June 13, 2012
Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.
And you can find the whole series here.
Two songs into the set, Roth offers a final “WOOW,” and Alex gets his double kick drum rumbling in a way that even a caveman would understand signals “drum solo.” I’ve never been a zealous fan of the drum solo, but I respect that these folks can put together complex rhythms, and without an obvious place for them in pop music, it’s nice for drummers to have this little forum where they can dump their more abstract work on us. All this to say, drum solo time equals pee time for me.
Along with his double bass rumble, which he accents with floor tom and periodic snare hits, Alex mixes it up with some rack tom thumps. Then he finds a happy home on three crash cymbals on the right of his kit. Alex’s head juts forward with each big strike, a signal to the audience that he is indeed giving it his all, rocking out. Silence follows a quick double hit of his snare, nudging the crowd to erupt. A flanger effect–a swizzle stick sound–gets things rolling again, accenting a new set of his poly-rumbles. The overall effect is “space age,” or at least a 1982 version of it. The light man is in on this, activating drum-riser-centric white lights that create a strobe effect on Alex’s playing. The cameraman has also broken into his bag of tricks, using some filter that creates an unfocused wiggly circle around each shot. Another double snare hit leads to silence, and the crowd cheers.
Now comes the meat. Alex starts with a slow thumping of floor to rack tom bum…boom…bum…boom. You sense from the ominous nature of the sequence that things are about to get very intense here, very quickly. The cameraman makes the outside of his circle filter blue, which fades to magenta, and finally to black, where it stops. The swizzle stick gets cranked up, and with predictable alacrity, Alex speeds up his roundhouse playing, including seemingly every drum in his arsenal. The cameraman complements this frenzy by switching back and forth from each camera angle in rapid-fire succession, and when light and sound are at their most chaotic, random whoops come from the audience. It’s hard to figure out exactly what we’re supposed to get from this, but whatever it is, we’re now at the climax. When Eddie comes back in with a feedback-y whine, you know drum time–and pee time–is over. I’m struck by the sheer un-imaginativeness of the whole segment. My fourteen-year-old self could’ve easily written the same script.
Let’s touch on Dave’s scream, as he lets one out here during “The Full Bug.”
Dave’s voice falls into the heavy metal vaudevillian category—a category I no doubt just invented, and which he alone occupies, but still… He reminds me of W.C. Fields, often talking out the side of his mouth in a streetwise way, like he’s enticing you into a bet that he’s likely to win. But when Dave screams–and he screams all the time at random points during a concert–something else happens. It’s not a horribly masculine scream like, say, Roger Daltrey’s of the Who; or operatic, like Rob Halford’s of Judas Priest. It’s very high pitched, and heading toward feminine in breathiness, but it’s hard for me to imagine it coming from a woman. If I stretch, I’d say it’s something a gal might let out after her boyfriend scared the shit out of her, which she later admits to kind of liking. I bet no one else in the world screams like this, which showcases just how one-of-a-kind Mr. Roth is. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being like him–or, really, wanting to–which might be the biggest compliment I can give a rock singer.
By this point, it’s clear that Dave has a tick he goes to whenever the camera is in close-up of his face. He looks seductively into it and licks his lips in a “you know you want me” way. Watching this and similar moments, you have to wonder what this guy is like on the bus. Does this schtick ever get turned off? Does he disappear into the deepest depression when no one is paying attention to him? Seeing Dave from the distance of a concert seat might be the only vantage from which to experience this guy, and frankly, his act wears thin even then. Any closer and I think I’d be capable of murder. When Dave breaks out the harmonica during the solo of “The Full Bug,” his playing is pretty nightmarish, but at least it takes up his mouth for a while.
Michael Anthony starts “Runnin’ with the Devil,” a hit from the band’s first album, with its thumping open-E bass line (bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum). It’s the easiest bass line known to man–I could teach your grandma to play it, whether she’s living or dead. Perhaps self-conscious about this, Michael tries to spice up the line with a visual trick. He brings the front of the bass to his face, and it looks a little like he’s playing the line with his teeth. This would seem to be the only reason to play the notes this way, but there’s also a sense he’s not actually playing with his teeth at all but with his right hand, which cheats around the bass, conspicuously not visible from the front. Moreover, there’s something exaggerated about the way he pulls the bass away from his face that doesn’t suggest teeth playing. My question is, are we supposed to understand Michael is playing these notes with his teeth or not? It seems important, at least to Michael, but I really can’t tell. The sad thing is, the bass line and stage move are so pedestrian, I doubt anybody’s bothered to ask him. “Cute, Mike, but could you move to the side? Dave’s wiggling his crotch at some girl behind you.” It’s tough to be onstage in Van Halen and remain visible, but this little trick isn’t the way forward.
In case it’s not clear, Largo, Maryland, is in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. We know this because throughout the video Dave refers to the audience as “Baltimore Washington.” As in, “How you doin’, Baltimore Washington?” It sort of becomes the audience’s first and last name.
At this point in the show, Roth gestures in “utter amazement” at the crowd’s overzealous reaction to the band. Roth stands there, motioning to the crowd and looking back at the other members in a “can you believe this” way. He nods his head slowly, mouth open, looking like nothing so much as a life-sized Muppet, as the audience screams and cheers. There’s now a weird energy going on. Roth is gesturing in a way that makes the crowd react, which Roth abets by gesturing again and looking around moonily, which makes the crowd react more. Eventually he says, “We play here, we don’t gotta play no other place on the whole East Coast,” and the crowd goes bonkers. This is all canned performance. Dave does the same routine in the US Festival video from 1983, and he also did it at the Peoria show I attended in 1984.
I can’t help but wonder about people who saw Van Halen a number of times during this era. How would you feel if, when sitting in the audience in Peoria, Dave said, “Well, Peoria sure kicks the ass of Detroit Rock City, I can tell you that” (he did, and we went crazy), and then went to the show the next night in, say, Milwaukee and Dave said, “Well, Milwaukee sure kicks the ass of Peoria, Illinois, I can tell you that.” You’d feel like a rube on two levels: first, Dave’s totally slagging you as one of the Peoria lame-os; second, you’d realize this whole thing is just some spiel he regurgitates at every show. This two-minute sequence with Dave at center stage is supposed to make the audience feel special, like Dave’s been waiting his whole life to rock out with the “crazy motherfuckers” of Milwaukee or Peoria or “Baltimore Washington,” but now it makes me think the Van Halen live aura is something you can experience exactly once before the residue of the schtick creeps in.
I can vaguely remember fighting back a similar feeling during this part of the Peoria show, knowing Dave had pulled the same line in the US Festival clip but cheering anyway. Even as I was cheering, it was disconcerting. At the point you’re standing in the audience of a Van Halen concert, you’ve pretty much bought into the experience. You’ve paid twenty dollars and driven however long to see your heroes. Are you going to boo them for duping you? No. You’re going to ignore it and cheer anyway. You want to be part of an amazing concert. Then you can go to class the next day and brag to your friends about how they totally missed out. In other words, you damn well better have a good time. At my high school, having gone to a concert was a weird sort of currency. Part of what you were paying for was the ability to talk about the experience later. All I asked from Van Halen for all the free advertising I dished out for them in math class was to be taken in by their schtick, to believe on some level I was part of something special, that I’d indeed been to an awesome concert. Deep down, I suspected I was being sold a bill of goods, but that didn’t matter. Just make me forget it for a while.
No doubt, through their songs, the way they performed and the energy coming from the stage, Van Halen did and does make me forget for a while. Even now, as a 42 year old, I spend a good deal of time just watching the concert, listening to the tunes, wondering what Dave will do next. These moments of artifice become interruptions to this downstream trek, like rocks jutting through the surface of water you have to maneuver around. Fortunately, the music always saves the band; it will not allow them to ruin it with too many gimmicks.
I admit some sympathy for them as technology has allowed us to peel back the veneer of their spontaneity. Without YouTube reminding me of this element of their Peoria show (which reminded me of the same in the US Festival video), I probably wouldn’t have remembered it. Back then, Roth promised me a show, and gave me a show. What’s the big deal? W.C. Fields had folded up the tent and left town long ago.
Next: Part IV.