July 30, 2012
In Part I we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth. In Part III we tried to surmise what, if anything, can be taken from an Alex Van Halen drum solo, and we watched Dave throw a tizzy-fit in Part V. In Part VI, let’s try not to cringe as Dave plays guitar.
For the first time in the video, I hear someone very human playing guitar. As the camera fades to another angle, we see it’s Mr. Roth who’s taken it upon himself to strum a little six-string for us. Dave is playing a very glittery Gibson 335 with “Diamond Dave” written in pearl inlay on the fretboard. The guitar is tuned to what’s called open tuning, which means in short Dave can pluck any string on it without using his left (fretting) hand and still be in key. After over an hour of Eddie and his work, this mere mortal plucking away sounds almost child-like.
I imagine this segment of the show–which is called “Ice Cream Man pt. 1: Dave Rambles” and “Ice Cream Man pt. 2: Dave Rambles”–has been with the band since its earliest days (the song “Ice Cream Man” is on their first album), and my guess is nobody knows how to politely tell Dave this tune sticks out–and not in a good way–from the rest of the set. It’s a blues/boogie-woogie number built around the lyrical conceit:
I’m your ice cream man, stop me when I’m passin’ by.
You see all my flavors are guaranteed to satisfy.
Before starting the song, Dave rails against the band’s critics, some folks who said “Van Halen ain’t gonna make no records, Van Halen ain’t gonna have no concerts,” when the band first started out. Dave takes his time with this story, giving the audience a sentence or two and interspersing it with free-form plucking. This is the kind of thing that would bore the pants off me if I were, say, Michael Anthony and had to listen to it every night. It would be hard not to glance at your watch, count the remaining songs in the set, wonder how the wife is back home. (I’m guilty of all of these.)
Eventually, Dave brings his story to climax: “And wherever he [the critic] may be…wherever you are, pal…fuck you,” which triggers a roar from the audience. Then Roth encourages everyone to say “fuck you” to their own critics, anyone “who’s giving you a hard time.” He counts to three, and the arena erupts with “fuck you.” This pleases him so much he counts to three again, and everyone again screams “fuck you.” The crowd, filled with adolescents who are no doubt tired of people telling them what to do, eats this up. I can sense the train of thought going through their heads: “I can either listen to my parents/teachers/pastors/authority figures and wind up just as lame as they are, or I can tell them all to fuck off and be like him.”
Because this was my train of thought back then. I was a fourteen-year-old high school freshman who’d been raised in a snow-addled Midwestern city where I didn’t fit in, and I struggled to find things to which I could deeply relate. The world of entertainment–the musicians and actors and comedians who came to me through concerts and movies and TV–were doing much more than entertaining me; they were calling out the hypocrisy of traditional work-a-day life in a way that clicked with me. As petty as I now think Dave’s rant sounds, such thinking was a necessary yang for me then. I remember the feeling of release I’d get when these guys would go off on people who were “gettin’ me down” or “pushin’ me around.” (Every metal band had roughly the same diatribe; five or so years later, Axl Rose would harness it to full effect.) And even though I wasn’t really getting pushed around by the folks in my hometown as much as being offered a structure, I’m thankful to Dave and the boys for articulating this message for me. It was more than mere petulance. They taught me to accept that part of me that trusted what I felt, and even to love myself for it. Dave’s rant is calculated for effect, as is everything in his routine, but hearing it again will make me a little more tolerant of that guy dressed all in black at the bus stop, or that girl with more piercings than Moby Dick on his last day, or that teenager who will not pull up his fucking pants. For whatever reason, they need it, just like I did. I might not relate anymore, but I can’t pretend not to understand.
The trick of heavy metal guitar is making the work of technology come off as the work of you. That’s what I think as I watch Eddie blaze through some facsimile of “Eruption,” the song/guitar solo from Van Halen’s first album that would change the way most heavy rock axe-slingers played for at least a decade. The piece most notably features Eddie’s two-handed hammer-on technique, which made every guitarist in the eighties put their picks in their mouths and get both of their hands up on the neck. The version in the video isn’t exactly “Eruption,” but many of its trademark sections are scattered about enough for me to call it some take on the song. The only thing keeping this segment from being a straight guitar solo is that Michael and Alex are still onstage, accenting some of Eddie’s playing with loud cymbal crashes and bass rumbles. As Eddie breaks into an impressive-sounding repeating lick high up on the neck, we get a close-up of his fretting hand, and I can’t help but be struck by how rudimentary the lick seems from this vantage. As with many flashy accents during this passage, it sounds more impressive than it is.
Much of rock guitar comes down to choices of equipment; guitar, amps and effects have as much to do with the way a guitarist sounds as what he plays or how he plays it. I’ll never forget a clip of some behind-the-scenes show on U2. The clip features The Edge in the studio picking some classic lick from one of U2’s songs. His playing sounds otherworldly, but a glance at his hands reveals he’s just plucking individual notes from a D chord. Most every guitar player I know could play it. The Edge’s real achievement is coming up with his tone, which seems more technical–and therefore somehow less noteworthy than it coming from his Edge-ness. Like the close-up on Eddie’s fingers, Oz’s curtain is thrown back, the illusion breaks down, and I’m left wondering if I’d prefer the illusion to the real thing.
Eddie follows this with a great example of his two-handed hammer-on technique, then a few whammy dive bombs. The coolness of the wang bar licks seem to inspire him to mount the giant stairs at stage left. Once at their peak, he breaks into a familiar lick from “Eruption,” what I want to call a Spanish conquistador lick. He smiles and shakes his head, happy to be giving the audience a dose of The Guitar Player of the Year. He takes the lick to a high point, bends the final note and creates some weird aural refraction that makes his playing sound like two guitars instead of one. I have no idea how he does it, and I’m grateful for it. When he stops, the audience roars, and Eddie holds his arms up in a weird combination of “I am the champion” and “I salute you, Baltimore Washington”
There’s plenty more to this ten-minute solo. Eddie plays a bongo-style lick; Eddie pushes the head of his guitar into the stage as he plays; Eddie plays the classic hammer-on lick from “Eruption.” All brilliant and showboat-y and at least mildly interesting. As a dramatic final gesture, Eddie points at the camera, runs to the back of the stage and jumps into a stack of speakers, almost like a basketball player going in for a slam dunk. He watches the speakers as they teeter but don’t quite topple over. This is such a good trick he does it again: run, jump, teeter, watch. The gimmick strikes me as right out of Dave’s playbook. What a shame that his boatload of talent isn’t enough. All his guitar tricks are already on the table. Here’s something you haven’t seen.
Through it all, Eddie strikes me as an endlessly curious tinkerer. I can imagine him sitting in his home studio. What does this amp do when I turn it up to here? What if I switch this effect to here? If I stand here, what kind of feedback will I get? These tidbits during his solo are nothing so much as nuggets of discovery Eddie came up with somewhere along the line, and his solo time is his chance to unveil them for you. He’s like a grade school kid who found some cool rocks over summer vacation–on, perhaps, the moon–and he shows them to you at recess, pulling them from his pocket, smiling. Who could resist running home and asking his folks if he could go to the moon someday? And how surprised he’ll be to find out the moon is actually sitting in your basement with a guitar and amplifier, diddling away.
Next: Part VII.