I wasn’t supposed to see Van Halen last night; actually, I wasn’t even supposed to be in Chicago this weekend. For months, I had planned to escape to Miami for my own February vacay, which would have included Radiohead’s first stop and that Lintastic(less) Heat game on Thursday night. That didn’t happen.
Thanks to a mild-yet-oddball case of the shingles, the likes of which are so confounding that my own personal reasoning has started mirroring victims from an old X-Files episode, and an all-too-paranoid family that’s terrified of getting my unfortunate condition (it’s insane), I instead looked forward to a weekend of, well, drinking. So, when my friend texted me, “A part of me really wants to get a Van Halen ticket tonight,” there really wasn’t much to argue.
When Van Halen announced dates back in January, I was elated to see they had a show in Rosemont, IL, on April Fool’s Day, namely because I’d be missing their February 24th gig at Chicago’s United Center. A Friday night show close to downtown clearly outweighed the positives of a Blue Line trip out in fucking Rosemont on a Sunday; but considering I’d missed their 2007 tour, I’ve always been a fan of Roth-era Van Halen, and I wasn’t going to be in Chicago regardless, that Sunday evening gig looked promising.
Shit happens, though, and plans changed. After finding $20 nosebleed tickets, surprisingly close to the stage, my friends and I went and saw us some Van Halen on a Friday night and lightly toasted. Basically, it was a teenager’s dream weekend circa 1983.
David Lee Roth
This isn’t fair or even an objective point of view, but everything I know about David Lee Roth I’ve learned from eye-grabbing headlines, MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e’s The Dirt, past episodes of Howard Stern, Van Halen’s videography, and/or Chris Kattan’s career-peaking impression of Diamond Dave. Because of this, I consider him an enigma, the sort of legend that Eastbound and Down makes of Kenny Powers. In the past, he’s made offstage demands that go beyond those of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, and he’s become more renown for his reverse logic than his own vocals. Here’s my personal favorite piece of insight: Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it. Classic.
Essentially, he’s a great example of what rock ‘n’ roll can be, but what rock ‘n’ roll should only be for one person. Granted, in his own era, almost every frontman subscribed to this brand of ego, only they never wore the diamonds or later became EMTs or eventually pulled out an elephant gun on a trespasser. Maybe that’s why I’ve always found him alluring: He’s proof that life is worth pouring into a glass and drinking down in excess.
So, I was surprised at how uninterested I was at his onstage antics at the United Center. Everything felt so tragically obtuse, especially how he complained about the sound problems or how he barked at roadies on the side of the stage or just stomped away during solos. It wasn’t sexy or decadent, or even comical; instead, it just felt unnecessary. One advantage to our nosebleed seats was the ability to oversee everything on the stage, including Roth’s little rectangular wooden dance floor, which he used to slide, shimmy, and do those camera-ready thunder kicks of his. Even after writing that, it sounds like a hilarious setup, only it wasn’t. In a way, it caged him, and considering the vacuously simple stage setup, it came off as rather cheap, too.
Still, the man can sing, which is why he’s the most entertaining aspect of Van Halen’s reunion LP, A Different Kind of Truth. On the three-track assault of “Dance the Night Away”, “I’ll Wait”, and “Hot for Teacher”, he never faltered once, and on “Beautiful Girls”, he still surfs off Eddie Van Halen’s harmonies. Plus, he handles the guitar well, which he proved on the always-classic John Brim cover of “Ice Cream Man”. So musically he’s still the David Lee Roth that screams from your car stereo, but his days as Diamond Dave are best left for the biographies.
Eddie Van Halen
Despite the aggressive drug abuse and years of chronic malaise, Eddie Van Halen still looks like Eddie Van Halen. He also still plays like Eddie Van Halen. His fingers disappear on the fretboard, his hair puffs about, and he smiles as if realizing he’s doing something most kids still dream of doing: playing the guitar like a fucking extraterrestrial. As he patrolled through the hits and the various new cuts, Eddie remained rather stoic and quiet, exhibiting this intimidating mystique that the Stealth bomber probably exuded back in the late ’80s.
Yes, we have to talk about “Eruption”.
There’s a reason it opens their 1996 greatest hits collection, Best of Volume 1, and here’s why: This is Van Halen. In one minute and 43 seconds, Eddie separates his band from everyone else in the rock ‘n’ roll books. It’s the closest hard rock has come to rivaling classical music, in that nobody ever made the guitar sound that “out of this world,” not even Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and certainly not Eric Clapton. The solo’s rapidity, coupled with the distortion, lends itself to sounding like a full force orchestra. It’s intricate, it’s focused, it’s inhuman, and because of this, Van Halen has always retained far more credibility. After all, they didn’t make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their attempts at nailing the teacher.
Seeing “Eruption” live is something every music enthusiast should do once. It’s like the Grand Canyon. Everyone always gives other people hell for not having seen the Grand Canyon, and it’s because they’ve seen the Grand Canyon. No book, no photo, no film will ever capture the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural wonder. The same goes for “Eruption”. You really can’t understand its true power until you’re sitting in an arena, smelling cheap beer, ignoring the fortysomething couple attempting to copulate two rows forward, and turning to your friend (or even a stranger, or even the beer guy) and doing this.
It’s hard to not know Van Halen’s hits. If you’ve been to a sporting event, you’ve heard Van Halen. If you’ve ever met up with a friend at a bar, you’ve heard Van Halen. Seeing it all live is exactly how you’d imagine it: You’re listening to Van Halen. The songs hardly change up – save for a few breaks before the last thunderous chorus – and Roth and the three Van Halens (including Eddie’s son, Wolfgang) are so goddamn technical, they’re not going to screw it up. Last night, the set favored the hits, touching upon them all with the exception of “Top Jimmy” and “And the Cradle Will Rock…”. So, if you’ve grown up to Best of Volume 1 or the horrifically sequenced The Best of Both Worlds, you’re going to have the time of your life at this show – that is, of course, if you’re not expecting Hagar cuts like “Dreams”, “Poundcake”, and the Crystal Pepsi anthem “Right Now”.
Admittedly, hearing “Beautiful Girls” alongside drunken buddies and strangers is probably the closest I’ve ever come to enjoying a fraternity party. It’s pretty great.
The “New Stuff”
Any other band in their league would chop out the single, move on, and that’s that. Van Halen isn’t one of them. For this tour, they’re sticking to their tour name and championing the new material off A Different Kind of Truth. As expected, a good number of the cuts left the audience cold, specifically “China Town” and “The Trouble with Never”, the latter experiencing sound problems, which pit Roth at the side of the stage screaming at the sound technician.
Oddly enough, “Tattoo” worked. Its chorus drew up fists in the air, and thousands of fans screamed about “tramp stamp tats.” However, “She’s the Woman” worked the best, though that shouldn’t be a surprise given that it’s an old staple from the band’s early days and would fit anywhere on either Van Halen I or II.
Bottom line: You’ll probably get a pretzel during some of these.
The morning after…
Almost 24 hours later, it doesn’t feel like I’ve seen Van Halen. It just doesn’t. I think a part of this is because I’ve grown up listening and subscribing to the Van Halen prior to 1984. Everything about them has been a memory based on historical records. That sounds odd, and it is, but allow me to digress.
When I listen to Van Halen, I see the young, reckless band that paraded around California. This image and understanding is based on hours of watching videos, interviews, and live performances that were all recorded prior to my birth. I never had a chance to experience the band first hand. So, this is my first real-time viewing of the band at large, and oddly enough, it’s not even the real band to begin with; there’s a kid in place of Michael Anthony, for Christ’s sake.
That’s not a fair assessment of the band today – and I’ve admitted this isn’t an objective point of view – but that’s the trouble with seeing these veteran acts, at least for my generation. So many of these bands are icons because of the myth and powerful aura they championed back in their prime. For years, I read reviews from critics and heard anecdotes from aging fans about the reckless Diamond Dave, but as I discovered in person, he wasn’t there – at least not anymore.
Did they sound great? Yes, absolutely. Had I been wheeled in, blindfolded, and placed in any random seat inside the United Center, I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell if it was a PA or the band onstage. But the mythical element to Van Halen – that reckless spirit that sold all their anthems – just wasn’t there for me, and that’s something I can’t really shake off.
What’s worse, nobody could say April fools.
You Really Got Me (The Kinks cover)
Runnin’ with the Devil
She’s the Woman
Everybody Wants Some!!
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Oh, Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison cover)
The Trouble with Never
Dance the Night Away
Hot for Teacher
Women in Love
Girl Gone Bad
Ice Cream Man (John Brim cover)
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love