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I spent an awful lot of eighth grade talking about Van Halen. The original band had just split up, and the conversation was always about who was to blame. My friend Mikkel was on David Lee Roth’s side. Playing the good guy, I was a fierce Van Halen partisan: That arrogant bastard Roth had split the band, leaving innocent Edward Van Halen to the depredations of Sammy Hagar. Whatever ignominies lay ahead during Hagar’s tenure as lead singerthere would be manythey’d always wind back to Dave’s ditching the greatest band in the whole wide world.
In the wake of Van Halen’s most recent lineup change, I think I owe Mikkel an apology. The wicked Hagar is gone, yet Eddie’s outfit sucks worse than ever. The 65-minute Van Halen III sits on a turntable like a lead toupee. And from dull music to embarrassing lyrics to sucky new singer, it’s all Eddie’s fault.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. The combination of Roth’s shtick and Eddie’s licks made listening to the original band a magical experience. The rest of the era’s hair-rock turned testosterone into frat-boy nastiness, but Roth managed to turn flamboyant heterosexuality into sexually ambiguous abandona style that made Eddie’s guitar licks sound like something more than self-indulgent pyrotechnics. Your average arena-rock guitar solo was like a bad soap-opera rendition of sexdramatically pained faces and all of that. Eddie’s solos were like sex plus giggles.
If the likes of Mötley Crüe were conditioning adolescent boys to worship madonnas and date-rape whores, adolescents who saw Roth-era Van Halen as male heroes learned that sexuality was silly and easy and fun. In his autobiography, Roth writes that he tested each Van Halen song for danceability. For 1980s American guydom, shaking one’s ass was an all but transgressive event. Roth played pop-music facilitator, saving his fans from third-generation Clapton-ripoff generica. To be sure, his fun-boy world was inaccurate, but it was a lot less dishonestand a whole hell of a lot less harmfulthan your average faux-emoting piece of guy-rock.
That all ended with Dave’s exit. But in the years since, guitar hero Eddie has managed to elude pop-culture revisionism. Despite a decade of dreadful music, the guitarist has managed to hold on to his hero status. From personal image to musical reputation, there are many reasons why Eddie ought to be taken down a few notches.
Two years ago, the band ditched Sammy far more duplicitously than Diamond Dave could ever have done, secretly recording new songs with their ex-singer. A few months later, Roth was out again, replaced with former Extreme front man Gary Cherone. The resulting album is vastly worse than anything they turned out with Hagar.
While Hagar’s 1985 arrival transformed the band from eccentric cousin to dirty old uncle, Cherone’s lyrics depict sleazy uncles spending more time crooning at lost loves than groping current ones. It’s pretty much the same thing. Yet when Hagar was singing, you could split the songs in two piecesmarginal vocals, magical music. No more. These days, the whole product stinks.
Between Cherone’s screeching and the humiliating lyrics (“Harvest moon, soon will pass/Crop is gone, left only chaff/A bitter pill, and an overcast/A flag unfurled, at half mast”), you wouldn’t notice Eddie’s hooks in a song like “Year to the Day,” even if they were there.
And for the most part, they aren’t: At the same time that his band has embraced the worst songwriting instincts of the Reagan era, Eddie has stumbled upon the lower-key fret work of the ’90s, leaving his trademark eruptions few and far between. Even the album’s two instrumental numbers are dour. Under Hagar as well as Roth, Van Halen always aimed at being music to drive a convertible to. VH IIIproduced by TV theme-meister Mike Postis music for driving a submarine.
As if to underline all this, the guitarist himself sings the album’s worst song, a save-the-children number called “How Many Say I” that somehow manages to out-emote the perpetually ball-grabbing Cherone. Alt-rock may be in the drink nationwide, but VH III’s posing makes it easy to understand why the kids opted for Smashing Pumpkins in the first place.
The fall of Van Halen is too bad for American pop-rock, but it’s a real tragedy for American teenage guydom. The band used to rock because its songs were catchy and its image made roguery nonthreatening. In the weird way of superficially empty pop music, its songs comforted me through the acne-scarred angst of adolescence. Now I feel like I have to comfort them. And if the old Van Halen taught me anything, it was this: Don’t bother. Let some sucker console the losers while Dave goes out, has fun, and sets an example.CP