I have only blacked-out once in my entire life. Getting wasted has only ever made me self-conscious; I become prone to clumsiness and stupidity, when I aspire to smart self-assuredness. So I rarely go beyond a good buzz. My first and only accidental blackout coincided not with college 15 years ago, but with the New Orleans date of Van Halen’s first reunion tour with David Lee Roth in 2007. At 38 years old, I am a little too young for DLR era Van Halen, though I do remember somehow owning 1984 in 1984. Naming a cock-rock album after Orwell’s famous book was surely Diamond Dave’s idea, for he is actually a brilliant, literate dude, with a vaudevillian sense of humor. A better talker than a singer, DLR is as quotable as Benjamin Franklin. I must confess a fascination and love of the man, which has less to do with music than his being a manic wordsmith. Despite my literature degree, I have never read a single book more times than I have DLR’s biography “Crazy From the Heat.” Wayne Coyne wishes he were THIS WEIRD (that’s a heavily self-financed video Dave made for an electronica song he recorded).
During the peak of my DLR fascination (which included years of writing to his people hoping to acquire a blurb for my first novel) in 1997, I saw him perform at a 1,000 seat outdoor venue in Florida. I wrote this essay about that very wild night. Especially now, compared to last night’s VH, DLR’s solo show was patently insane. He was a white-hot ball of (weird, mixed) energy. 18 out of the 20 songs he performed with his band (featuring members of Van Halen tribute group, Atomic Punks) were classic Van Halen tunes. He poured whiskey down his gold-lame stretch pants and made 100s of out-there sex jokes. He flubbed his signature jump from the drum riser. I had an amazing time and still loved the guy, but left the show thinking he should dedicate his tremendous showbiz soul to something besides recapturing the past. Perhaps something outside rock-n-roll. Shortly after that he accidentally hit himself in the face with a sword, and then started his famous stint as a New York City Emergency Medical Technician.
In 2007, DLR finally realized his dream of getting back with Van Halen, and they rolled through New Orleans. We all got off work and within the hour before the show I’d consumed a double whiskey-coke (what some people call “A Van Halen” actually), plus two raw shots of whiskey plus, as we sat in the arena waiting for the show to start, a tall can of beer: an entire night of drinking crammed into 45 minutes, and all on an empty stomach. It was almost as if I felt Van Halen expected me to act this way, despite it being out of character. Regardless, I remember being happy and excited as hell. I remember our section was at a very steep angle, and while waiting for the show to start it was difficult not to fall onto the heads of those seated “in front” of us. I remember David Lee Roth hitting the stage, with Eddie Van Halen dive-bombing and squealing, and I was so fucking revved…
And then I remember driving home in the cab.
I’d paid $80 to be in the room with the greatest rock guitarist since Hendrix participating in the best version of his band, and I remember almost none of it. I remember trying not to fall while balled-up puking between my knees. My friends didn’t notice me puking and later told me I’d had a great time — such a great time that one of them moved away from me because I wouldn’t stop screaming in his ear and pulling his hair (???!!!). Before the show I’d suddenly realized I needed to take notes, and so searched frantically, drunkely for a pen and piece of paper. Finally a stranger hooked me up and I took notes throughout the blackout. The notes start out legible, but by VH’s first song I could barely scribble, “You Really Got Me.” The last note I took says “I fell down!” in big shaky words slipping down the right side of the page.
Last night, stone sober, my wife and I arrived to the third level of seating during Kool and the Gang’s third to last song, “Get Down on It.” I waited while my wife bought a $13.50 double vodka soda. I didn’t drink because I was painfully sick and shouldn’t have been there. But she’d bought me tickets for Father’s Day and for all the reasons stated above, I simply had to go. I was also certain that, in the nosebleed seats — perched semi-privately just under the spotlight guy – I could experience the concert without exerting any more energy than I would resting at home. We both leaned back in our chairs and watched Van Halen like it was TV, me due to sickness and she because she’s way too young to really care, and never played guitar.
