Monday, January 9, 2012

Eddie Van Halen is the Darth Vader of Rock

Last week Van Halen, in preparation for this year's tour and their first album with David Lee Roth since 1984, reminded the assembled New York music press that it still has the goods by playing at Cafe Wha?, the 250-capacity Greenwich Village music club originally owned by Roth's Uncle Manny. Sadly, I was not able to get in and see my favorite band -- their publicist was unmoved by this blog's weekly circulation of about 100.

In any case, fans like me have cause to rejoice: 27 years after their acrimonious breakup, Van Halen and David Lee Roth have consummated their reunion and made a new record, A Different Kind Of Truth (to be released February 7), pulling themselves up from the twin nadirs of Roth’s failed morning radio show and his former band’s seeming inability to do anything at all, due largely to Eddie Van Halen's Gollumesque pursuit of cheap wine and whatever powdered party favor made his teeth fall out.

Though the pioneers of virtuosic fun-metal reached a new commercial height when they swapped Roth for Sammy Hagar in 1986, they also lost both the “fun” and the “metal,” throwing both overboard for a prepoderance of melancholy midtempo rock and synth-based songs with “Love” in the title. When the wheels came off Van Hagar in 1996, a Roth reunion seemed obvious, but it would take 11 more years, another ill-chosen singer, and a failed reunion with Hagar in 2004 before Van Halen finally reached a truce with Roth and hit the road for a massive U.S. tour in 2007 (which I was lucky enough to catch at Madison Square Garden).

But even with Roth back in the saddle—the saddle in this case bestriding a 12-foot inflatable microphone—a lot of fans aren’t satisfied. That’s because Eddie Van Halen threw long-suffering original bassist Michael Anthony under the bus in favor of his 20-year-old son Wolfgang. Longtime fans are baffled by the move; some boycotted the shows, others just complained about the boy’s lack of stage charisma.

But the people complaining about the nepotistic change at bass are missing the point: Without Wolfgang, this reunion, longed-for since Reagan’s second term, never would have happened. Without Wolfgang, Eddie Van Halen would still be sulking in his studio.

Wolfgang Van Halen is the Luke Skywalker of the Van Halen saga.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (1975, Pasadena, California), there came the Chosen One who would fulfill the prophecy and bring balance to the Force. His name was Edward Van Halen. The Force was strong in him -- he quickly became known as the greatest pilot in the galaxy. His pants were tight, he could shred and do aerial splits at the same time; his midichlorians were off the charts. He was amazing.

His life changed when he met someone who could harness his power. David Lee Roth taught young Edward to shred at a frequency that wouldn’t send the ladies streaming out the exits, and to stick only to music that he, Roth, could dance to. Under Dave’s tutelage, Edward’s power grew, and so did his fortune: in 1983, a short five years after releasing their self-titled debut album, the band was paid $1 million to headline the US Festival, at that time the highest paycheck ever awarded to a band for a single concert.

But as Edward’s power grew, he began to turn. He began to see his greatest ally as his enemy; arguments and ego clashes made each album harder to finish than the last. Edward felt that his power wasn’t being fully appreciated, and that Dave was holding him back.

And maybe he was. In his 1998 memoir Crazy from the Heat, Roth says he told the band upon joining, “I will personally check every song for danceability. And we’ll play rock tunes, but ones that you can dance to.” This would become the Prime Directive of early Van Halen (to mix stupid sci-fi franchise metaphors) and it led directly to the band’s signature, exuberant sound, which led directly to fame, fortune, and Valerie Bertinelli.

But Edward felt stifled—cut off at the knees, if you will. Roth rejected some of his more melancholy material and famously hated what would become the band’s first #1 hit, “Jump,” deriding its synth foundation. “Nobody wants to hear you play keyboards, man.” Why is Obi-Wan holding me back?!?

And so, Edward struck down his friend, firing Roth in 1985, and his transformation was complete. He spent the next eleven years in an increasingly drunken stupor, and untethered from Roth’s Prime Directive, recorded all the cheesy keyboards and syrupy ballads he wanted. And as Edward embraced the Dark Side, he finally ruled the galaxy: all four Van Hagar albums entered the charts at #1, surpassing the Roth era commercially (if not artistically). It was a dark time for the rebellion.

