May 29, 2012
Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.
The band opens with a song called “Romeo Delight,” which is the fourth track off their third album Women and Children First. I wouldn’t have been able to name this tune until I remembered it as a favorite off that album. It’s a great “guy song”—a demographic Van Halen never had a problem accommodating—with an aggressive beat and the memorable couplet from the chorus: “I’m taking whiskey to the party tonight/And I’m looking for somebody to squeeze.” The band accentuates the tempo with plenty of first-song-of-the-night regalia: lots of jumping and kicking and gesticulating. Dave struts around like a transvestite on some very expensive amphetamine, bopping his shoulders for the camera, preening, sticking his tongue out.
You notice in this opening number how little concern Roth has for the actual lyrics of the song. He’s liable to sing anything at anytime, or replace lyrics with spontaneous yelps or howls. Here are the lyrics of the album version of “Romeo Delight”’s second verse:
Wanna see my ID? Try to clip my wings
Don’t have to show you proof of anything
I know the law, friend
At the eleventh hour I’m going back outside
Give it a try. I’m your last loose end.
And here’s, to the best I can decipher, what Roth sings in the video in the second verse:
Seein’ though she’s suckin’ a nine
WOOOW, son of a gun
Say, you know she said in, man.
[spoken] I fucked up the words again.
All this, of course, is part of the fun, and not so much a “fuck up” as an opportunity for Dave to be Dave. It really drives home the fact that good live heavy rock isn’t so much about replication of song as replication of energy. The first time I heard “Romeo Delight” at age fourteen, it was as pure a three minutes of rockin’ potency as I could imagine. Going to see Van Halen live, I wouldn’t want a faithful rendition of the song. I’d want them to make me feel the way I felt the first time I heard the song. In other words, I wouldn’t need Dave to be true to the lyrics as much as true to the moment. That’s what I loved about Van Halen: they struck me as sublime orchestrators of the moment. I wanted from them, at minimum, the illusion of spontaneity, of something happening no one had planned. Van Halen was all about spontaneity, even when they were acting, which I’ll expand upon later. I don’t know if Dave really did screw up the lyrics here, or if that’s just part of the show. But whether it’s real or not isn’t as important as it appearing so. As long as they come off as real, Van Halen can never fail. That however, isn’t always the case.
There’s a weird moment at the end of “Romeo Delight” when Michael, Dave and Eddie line up at center stage and punctuate several musical accents by squatting in unison. (I’ve only recently come to realize how important the squat is to Van Halen’s act.) The total number of squats is fourteen, and each time, the members hunch down with their feet spread surfer-like and lower themselves a bit before rising and doing it again. Roth accents his hunch a little more than the rest by pointing in front of him. This is something that I’ve always found curious about Van Halen, and heavy metal performance in general: by watching this and other Van Halen stage moves, you realize at some point these guys had to rehearse this stuff, the same way dancers or actors might. How does that come about? Is it a conversation between them? “Hey, man,” Roth says one day at practice. “I was thinking we could get down front at the end of ‘Romeo.’ Ed, you stand here. Michael, you here. Then with everyone hitting the accents, we can sort of…yeah, right on. You got it. WOOW.”
I rarely like this kind of obviously rehearsed element of a rock show. I remember when I first saw a picture of a heavy metal band in 1983 (I believe it was Quiet Riot). With their torn clothes, raggedy hair and unkempt demeanor, I thought they really were sleeping on the streets and in abandoned cars. Photos of them prowling back alleys with bottles of Jack Daniels only reinforced this image of down-and-out, devil-may-care living. What a surprise to find out it was all a put-on, that they dressed that way on purpose, that they did their hair like that with hairspray. I think I spent the rest of my heavy metal viewing life hoping against hope that at least some of this stuff was real, that I wasn’t completely delusional, like some WWF fan who thinks those matches strength and acrobatics are unraveling right before his eyes.
My distaste for this kind of artifice extended into my life in the Refreshments. Stage rehearsal was completely foreign to my experience in the band. Of course we wanted to be visually appealing—we certainly dressed for it—and when playing, we carried ourselves in a way that was likely to curry attention, how you might act if you were at a party and wanted to be noticed. But we never had conversations about it, and we certainly didn’t plan anything like Van Halen’s bump-and-grind posturing. That was what poseur bands did.