Kool and the Gang was a good choice as openers. Ironically, I do remember the entire 2007 opening set by Ky-Mani Marley, which included his dad’s “No Woman No Cry” and “I Shot the Sherriff” and couldn’t have been over fast enough. But Kool and the Gang were high energy, with badass horns. Even its several graying original members joined the choreographed dancing during “Celebration.”
During the set break, the crew assembled what was obviously a polished dance floor in the middle of the stage. The construction was a small show in itself and even my wife caught the context: “David Lee Roth is about to dance.” The first chapter of “Crazy From the Heat” details how Roth, before every concert on a new stage at a new venue, gets on his knees and with a bucket and washcloth scrubs “every inch of the stage” — the point of this being to establish a connection with that upon which he will perform. But last night, after the dancefloor was ready, a big group of workers mopped the whole split-level stage, steps and all, then went over it all again with “swiffers” that, from our far away seats, looked to be painted in classic EVH red, black and white stripes. Though perhaps it was all the cold medicine I took.
The band then hit the stage for what would be the final show of their second big reunion tour. Van Halen had suspiciously canceled all remaining dates beyond New Orleans, claiming that they’d simply “bitten off more than we could chew.”
The first half of the show — which began with what DLR would later refer to as Alex Van Halen’s “exotic humid rhythms” — was simply fucking rippin. While DLR is obviously relishing being back on the arena circuit, the band seemed happy like they’d just worked a loooooong double shift, and were about to get off and have a long-awaited, long-deserved cigarette. The crowd was overjoyed and the band smiled like hell cruising through classics, “Unchained” and “Running With the Devil.” Every solo was a clinic. Dave’s voice was better than expected, with the requisite change in rhythm of every line to every classic song, which surely pissed some fans off. Only the new songs – “Tattoo,” “She’s the Woman,” “China Town,” “The Trouble With Never” (from VH’s interesting and not at all embarrassing new album A Different Kind of Truth) were sung like the record. As classic Van Halen was before my time, I have no emotional investment in how the songs are presented. I am more into the sum of Van Halen’s parts than its whole. To wit:
DAVID LEE ROTH: While the VH brothers have known success throughout the large majority of their careers, Dave has spent the last 20 years trying to prove himself. You can tell how hungry he was to do this, just by how he cut his hair for the part, toned down his dress, and truncated his out-there personality. Given this entire enterprise was surely the product of some heavy political maneuvering, I can imagine the band and many stuffed suits in a board room watching a video of DLR circa 1997, and adding the exclusion of certain dance moves and jokes into the contract that Dave would have to sign. I suspect part of the deal involved Dave accepting the aid of a stylist who would make him look more his age. Normally that might bother me but…Dave looks great now. Fresh and full of energy in the first half, Dave utilized the slick dancefloor for graceful slides, spins and other moves that complimented his age. For my wife, Dave’s hammy Freddie Mercury meets Joan Rivers delivery was the show’s best quality. Unlike 1997 Dave, he left us wanting more in terms of rants, tangents and jokes. He had some great ones though. During one song’s breakdown he talked of a girl he’d dated: “She was this smoking Latina chick with no papers, so I called her ‘Illegal Evelyn,’” Roth said like Don Rickles, following the crowd’s lighthearted jeers with, “I know, I know.” He went on to describe how smart she was: “The girls I usually go out with, the only thing they get on their SAT’s is nail polish, but Illegal Evelyn got like a 1400. She was studying to be a nuclear physicist but in the end, tragically…her legs were too long.”
Dave also managed exactly two well-placed, flawless kicks above his head throughout the show. Both were hilariously filmed to be played over on the big screen – instant replay! — in an attempt to double up a trick Roth was wise to not overdo. Near the end he executed a full split ala James Brown or Prince, though relied mightily on the mic stand to reclaim a standing position.
