Undeep Thoughts on the Meaning of Van Halen By Jim Naftel
In The People v. Sammy Hagar the court decides whether rock and roll can make space for self-awareness, sentience, and synthesizers. fourwallsdown.com
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have a friend. I’ll call him “Chris.” Chris has many qualities that I admire and even envy. He had the astonishing vision to create this website, without hope of pecuniary enrichment. He cares about grammar. He suffers fools with patience and kindness. He volunteers at the humane society on weekends and is training to be an EMT.1 And yet, for all that, many people, me included, are not completely at ease around Chris. There is a reason. It hovers over and around us, unnamed but omnipresent, like an unspeakable evil over a small Maine town in a circa-1983 Stephen King novel. No one else will come out with it. I steel my nerves, ask myself: Do I Dare? Why yes, I do dare! Here it is: Chris champions the Sammy Hagar era of Van Halen over the original incarnation featuring David Lee Roth. And not in a passive, aw-shucks, we-allhave-our-flaws kind of way. He picks fights over it. He is belligerent about it. He demands acquiescence on this issue. I’ve just finished reading Chris’s valentine to the Van Hagar abomination elsewhere on this blog. It reads like the diary of a madman, an absinthe induced fever-dream of Carrollian magnitude. I feel as if I have been carpet-bombed with jabberwocky. My gait is unsteady, my brain concussed. Read it at your own peril. I am compelled to defend Van Halen. As Edmund Burke once said, all that is necessary for poor taste to triumph is that people with good taste do nothing (I’m paraphrasing). But I am mindful that I must strike quickly. In order to keep this discussion from bogging down, I will make the following assumptions:
I will assume that the readers of fourwallsdown.com (all of whom I will hereafter refer to as “you”) know the mythology of Van Halen. We have all heard the stories. We know the iconography: the Frankenstein guitar, the Jack Daniels bass, the drum kit with its own zip code. And standing in front of it all, the ringmaster: a grown man with a lion’s mane hairdo and tiger-striped spandex pants, an inspired amalgamation of Tommy-era Roger Daltry, Ziggy-era Bowie and White Knights-era Baryshnikov. The legends are a part of our generation’s collective rock unconscious. And, since you are all music lovers, I will assume that you are familiar with most of the Van Halen catalogue and that you can differentiate between the early period (Van Halen I and II), the middle period (Women and Children First, Fair Warning), and the late period (Diver Down and 1984) of David Lee Roth’s tenure with the band, and that you can chart the precipitous decline of the
1. I’m speculating. Neither of these assertions has been verified.
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band during the Hagar years from 51502 to OU812 to Balance to whatever came after that. The basics, really. Stepping back, I will assume that you agree with the basic premise that an individual’s appreciation of music necessarily combines objective and subjective elements to varying degrees and is af-
will assume that all of you share the same general bent. In other words, this is not really about Van Halen. We all know Chris is wrong— stupefyingly, flagrantly wrong—and there is nothing to be gained by marshaling all of the facts and figures just to humiliate the man.3
David Lee Roth was an inspired amalgamation of Tommy-era Roger Daltry, Ziggy-era Bowie, and White Knights-era Baryshnikov. fected by myriad factors, some of which are of one’s own choosing and some of which are beyond one’s control. Thus, a technically demanding and sophisticated composition like Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” does not, to my ears, have nearly the emotional impact of Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” a piece that even I, bereft as I am of both manual dexterity and internal rhythm, can play on a guitar with relative ease. With sincere apologies to any Stravinsky lovers who may wander by, I
Instead, let’s address root causes. Because Chris is an optimist and also a flaming lib, he is predisposed to believe that the “Next Big Thing” is better than the last thing, that change is synonymous with progress. And I concede, the “change = progress” equation often proves true, at least in areas like technology and medicine and commerce. An iPod is without qualification better than a Walkman. Laparoscopic surgery is better than sawing one’s patient open with a hacksaw to
2 I note, because I am a fair guy, that I regard 5150 as a fine album, notwithstanding the clear cry for help that it represents (see footnote 5, infra). If anything, it is one of the great middle-finger albums of all time, on a par with the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (their first after the departure and death of founding member and early leader Brian Jones, whose erratic behavior and drug abuse nearly wrecked Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed), John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (years of bitterness at McCartney and others unleashed on his first post-Beatles effort), and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (years of being treated as an afterthought in the Beatles’ songwriting hierarchy buried under a double album avalanche that is regarded by many as perhaps the finest post-Beatles work of any of the band’s members). The lesson here is that I am not reflexively anti-Hagar. The band earned my contempt, for all the reasons set forth herein. 3 I would note briefly that Chris’s choice of a Paul Krugman quote as the touchstone of his argument is as illuminating as it is disheartening. Krugman, of course, makes his living as a New York Times columnist and is the preeminent voice of the far left on economic matters. So of course we should believe everything he says. He even won a Nobel Prize. Then again, so did Yasser Arafat.
