As Marty McFly, or any fan of Back to the Future can tell you, returning to the past can be a dangerous thing. But the desire to raise the dead is a very human tendency, and it strikes all of us from time to time. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, though, to act on this impulse is almost never a good idea.
I was reminded of this, in all places, at a Van Halen concert last weekend.
Elizabeth and I, along with my sister Kim, her husband (and our concert blood-brother) Paul, and his friend Jamie, went to see the big VH. June 16th, 2012.
The year is kind of the crucial part here.
I went because it was Van Halen, the Van Halen I remember from our childhood. Almost. This tour didn’t include burly bassist (and original member) Michael Anthony, whose sweet, cherry-on-top, high-register vocal harmonies were sorely missed, but still. David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, together again, after so many years of feuding and on-again, off-again ugliness. This was the opportunity to recapture something I thought had likely been lost forever.
Remember all those years spent wishing for this exact thing?
However, a lot of water has passed under the bridge; and after nearly thirty years, it’s not the water but the structural integrity of the bridge that tends to worry me.
I don’t want this to sound bigger or more dramatic than it is. I’ve never been a male groupie (moupie?) of the band or anything. I didn’t live and die with every album and video drop. I’m just one of what must have been hundreds of thousands of kids in the 70’s and 80’s who loved most of the Van Halen songs we heard on the radio, maybe enough to buy a album or two. Okay, so I doodled my fair share of VH’s on school notebook covers and study guides, but certainly not more. Their reputation as a live band was legendary, but I didn’t get to see them in concert during their glory days because I was only twelve in 1980, and concerts were still a few years ahead of me, an undiscovered new world a whole ocean away.
I do remember the big ruckus when Van Halen went ‘electronic’ with 1984, and Eddie Van Halen, the band’s guitar virtuoso, jumped over to keyboards, apparently in a vain attempt to shame Billy Joel like he shamed so many guitarists in their chosen field. But the band’s deviation from their heavy, guitar-centric sound didn’t bother me the way it did many hardcore fans; to me 1984 was clearly intended to be a collection of infectious, pop-song ear candy, and nothing more. Besides, I had already decided that the band had peaked several albums ago, and pretty much everything after Van Halen II was just more mounting evidence of a slow, but not unenjoyable, decline.
I actually thought the band was reinvigorated musically for awhile by the arrival of Sammy Hagar, after the cataclysmic departure of frontman David Lee Roth. But in my heart, I always preferred the original band; and in my mind, whenever Van Halen would make an appearance there, it was always with Roth’s cheesy mug behind the mic.
So, I swallowed the hefty ticket charge for upper deck seats at US Airways center as the price of admission to a past I had always hoped to have. But I knew there were risks. Roth has a long-standing reputation for being one of the more hyper and unpredictable personalities in music. Quick Dave story. On the evening of the concert, we were late getting to the arena, thanks to an hour’s wait for a table at
Cooperstown. Opening act Kool and the Gang was probably a good fifteen minutes into their
set as we walked the few short blocks to the lesser-used south entrance. We’re just about to cross the street when a
police escort of motorcycles buzz by, leading a cab past us on Madison Ave and
zipping into the parking garage. We all
looked at each other, and said matter-of-factly, “That must be Dave.” Maybe it wasn’t Dave; maybe it was Eddie
returning late from another one of his benders, but our first thought was Dave,
and that’s the point. To get a sense of Dave in his prime as a performer, imagine
Robin Williams or Jim Carrey given free reign with a microphone and a crowd of
14,000, and you’re halfway there; just add equal parts manic leaping, singing
and yowling, and you’re close enough for rock’n’roll. Dave’s mercurial personality, combined with Eddie’s
knack for falling off the wagon, rendered it foolish to set the bar of
expectations any higher than what would make a world-champion limbo dancer shake
his (or her) head and say, “No way I’m doing that!”
In fact, all I really wanted from the show was to hear some of the great old songs, and a respectable rendition of “Dance the Night Away.” That’s always been my hands-down favorite Van Halen song. In many ways, it’s not quintessential Van Halen; it lacks, for instance, the vocal hysteria and guitar pyrotechnics which usually make their music instantly recognizable. Compared to most of their hits, “Dance the Night Away” sounds downright restrained, but somehow that only adds to its effect. To me, that song contains all the magical goodness and buzzy exuberance a great pop song can contain. It has the same effect on me as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World;” it’s a three-minute pulse of perfectly encapsulated joy. I wanted to hear that song performed live, just like I would gladly pay any amount of money in my possession to hear Satchmo sing his soulful tune in person. I can’t pretend that I understand why it’s so important to hear a song that you’ve heard a million times in your home or on your headphones performed live, but sometimes it just is.
