When we left our heroes, they were about to rule the world. Which is a nice place to be; actually ruling the world is exhausting, and having ruled the world is sad, but a young man who’s about to rule the world can get himself some leg tonight, for sure.
Especially if they look like this:
The first album, Van Halen, came out in ’78; the band did a few tours opening up for bands past their prime (Sabbath) or who would never have a prime (Journey), and blew everyone off the stage to the point where no one would hire them, but it didn’t matter because the record had gone platinum and they were headliners.
For six years. That’s it: Van Halen to 1984, ’78 to ’84, six years. That puts them in the middle of pack, I suppose: Sex Pistols only existed for 18 months or so; Metallica is celebrating their Diamond Jubilee next year. Just as charisma has very little correlation with looks or intelligence, Great Bandness has almost nothing to do with longevity.
And besides, Van Halen kept going after 1984, right?
They were a working band: Van Halen released eight albums in those six years, and played 114.33 shows a year–I did the math–on such tours as the World Vacation Tour, the Party Til You Die Tour, and the Hide Your Sheep Tour. Big promises–sun and tits and triumph–and Van Halen delivered. Critics scoffed–they do that–but the kids lined up to dig in their blue jeans for crumpled and sweaty dollar bills to throw at the band.
Eight albums in six years isn’t even stupidly prolific, Younger Enthusiasts. (If you’re still reading about this nonsense.) The music business used to be based–like all businesses–in actual stuff, tangible products that people had to buy, and by Christ if there were a whole passel of Van Halen fans out there willing to plunk down $4.99 for a LP, then by Christ they were going to get the chance to do so.
None of Van Halen’s records hold together as art, and they’re all pretty much the same album: bunch of original material centering on the themes of “being awesome” and “pussy;” a cover or two (or three or four); a solo thing from Eddie. (Eddie always did a solo thing, no matter the venue. Album, live show, family cookout, business meeting: for a couple minutes, everybody had to shut the fuck up so he could play guitar. In Eddie’s defense, I’ve been listening to the few VH shows with acceptable sound on the internet and when Alex solos, I fast forward, and when Mike does whatever the fuck that thing he does live is, I fast forward, and then Eddie solos and I start to click the button to fast forward but then I don’t. Boy, could he play guitar.)
Their recorded output is a familiar rock and roll arc, actually: first album with all their good material on it, second one has the songs that didn’t make the first record, and then someone buys a synthesizer. There are no turds or outright clunkers, but also no true classics that hang together. Personally, I like Van Halen II the least, and Women and Children or Fair Warning the best, but one of my favorites is from Diver Down:
If you only have five minutes to explain Van Halen to someone, then play them this; it’s the perfect distillation of everything the band was. You’ve got the virtuosic opening, and then the drums and Michael Anthony hammering eighth notes on the root of the chord, but most of all there is the melody–Van Halen songs had good melodies–and the Beach Boy harmonies. And there’s Diamond Dave.
“David Lee Roth couldn’t sing, man.”
Oh, suck my improperly-wiped asshole, you general consensus-abiding slob. Stop listening to other people’s’ ears and use your own. You know who could sing, really sing, man? Steve Perry. How about Dennis DeYoung? Pipes of an angel, Dennis DeYoung. Whitney Houston had a beautiful voice, and look how that turned out for her.
I’ll take Diamond Dave. (No one else could take Diamond Dave, though. You know how he seems? That’s how he is. Imagine if cocaine were wearing spandex. Now imagine yourself in a business relationship with the cocaine wearing spandex.)
They were the biggest band in the world, back when there was such a title and it meant something, and when this new thing–the Tech Billionaire–came along and decided to throw a party, then Van Halen had to be the headliners, right? Steve Wozniak, the guy that started Apple who wasn’t the creepy one who’s dead now, basically pulled a Spicoli and hired Van Halen to play at his party: this was the US Festival.
The 60’s had Woodstock, right? Why shouldn’t the 80’s have a festival, and so in 1982 Woz paid for one; the Grateful Dead played a breakfast show, which sounded exactly as good as you might imagine. They looked like this:
In their defense, that’s how they always looked.