Still, it’s not like I’m entirely against choreographed elements in rock shows. There are some parts of a rehearsed show I kind of dig. I can remember seeing AC/DC as a teenager and being mesmerized by rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams, who stood on opposite sides of the drum riser as they played. When it was time for them to sing background vocals, they both strolled up to their microphones in a sort of casual syncopation and belted out their parts. Then, when finished, they strolled back with the same worker-bee nonchalance. I liked this, and when in the Refreshments, I always wanted to get Brian Blush–our lead guitar player at stage left–to do it with me. The visual of two guys strolling from back to front and back again at the same time was weirdly arresting, but it didn’t make sense in our case. Brian didn’t sing background vocals.
And that’s the difference between Van Halen’s squats and AC/DC’s backing vocal stroll. The latter had purpose. Why are the members of Van Halen getting in line and mirroring the accents with little pump-squats at the end of “Romeo Delight”? What is Roth pointing to while looking vaguely general-like at the center of them? Why is this all necessary? The whole thing makes me a little uncomfortable. What am I looking at? What purpose does it serve? Is it beautiful? Interesting? I don’t know. With AC/DC, you can see the lunch-pail pragmatism involved. “Hey, we gotta sing, so we’re going up to the mics.” My lack of understanding of the Van Halen squats is vaguely embarrassing, and I’m left feeling blank and a little sad. This part of the show isn’t for me. I can’t believe it’s for anyone.
It has to be mentioned at some point that Michael and Eddie are excellent background vocalists. In many of the band’s numbers, like here in “Unchained,” the pair’s backing parts are really the chorus, as lead man Roth sings whatever he wants whenever he wants. And what he usually wants to “sing” is a meandering of “WHOA”s and “WOOW”s and “AH”s and “ALL RIGHT”s, punctuated by moves of the hip and guttural variety. This type of background singing is reminiscent of fifties doo-wop acts like the Four Seasons, or R&B acts like Aretha Franklin. (Not coincidentally, these acts tended to feature choreographed moves.) The backing vocals are what the audience is likely to sing along with, unwilling or unable to follow the more chaotic Roth line. The connection to pop and soul was vital to Van Halen’s appeal back then, and it separated them from other more narrow heavy rock acts like the Scorpions, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. When you got right down to it, Van Halen was a traditional rock and roll band that happened to play a lot louder, and with more frenetic energy, which allowed their music to cross lines those other heavy rock acts couldn’t approach. I bet kids’ parents liked Van Halen more than they let on at the time. No doubt they sang along, whether they wanted to or not.
One example from my past illuminates this broad Van Halen appeal. It happened at the YMCA when I was thirteen, the same year as this concert. I wasn’t a member of the Y, but you could go to the Y in my hometown for two dollars a day. I spent whole Saturdays there playing basketball, running the elevated track, screwing around with my friends. This was the summer before I bought a bass guitar and gave up all athletic hopes for musical ones.
One of our favorite activities at the Y was ping-pong, and one Saturday a few of us were playing Around the World at the ping-pong table. Right next to it were the pool tables, where a couple of black guys were shooting pool, leaning over, aiming shots. A jam box played not far away, and the song was “Dancing in the Streets,” the Van Halen version, and a hit for the band that summer. Here’s an excerpt of the interplay between Roth and the backing vocals in the chorus:
Roth: All we need is music.
Backing vocals: Sweet music.
Roth: Sweet music.
Backing vocals: Sweet, sweet music.
One of the pool players, while walking around the table studying his next shot, sang along with the backing vocals. Sweet music…sweet, sweet music. I didn’t know who Van Halen was at this time–it was just a pop song on the radio–but I remember being struck that this guy was singing along to what I identified as white music. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t, and isn’t, white music. The Motown act Martha and the Vandellas originally made “Dancing in the Streets” a hit. Van Halen’s take was black music being played and sung by white people.
All this is to say, Van Halen had soul, which was what set them apart from the rest of the heavy metal pack. Their take on music was as American as apple pie, or at least Jack Daniels.
Next: Part III.