And, you know, the show pretty much lived up to the expectations I set for it, such as they were. They did perform a whole bunch of their great hits (nothing from the Sammy Hagar years, as you would expect), and a handful of songs from the album they released earlier this year, A Different Kind of Truth, all of which sounded okay, if generic. And they did play “Dance the Night Away,” and played it more than respectably well; had Michael Anthony been there to add his twinkling tenor notes to the harmonies, their performance of the song might well have transcended the moment and carried me off into the ether of my dreams. In fact, the Van Halens (Eddie’s son Wolfgang having replaced Michael Anthony on bass, plus brothers Eddie and Alex) sounded tight, together, strong. They moved with professional assiduousness through song after song. The vocal harmonies were full and warm. All in all, the Van Halens delivered what you would expect from a band that’s been around for forty years (and that is a compliment to Wolgang, who’s only twenty): a polished and focused, if not necessarily inspired or raucous, display of bandsmanship. It is clear that Eddie can play mind-boggling, amazing guitar in his sleep; his solo toward the end of the show defied description. His guitar playing is as signature as the sound of a Ferrarri engine throttling up; it’s completely his own and completely unmistakeable.
There were two things that bothered me about the show, and made me question the wisdom of chasing the past, even as the show was still in progress.
One was the sense that the band was ultimately there to suck the highest profit margin possible from all those expensive tickets they sold. Hey, I don’t care if making a ton of money was the band’s primary reason, or the only reason, for being on tour. What I do mind is not having the tact to hide it. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean, starting with the stage.
The stage consisted of…well, a wide black stage. And a set of stairs leading to the drummer’s platform, and a little section of wood squares taped to the floor where Dave could display his soft shoe skills. I’ve heard of minimalism in art, architecture, and fashion, but since when was minimalism ever part of Van Halen’s repertoire, or rock music’s, for that matter?
There was a lighting rig that might have been cutting edge at their 1985 concert, with the standard array of colors and spotlights, and a few miserly clusters of green lasers that were turned on, to the best of my recollection, in not more than two songs. Honestly, it made me wonder if bands are billed by the arena for the electricity they consume during a show. The sound was horrendous, and this is by US Airways Center’s paltry acoustical standards. It sounded as though the speakers were playing through six inches of mud.
Then you have the video screen. The screen itself was decent, as wide as the stage and some twenty feet tall; although after seeing Roger Water’s production of The Wall last month, it seemed two full generations behind in comparison. No, it was the way they used the video wall that had me guessing it was either an unpaid intern at the controls, or just some stoned fan in exchange for a roadie t-shirt. The onscreen displays fell into one of three distinct categories: a straight projection of the show in real time, with sporadic close-ups of individual band members as they performed; a heavy usage of the ‘endless mirror’ effect, in which Eddie Van Halen, for instance, was cloned into a long line of smaller and smaller Eddies, which was twisted into a kind of half-swirl, and tinged with select colors for excitement; and a repetitious parade of a limited number of Van Halen logos slowly scrolling side to side, or top to bottom. If there was a less creative way to use a video wall, it would have been to simply not turn it on. Part of me wonders if they seriously considered that option. Electric bill, you know.
The other thing about the show that bothered me was David Lee Roth. First of all, ‘Diamond’ Dave’s handling of the vocals was sloppy and careless. Maybe he thought he was coming across as whimsical by not bothering to sing certain lines, or only the last few words of others, or mumbling through them instead of singing, but it felt more like an adolescent’s petulant ‘screw-you’ move, although I couldn’t tell if the gesture was directed more at the fans, the Van Halens, or himself.
I’ve heard that Elvis, and Sinatra, would sometimes get lazy with the lyrics in later years; in Elvis’ case it was probably due to being pickled, and Sinatra, well, Sinatra could do whatever he wanted to do; he was Sinatra. But Dave isn’t Sinatra, and he isn’t Elvis either, and screwing around with a third of the lyrics just seemed juvenile and selfish.
But those were two of the reasons we loved him when we were growing up, weren’t they?
Dave’s lyrical profligacy was a hot topic of discussion amongst our group after the show. Paul’s friend Jamie suggested that they tour without a lead singer at all. Having the band play the songs and sing the harmonies, he maintained, would be better than putting up with Dave’s lackadaisical approach to lead vocals. We all agreed he had a point; after all, Eddie Van Halen could easily get 14,000 people to just watch him tune a guitar. But not at a hundred bucks a pop. For that, for better or worse, you need Dave.
Then there was the sheep-herding segment of the show. Yes, you heard me right, the sheep-herding segment of the show. Turns out Dave has a dog he’s trained to chase sheep competively in a sport called dog trials. According to Wikipedia (and forgive me for having to resort to Wikipedia, but I honestly wasn’t inclined to do legitimate research on the subject):
A Sheepdog trial (also herding event, stock dog trial or simply dog trial) is a competitive dog sport in which herding dog breeds move sheeparound a field, fences, gates, or enclosures as directed by their handlers. Such events are particularly associated with hill farming areas, where sheep range widely on largely unfenced land. These trials take place in the
Ireland, South Africa, Chile,
Canada, the USA, Australia,
and other farming nations. New Zealand
Which, of course, is exactly the zany, off-the-wall, against-the-grain kind of thing that is in perfect keeping with Dave’s larger-than-life personality. Still, it was nonetheless surprising when, in the middle of the show, Dave decided to introduce 14,000 of his closest friends to his dogs, and the sport. Not with an actual demonstration, mind you, although that would have explained the vast, vacant stage and its purely Spartan design, but with a short film shown on the video wall of Dave and his dog roaming an open field somewhere in search of loose sheep (wait, that didn’t sound right; how about sheep in need of herding?).
