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Wednesday, October 07, 2020

All My Heroes Are Dead, Part 1,984: Eddie Van Halen

 Well, it's that time again, folks: time to mourn the passing of another giant. And also to mourn the abominably pitiful state our culture is in, particularly pop culture.  

Eddie Van Halen, arguably the most influential guitarist in Rock n' Roll history, passed away at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer. It's a milestone worth noting, even if the strong, confident, high-T America that Van Halen once epitomized has been dead for quite some time.

The original-- the real -- Van Halen was such a brief moment in time that it's easy to forget how revelational they were. It may be hard to see today, after the brand was tarnished by constant infighting, countless counterfeits and Gary Cherone, but the original Van Halen were like a beacon of light arising from the murk of the late 70s, when Disco reigned, Rock was dying and everyone was miserable.

The late Seventies were a lot darker and uglier than people seem to remember. Sure, Jimmy Carter bogged the entire country down with his dreary church lady/schoolmarm energy,  but the culture was being lit by the Black Sun of Son of Sam's New York. Studio 54, with its witches brew of wealth, nihilism and cocaine, was the Vatican of the new Plutonian Church. But the early vitality of Disco had given way to cookie-cutter mass production, and soft rock was ruling the airwaves. 

By the time Van Halen rolled around, nearly all of the hard rock giants of the late 60s and early 70s - Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, KISS, Aerosmith, The Who, Alice Cooper, etc etc-- were either falling apart or in crisis mode. Faceless Midwest arena rock and Southern boogie bands temporarily filled the void. 

Then, out of absolutely nowhere came this firestorm of intoxicating masculinity, leaping and grinning and spraying its spunk all over an exhausted genre. 

On the surface, they looked like any number of Led Zeppelin wannabes, but those comparisons evaporated as soon as you dropped the needle on their first album and that overamped car horn gave way to Eddie's quicksilver glissandos and David Lee Roth's yips and howls, which drew less on Led Zeppelin and more on Parliament and the Ohio Players. 

And in one of those moments where circumstance gives way to symbolism, Van Halen toured as Black Sabbath's support act in the waning days of the Ozzy years, and blew the tired titans off the stage. Every single night, by all accounts.

I first heard Van Halen when WBCN-FM played "Somebody Get a Doctor," when their second LP came out. I had the same reaction I'd have four years later when I first heard the Cocteau Twins: what the hell did I just hear? Was that some transmission from another dimension? How the hell do you make guitars sound like that?

Of course, I was an alt.rock true believer by then, and actually sorted my LPs into pre-punk and post-punk stacks. So the ELO and ELP went here, and the Siouxsie and Circle Jerks went there. But for me it wasn't about whatever idiotic ideology that punks pretended to believe in, it was about cutting ties with the tired old sounds that had become so oppressive to someone who had been plugged into popular music since a very young age. I even slept with the radio on, OK?

So I used the money for my 14th birthday to buy Nobody's Heroes by Stiff Little Fingers, A Different Kind of Tension by Buzzcocks and Women and Children First. I didn't see any contradiction there- it was 1980 music. And looking back the only real differences with those records is regional. It was all high-tech, effects-drenched fast n' loud, built for the future. 

In a lot of ways, Van Halen was the musical equivalent of the first Star Wars movie. It was a blast of pure pop culture enthusiasm buttressed by technical expertise and "what the fuck, let's try it" spirit of pre-Feudal California. It was pure Apollonian sunshine come to blast away the Plutonian darkness and low-T enervation stalking the land, just as Star Wars blew away all the self-indulgent cocaine nihilism the early 70s rebel auteurs had surrendered to.

It wasn't their fault that thousands of impostors arose overnight to poach on their land.

Of course, Van Halen were on the shitlist when Hardcore rolled around. All of a sudden there was a new Year Zero to pledge allegiance to and I wasn't having it. Sure, I shaved my head, donned my army boots and was up front at all the ages-shows, but I didn't go home and listen to hardcore records, outside of a small few like Group Sex, Bad Brains, and Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. I tried, but the music made no sense in that context. It was situational and liturgical. Without the mayhem, it was just a blur.  Plus, I was neck-deep in post-punk and Neo-Psychedelia, along with muso stuff like Al DiMeola and mainstream new wave like the Police. 

And, of course, Van Halen.

I actually remember talking to Al of SSD outside the Gallery East when The Meatmen, Necros and Negative Approach came to town. I told Al I was really into Van Halen, quietly, like I was speaking heresy. He said, "I am too," like a fellow counter-revolutionary who didn't want to be overheard by the skinhead Stasi. 

Good times.

