Thursday, August 4, 2016

Throwing Back to 1984: Van Halen

From ages 8 to 12, or from the self-titled debut to Diver Down, I was a Van Halen poseur. I pretended to like them, I drew the band logo on my schoolbook covers, and I made my own shirt with an iron-on transfer from the Skate Odyssey shop. You had to get a baseball jersey for an iron-on transfer, or just don't even bother.

In reality I hated baseball jerseys and I couldn't have named one Van Halen song. Why all this pretending? Because like all of us in the gaggle of younger cousins, I wanted to impress our eldest cousin, Dave. Dave was the coolest person I knew. He was a true blue diehard Van Halen fan, and while I was still playing with my Barbie dolls, Dave was old enough to go to Van Halen concerts and get the real shirt and everything. Which I thought was the ultimate pinnacle of supreme badassery. I didn't only want to impress him; I wanted to BE him.

Not until Dave played us little kids Diver Down (1982) did I actually listen to Van Halen. Diver Down has three instrumentals and five covers, including Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman." My favorites were "Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now" and the album ender, a silly a capella slur-along of the old country standard "Happy Trails." Maybe I'd heard a version of those songs before, at Grandma Lombardi's house, because she watched Hee Haw.

Diver Down was a gentle intro to Van Halen and harder rock in general, like a sweet slushy margarita that gives you a taste of the hard stuff before you eventually jettison all that ice and sweet syrup in favor of straight shots of Cuervo. Dave probably knew that, because now he had me asking for more, and here comes the back catalog with "Running With the Devil" and "Everybody Wants Some."

By the time "Jump" came out, I had made another iron-on T-shirt because now I was 14 and a true blue diehard Van Halen fan. "Jump" was the first single off 1984, which also had "Hot for Teacher," "I'll Wait," and my favorite, "Panama." 1984 was awesome.

"Jump" was the first concert video that captured my attention. Compiled from a series of live performances, it's got riveting visual dynamics -- fast cuts and slow motion edits -- and it's got David Lee Roth leaping, pouting, undulating and just generally sexing up the place. Diamond Dave was a consummate front man, perfect for MTV. Wolfish grin, lean and sinewy gymnastics-made body that he showed off with snug, barely-decent spandex and leather. Leaping off Alex's kit (FOUR kick drums), writhing on the floor, doing naughty things with the mic stand...the guy was a force. David Lee Roth's stage antics, paired with Eddie's guitar wizardry and a killer synth riff, define what Van Halen was all about in their heyday. No words needed. Just show people "Jump" and they'll understand Van Halen.

Until my coolest cousin set the needle into the groove of "Running With the Devil," the hardest rock I'd heard was maybe Journey? Does that count? But now these accessible, friendly party boys emboldened an expansion into harder, faster rock. Though I was mostly a Brit pop, new wave, Madonna-emulating teenager, still I appreciated, while not exactly reaching T-shirt making level, bands like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Ozzy and even, thanks to a new girl who'd come to our 7th grade class, Motley Crue. (Side note: same girl introduced me to Zappa). 

Admittedly, these bands were one-offs, a smattering of faster, louder but still mainstream hits that arrived with the pablum of an entertaining video or else how would I have come to know them? In fact, I didn't "know" Def Lep or Riot or Ozzy. I knew "Photograph" and "Cum On Feel The Noize" and "Crazy Train." It would be years yet before I'd be indoctrinated into heavy metal proper, outside the realm of MTV.

I need to credit Van Halen with a notable side effect. Achieving a passable knowledge of heavier rock gave me an edge over the other girls in high school in terms of earning the attention of this one certain boy. There was nothing to do in our woodsy northwest corner of Connecticut, so we drove around aimlessly, fishbowling with deafening heavy metal. He blasted his catalog of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Queensryche and Ratt at ear-splitting levels on the tinny radio in his beat-up VW Rabbit. I mean loud. I didn't hear a single word that guy said for our whole first year. I just nodded and smiled and read the liner notes for Operation: Mindcrime. But all of that was years in the future. And it all began with Van Halen.

The band may have done okay with the next two records after all the Eddie/Dave drama causing the split, but by then we were calling them Van Hagar in a decidedly eye-rolling tone. Sure, they'd later reunite for a couple of events, in theory the old wounds were healed and they ambled through some decent sets delivering the old crowd-pleasers. Ambled, plodded, trudged. But we all knew it wasn't the same. It would never again "Jump."



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