Woz lost $12 million on the show, so naturally he staged another eight months later. This time, though, the three-day festival would feature themed days: there was New Wave Day, headlined by The Clash; and Rock Day, topped by Bowie; and the third day was for heavy metal, and Van Halen was the draw. (The Scorpions, Priest, Ozzy, Quiet Riot, and the Crüe opened for them.) Van Halen got $1.5 million–which is $3.6 million in today’s money–and 300,000 kids showed up.
They looked like this:
“I forgot the FUCKIN’ words!”
Is how Dave greets the enormous crowd less than a minute into Romeo Delight, which is about taking whiskey to parties and squeezing ladies, and there was the promise: the winners don’t do their homework. Winners charm their way through, and fuck the hottest cheerleaders, and go to the best parties. Van Halen was throwing a party for the winners, and–since you were here–you must be a winner, right?
“Hey, man, don’t be squirtin’ water at me, or I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend.”
Hey, man, don’t believe ol’ TotD. Watch the whole show:
It is Van Halen at their Van Halest: everyone takes an interminable solo, and Dave keeps shouting “CALIFORNIA!” in the same timbre as a coked-up Grover Muppet, and Michael Anthony hits the highest harmony notes perfectly every single time
The only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniels bottles is The Clash, baby!”
Dave says this to the crowd as he drinks straight from the Jack Daniels bottle that had been brought to him by a midget butler. (Dave also had midget bodyguards.) It happens around 23 minutes in, and you be the judge as to whether or not there’s whiskey in Dave’s bottle. (Nope.) He would take several shots at the New Wave bands during the set, and single out The Clash. (They would never play another show.)
David Lee Roth also sang an a capella rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s God Bless the Child at 57:00 and you owe it to yourself to hear him try to hit the high note. Trust me on this one.
The show was a huge success, so naturally it led directly to the end of the band. (Woz lost another $12 million; I bet he doesn’t sit around missing it. What’s the point of being rich if you can’t hire Van Halen to play your party?) They sold a ton of records and sold out shows around the world, but this was their first real national exposure–Van Halen wasn’t allowed on the Johnny Carson show–and Hollywood types got a sniff of David Lee and poured celluloid bullshit into his ears, and Dave started thinking he was a movie star.
1984–which has only one good side on it and might be their weakest album–was an international blockbuster, mostly due to the hit singles, Jump and Hot for Teacher, and their videos. Didn’t matter: the end was coming, and after the tour (the exact circumstances change depending on who’s telling the story), David Lee Roth (still thinking he was going to be a movie star, and riding high off his solo hit cover of California Girls) left the band.
The last show was in Nuremberg. As last shows often are. This is what it looked like:
Ah, well. No one comes to see the singer, right? The Van Halen brothers, and also Michael Anthony, soldiered on; in fact, they picked up a new Origin Story. This time, it involved Ferraris. Eddie and Sammy Hagar, who had been in Montrose and recently had several solo hits and purchased several jumpsuits, shared a mechanic. This seems like a coincidence until you realize that–even in California–there are only so many garages you can take a Ferrari to. The guy around the corner isn’t going to cut it, and you can’t get your oil changed at Jiffy Lube.
Eddie and Alex met Sammy Hagar, and jammed with him; they hit it off, and Sammy joined the band. (Presumably, Michael Anthony was informed at some point.) The fans accepted this with equanimity and good cheer, welcoming Sammy Hagar into the Van Halen family with love and acceptance, and are certainly not still arguing about it in comment sections and forum boards to this fucking day, no siree.
Switching out a lead singer is tricky: AC/DC did it, but they had to; Bon was simply not up to making another record. Genesis kinda did, but mostly they just turned into a different band entirely. (We will not mention the spate of legacy acts that have replaced their singers with dudes who used to imitate them in tribute bands.)
I distinctly remember my fellow Rock Nerd Jay Dorfman and I discussing whether or not the name would be changed: Van Hagar? Could be worse, right? Imagine if they had hired Leon Schlongenheimer? No one is going to the local sportatorium to see Van Schlongenheimer. What if Eddie, in addition to inventing all his guitar toys, also invented a Time Sheath and went back to hire Jim Morrison? You can’t be named Van Morrison, because that is Van Morrison’s name. And he’ll sue your ass; he’s mean.
They kept the name; they had to, and besides: you could never come up with another logo as good.
