Heavy Lifting: Handling Van Halen’s New Truth

David Lee Roth has often quipped that Van Halen, and liking Van Halen, was never “cool.” Then again, Dave would probably be the first one to tell you that most of what he spouts is bullshit anyway.

I am firmly in the camp that finds The Mighty Van Halen to be very fucking cool. Not sure what that makes me, other than an impressionable young rock music fan seeing them live in 1982, when I was 12 and they were peaking and about to jump to the top of the pop stratosphere a couple years later. I was obviously doomed and blessed to be locked in as Van Halen fan for life.

There’s probably a whole nation of VH fans who’ve been chased into the wilderness once the Van Hagar experience ran it’s course after two decent albums (and two weak ones) and Gary “the guy from Extreme” Cherone fronted a limping shell of the band to make the tree-fell-in-the-woods album III. For about a decade, most of us forgot about the reclusive Eddie Van Halen, former guitar virtuoso battling cancer, alcoholism, and his bands’ failed half-assed greatest hits re-packages and reunion tours with Sammy (in 2004) and Dave (2007-08, a more successful outing).

Amazingly, Eddie beat both cancer and alcoholism. And while Diamond Dave was back in the fold, former bassist Michael Anthony had been replaced by Van Halen’s son Wolfgang. Of course some die-hard fans still cling to this notion that it’s “not the real original Van Halen without Michael Anthony and his signature high harmonies,” and that is true, no disrespect to Michael Anthony, but most of these people are just saying that so you know that they are big Van Halen fans who know the name of the fourth guy and don’t call him Mark Anthony. Fact is, Wolfie Van Halen rocks the bass just fine (and being the bassist for Van Halen is not exactly the Rocket Science assignment among legendary rock bands).

So given that backdrop, my excitement at the news of a new studio album was tempered with understandably low expectations. I was glad they were coming back, but really figured the album would likely suck. I wish I could just tell noted Van Halen fan and author/columnist Chuck Klosterman to stop worrying and love the new album, but I do get what he means when he writes “Going into A Different Kind of Truth, I unconsciously suspected my takeaway would be, This is a bad album, but I love it nonetheless. My actual sentiment is closer to, This is a good album, but I just don’t like it, no matter how much I try.”

My version of the backhanded compliment goes more like this: “I am so shocked that this album isn’t horrible.” But that initial reaction was quickly replaced, as the album legitimately rocks. Hard. One of those rare instances where I love it on first listen and it grows on me and gets better.  Oddly enough the only dud is track one, the lead single “Tattoo,” a bland and forgettable mid-tempo song that feels out of place among the heavy jams that fill the rest of the album.

There are double-time metal workouts like “China Town,” “Outta Space,” and “Bullethead.” Other songs like “Blood and Fire” and “Beats Workin” have that signature “bounce” of their catchiest material from Diver Down, but most of it is as heavy as Fair Warning. “You and Your Blues” is the only one that almost sounds like it could fit in on one of those first two (good) albums they made with Sammy Hagar. But it all sounds like classic Van Halen. Much has been written that this album “isn’t new” or that it’s all just old demos. Yes, about 5-6 songs came from old riffs from their 70’s demos. But Eddie and the guys have been mining that stuff for years. Other tracks from those sessions popped up on Fair Warning and even as late as 1984.

While “Stay Frosty” might have flopped for being such an obvious sequel of sorts to “Ice Cream Man” from the first album, it’s saved by what always saves Van Halen: once it again it fucking rocks! (There’s no Magic Music Blogger words to reach for here, so I’m just letting my early teenage Van-Halen-loving self write this one.)

The album lacks a crazy signature Alex moment on drums, but he is solid and thunderous throughout, with plenty of groove. “As Is” and “Honeybabysweetiedoll” are badass funky songs that anchor the middle at tracks 7 and 8. At one point you hear a dog bark in the background, and that’s always cool.

Not that different.

I’m not really loving the awkward title A Different Kind of Truth, or that Commodores-biting train picture on the cover. (Really guys? One of the greatest logos in rock history to work with and you came up with that?) They should have gone with Blood and Fire, with the classice VH logo both in flames and dripping in blood. (Told you a 14-year-old was writing this).

As for the fire, Eddie sounds as hot, fresh and fluid as ever. The infamous “tone,” the crunchy riffs (whether culled from old demos or new), the furious solos… as you’ve likely read elsewhere, Eddie Van Halen really is back. As for the blood, apparently much of the credit for Eddie’s inspiration and motivation goes to his desire to play with Wolfgang. His mom, actress Valerie Bertinelli, recently told a radio station that there probably wouldn’t be a tour or new album if not for Eddie being able to do this with his son. Pretty cool.

