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September 29, 2007

Van Halen, Together Again

By Deborah Newell Tornello
aka litbrit

One early morning in 1981, I was on my way to the reliably decent waves of an inlet nicknamed "The Blowhole", speeding through the foggy plains of north Florida in an equally-foggy VW Minibus with a few surfer friends from my apartment complex.  Suddenly a new and blistering version of The Kinks' You Really Got Me came shrieking out of the tinny old radio.

"Oh wow, turn this up!" I said.

These were the mellow stylings of a band called Van Halen, according to the DJ at WGVL "The Quadship" (or, as we dryly called it, the Quad-skip, given as it was to hiring DJ's who'd play obscure and scratchy old vinyl in the middle of the night and proceed to get too stoned to notice that they'd been broadcasting the same line, over and over, for the past half-hour).

Shortly after graduating from UF (of recent Don't Tase Me, Bro fame) in June of that year, I went to work with a concert promoter in Orlando. And that October, I had the good fortune to be assigned the task of dumping several large bags of M&M's into an enormous glass bowl and picking out all the brown ones, since Van Halen was the opening act for our big fall show--The Rolling Stones--and lead singer David Lee Roth had stated quite clearly in the contract rider that he wanted M&M's in his dressing room--just no brown ones, please.  (The Stones' rider contained a short rejoinder: Mick will be happy to accept any brown M&M's that David Lee Roth doesn't want.  How I loved them for that.)

At one of the various after-parties, held at a surprisingly shabby motel where the band was staying (not my doing, honestly), my old college roommate Mori and I were sitting with the drummer, Alex, and his girlfriend, in the bar. David burst in, all bluster and two-sizes-too-small white jeans, and surveyed the joint as if seeking an exit already.

"The bar's over there," someone said.  Over there, as it so happened, was directly behind the sofa on which Mori, Alex, his girlfriend, and I were sitting. But that didn't slow Mr. Roth down, not a bit. He leaped up vertically, alighting on the sofa with one foot on a cushion and the other on my thigh. Then he balanced himself, grabbing the top of my head as a gymnast would a pommel horse, and leaped once again, this time landing in front of the bar.

I was deeply unimpressed. And as the band grew in popularity over the next few years, appearing on MTV in numerous videos (this was back when MTV actually played music and reality shows were but a twinkle in some network accountant's eye), I frequently made snide remarks about Diamond Dave and his apparent need to use women to propel himself toward his ultimate reward.

I always admired Eddie's thrilling guitar technique, though, and was saddened to learn of his personal battles, first with drug addiction, then with cancer.

So it was with pleasure--the Awesome-but-no-way-they're-that-old-yet kind of pleasure--that I read about Van Halen finally getting its act together and putting on a long-awaited reunion in Charlotte, NC, with Eddie's teenage son Wolfgang manning the bass this time around.  From Rolling Stone*:

And for more than two hours, the gods delivered. From “You Really Got Me” to “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Unchained,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Ice Cream Man,” “Panama,” guitar-god solo “Eruption,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Jump” and about thirteen more classic Van Halen tunes, the band was in top form for their long-overdue reunion. “I’m not going to waste time BS-ing around tonight,” Roth told the delighted, sold-out crowd of predominantly middle-aged guys in white- and blue-collar work clothes and gals who’d retrieved their Eighties bustiers for a night of original hair-metal nostalgia. But he was lying: Roth was at his BS best.

His hair may be shorter and crow’s feet longer, but Diamond Dave is every bit the Vegas showman that he was two decades ago, when he left Van Halen for an ill-fated solo career that took him from cheesy bad to train-wreck worse. He showed his gift for gab — and flamboyant duds — from the get-go, imitating Mick Jagger and martial arts moves, smiling like a clown, riding a giant microphone. And despite old wounds, his bandmates seemed charmed by their new old lead singer. Eddie Van Halen, switching from his signature Peavey “Wolfgang” guitar to his old, red- and white-striped “Frankenstein,” nuzzled up to Roth several times. And drummer Alex Van Halen, sporting his trademark white headband, pounded his kit with a constant smile. If original bassist Michael Anthony was missed at first, it wasn’t long before Eddie’s sixteen-year-old son, Wolfgang Van Halen, had the crowd in the palm of his hands. The teenaged slap-style bass player held his own with style, grace and grit, throwing out picks to the audience as he walked the catwalk into the crowd, his bass in hand, during “Atomic Punk.” There were some bumps along the way, including a few times when Roth missed his vocal cues, but the audience could not have cared less.

Nothing like a trip down memory lane on a rainy Saturday afternoon, huh? Once I finish posting this, I'm going to see if iTunes has some of VH's better songs available for download.

Not Jump, though.

(*Via HuffPo)

September 29, 2007 | Permalink


Dude, you totally rock. I am such a sucker for the "and then I met Mick" stories (I worked in a shoe store in New York with a guy who used to work as a Producer at Atlantic Records, who had the job of chaperoning Mik and co on a Rolling Stones tour in Latin America in the seventies. I believe "nightmare" was his description. He also helped re-produce Abba's singles for America. Quite a fun guy).

As for VH, I think they're an example of two things - one is the way that the eighties were about genre based acts breaking out into pop success - VH should, by rights, have been a band whose rock appeal would limit their play on pop radio; Diamond Dave's sheer sexiness on video, really, changed that (as did Eddie's more quiet, also handsome presence). Your story - and the lesson from it - are priceless. I just always remember the way Roth took "California Girls" and turned it into the smutty joke it always meant to be - The Beach Boys liked girls. Dave, it was clear, knew what to do with them.

It's very odd to have been around, now, long enough for both a band's first run and for the reunion - The Stones don't count, nor do any of the seventies bands really; with Van Halen, I was there. And now I understand, a little better, what "survivor" really means. It's even a show that I - old pop music fanboy that I am - would really pay to see.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 29, 2007 8:11:12 PM

One early morning in 1981, .... Suddenly a new and blistering version of The Kinks' You Really Got Me...

That was the first time you heard VH? Three years and two albums after their "You Really Got Me" was released?

Posted by: Thlayli | Sep 30, 2007 5:50:20 AM

I love VH. In fact, the jazz snob part of me--which accounts for 83.4 percent of my musical taste--loves VH. Eddie works as hard musically keeping a thickly propulsive harmonic and melodic stew going live as any pianist in a trio. There's a ton of musical intelligence in that, beyond the adolescent hijinks.

I've never heard an account of what happened to Mike Anthony. So: what happened to Mike Anthony?

Posted by: Rick Perlstein | Sep 30, 2007 2:43:39 PM

Rick, apparently VH fired Michael Anthony earlier in the season, prior to this reunion tour, and he found out on the Internet. Nice, huh?!

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 30, 2007 5:35:29 PM

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