Favorite Bands: Van Halen

Van Halen

Photo: Anirudh Loul, used under Creative Commons

A party started in 1976, and I’m pretty sure it’s outlasted a couple of hang overs and several trips to rehab. That would be the band consisting of the Dutch brothers Van Halen, one Michael Anthony, and a Jewish eye doctor’s kid from Pasadena named David Lee Roth. They exploded on the scene with a celebration of the rock and roll lifestyle called “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

Naturally, all the attention went to clown prince Roth, who once quipped, “I am the party.” Maybe so, and Diamond Dave oozed charisma and bravado, not to mention naked sexuality so forceful he made Mick Jagger look like a timid monk. But that wasn’t the attraction. That was the side show.

The attraction was Eddie Van Halen and those almost supernatural fingers of his. There was nothing groundbreaking about his technique. Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore before him used many of Eddie’s tricks to great success. But with the exception of Hendrix, no one had ever played those techniques quite the way Eddie Van Halen put them together. His fretwork was lightning fast, using hammer-ons and pull-offs to cram as many notes into a measure as possible. What Neil Peart of Rush did with the drums, Eddie Van Halen did with that guitar. Only better.

These were not particularly deep boys. They weren’t interested in changing the world like The Beatles or preserving and extending the Delta Blues tradition like the Rolling Stones. There would be none of the angry philosophical rants of Pink Floyd or the polyrhythmic flights of fancy like Robert Fripp and his many Kings Crimson. No, sir. It was all a party designed to give us all an excuse to listen to Eddie set the world on fire.

The party went on for eight years, but then David Lee suffered from what Keith Richards calls “LVS” (Lead Vocalist Syndrome). Despite the band being named for the guitarist and the drummer, he thought he was the reason Van Halen even existed. A couple of well-regarded solo albums and a cover of Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo (I Ain’t Got Nobody)” made a compelling case. But then Dave’s career (and some would say his mental state) went off the deep end. Meanwhile, Van Halen continued with former Montrose lead singer Sammy Hagar. Detractors called this “Van Hagar,” and a debate raged that sounded almost like the Coke vs. New Coke battle of the late 1980’s. (Coke won. Who wanted Diet Coke with sugar?)

But did it work? It was clear this was Eddie’s band. And the addition of Hagar brought in a fourth musician rather than just another mouthpiece. Some of the old fire was gone, but hell, the Van Halens and Anthony were in their 30’s by then. Eddie’s wife had just given birth to their future bassist. Van Halen Mark II proved every bit as solid as the original, sounding a bit tighter, and getting a little darker with their lyrics as time went on (“Mine All Mine,” “Humans Being”). By the mid-1990’s, there was a sizable contingent who would listen to Van Halen and say “David Lee who?” Not a majority, but quite a few.

And then we found out David Lee Roth wasn’t the only crazy one in the band. Eddie had a meltdown on Sammy Hagar, summoning him from Hawaii on Father’s Day to work on an album – Never mind that it’s a five hour flight to LA. For whatever reason, most suspect it was Eddie’s drinking, Van Halen found itself looking for another singer. They selected Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone in one of the classic WTF moments in rock history. Nothing against Cherone, but having listened to his work in Extreme, he definitely was not the right fit for what essentially was the first ever hair metal band. It wasn’t bad, but the album was out and gone before I’d even known they’d replaced Hagar.

Van Halen III, as it was dubbed, did have some of that classic Van Halen sound, but I think it was more Van Halen was a poor fit for Cherone, not that Cherone was a poor fit for Van Halen. Frankly, after 20 years, only two people can front Van Halen: David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. The two even toured together in the Non-Halen Tour a few years back. The band went back and forth between Hagar and Roth since then, usually finding it easier to deal with Hagar’s musicianship than Roth’s inexplicable hijinks. (“If a reunion tour started in Toledo,” Alex Van Halen once quipped, “it wouldn’t have made it to Cleveland.”)

The band finally settled on Roth and ousted Michael Anthony, who now tours with Hagar. Eddie’s son Wolfgang now plays bass. They’ve started recording again, but frankly, I think the fire went out a long time ago.

For me, the original Van Halen was high school. We would belt “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Panama” (or as my wife and her friends sang it, “Pantyhose!”) at the tops of our lungs. Our cross country team had a camp every summer, and we would terrorize the other campers during workouts running by with Nixonesque V’s over our heads yelling “Van Halen!” And let’s be honest. I love watching my wife shake it to “Hot for Teacher.” Let’s face it. I married a hair metal chick. And I love every minute of it. This is one reason.

The so-called Van Hagar line-up saw me go from high school grad to shifting factory jobs to my move to Cincinnati. I remember me, Ziggins, and a couple of factory grunts I worked with driving up to Municipal Stadium one summer for the Indians’ home opener with their first Hagar album, 5150, blaring on the speakers. So what if the wheels came off in 1994? By then, I was wondering when the new Guns N’ Roses would come out and was discovering this new band called the Foo Fighters and falling in love with a Scottish goth chick who fronted Garbage.

But from the time I was ten-years-old until I turned 28, it was a party.