ALEX VAN HALEN: Either the arena was echoey at first, or Alex Van Halen seemed really off for the show’s first third. It was like he was drunk and it was wearing off as the show progressed — though I do suspect this was just a sound trick of the nosebleed seats (the sound otherwise seemed great…). Either way, after an awesome second-quarter Caribbean drum solo (with piped in horns?) Alex perfectly pummeled the rest of the songs.
WOLFGANG VAN HALEN: A source of controversy among real VH fans, bassist Wolfgang still seems reticent to mug or show off. He was the only member who didn’t take a solo. I imagine his father has told him all sorts of terrible things about fame that have him feeling he’d just as soon stay in the shadows and play music. Regardless, he’s a badass musician. The a capella ending of “Dance the Night Away” (the evening’s best executed song, in my opinion) and very quiet breakdown of “Beautiful Girls” showcased tight father-son vocal harmonies. Some critics had suspected the band of using technology to replicate the high-end voice of former bassist Michael Anthony. I thought I heard that done a couple times myself, but mostly I could clearly hear Wolfgang’s voice which, despite sounding almost comically youthful (like a teenage audience member singing out, “Panama!”) was pitch perfect. His youth allows him to compete for Anthony’s missing high notes. He is also probably a better bassist than Anthony. And though I hate to say it — and though it was certainly a dick move to the fans – I can understand why Eddie would replace the original guy with his son. Look at it this way, fans: Eddie didn’t just screw you over for some joe shmo, he chose his son over y’all. Taken at that angle, it’s fun watching the family rock out together.
EDDIE VAN HALEN: I can see how my wife might get bored of the wuddly-wuddly-wuddly-wuddly-screeeeeeeeeeeeeee! But I came to see Eddie. And with the aid of hypnotizing close-ups on his hands across what had to be a 200-foot screen, he did not disappoint in the slightest. While the phrase “he’s finally sober and at the top of his game” is often code for “not as exciting, but be happy he’s not dead,” I cannot imagine that Eddie Van Halen has ever sounded better. Age has only improved Eddie’s talent. Eddie used to constantly run back and forth across the stage catching huge California-style air off the drum riser, but because of his hip replacement, tonight he stood mostly still, smiling beside Dave. He relies on his wah-wah pedal a lot more these days, but otherwise sounds the same, if more laser-focused.
The band all cleared the stage for his traditional breathtaking solo, which eschewed his beloved feedback and sound effects for several glorious minutes of “Eruption,” bleeding into other classical-style two hand tapping exercises, then “Cathedral” into all sorts of volume-swell madness. The mega-giant closeup of his blurry hands – almost like an instructional video! — gave raging boners to all of the guitarists in attendance. The screen made obvious how his tapping style grew out of piano: one hand taps low notes that dictate the key, while the picking hand taps high-end melodies. A classical piano prodigy, Eddie simply transposed the scales he’d learned via Bach and Beethoven into cock rock and POOF!: whole new rock-n-roll sound (that clip is f’n insane by the way!). Upon witnessing anything that seems too amazing to be true, I involuntarily laugh. I laughed out loud three times during Eddie’s solo.
During the show’s last third the band’s about to get off work vibe made some songs sound rushed. The boys were ready to be done with it. Eddie Van Halen’s permagrin was wearing off. At least two times, the verbally creative Roth seemed to want to start a new rant but cut himself off to expedite the song at hand: “And now here’s ‘Panama’!” wasn’t his best introduction. After the show’s first “ending,” Dave quickly asked, “We don’t have to leave the stage right? You all want an encore, right?” And they rushed into “Jump” — the song Roth ended with in 1997, and the song all of these musicians will be forced to play, and play as their finale, until the day they quit music altogether. With its piped-in keyboards, “Jump” felt like an afterthought rather than a grand finale. Eddie seemed the most bored, up there on the giant screen, not smiling. In between notes, his free hand rubbed his tired face and eyes the way I used to when rolling restaurant silverware at shift’s end.
All told though, at $35 a ticket, Van Halen was one of the few fun, exciting arena shows I’ve ever seen.
And now here is a video of DLR conversing with his spirit animal, Joan Rivers: