van Halen. Taking absolutely nothing away from Eddie Van Halen’s brilliant guitar work; it’s just that it was Dave’s penchant and particular skill for self-promotion that resulted in the world being introduced to EVH as the next guitar god. Dave was the one who pushed that image on the world. He was the mouth piece of the band, the conscience, the vision, the political awareness (if that’s not pushing it too far…). In short, he was the sensibility of the band, the ringmaster who made sure we were entertained. And as ringmaster, he promoted. He promoted Eddie as the hottest young guitar player alive (even though there were many arguments at the time to be made for other candidates–Clapton, Page, etc. and, later, Vai).
In fact, it was Dave’s idea in the first place to even call the band Van Halen. The previous name, when he joined up with the Van Halen bros., was Mammoth (not an altogether bad name, mind, but no chart topper). As Dave always explained his preference for the name Van Halen, it sounded “classy.” The point is, Van Halen being all about Eddie was not always the case; it’s only been since the Sammy years of darkness and mourning that the world, and most importantly Eddie, saw Van Halen the band as a superstructure built upon Eddie the guitar player. During the original vintage of the band, it was considered by fans to be named after both Van Halen brothers (drummer Alex being the other). But, even then, not exactly, because the most prominent figure in the band, the singer, wasn’t one of the brothers. In fact, in the early pre-fame days of the LA clubs, bar owners would give Dave the band’s gig payment, saying “Good show, Van. Here’s your pay.” This weird permutation just seemed to add a certain depth to the band, one that distinguished it from other bands of the day, one that went missing the day Dave left. The band Dave created carried on without him, cause it still had the name and the guitar player, but it got more embarrassing to listen to and think about with every passing year.
Which brings me finally to this reunion. It’s getting rave reviews so far, unanimously so, as far as I can tell. I have to still wonder, though: is this get-together too late to be meaningful to rock ‘n’ roll? Ten or twelve years ago Dave & Eddie probably could’ve picked up it up where they had left it back in the 80s and performed a legitimate second act, perhaps like Aerosmith (who became much more popular and successful in their comeback of original members). But now? In 2007? I worry for them. But, again, they’re getting the reviews, so, who knows? Maybe they can pull it off.
Good to see Dave back in the fold, where he belongs. Welcome home.