I eventually got tired of the contrived theatrics of hardcore, and by my senior year spent my time with my high school friends. They were all wilder than the self-conscious skinheads, who always acted like they were on camera. And 1984 ruled that year, especially during the summer. It was genetically-engineered to be played at the beach.

We didn't realize it at the time, but 1984 was the grand finale for Van Halen. Tensions between David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers had become untenable, despite all the fun and camaraderie you saw on MTV. Acting like you're having fun is hard work, and the responsibilities of a major rock band in the 1980s were spoiling everyone's backstage party.

So Dave was booted from the band and replaced with Sammy Hagar. This was unforgivable in my eyes. Sammy was the old guard, having been kicking around since the early 70s when he fronted Montrose. And he projected that kind of tired, corny machismo that we all thought Van Halen had come to mock. 

Whatever the reality, classic Van Halen felt like they were throwing a party that everyone was invited to, and telling a joke that everyone was in on. I didn't realize at the time how much of that was Dave, and the new model VH were just another competent corporate rock band. (In hindsight, I came to realize that Sammy was nothing like his obnoxious onstage persona, and seems like a good guy to throw back a few with).

So I was Team Dave, at least for a short spell. He put together a band with Steve Vai (for whom the term "guitar god" seems inadequate) and Billy Sheehan, but it just wasn't the same. It all fell apart very quickly and it soon became apparent that Dave was losing his sanity along with his hair.  The six-year long party was really over, and it was time to move on.

My hopes were raised when they pulled the old bait-and-switch at the MTV awards and put out the greatest hits with the very under-rated "Me Wise Magic." But the mask of the Van Halen brothers' smiling faces had long been discarded, and they very shittily kicked Dave to the curb in favor of the charisma-vacuum of Gary Cherone. 

Red flags were raised across the fruited plain with the release of the new lineup's first single, "Without You," nearly two years after the MTV debacle. It sounded uncannily like a Sammy-era outtake, and wandered around in search of a tune or hook for four minutes before giving up the ghost. 

I'm sure Gary Cherone is a nice person and all, but he just sounded like a bad Sammy impersonator. And looked like the low-ranking hired hand he actually was onstage. Eddie was fully in control now, for not better and much worse. 

All of which is to say Van Halen III was horrible, so much so that it got Van Halen dropped from Warner's, an act that seemed unimaginable once upon a time. As legendary a guitarist as Eddie was, he's no songwriter and it was clear that Dave and Sammy had hammered his billion-dollar riffs into actual songs.

Of course, Van Halen tried it with Sammy one more time before rehiring Dave for a new album and tour. But a very sour note was struck when the Van Halen's 86d the loyal and dependable Michael Anthony for Eddie and Valerie Bertinelli's son, Wolfgang. After many years of seeing an angry and kind of insane Eddie wearing the skinsuit of our beloved, smiling Apollo, it was just another sign that the great 80s party was dead and buried and you could never go home again.

The new lineup produced 2012's A Different Kind of Truth, which was as close to classic VH as it was ever going to get. But these weren't the alien strangers who seemed to burst forth out of absolutely nowhere to save us all from the Seventies any longer, these were a bunch of rather unpleasant middle-aged men and a pudgy teenager. There was no escaping from the 21st Century.

Worse, Dave seemed to have left his voice, such as it ever was, in the same place he'd left his hair and his sanity. And he couldn't paper over it with young-dumb-and-full-of-c*m bullshiting, chest-hair and acrobatics anymore. Time comes for us all, no shame in it.

Looking back on these old VH videos is like looking at World War 1 footage or something. You see what you once took for granted: young, fit men, full of piss and vinegar and don't give a fuck confidence. Who are these strange creatures and what happened to the likes of them? 

Can you imagine if you built a time machine and dropped these guys in the dystopic hellhole Southern California has become today? Can you imagine trying to get them on the radio? They'd be canceled as soon as the first blue-haired sicko SJW hatefreak hit the YouTube play button. They'd be thrown off every platform in existence for the capital crimes of unapologetic masculinity and shameless self-belief. 

Because it simply doesn't get less Woke than classic Van Halen. Every fiber of their being is a finger directly in the All-Seeing Eye of the Oligarchic nightmare this country has been becoming since at least 9/11. They were not only what we once saw as the masculine ideal, they were also irreducibly and unapologetically American.

No,  these guys would be marked for elimination as soon as they popped their heads out of Pasadena. Antifa would shut down every show they booked.

Don't despair; I think Van Halen's time will come around again. You know how it goes: Hard times make strong men, strong men make good times, good times make weak men, weak men make hard times. We're nearing the dawn of stage four of that cycle and once circumstances restore the natural balance, strong men - and genuinely strong women, for that matter - will be looking for some good time music to get through the inevitable hard times.

Give me your Van Halen Top 10 in the comments.