On Van Halen
So, for the first time in thirty years1 Van Halen have made a record with their original and, I shouldn’t even have to say, best lead singer2. My first impulse was to finally get around to writing the second “Who the Fuck Listens to This” on the subject, but then it occurred to me that, like, I the fuck was listening to it, and then I realized that I’m kind-of obsessed with Van Halen.
Oh, I don’t like them. I’ve never bought any of their records. I think when I was young, and they weren’t the force for overplayed, overbaked rock radio nonsense that I would later see them as, I thought they were vaguely cool. The problem, in fact, is that I don’t like them. A number of years ago, some wag for some magazine3 wrote a funny piece reimagining a world in which The Replacements got to be as big as Jesus, and Van Halen were a scrappy, drunken underdog band. It stuck in my brain because it makes perfect sense.
When I talk about things I admire in a rock band (a self-contained vision, a willingness to do new and different things with the elements of which the band is composed, etc.), there isn’t a one that doesn’t also apply to Van Halen. They have a jumping, yowling frontman in the Accepted-Hard-Rock-James-Brown-Mode, they have an appropriately-adventurous guitar player who invented new ways to get sound out of his instrument4, they have, most importantly (for me in a rock-music context , anyway), a virtuosic drummer. They’ve been willing to completely change their sound – adding synthesizers to your rock band in the anti-synth early eighties is a pretty gutsy move, as was replacing one of the most recognizable and…um…frontmaniest frontmen in rock history and then retooling the way you played to accommodate him5.
It’s that second bit that seems, to me, to be an extra-shining example of what I suppose one could call integrity: AC/DC replaced their singer, too, and with a singer in a very different style to boot, but they basically just found a guy who already fit what they were doing. And perhaps a more apt comparison is Genesis, who also replaced a dynamic, show-centering frontman with a kind-of boring guy who looked like a dad and changed around him. But where Genesis under Phil Collins basically just took the most radio-friendly and salable aspects of their band and churned out albums like Amish people churn out butter6 Van Halen became a little more song-oriented, and toned down the theatrics, thereby theoretically making themselves less salable, since the theatrics, when Sammy Hagar joined the band, were the entire point of the band.
They continued through a process of evolution, not unlike, say U2, a band that gets a great deal of hate, but no corresponding lack of critical respect. They changed the way they played their instruments, and the way they interacted with each other as a band, a number of times over the course of a long, long career. And maybe the problem is that they have no followers (nobody since about 1990 has ever wanted to sound like Van Halen, except for that time when Stephen Malkmus played “Eruption” on David Letterman), and maybe the problem is that they’re so famous that people write them off.
Or maybe the problem is that they’re fucking terrible7. They are at some point in the process of the press for releasing their first album with DLR in thirty years or whatever, and the video for “Tattoo” (which is not, against all reason, a cover of The Who’s song, or even Jordin Sparks’) is currently making the rounds and, hey, it sucks on toast. I mean, Eddie Van Halen still plays guitar like that, it’s true. Good for him. And there’s David Lee Roth, dancing around like a drunken uncle. And you know, I listened to it. And I’ll listen to their album when it comes out.
Because I have a problem.
SOME HOUSECLEANING THINGS: dimoko and I have agreed that we both need to post more. I, specifically, need to post about things that aren’t records, and, more pressingly, that aren’t about records that I hate. To that end, my Approved Mix of the Best Things in 2011 will go up sometime in the very near future, and I’ll make some posts outlining what it is I’m trying to do here. I have no idea what dimoko’s intentions are, but I would imagine they involve telling more jokes and ruminating less on Van Halen, because that’s the kind of guy he is.
2 who was also a paramedic for a spell, and therefore knows all of the risks of driving fifty-five. Between him and Mike Watt, we should all be pretty well over speeding as a force for cool.
3 while I’m pretty sure this blog can count its readers without running out of fingers, if you are the person who wrote it and you’re mad at me for not mentioning you, please email me and I’ll fix this sentence to read “in a piece written by _______ that appeared in _______ , which I didn’t know because I was too busy demanding that people put their balls on my face”
4 The fact that each and every one of those sounds is super-annoying notwithstanding.
5 I realize that nobody likes Gary Cherone, but then they did it again!
7 at the same time, I’m only human: “Panama,” “Running With the Devil,” their covers of “You Really Got Me” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” and a version of “Hot For Teacher” that’s, say, half as long (which probably doesn’t exist), are all valuable contributions to the body of American Music. Can’t nobody take that away from them*
* no I did not forget “Jamie’s Cryin’,” you people are sick.