Again, for a guy who’s famously had a third of his tongue remove because of mouth cancer, who’s had a hip replacement, has won a longtime battle to get sober…. and now he’s gonna work with his historic nemesis David Lee Roth on a new album?

Blood and Fire: Wolfgang Van Halen rocking out with dad and Uncle Alex.

Before you say it’s just a money grab, consider this: apparently the band said “No” to David Letterman, Howard Stern, the cover of Rolling Stone, and probably a host of other media offers. Why? In 2012, you’d think an aging reunited band would kill for that type of coverage and exposure. They also took what fans and critics have universally panned as the worst song, “Tattoo,” and made that the advanced single. I don’t understand any of this approach, especially considering how good the album is…

The only drawback to mention, is Mr. Diamond Dave himself. Lyrics never mattered too much in this band, and most of his lines are worthy of boardwalk-shirt or bumper-sticker philosophy. While he generally sounds great (he doesn’t push anything too far or high on the record), there’s this…. creepiness about him that has always been there under his circus act, but now he’s pushing 60. And it seems like 10 out of the 13 songs have some cool musical breakdown with weird Uncle Dave making low-voiced whispered advances on your sister. I know he’s the master of the breakdown, it’s just a little too much on this album.

But the power trio that shares the Van Halen name are consistently tight and flat-out jamming hard enough that it’s easy to ignore Dave’s short comings while still relishing in the fact that Van Halen finally came back and made a great Van Halen album. Did anyone think that would happen? For some reason I kinda doubt that they’ll ever make another studio album.

And that’s cool.


The Return of Van Halen, and Why Alex Was Their MVP

This legendarily bad-ass band logo was etched into school notebooks more often than schoolwork was.

If the Mike Damone character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High were a real person, I bet he’d be pretty psyched about Van Halen coming back with a new album with David Lee Roth.

I can’t say that I have terribly high expectations for the new album, nor do I plan to see the upcoming tour. Actually, I’m just using the occasion of Van Halen’s “reunion” to examine my love for the band’s first six albums and try to pinpoint the unique appeal of Van Halen.

The word reunion was in quotes in the previous paragraph because VH actually “reunited” with Sammy Hagar for a tour in 2004, and they did a full tour with Diamond Dave himself in 2007. People act like these guys haven’t been in the same room since 1984. Of course the difference this time is that they are actually putting out a new album. With Dave.

If the opening Fast Times movie reference didn’t resonate with you, you might just not be that into Van Halen, or remember how big and truly great this band once was. I saw them on the Diver Down tour in 1982, when I was just 12 years old experiencing my first real arena rock concert. Amazing and unforgettable. (I saw them again in 1986 on their first tour with Sammy.) Growing up in a musical family and having our dad take us to see Van Halen seemed like he was giving it his stamp of approval. And seeing those two Van Halen brothers up there probably launched rock star ambitions in my brother in me.

Sure, the face of the band is the other-worldly technical prowess of guitarist, band leader, and namesake Eddie Van Halen. Or is he insisting on EDWARD Van Halen this week? Anyway, he of “Eruption” immortality, with that red and white-striped guitar and that sly grin that always found the camera… he is “Van Halen.”

But my real motivation to put pen to paper and click post to blog, and my conclusion to why Van Halen was so great, and why we love them: Alex Van Halen.

That’s right, Eddie’s brother, the drummer, Alex Van Halen. This ain’t no Billy Ripken or Frank Stallone. When we think of “Van Halen,” we think of guitar virtuosity, the band of the same name, and the grinning guitarist who married the chick from One Day at a Time. We rarely think of Alex, also a band namesake, but when you listen to their old albums you realize that his drumming was a huge part of why Van Halen records were so fucking fun to listen to. Hey, Eddie did amazing things on the guitar and made sounds no one had ever heard before, and millions have emulated since. But so did Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen. But people never listened to their records. They listened to Van Halen. Alex’s beats and fills kept Eddie’s wankery palatable to the ear.

Drummers growing up in the 80’s might have obsessed over “Tom Sawyer” and held Neil Peart up just a little to high for our own good… but Alex Van Halen showed us how awesome the job of Rock Drummer really was. (And his “Hot for Teacher” intro kept plenty of kids busy too.)