But the Dark Side took its toll. In 1996 Van Halen fired Sammy Hagar, pretended Roth was coming back for a minute, and then took Extreme singer Gary Cherone out for an ill-fated spin. From there, it got ugly: Ian Christe’s 2007 biography of the band, Everybody Wants Some, details Edward’s sad decline blow by blow, but lowlights include his drunken demand to jam onstage with Nirvana (when told dismissively by Kurt Cobain that they didn’t have any more guitars, Edward gestured at touring guitarist Pat Smear: “Let me play the Mexican’s guitar! What is he, Mexican? Is he black?”); his drunken audition for Limp Bizkit (which ended with him threatening everyone present with a gun); and his teetering, drunken performances on a 2004 reunion tour with Sammy Hagar, when nobody seemed to even know what song the Chosen One was playing.

In 2005, Edward’s wife of 22 years, Valerie Bertinelli, filed for divorce and things got even weirder: Edward financed and scored a porn film shot in his house. To promote the film he gave a rambling, incoherent phone interview on The Howard Stern Show claiming to have cured cancer before announcing, “What’s going to happen now is, there’s a new Van Halen member involved, and that’s my son.”

How could the Van Halens fire their bassist after 30+ years of loyal service? It seems that after ten years or so of waiting around for the brothers to get their act together, he committed the unpardonable sin of playing in Sammy Hagar's band, and so he was permanently excommunicated from the band.

A few months later, rumors started floating that the band was booking appearances with three Van Halens and one Roth, and after a six-month delay so Edward could go to rehab (missing the band’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and do it right.  Despite the long-awaited reunion with Diamond Dave, fans went berserk: How can he drop Mike? Who’s gonna sing the high parts? Can this kid even play?

Of course the kid can play. Besides his likely genetic musical gifts, he’s been jamming with Edward and Alex Van Halen every day after school since he was 9. What would be weird is if he couldn’t play.

Van Halen fans should be on their knees thanking Wolfgang. Edward Van Halen went all the way to the Dark Side. He was the greatest guitar player alive for thirty years, and he knew it. His chemically enhanced ego would not allow him to do the most obvious thing in the world, the thing that would have saved his career in 1996: He would not swallow his pride and call David Lee Roth.

But then Wolfgang grew up. The Force was strong in him. His doting father bragged in interviews that the kid could do it all: sing, play drums, bass, guitar, whatever. “If I’m the speed of sound,” Edward told Howard Stern, “he’s the speed of light.”

So this 15-year-old kid is learning to play, and like any 15-year-old, he wants to rock. He’s practicing with his dad and his uncle every day, and he’s listening to their old records. And as this drunken egomaniac’s only son, following in his father’s musical footsteps, he is probably the only person in the Galaxy who could say to his father, “Uh, Dad? You know those first six records you made, with that other singer? Yeah, those are the good ones. How about we call that guy and play those tunes and make seven or eight hundred million dollars in the bargain?” There’s still good in you, I can feel it!

This is the only person who could ever get the helmet off, reunite his father with his former partner, and turn him away from the Dark Side. Wolfgang personally wrote the fans'-wet-dream setlist on the 2007 tour, and one assumes that, as a 20-year-old who wants to rock, he helped Roth to enforce the Prime Directive in the recording of the new album (which I anticipate and dread in nearly equal measure -- watch this space for a review). He may not have a lot of charisma, but then again, neither did Mark Hamill. 

UPDATE: The album is out and I am shocked to find that I really like it. Here's my review.


  1. Van Halen stopped existing as a band for me when Diamond Dave departed. They turned off the rock and turned on the cheese-food. Everybody seems to forget that the brilliant "Hot For Teacher" was on the same album as "Jump". I Look forward with eaqual dread and anticipation to their new material. My hubby won't even bother thinking about it since his childhood was sullied by the Hagar/Cherone dark times of Van Halen. Who can blame him?

  2. Pure genius, incredibly incisive and utterly spot-on. Thank you for this!