Friday, March 2, 2012

Let me hear you in the back rows

Depending on the extent to which you follow contemporary rock releases, you may or may not know that there is a new Van Halen studio album which came out early last month. I am aware of this music market factoid, but I have not purchased (or otherwise acquired) the work in question or any of its individual tracks. Which is probably not surprising considering how “man I really want to get back to more music consumption beyond my current collection but who has the time blah blah blah” has become something of a constant refrain of mine.

It’s only slightly more surprising if you take into account the fact that at one time I was a huge Van Halen superfan. I don’t really recall being aware of the band before 1984 came out, at which point the band’s prominent place in the nascent MTV pantheon made them almost impossible to ignore. Of course little did any of us know that the very next album the band would put out would feature a new lead singer and herald a new direction, but I suppose it was lucky for me that I didn’t have a lot of baggage or prior loyalty to sort out in order to go along for the ride. 1984 and 5150 were two of the very first vinyl records I ever owned and I didn’t see anything particularly odd about that. I had the luxury of working my way backwards through the David Lee Roth discography while waiting for each new Sammy Hagar-fronted album to be unleashed. OU812 was the CD I got along with my first CD player. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge came out just in time for my senior year in high school. My middle school/high school best friend was a guitar player and revered Eddie Van Halen to a degree I could only appreciate in a second-hand kind of way, and I did so as best I could, and mostly that just informed and reinforced my love of the band in general. Or maybe having a love of Van Halen in common gave an extra bond to our friendship. Probably both.

Really, when all's said and done, everybody does in fact want some.
Sometimes falling in love with an artist or a work of art means inevitably falling out of love with them, moreso in the case of the artist especially if they insist on continuing output which fails to measure up to previous highs. Looking back now, it’s almost eerie how Van Halen maps against my own life experiences. When I went to college and I would talk to other eighteen year old dudes about rock music, I sometimes felt utterly provincial saying VH was my favorite band while they namechecked acts like The Pixies, who I had never even heard of. (To this day my wife likes to tease me about “hating” The Pixies when the truth is, coming from a blue-collar, Camaro-rock kind of high school I never had the chance to know them one way or the other.) This of course was right around the time that Van Halen was shilling for Crystal Pepsi with “Right Now”. I got into other things and distanced myself emotionally from the band, even as Van Halen put out another album called Balance which was the beginning of a long, slow decline. Coincidentally I was also distancing myself a bit from my childhood best friend (for reasons I’m choosing to sidestep right now), though I do remember some of the last conversations of any substance we ever had being about Van Halen, specifically friction between Eddie and Sammy. Then Sammy left the band, and that seemed to be that, until the weird missteps of Gary Cherone and Van Halen III. (That ill-fated lineup of the band was vaguely concurrent with my ill-advised first marriage, which is undoubtedly stretching the conceit of this post just a bit but I couldn’t resist mentioning it.)

Point being I could tell a lot of personal anecdotes that tie into Van Halen in some form or another. The roadtrip I made the summer after my junior year in college from New Jersey to Baja California to go to Sammy Hagar’s cantina in Cabo San Lucas. The New Orleans DJ I met once who told me the sad story of seeing David Lee Roth doing a very small solo show in the mid-90’s complete with a very unimpressive and unenergetic version of “Jump”. Finding out after the fact that what I considered the band’s best years were largely made possible by Eddie’s monstrous drug addictions, which depending on your perspective either kept him generally numb enough to tolerate Sammy’s usual jackassery, or repressed Eddie’s control freakishness enough to allow Sammy to tolerate him, and once Eddie sobered up the band’s days were numbered (again, an odd quasi-symmetry for me, not that I ever struggled mightily with addiction but I did have my moments where I felt like I needed to choose how big a part chemical relaxation was going to play in my life and what that meant as far as who I hung out with or didn’t and whatnot).

It’s been a bit of a long week, so I’ll just share a more upbeat anecdote. Towards the end of high school I did see the Van Hagar lineup live in a gigantic stadium show. I went with my best friend, of course, as well as another mutual friend of ours and my best friend’s girlfriend. We rode up to the Meadowlands in one car, got to our seats (which were not that great) ridiculously early, sat through the opening act, and then jumped to our feet and went nuts when the lights went down for the main event. I don’t remember what song they led off with but whichever one it was I knew all the words, and sang along at the top of my lungs. It was not very long at all before my best friend’s girlfriend leaned over to me and said (as scathingly as only a seventeen year old girl can) “I came here to hear Sammy sing, NOT YOU!!!” She was talking mostly to me, since I was right next to her, but our other friend on my opposite side had been singing pretty loudly too and the plural-you was at least somewhat implied. My friend and I looked at her, looked at each other, shrugged, and ditched her and my best friend. We danced and screamed-sang along (every word, every song) with strangers in the aisles, and gradually made our way closer and closer to the stage. We never got remotely close to the front rows, but it really didn’t matter. After the final encore, we threaded our way back to our seats and found my best friend and his girlfriend right where we had left them. I’m sure they enjoyed the concert, and I honestly hope she enjoyed it more for not having my voice echoing quite so loudly in her ears, but you would be hard pressed to convince me that she or my best friend enjoyed the experience quite as enthusiastically as my other friend and I did. I find myself thinking of that night a lot, honestly, because there are plenty of times in life where you can throw yourself all the way into something or hold back … and get annoyed at the people going over-the-top around you. Clearly I’m a big fan of the former.

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