Pound for pound, Van Halen was at one time one of the greatest musical groups alive. They helped lead America out of the Disco era and into the eighties, when tremendously talented acts like Journey, U2 and Ozzy Osbourne roamed the arenas with abandon. It was back when Bruce Springsteen was still relevant and at the top of his game.
People often make the mistake of thinking that I dislike the “early years” when David Lee Roth was the lead singer. This is untrue. I’ve loved the music of Van Halen from their self-titled debut album to Balance. Not every effort was perfection, but every one was worth a listen.
For goodness’ sake, 1984
was literally the first album I continually stole from my brother’s record collection. It’s not my fault he couldn’t find a better hiding place. I was a nine year old boy hungry for music more expansive than the Ghostbusters theme. My older brother, whom I idolized (and some might argue I still do), feathered his hair and wore parachute pants. Maybe this music he listened to all the time was the key to understanding why that was cool.
Needless to say, my grubby little hands found Van Halen and suddenly the world was an open, fresh summer day. I would put the tape in the tape deck I stole from his room whenever he went to work, go out to the front yard and play with my Star Wars action figures as Eddie Van Halen screeched his guitar across the scales.
Of course I’d pretend I didn’t steal it and then use Mom and Dad (especially Mom) to defend my innocence. It’s not my fault I was a little douchebag, David Lee Roth had shown me that it was all right to be a douchebag.
Limits of Love
But the love I have for the early Van Halen has its limits. When I listen today to a song like Everybody Wants Some or even Panama, those spoken-word ramblings from Roth often make my skin crawl. The music was plenty fine, there was no need to hear the feather-haired spandex-clad lead singer adamantly proclaim his heterosexuality. Constantly. We get it, dude. You like to go pick up chicks and have sex.
This doesn’t mean I dislike the David Lee Roth ramblings. I just like them in a certain context, the same chord struck as watching an old movie you might have a reason to love despite its limitations (I’m looking at you, Star Trek V.) David Lee Roth’s Van Halen belongs to yesteryear. It doesn’t age like Journey’s rocker ballads or U2’s anthems. Unlike Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, I won’t play it a little too loudly when the kids are home.
It’s not just because I have daughters. It’s because I’m not a teenager anymore.
When 5150 came out, the first album with Hagar, I was no longer a nine-year-old douchebag, I was a twelve-year-old jackass. But I was a questioning jackass, trying to make sense of the new emotions and experiences I was having. I was, as anyone going through that time is, confused and overwhelmed. I switched schools, an outcast in a very tightly-knit group of kids. My Grampy and Grammy had died, my first experience with all of those confusing feelings. My dad had suffered a heart attack and had heart surgery, and that one’s tough to get through even though he survived.
I needed something hopeful on which to hang my hat.
5150 was that thing. To this day, I can put on that album and every care drifts away. It’s OK to listen to that music loudly, too, as its libidinous drive is couched in questions about love and destiny. Deep, meaningful questions that lifted it out of the simple chasing-for-action sensibilities of the late 1970s and into more relationship-focused thoughts. There were songs about keeping love alive and compromising for the sake of it.
Dreams, of course, remains one of the unassailably perfect rock songs of all time.
Even though it doesn’t get as much love as other efforts, OU812 asks questions about life, love and the world. When the songs talk about getting away or resolving problems, it’s about staying with that special someone, not picking up stakes and moving to greener pastures.
It also opens with my favorite song that Van Halen ever released. Mine All Mine, a song about self-reliance and perseverance through the questions you’ll face about faith and life, remains a song that deserves a lot more love than it gets.
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (see what they did there?) is one of those rarities in early 1990s rock albums: nearly perfect. Balance might be an acquired taste, but it still has more hidden gems on it than Diver Down and Fair Warning.
The Final Question
To be honest, I have a hard time recalling a picture or a concert where I didn't see this guy smiling like he was just happy as all get-out to be doing what he was doing. I think the only times I saw him unhappy were on the cover of OU812 and when Eddie kicked him out of the band.
The final question for me is personality. Maybe I should be “better” than this, but it matters to me if the singer leading the band seems like someone I’d like to know, or at least go out to get a beer with him. David Lee Roth fails that test. The guy just comes across as a self-obsessed jackass, who’d c-block you every chance he got until he went home and stranded you at closing. Sammy seems like the kind of guy who’d take you out, pick up the check and make sure that everyone had a good time.
Yeah, that matters to me. Sammy seems grateful to the world for his good fortune, whereas Roth seems like someone who thinks it was owed to him. Maybe that’s the key to the personality shift in the band after Hagar joined. Maybe that’s why I’ll always be more likely to be listening to Carnal Knowledge at the gym than Van Halen II.