In Defense of Van Halen
Very often there is a fine line between making jokes and being a joke. Van Halen does not concern themselves with that line. That’s something I’ve always appreciated about the joy with which they approach their show. David Lee Roth intends to be as much PT Barnum as Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant.
Having said that: Roth always had a dark side, and a slightly mean-spirited side, particularly towards women. Unfortunately, at one time, this posturing was integral to every kind of aggressive rock. In example: Mick Jagger, who is the template for this even more than Elvis. But the aggressive male sexuality aspect of both the lyrics and the performance is an inherently dumb thing, and this brings us full circle. Because we aren’t talking about the Beatles or the Dead Kennedys or The Sonic Youth. They are more like Cheap Trick or Deep Purple.
It’s been said for years that there’s a direct, linear relation from Vikings, Crusaders, and medieval pirates, to the Rolling Stones 1973 World Tour. And the aggressive male sexual violence implicit in that era of rock is what people mean when they say Rock’n'Roll is dangerous. They mean it is detrimental to the safety, security, and chastity of Christian Women.
A dalliance with that danger was often literally the price of admission — buy the ticket, take the ride… There’s a negativity ingrained in the experience. (See also: The Doors, Led Zeppelin.) But the variant, the improvement, and the innovation, was not Eddie Van Halen‘s two-finger-tapping technique on the guitar. The innovation was Roth’s updating and mainstreaming of the lifestyle. He de-toothed and demystified the danger that Mick Jagger (“Playing With Fire”) invented.
It was piracy by way of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop Jon B”, not Christopher Columbus raping and pillaging. Edward, Alex, and Mad Anthony‘s So-Cal beach party boogie-woogie removed the fear factor. It was a party, and everyone was invited, not commandeered or coopted. You danced the night away, you did not “ride the snake.” This was “Panama!,” not pentagrams. This was pink spandex, not black leather. Bleach-blonde hair, not blacked eyes. And Edward’s innovation, as it were, was as much the sustained inclusion of guitar solos in pop songs as much as it was the proliferation of two-finger-tapping in hard rock.
They were not from industrial English towns like Birmingham, nor were they from Brooklyn, the Bronx, or the Bowery. They were from Southern California. These four men smiled and laughed while they played. They had suntans. But they were still steeped in rock’s dangerous side enough to get lowdown and dirty. “Ain’t Talking ’bout Love” is as mean as anybody’s anything.
The jumping of the shark was when Sammy Hagar, the famous hotelier and purveyor of top-shelf tequila, swung that all towards “When It’s Love?” — an epic defanging in the vein of The Lettermen or the Kingston Trio, not the Beach Boys. Van Hagar was all Richie Cunningham and no Fonzie. Where the original lineup was to Black Sabbath as the Monkees were to The Beatles, Van Hagar was more like Ozzy Osbourne in the MTV reality show The Osbournes, or Howard Stern on America’s Got Talent. Hagar took away what was vital — the danger and the humor — replacing it only with what was mass-marketable.
For better or for worse — good, bad, or indifferent — Sunday night at the Toyota Center, Van Halen gets back what has been missing. Honestly I’ve got a sense of humor about them. I’ve always thought they were simultaneously intentionally/unintentionally funny. It ain’t art with a capital A. More like T&A, if anything.