Van Halen was my favorite band when I was 9 years old, and they regularly become my favorite band again for about 10 seconds out of every month. It’s not always the same song or album that reels me back in, but there’s invariably a few bars of ‘Jamie’s Crying’ or ‘Mean Streets’ or some other song that convinces me just for a few fleeting seconds that I’m experiencing a high-point of pop music sensibility that nothing could possibly improve upon. Just as I’m often disturbingly unsure these days as to when I’m being earnest vs. sarcastic, so is there an underlying uncertainty about whether my enjoyment of VH is legitimate, kitsch, both, neither or whether (most likely) there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.
There’s nothing unique in a white male my age having a favorite crotch rock band from his youth that he secretly still enjoys the hell out of, but I think there are a few things that distinguish Van Halen and make them uniquely enjoyable to both a 9 year-old and 35 year-old sensibility. One is that fact that, more than any other really hard-rocking band I can think of, they didn’t seem to be against anything. Most loud, heavy bands seem to draw their energy out of righteous indignation, or political dissent, or social alienation, or offending middle class values, or some kind of dialectic. Although the Ramones were pretty much bubble gum rock-for-rock’s sake, they still drew on a dislike of blues rock and middle-class Queens banalities to define their identity. The first few Zeppelin albums were close to rock-for-rock’s sake, but they were still dripped in blues pretensions and (later) pseudo-mysticism. Even bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, who didn’t seem to stand for anything much, still cultivated a sense of gaunt, ragged menace. Van Halen, in contrast, seemed to come out of a place of sheer inane, boundless enthusiasm and nothing else. Indeed, the list of things they were for seems almost as short as the list of things they were against– booze, girls, and parachuting into their own concerts is about it. Their songs summon to mind kids driving around in the early 80s trying to get laid and just about nothing else– no sense of milieu or context. Most of the time when we like a band, part of what you like is the sense of conviction– the evidence that the Clash actually let poor kids sleep on their hotel floor, the fact that Iggy Pop really did crawl on broken glass. With Van Halen, on the other hand, there’s a kind of perverse levity to the whole thing. You get the feeling at times that they would have just as soon gotten perms and formed a (really great) disco band if that’s what would have brought in the money and girls, yet somehow this makes it all the more enjoyable.
Also, few bands had such an articulate and boffo advocate as singer David Lee Roth, who once commented that VH songs “should come with a kit including a bong, a thesaurus, and a driver’s side air-bag.” In 1977, a reporter asked Roth to explain why all the critics were raving about Elvis Costello’s new debut album and ignoring Van Halen’s, despite the fact that the kids were all listening to the latter. His response:”Maybe it’s because the critics look like Elvis Costello.” Hit ’em where it hurts, Diamond Dave!
Possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever heard is the vocal track from Runnin’ With The Devil direct from the booth, isolated from the rest of the track.