Here's the video that was played during the show.
The narration is different from the concert of course;
less musical, but much more sane in this context.
He came out alone onto the stage, playing a gentle, wistful tune on a guitar (I honestly didn’t know he could play), and spoke movingly about his passion for his dogs, and the sport. He spent the next ten minutes or so describing what it’s like to work amongst sheep and cows, comparing them to old Jewish people and hockey fans, respectively, and explaining the very specific kind of pleasure that can only come from getting together with a bunch of your dog trial friends, backing the trucks up into a semi-circle, sitting in a chaise lounge chair in the bed of the truck with a sunbrella and a drink, and watching your dogs run ‘til they drop. One could only wonder what the Van Halens were doing backstage while this was going on. Laughing? Crying? Sleeping? Or, was it something else…(Insert Colbert-esque raised eyebrow here.)
And the sad part is, that was as close as Dave ever got to being real with the crowd.
The rest of the time it was Diamond Dave, or at least a stale, rusted representation thereof. Did anyone in the house buy it when Dave shamelessly hit on a young woman in the front row? The way he kept coming on to her throughout the show, with comments that might have been cribbed straight from Jersey Shore? The whole one-sided conversation he carried on with this poor woman (if there even was a woman) was transparent, forced and completely manufactured. And if you are one of those people who thought he was genuinely hitting on her, shame on you. That’s just creepy.
But that’s what Dave used to do, back in the day. That’s what we wanted to see, wasn’t it? Dave the way he was when we were kids?
In that regard, he didn’t disappoint. Everything else he did was pretty much Dave being Dave. Mic-stand twirling Dave. Chorus line dancing Dave. Party meister Dave. Same old Dave.
This should have made me happy, I suppose. These were all the same things he was doing in 1979, except instead of channeling Bruce Lee in spontaneous bursts of jumping, kicking, and jump-kicking, he was now more adept at demonstrating the low impact moves of a tai-chi instructor. But that’s not so different. So why did I feel a little disappointed? Why did I leave the show feeling half-empty?
As easy as it would be to place all the blame on Dave and his stultified stage persona, it wasn’t just him. The entire band seemed to occupy their own private space for the overwhelming majority of the show. Wolfgang was stage right, Eddie stage left, Alex in the middle, and Dave in front. They might as well have been playing from inside the malfunctioning pods in Spinal Tap.
Where was the interaction? Where was the camaraderie? Where was the communal joy that comes from four people making music that 14,000 went bonkers for? The answer is, I don’t know; I only know where it wasn’t: US Airways Center,
on June 16th, 2012. Phoenix, Arizona
Maybe they were all, including 20-year-old Wolfgang, feeling a little trapped by the past. I know I was by the end.
And that made me realize that it wasn’t really the past I wanted to see after all. The thing is, Van Halen was a band that always played above the rim: Eddie’s unsurpassed guitar fireworks, Dave’s legendary vocal (and literal) gymnastics, and showmanship; Michael’s angelic tenor raising the harmonies as close to heaven as any rock band has ever done, and Alex’s perfectly melded rhythms bringing order out of the collective, competitive, chaos. Thirty years later, I could live without the manic energy, the excessive histrionics, and the gymnastics. I learned I could even live without the angelic harmonies, though in retrospect that probably should have been a deal-breaker. What I couldn’t live without was the lack of enthusiasm, the lack of passion for the amazing music they’ve created together over the years.
What I wanted to see that night was a band that could embrace its past, not feel like a hostage to it, or a mercenary of it. Here’s a news flash for the band: music is supposed to be fun. And here’s something else: if you’re not having fun out there, we feel it. And, honestly, if you were having fun out there, then I need to check the latest edition of Webster’s to see if they’ve changed the definition.
I’ll get over my minor disappointment, of course. I’ve still got the music, after all, still in pristine condition on my CD’s, and the memories of the music, and those are still pretty clean and can sustain me indefinitely. I just feel bad for them. Imagine being unable to revel in the past because you’re stuck in it. Imagine how hard it would be to live somewhere you don’t want to be because you’ve got nowhere better to go.
It’s 2012. Maybe it’s time we all accept what is, put the past to rest, and move on.
P.S. Yes, I’m aware that the title of this post refers to a Van Halen album from the Sammy Hagar (or Van Hagar if you prefer) years, but it fit too perfectly to resist. So sue me.