Monday, December 21, 2009

Art That Changed My Life: Van Halen

I suppose I ought to go way back and talk about the days when the only band that mattered to me was Van Halen. These years were, approximately, 1984 – 1989. Okay, there were other bands that mattered (Led Zep, of course) but I’d have gladly thrown away their LPs to save my copy of Fair Warning.

I was hooked on Van Halen right around the time most of us were: right after 1984 was released. “Jump” had less to do with the hooking than “Panama” which still sounds like the shit to me. “Hot For Teacher” even more so. “Drop Dead Legs” and “House of Pain” clinched it. I was in love. How did I spell this love: E-D-D-I-E. Eddie Van Halen was my god. I didn’t just want to play guitar like Eddie; I wanted to be Eddie.

Of course, that never happened. Years of lessons and hours of practicing would only advance my skills to a level just above novice. But I still loved the shit out of Halen. And then Dave left and Hammy Cigar filled in. That’s when Eddie took over production and the sound went to shit. That’s also the time when the love songs began to overshadow the Big Rock. But my love didn’t fade. Well, sort of: OU812 was the last VH record I purchased, and I saw them on that tour, but even as I pretended to like “Finish What You Started” I knew that the band was dead to me. I couldn’t abandon them and make the full transition to the “alternative” jive that was courting me pretty heavy, so I put that off and sunk back into the glories of VH past. Fair Warning and Women & Children First, to be exact.

There are two kinds of Van Halen fans:

1. Roth fans, and;

2. Hagar fans.

The second group are simple—they simply like Sammy. The first camp can be further divided into three subgroups:

a. Early Roth era (fans of the first two records);

b. Middle era Roth fans (fans of Women & Children First and Fair Warning); and

c. Late era Roth fans (fans of Diver Down and 1984)

One can be a fan of all these eras, but generally, one of the three is preferred. I was, and am, a middle era Roth fan. Women & Children First is an oft overlooked gem. “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” get more than enough play, but have you heard “Tora! Tora!” or “Take Your Whiskey Home” or “Fools” lately? Rock fucking solid! What about “Romeo Delight”? This song has what might be the quintessential Roth lyric: “I’m taking whiskey to the party tonight and I’m looking for somebody to squeeze.” That was Van Halen—a party band with simple tastes. They were about good times and rock and booze and sex and fun. That’s the way we liked ‘em.

Possibly intentional, though likely an accident, the boys would completely subvert this winning dynamic of party rock with their next record, Fair Warning. Darker than any of their other material—preceding or following—Fair Warning is an angry slap across the face to anyone willing to listen. Sure, there are moments that sound like earlier efforts (Roth joking with someone in the studio during “Unchained”) but the vibe is different. Van Halen found a grittier sound reflected in the lyrics and themes (good girls turned porno stars, sleeping with married women, street life). Oh, there are softer moments, though they too are a lot rougher than anything you’ll hear on 5150 (the ennui of “Push Come to Shove”). Most disturbing is the instrumental track “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” Layers of foreboding keyboard play over drums mixed LOUD by Ted Templeman evoking fear and suggesting danger. We’re light years away from “Jamie’s Cryin.” Even the popiest song on the record, “So This is Love” was too tight and fierce for radio play and has only now becoming a recognized gem in the catalogue.

Not surprisingly, the album did not do as well as their others. I think it took the singer from Extreme replacing Sammy to sink VH lower on the charts. Perhaps an indication of my blossoming love for the “weird” (as my family and friends would refer to my tastes), I loved the record then and have only come to love it more. It is the only Van Halen CD I own. (The LPs are, I believe, in the care of my brother.) By the time the guys were pulling that “Pound Cake” stunt, I had entered into a world of denial—denial of the band’s ongoing existence. I was happy to have them disappear from the face of the earth, leaving two mediocre at best Hagar records behind them. All that “Right Now” shit was not Van Halen but some silly band that vaguely sounded like them. That’s was my mantra, repeated over and over by every spinning of Fair Warning.

And then they stopped embarrassing themselves (i.e. stopped making records) and reunited with Roth after countless half starts and stops. I missed the big reunion tour. Michael Anthony was gone, so there went the tight bass lines and essential backing vocals. But even if he was back, I might have skipped it. They represent a part of me that is pretty much gone, the part that believed that a few years of practice and the right combination of power chords could transform me from a fat, suburban kid into a rock god. I had grown up. So, sadly, had Van Halen, and growing up, for them, equaled feuds, divorce, cancer, and growing irrelevance. I was happy where I was, and I hoped they were as well. It was time to move the hell on.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t revert back to the days of ol’ every once in a while. Luckily, WLUP plays so much Halen that I never have to buy any of their CDs.