Monday, March 07, 2011

Some Sung Heroes: Michael Anthony

Putting aside, for just a second, the oft debated Van Halen question, Roth or Hager (ROTH!), and ignoring, for two seconds, the recent activity of this shambles of a band, let’s look at the structure of this rock behemoth from the late ‘70s and ‘80s and see how the beast was built. An outrageous front man who performed in, as Eddie called it, the “clowny, classy” roles. Check. A killer guitarist who reinvented the way the instrument was played. Check. A competent, occasionally fantastic drummer who could keep time and land a few awesome fills. Check. A solid, underrated bass player and background vocalist who got the least amount of attention but was an irreplaceable component of the sound. Checkmate.

I get it. Eddie Van Halen is a loving father, and, as such, he can’t see that his son, Wolfgang, is no replacement for Michael Anthony, the pint sized, whiskey sippin’ bass player from Chi who went to Cali and landed a slot as the backbone of one of the best rock acts of all time. Van Halen was the shit. Their run from the debut to 1984 is a thing of rare beauty that can’t be tarnished, not even by their post Roth years. Yeah, I saw them with Sammy twice if no other reason than to see Eddie play solo for 10 of the greatest minutes of my young life, but even as I apologized for 5150 and was genuinely happier with OU812 (probably the best Hager record, though it still pales in comparison to anything from the Roth era), I was one of the many who felt that the band died when Roth left (was kicked out?). Still, I apologized for their shitty records. The guys were maturing. This was good, right? You can’t sing songs about whiskey and partying forever can you? No, you can’t, but does that mean we have to suffer through “Dreams”? Or, ugh, “Why Can’t This Be Love?” a song that broke my heart. (I remember the first time I heard it. I was on the bus coming home from St. Lawrence and one of my friends had his radio tuned to the Loop. They were the first to play the song, one we were all awaiting anxiously. We knew Hager was in, Roth was out. We were worried, we were excited, and then, three minutes later, we were depressed. It was undeniable: the new Halen sucked. But we kept quiet, forming a wordless pact to defend the song and the new incarnation of our favorite band. Still, we all knew deep down that the band was over.)

While the years have not been kind to Van Halen, Van Halen, specifically Eddie, has not been kind to his former bandmates. Yeah, he buried the hatchet with Roth long enough to cash in on a reunion, and he’ll probably reunite with Hager one of these days, but to snub Michael Anthony is unforgiveable. Even if Hager’s lyrics were more obnoxious, trite, and forgettable than Roth’s (which is saying A LOT), and his vocals were, um, reaching for heights (yeah, let’s stick with that), at least the elements of the music were kinda the same. Alex on drums, Eddie (occasionally) shredding on guitar and (often) wussing it up on the keyboard, and Anthony as anchor. But without Mike the band is definitely not the band anymore.

What makes a bass player so special? I hear that question often and I usually want to launch into a tirade in response. Perhaps it is because I played the bass or perhaps it is because I identify with the underdog, but damnit I tire of that question. Still, it needs a response. In regard to Van Halen, I’ll simply direct the listener to their best record, Fair Warning, and ask them to pay special attention to harmonics on “Dirty Movies,” the groves on “Push Comes to Shove,” and the absolute rock steady perfection of “So This is Love” all courtesy of Anthony. This is the record that was at once the peak of their career, the lowest seller, and the beginning of the end. Eddie was ready to quit. He was tired of the party songs and wanted to stretch as an artist. Roth was battling him to keep the band fun and stupid. The tug of war resulted in their most interesting record that still had some wild-n-crazy moments (“Sinners Swing!”) but focused on a considerably darker vibe (“Mean Streets” and the Goblins sounding “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”—one of my favorites). But, as Eddie struggled with the desire to write less dispensable material, Anthony had an open door to shine as the bass player he is. Legend has it that Alex and Eddie hired him after one audition, as he was the only bass player who could keep up with their odd time changes. His presence is barely felt (save for the vocals) on the first record, and the bass opening of “Running with the Devil” is kind of hilariously simple, but fuck all that. Anthony, like many gifted players, knows when to fly and when to walk. He knows well enough to leave the flashy solos to Eddie, but he’s not opposed to laying down a tight bass line where he can. There’s ample evidence that the guy is a workhorse of a player overshadowed by one of the hardest rock musicians in the world to overshadow. Still, to ignore the guy, to kick him out of the band and replace him with a kid, well, that’s just rude. Eddie will always be remembered as a stunning guitarist (rightfully so). Roth will always be remembered as a showman. Let’s hope there’s a little space in the books for Mike as well.