By Jimmy Ether
Ever notice how some bands seem timeless while others are permanently affixed to a particular period of time in your life? Van Halen is definitely the latter for me. They epitomize adolescence—especially the testosterone-laced variety of adolescence. They were largely the soundtrack to my pre-teen and early teen years, and while they are indelibly connected to my own coming of age, they are even more associated in my mind with summer. It doesn’t matter what time of year you are listening to a Van Halen album. It feels like summer. Heat and humidity radiate from the speakers making you crave cold beer and swimming pools.
And it has to be said. . . the only Van Halen is with David Lee Roth. No substitutes will be recognized. In fact, I’m far more inclined to lump Roth’s first couple of solo ventures into the Van Halen discography than any posthumous release relating to a so-called Red Rocker sporting Bozo-the-Clown’s coiffure. So let’s just forget that anything happened after about 1985. Deal? Dave never lost his hair and went Vegas on us. Eddie never lost his teeth, sanity, and wife. After realizing the danger he was imposing on the citizens of Los Angeles, Sammy Hagar found that he could indeed obey the speed limit and became a high school driving instructor. Gary Cherone became an everlasting recluse after the shame of inflicting “More Than Words” on every grocery-store patron. Life is so much more fun when we ignore all the pain and disillusionment.
And anyway, when I was introduced to the band at age ten, I thought Roth’s real last name was Van Halen. . . David Van Halen. He was the band, and the other guys were just along for the ride. And to some extent, that initial impression has stuck with me. Aside from some occasionally impressive but otherwise gratuitous guitar and drum acrobatics, it was really all about the energy and exhilaration Dave brought out in the band. As revolutionary (for better or worse) as Eddie’s guitar playing was, it never excited me half as much as Roth’s “wows” and “oohs”.
Van Halen was fun with Dave. Nothing deep or serious was ever the subject of discussion. And you got the sense that it wasn’t because they couldn’t have a moment of profound thought. These didn’t seem like completely shallow, moronic guys. Philosophy just wasn’t the point, unless it was the philosophy of a good time. They were rock and roll. The direct descendants of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis with a little of the early 60s British invasion slipping into their bloodline along the way. They had passed over the folk-rock influence of Dylan. There was no room for social commentary. No room for anarchistic rebellion. Their purpose was simple and important. They were there to rattle the walls, make the kids dance, and celebrate life. They painted a picture of juvenescence. . . at times dark and fiery. . . at times triumphant and, well, drunk. But it was an image captured without judgment and one that, in fact, celebrated those youthful indiscretions which placed us on the path to becoming more interesting adults.
And more than anyone in the band, Roth understood that summer belonged to youth. He saw the band as the main event at every summer block party in the country. So it never phased me that so many of the songs in their catalog, and even many of their singles, were cover tunes. Van Halen picked up the baton dropped by the Beach Boys a decade earlier and flew in the face of the then-current hardcore punk phenomenon. And when possible, they poked fun at the dour patina of angst that hardcore was starting to feign, which like it or not, certainly wallowed in the Winter of Discontent. And for a band from Southern California, winter just did not compute.
While critically not their best record, Diver Down probably most epitomizes a summer release to me. It’s not their most innovative or interesting release (that goes to Fair Warning followed closely by Van Halen I). But you can feel the sand creeping between your toes from Dave’s very first grunt on “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” The cover tunes nearly outweigh the originals, but the song choices and renditions are nothing short of brilliant. I mean, come on, who else in 1982 would start off their album with a Kinks song? (Okay, other than The Kinks). And, unlike the later Bowie/Jagger embarrassment, even the Van Halen cover of “Dancing In The Streets” is forgivable. . . enjoyable even.
Comedy writers very rarely, if ever, win the Academy Award. I mean, Caddyshack and the first Ghostbusters are both inspired comedic writing with references persisting in pop culture to this day, but you’ll never see Harold Ramis with an Oscar for best screenplay. And likewise, it’s unlikely that Roth will ever be heralded for his lyrics. Which is a shame. Comedy thumbs its nose at pretension and generally receives critical disrespect as a result. There was a similar thumbing of the nose in Roth’s writing. His tongue was firmly planted in his cheek, or often, sticking directly out at you. There’s seldom a hint of poetic leaning, yet you always feel he’s honestly talking directly to you. The bravado and swagger of his interview and stage persona give way to an honest, fun-loving compadre. Just a guy, with a locker-room wink and nod, talking about late-night hootenannies, mishaps with authoritarianism and lust-filled conquests.
Lust was always percolating in Van Halen’s music, which again evokes our hottest days and nights. Sex is somehow tied to summer. Girls in ultra-short cutoffs and thin, white T-shirts washing cars. The bikini-clad parading up and down the beach. Convertibles whizzing past filled with the overly-tanned and sun-bleached. It was rarely the reality, but Van Halen’s music made the mirage seem to abundantly exist somewhere. . . probably in California. And, of course, Roth took sex to the absurd. Tight, leather, assless chaps adorned karate kick exclamation points followed by the riding of gigantic phallic microphones. Basically, he looked like an farcical, oversexed, jackass cowboy in any other context than onstage. But, absurd or not, he owned the stage. And Van Halen shows were never boring.
I realize this is devolving into a heavy-handed Roth-fanboy love-letter. And in fairness to the rest of the band, and as Roth’s later solo releases would show, Van Halen was by no means one man. The chemistry of the four was undeniable. While I was mildly critical of Eddie and Alex earlier, the truth is, the excessiveness of their playing was necessary ballast to Roth’s lampooning. Eddie can hardly be blamed for the fact that every metal guitarist stole his unique soloing style, ultimately rendering it a joke. He was about as graceful a guitarist as you’d ever see. The instrument was an effortless extension to his own body. And what was truly astounding about Eddie Van Halen was not his finger-tapping and dive-bomb guitar antics, but his sense of rhythm, and ability to invent amazingly intricate riffs that left no room for a second guitarist. Plus, anyone who mandates that producer Ted Templeman isolate his guitar in the left speaker for their entire debut release has cojones the size of melons.
Alex was a devil of a drummer. He reinforced the tinge of darkness that would have otherwise been far less apparent in the band. And Michael Anthony. Poor Michael. He’s often been voted the “luckiest guy in rock and roll”—implying he never really brought much to the table. But while he was by no means the best bass player in the world, he was solid. And he had the foresight to keep his parts simple for those frequent times on stage where he would be knee-deep in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. But what Michael Anthony really brought to the band, and what should never be overlooked or underestimated, were his backing vocals. Van Halen’s backing vocals were nothing short of impeccable, and Michael’s bright, angelic falsetto was wonderfully at odds with the darkest riffs the Van Halen brothers could muster. It was like throwing the Bee Gees over Black Sabbath and realizing that it created some kind of crazy “Carmina Burana” sounding mash-up. Drunken angels and demons singing around the beach bonfire.
I can think of no better way to celebrate the summer than rolling down the car window and blasting “Running With The Devil”, “Beautiful Girls,” “Everybody Wants Some,” “Dirty Movies,” “Little Guitars,” or “Drop Dead Legs.” Those first six Van Halen records make up the undisputed soundtrack of summer and allow us to cling madly to the destructively hopeful feeling of being young and stupid.