Look at that shit. Even better than looking at it: draw it on your desk in math class with blue ballpoint pen. Stealies are tough to get right, and Metallica’s was cool, but no one beat the mighty Van Halen’s dirt-simple iconography. (Maybe the Dead Kennedys, but they sucked; political bullshit; the Dead Kennedys were for the weird kids. Van Halen was for winners.)
Anyway, Sammy was a Van Halen now, and the band looked like this:
Look how happy they all look about the situation.
(Who you think punched Eddie? I bet it was Alex. A lot of bands have a Puncher–the Dead had a couple–and Alex was Van Halen’s. I don’t know if Alex is still getting drunk and punching people–he’s 63, so I truly hope not–but it used to be one of his favorite activities.)
The sound changed, obviously, it had to: it was still Eddie and Alex playing real loud with a blonde guy shouting harblegarble about tits over the top of it, plus Michael Anthony on the high harmonies–you couldn’t hear the bass on the first two post-Dave VH albums–but something was different. Alex had started using these non-musical electric drum sounds.
But they were still something. Watch this–and I know I keep telling you what to do, but you know you like it–and I think I hit the button that will start it at the right song, but if I didn’t then go to 22 minutes in.
The song is 5150, a deep cut from the record, but it’s one of Eddie’s greatest guitar lines; the solo he takes in this version is jaw-shattering. Also, everyone onstage is wearing genie pants, and Sammy Hagar is wearing every bandana in the world. Sammy Hagar could wear a bandana in ways that you did not know bandanas could be worn.
And Eddie has a burning cigarette wedged under the strings on the headstock of his Magic Guitar.
Then it all went to shit. (Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern with the Van Halen brothers.) The first follow-up to 5150 took 2 years and was called OU812, which even as an impressionable dipshit struck me as cheesy. The third Van Hagar record took 3 years, and was called For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, which was even worse than OU812, and had the Crystal Pepsi ad Right Now on it. I went to see this tour, me and Matt Tahaney, and the whole crowd chanted “EDDIE, EDDIE!” at the openers–Alice in Chains, who were a terribly boring band–and then I yelled myself hoarse, and went to the bathroom during Sammy’s solo acoustic number, and after that I stopped giving any sort of shit about Van Halen.
In my defense, so did everyone else. Van Halen kind of stopped giving a shit about itself: how else do you explain hiring Gary Cherone? Look at this bullshit:
I mean, really. Fucker looks like a contest winner. He lasted one album, not that anyone noticed.
However, a picture from Cherone’s brief tenure in the band does help to explain the twenty years that have followed:
See it? C’mon, you see it.
Look at Eddie.
Yeah: sometime in the late 90’s, Eddie Van Halen lost his fucking mind. His wife, Mackenzie Phillips, left him and he started
doing crystal meth becoming unreliable, and entered a phase in his life where he was completely and utterly incapable of seeing a microphone without talking shit about his bandmates into it.
So they had fired Sammy–or Sammy quit, it depends on who’s telling the story–and hired the scrub from Extreme, and then they fired him; David Lee Roth was back! And then he wasn’t, and then Sammy came back but left again, and then it was Dave’s turn once more. Then, Sammy AND Dave came back at the same time, and take one wild guess how that turned out?
And one morning in the past few years, Eddie Van Halen woke up and thought,
“Who haven’t I fired, alienated, and talked shit about in the press?”
And Eddie Van Halen thought,
But Eddie Van Halen realized he could not do that to Alex. So then he thought,
And the fucker fired Michael Anthony. Who never hurt a single soul, and seemed like the only tolerable human out of the whole grinning lot.
Eddie’s little fatass kid is in the band now, and Dave’s back. They look like this:
But it doesn’t matter. It hasn’t for a very long time, in fact. No more Rock Stars, and no more Guitar Gods. Presidents do the winning now, and get the pussy. No more cocky young boys from California, and no more promises made, and no more promises kept.
There used to be a band from California; they were called Van Halen and they looked like this:
Wait, I forgot. Van Halen had one other thing in common with the Dead. Remember how the Dead would end shows–if they felt like it–with And We Bid You Goodnight, a sweet send-off to the crowd, sung sweatily and with cigarette burning in the guitarist’s hand?
Just like that:
And that was Van Halen, who were an American band from California. I apologize for this being so long; sometimes you catch a band like a cold. We’re done here. Party’s over.
Say goodnight, Dave.
Til we meet again.