It was Alex’s drums that gave Eddie and the band a soul, a real groove for Diamond Dave to dance to, a primal and expressive rhythm to match the party vibe and sexuality of the lyrics. When you go back and really listen to the deep tracks off the old albums, get beyond “Jump” and “Jamie’s Crying,” you’ll hear a guy hammering with the precision of a Stewart Copeland, but with a hammer borrowed from John Bonham.

Producer Ted Templeman also got a such a great sound out of Alex’s drums. This is another underrated factor about why those old Van Halen albums were so great, but mostly it’s Alex’s execution and performance. I’m not gonna say he was as good as Bonham or Keith Moon (or even Copeland or Peart or whoever). It’s all subjective and “better than” and rankings are a bit pointless among such greats. But Alex Van Halen might be one of the most unappreciated or unsung great drummers of all time. Throughout the years and lineup changes, it was Alex as much as Eddie who put the muscle behind The Mighty Van Halen.

"I heard ya missed us... we're back!"

Despite all the back and forth, and the fact that Van Halen had several hits and plenty of success with Sammy Hagar those first few years, the other face (and head, heart, ego, id, and crotch) of this band is undeniably David Lee Roth. I’m not sure he doesn’t belong on the Mount Rushmore of Frontmen, but that’s another discussion. While his pure vocal gifts are certainly limited, and his lyrics are sophomoric and forgettable, Dave had delivery. Not just phrasing and screaming, though he excelled there. His love of old soul and R&B music infused his performance and gave him a pulse underneath those vocal gymnastic tricks (the “screaming”) that could have held their own on records by Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.

We forget that about Diamond Dave. He’s such a boiling pot of carnival barker, Vegas-style lounge act, and pure rock front man that seemed equal parts Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Stephen Tyler. The ultimate rock star. He seemed like a guy willing to shine your shoes and able to sell you a car. Oddly, he dressed and pranced around like the hot platinum blonde bimbos that littered the bands lyrics. Every other song is about a girl in a magazine, a chick from an adult cinematic feature, a stripper, prostitute, or groupie. Song titles included “Hot For Teacher,” “Beautiful Girls,” “Dirty Movies,” “Sinners Swing,” “Women In Love,” “Girl Gone Bad,” “Everybody Wants Some.” You get the idea.

And that was part of the appeal of Van Halen. It was un-apologetically hedonistic. Its misogyny softened by the excuse that they were portraying the role of cliché rock starts and this is just what they did. If Free Love allegedly died at the end of the 60’s, and the post-Beatles/Vietnam era of the 70’s was a bummer about to be capped off by disco (and then the impending cheese of the 80’s/MTV era), Van Halen sat on that cusp, from their debut in 1978 to their smash-hit breakthrough (and last album with Dave, itself a cornerstone of that 80’s/MTV era) in 1984, and they said let’s throw one more huge party.

The old stuff holds up.

They served as a bridge from Sabbath/Zeppelin to hair metal and Guns’n’Roses, for better or worse. They managed to be both heavy hard rockers and video pop stars. They spent their allotted time as “The Biggest Band in the World,” as many have, but they had the musical chops to stand the test of time, as evidenced by those first six albums.

I’m not going to attempt to retell or summarize what happened between Eddie and Dave, between Eddie and Sammy, between Eddie and bass player Mike Anthony, between 1984 and the 2012 album/tour announcement. Because not only do the particulars not matter, there’s too much he-said/he-said about who quit and who was fired. I think it’s possible to conclude that Eddie Van Halen might be a little bit of an asshole.

It’s one thing to fight with and replace singers and all that, but in the case of bassist Michael Anthony, a serviceable bassist and very good high-harmony singer that was an integral part of the band’s sound, Eddie actually fathered and raised a human replacement for him! That might be one of the greatest band feud/personnel stories ever. “Oh yea? I will fire you and make a new person to take your place!” OK, I realize Eddie (and Valerie Bertinelli) didn’t have little Wolfgang knowing he too would end up in the band. But ya never know…

Anyway, having “the old Van Halen coming back,” has at least been a great reminder and excuse to rekindle one of my first flames. Upon further review, I think Fair Warning is their best album with Van Halen II appropriately second.

So when Van Halen drops A Different Kind of Truth in February, I’ll check it out. I won’t fret if it sucks. I imagine Eddie will likely have a few cool tricks up his sleeve… Diamond Dave will probably be a creepy shell of his former self, and hopefully he’ll keep his hat and shirt on. But my eyes and ears will be on Alex the Great.