The Great American Bands. Dear sweet Iterated Christ, save us from pontifications on the Great American Bands. None here, I promise.
But I will say this: they had to be from somewhere.
You’ve got New York City, which is an ethnic European island, and then everything else is California or Texas; all white America is California or Texas. Wyoming is in Texas, and so is the majority of Idaho that rich people haven’t bought; Boston is in Northern California, and Miami is in between Los Angeles and San Diego. Americans light out for the territories, or they circle the wagons. California and Texas.
Van Halen was from California, and maintained a half-acre zone of sunsoaked sovereignty around themselves at all times; they’d play England or Japan, and blondes in wet tee-shirts would materialize in the corner of your vision, and then you’d turn your head and there would be an empty swimming pool filled with fatless dervishes on skinny skateboards made from orange plastic. It never rained in Van Halen songs, and winter was a discarded rumor.
How do we judge art? What is art, and what is entertainment; and do we measure these two categories with different rubrics? Are bonus points awarded for great hair?
Does it keep its own promises?
Van Halen didn’t offer any sort of journey–that was the Dead–and they weren’t dangerous, and they certainly had no wisdom to share; Van Halen promised a party. And they delivered: albums, shows, their image, their videos, all of it; a real, live California party right in the tape deck of your shitty car in the shitty town your parents forced you to grow up in, instead of California.
So: California. An American band, even moreso than it appears at first: two Dutch-Indonesian immigrants, a Jew, and Michael Anthony.
They all grew up in Pasadena and Altadena and Lomadena and various other Denas, and it is in those towns that all the Van Halen Origin Stories take place, the liturgy of half-true stories all fans know by heart; every band has ’em: there’s Mick and Keith meeting on the train, and Bobby and Garcia at the music store on New Year’s Eve, and KISS putting an ad in the Village Voice.
Van Halen has Eddie starting off on drums, and Alex on guitar; then there’s something about a paper route, and they switch instruments. David Lee Roth was a rich kid, doctor’s son, and he semi-weaseled his way into the Van Halen brothers’ band by renting them his PA. Then Michael Anthony showed up.
After that, they played house parties and suburban backyards; the cops came every time, and several riots broke out. This cheered the Van Halen boys, as all Great Bands have started at least several riots: they were on their way to the clubs, first the outer-boro places where they did five sets a night of cover tunes, and then moving inward to Hollywood, and upward once they got there. The band started at Gazzari’s, which was grimy and shabby and run by a cadaverous lech, and proceeded to the Starwood, and then the Whiskey. Whiskey’s still there; the other places aren’t
They own Los Angeles: time to make a record, but in an odd echo of Guns n Roses early days a decade later, first Van Halen had to avoid being helped by KISS. Gene Simmons had heard them, loved them, and wanted to sign them to his vanity label; Van Halen was impressed, and went to New York to record some demos with Gene, who was–predictably–so obnoxious that the deal soured. Think of how obnoxious you have to be to piss off people in a band with David Lee Roth. Also, Gene was probably just trying to poach Eddie for KISS.
(GnR would go through just about the same bullshit with Paul Stanley, but Van Halen seemed to have thought that Gene was their big break, while Guns made fun of Paul the entire time, and Izzy might have stolen his wallet.)
So they sign with Warner Brothers in 1977; this is what they sounded like at the time:
Go listen to it: it’s a real decent SBD from 10/15/77 at the Pasadena Civic Center; they sold out the 3,000-seater without a record out, but their first one was being released soon, and they play most of it. They are young and brutal and bashing, but they don’t plod–the songs don’t actually speed up, but they sound like they do–and the revelation is the vocals.
“David Lee Roth couldn’t sing.”
FUCK YOU, go listen to that show. He wasn’t Freddie Mercury, but no one other than Freddie was: Dave has as many notes in his range as Mick Jagger does, and he screams better than any white boy has a right to.
Plus he looked like this at the time:
Which will take you far. For the journey, you want a bearded mystic; for danger, you needed a skinny junkie; but this guy’s at the best party. By definition: whichever party this dude is at is the best party.
And the rest of the band looked like this:
(Enthusiasts, it is here that I will level with you, and say that when this began I did not think that I would be seeing quite so much of Eddie Van Halen’s dick.)
Obviously, Dave was the Bobby and Eddie was the Garcia, and then there’s the rhythm section, and rhythm sections are like assholes: their appearance is not the point. Michael Anthony was shaped like a balding fireplug, and Alex looks like the fucking devil, or maybe Keanu Reeves’ mean and shiftless brother. Like, if Keanu Reeves had a Frank Stallone: that’s what Alex looks like.
(Two good-looking guys might be the most any four-piece band had. Cheap Trick had two, and so did The Doors; Morrison and Manzarek were both beautiful, and the other two were total mutants. Joe Strummer and one of the other guys who wasn’t Mick Jones were handsome. Zeppelin? No one had a crush on John Paul Jones, did they?)
I didn’t mean for Thoughts on Van Halen to last as long as it has, and apparently it isn’t over; sometimes you catch a band like a cold. Tomorrow: California conquers the world, and then it all just peters out into shit.