90 Minutes to Love: Van Halen

by Darren Clarke, October 7, 2020

“Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.” 

Homer, The Iliad

When David Lee Roths’s autobiography, Crazy From the Heat, was released I found it on a shelf at Coles Book Store resting beside Homer’s Iliad. Seeing a book wherein Roth went into vivid detail about the deeper philosophical meaning attached to his onstage calisthenics perched beside what is considered one of the great literary achievements of mankind made me blissfully happy. The odd couple pairing managed to sum up the spirt of Van Halen when they were great- Maybe it shouldn’t be held up alongside the outstanding musical achievements of man but there it is, a deeply guilty, but nonetheless genuine, pleasure.

Van Halen was that band.

The news of Eddie Van Halen passing yesterday caught me off guard. It’s natural right? An indelible part of the landscape of youth passing leaves you lost once again in the face of the relentless nature of mortality.

For my part I have undergone a reconciliation with Van Halen over the past years. I loved Van Halen in the early 80s. The self-titled, first, