July 13, 2012
In Part I, we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth. Part II delved deeply into the squat as a Van Halen performance tool, and we explored possible explanations for Little Lord Fauntleroth in Part IV. In Part V, let’s enjoy a quiet moment with Eddie before Dave throws a tizzy.
In what might be the worst concert sequencing decision in the history of man, right after “Hang ‘Em High,” the stage goes dark, and wouldn’t you know it, Van Halen plunge into solo mode again. This time it’s wonder kid Eddie who struts into the lone beam of light, carrying a double-neck guitar. He’s doing volume swells that he intersperses with a static-y sound, which serve as a sort of punctuation to the swells. This leads to “Cathedral,” the very classical-sounding interlude from Diver Down. “Cathedral” relies heavily on a delay effect to give it the sense that more is happening than what Eddie is actually playing, but the lick is a nice counterpoint to the all-smoke-and-mirrors solo to which Anthony just subjected us. The circus is quiet for a moment, most of the lights are down, and we’re left with nothing but Eddie and his work, compelling without falling all over himself, performing not pandering.
There was a lot of commotion back in the 1980s about the invasion of our pop culture by the bombast of heavy metal, and the resulting sacrifice of the subtle to the musically and visually assaulting. But here—right here in the middle of a Van Halen show, of all places—is a musical piece that’s quiet, pleasant, almost sweet. It again speaks to the band’s broad range of appeal, but it also underscores that most of the time, in this world at least, it is the bombast that wins. Thirty years after this concert, with our media of wall-to-wall advertising and noise and even news shows competing to see who can be loudest, fastest or most saturated, it’s hard to argue anything has improved. Funny, but the hyper-acceleration of pop culture over the last ten or so years has happened with rock and roll largely on the sidelines, its cultural and economic power greatly diminished since the nineties. Who’d have thought rock would ever be blown away by the rest? I guess when some folks were complaining about it, others were taking notes.
It’s clear this portion of the show is meant as the weird interlude portion, for once again most of the lights go down, and the ones that come back up are focused on the drum riser. Alex works away at an intricate island-type beat, something obviously not part of a Van Halen song. Eddie has grabbed a pair of sticks and is also playing Alex’s kit, working off to one side, hitting a cymbal here and there. Michael stands on the opposite side of the drum riser. It’s hard to tell what he’s doing, but you can bet he’s looking stoked and giving the thumbs up while doing it.
As the drummer(s) hit a strong accent, silence falls, the lights switch to a strobe effect, and there’s Dave in silhouette, doing a warrior pose. The drums get going again, and Dave moves to the beat, his arms and legs cutting through the light. He appears to be doing some kind of martial arts dance, twisting and kicking, his movements hard and formal. At one point he does a cartwheel, which brings cheers from the audience of a certain pitch that suggests more female than male members are paying attention. When the band hits the opening chords to “Everybody Wants Some,” all the lights go up, and Dave stands there with his arms in the air, another victory in rendering his Dave-ness to the world.
These interludes–Eddie playing “Cathedral,” Dave’s karate dance, and the bawdy Dave monologue in the middle of “Everybody Wants Some”–act as a defense against the concert becoming two-dimensional, and we are spared the song-song-song effect that a less engaging band might crank out. Boredom is an oft-unmentioned element of these shows, for the crowd and for the band, and during the songs in this stretch, the band seems a little pokey onstage. Dave of course keeps his bump-and-grind routine going, but he also looks like maybe a tinge of self-doubt has emerged. There are times when Eddie and Michael just mosey around, looking out at the audience (granted, always smiling), and there’s even an awkward moment when the three almost run into each other.
I recognize this sort of mid-show lull from my time in the Refreshments. Despite having written dozens of songs, we tended to play the same ones over and over again, and when you play 250 shows a year, as we did in 1996, the hard part is making sure you never get bored. Bored musicians onstage come off as, to an audience member who’s paid money and is perhaps freaking out to finally get to see you, petulant and surly. At times, the only thing keeping you awake is the chance you might screw up. I tend to agree with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who once said every rock show should last about ten minutes. Watching this band play “Secrets,” it’s hard not to agree with him.
One of the prime ways for musicians to break out of a mid-show rut is to expand the stage, which involves finding some aspect of it they have yet to exploit. No one has taken advantage of the wings on both sides of the stage that extend up and out, which Dave does here in the second verse of “Dance the Night Away.”
At any show, this is a special moment for those in the audience on the approached side of the stage. You’ve been watching from your seat for a hour and you can see that the stage extends all the way up in your direction, and you’re wondering when it’s going to be used. When a performer decides to take the plunge, it’s probably as close as you’ll ever get to him, and that can be weirdly exciting. Like in 1992, when my wife and I went to see the Cure at American West Arena in Phoenix. We had tickets all the way up on the left side of the enormous dome, at least 100 feet from the stage. We were fans of the Cure, but not fanatical, which made us the minority in this crowd of teenagers who donned inaccurate makeup and sullen attitudes. The guy in the seat in front of us–tall and skinny, in baggy clothes and with black hair that he kept putting in front of his face in a sort of insistence–swayed all night as the band played. The guy sometimes ventured air guitar, and other times placed both hands over his heart in swooning joy. At the end of the show, after the band played “Boys Don’t Cry,” the lead singer Robert Smith left the stage on our side, waving up to the audience. This sent our fan into spasm. He lunged forward in a weird hopefulness and let out a breathy “Robert,” despite the guy being many yards away, and with ten thousand other fans screaming at him too. Fans care about this stuff.
And Diamond Dave is never one to leave a fan wanting. He conquers two or three of the giant steps at stage left with mighty Dave confidence, but as he continues up, his mic cord gets caught. He looks behind him, gives the cord a tug. By the second half of the verse he’s tugging on it with an incredulous look on his face, and by the end of the verse he has the cord over his shoulder, leaning forward like a slave in biblical times lugging something up a hill for some deranged pharaoh. He keeps singing through all of this. During the pre-chorus (“Ooo, baby, baby”), Dave looks ready to give up, but then he suddenly takes another tack along one of the stairs, searching for the magical angle that will free him. Through the entire second chorus, Dave looks back to where the cord’s coming from, pulls it this way and that, flips it like a jump rope. He gives up by the bridge, just in time for Eddie to wow us with a shower of false harmonics.
What’s nice about this sequence is to see Dave pulled—just a bit—out of his persona. It’s not like he threw a fit—and if you watch the video you might wonder what the big deal is—but with so much choreographed in this two-hour show, it’s refreshing to see something happen nobody was expecting. We get Dave acting like Dave for just for a moment, someone who has to struggle with the same crap we have to struggle with, and we like him all the more for it.
At the end the song, when Alex gets his double bass rumbling and Dave breaks into a chorus girl-like kick routine, you know The Dave Show is back in full swing. Eddie takes up the charge for the folks at stage left by mounting the stairs to the platform at the top, hitting the final chords of the song, pointing in a “you rock” way at the audience. I can imagine myself up there in the cheap seats, knowing I’m as close to one of my heroes as I’ll likely ever get, and I’d lunge forward, extend my arm, and let out a plaintive, useless Eddie.
Next: Part VI