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remove his appendix. Debit cards are better than checks, which were better than carrying large sums of paper money, which was better than wampum4 and beaver pelts. Then again, remember New Coke? Super-Audio Compact Discs? Windows Vista? There is a kind of lazy thinking that subscribes to the inexorable march of humanity
I am confident that in the entire first six albums, one will find scant evidence that any member of Van Halen has spent a moment pondering the mysteries of the universe. toward perfection. If you’ve ever succumbed to it, you know that it leads to predictably tragic ends: your computer frozen by a virus, your music library burdened by a collection of 9-channel remixes of Pink Floyd albums, your refrigerator full of utterly undrinkable soda products. My point: apply this rationale carefully. Even a person of Chris’s formidable intellect, when sufficiently handicapped by a sunny disposition and flawed perspective, can easily fall prey to the fallacy that the later iteration of Van Halen is superior to the earlier simply because the production was more slick, the vocals more “in tune,” and the synthesizers more prominent. This is, obviously, nonsense. In the interest of full disclosure, I have my own demons to battle. I count Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night among my favorite concert albums. I recently attempted to purchase a Garth Brooks song on iTunes (it can’t be done). I think Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” is perhaps the best power ballad of all time. The hair on the back of my neck stands up when I hear the words “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.” “Aha!” you protest. We all have such incongruities in our taste, little fissures in our personal Unified Theory of Good Music. Why then should I begrudge Chris if he insists on bludgeoning his ears with a vastly inferior brand of 1980s hard rock? I’ll tell you why: because he crossed the line from the private to the public. He became an advocate. He tried to impose this crap on others, on the innocent, the uninformed, the vulnerable. Somewhere out there is a carny who is going to accidentally find
4 Read Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower for a fascinating discussion of the devaluation of the wampum bead in 1640’s Massachusetts.
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this website while searching for foursmallclowns.com, take Chris’s word for it on Van Hagar, and that carny is going to completely dismiss six seminal albums of mindless late 70s/early 80s hard rock— albums that, in all fairness, should be in the Smithsonian as exemplars of a kind of rock and roll that is increasingly hard to come by: simple, loud, escapist, guileless. Go back. Listen to the songs. Place Van Halen in its historic context. Oil embargoes, Three Mile Island, the Iran hostage crisis, stagflation, recession, disco, record unemployment, Carter, Reagan, Thatcher, AIDS, the Cold War. Try to make a connection. Take, for example, Van Halen I, released in 1978. Is “Runnin’ With the Devil” a metaphor for unrestrained capitalist greed? Is “Atomic Punk” a meditation on the dangers of nuclear arms proliferation? Is “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” an allegorical warning about STDs? “Little Dreamer” a call for post-racial unity? No, no, no, no . . . ad infinitum. Van Halen: pure, selfcontained, joyfully unconcerned with, unaffected by, and most likely unaware of the larger world. The name itself is completely insular, self-referential, gleefully and unironically self-mythologizing. I assert that there is not a single Roth-era Van Halen song that references a historical event or alludes to political or social injustice. If that’s your thing, I commend to you any band whose name includes the words “The” and “Clash.” People forget that groups like REM and U2 more or less crippled this genre with their socially fourwallsdown.com
conscious earnestness. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam finally killed it with their obsession with alienation. Again, I am confident that in the entire first six albums, one will find scant evidence that any member of Van Halen has spent a moment pondering the mysteries of the universe, or being consumed by existential angst. Might as well jump, indeed. And that, folks, that is the magic of Van Halen. Van Halen doesn’t talk down to you. Van Halen never lectures. Van Halen isn’t mad at The Man. Van Halen doesn’t want to change the world. Van Halen doesn’t need to be understood. Van Halen doesn’t care about your feelings, either. In fact, Van Halen is barely sentient. I mean that as a compliment. Now bands either have to pretend to care about something or act as if no else one in the world can possibly understand their pain. Rock and roll is worse off for it. I could spend all day contrasting the joyful immaturity of Van Halen with the pretentious buffoonery of Van Hagar, but really, a few words will suffice. Van Hagar was embarrassingly aspirational: Higher and higher, straight up we’ll climb! Standing on top of the world! That’s what dreams are made of! Van Halen was free of ambition and devoid of affectation— they just wanted to rock. Van Hagar tried hard to project swagger and self-confidence, but they were the Sally Field of hard rock bands—deep down, they really, really wanted you to like them more than the old Van Halen. Van Halen had both insouciance and enough undeniable talent to make you respect them even if you page 5 of 6
hated them. And that, really, is the essence of it. Van Halen excelled at what they did and completely embraced what it was. Van Hagar tried too damn hard to convince us of their coolness.5 Van Halen didnâ€™t always succeed, but when they failed, they failed spectacularly. Van Hagar was mediocre in nearly every way that a rock band can be mediocre while still possessing prodigiously talented members. Van Hagar rejected the court jester persona of the Roth era but never found an identity. And in rock and roll, not being completely committed to your image is fatal. That is why this madness must stop. I call on Chris to repudiate Van Hagar and everything for which it stands. Rock and roll needs its court jester. Rock and roll needs the spirit of the original Van Halen to live on, indeed, to prevail. Van Halen is dead. Long live Van Halen.
5 If I may play armchair psychiatrist for just a moment, consider the following. The image that graces the album covers of the final Roth-era album, 1984: a slyly smiling, pompadoured cherub nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. On the cover of 5150, the first Hagar-era album: a Stallone-like Atlas struggling mightily to support the weight of an enormous silver globe emblazoned with the Van Halen logo. I mean, come on. Has a shift in a bandâ€™s fundamental nature ever been more clearly, if unwittingly, announced by an album cover?
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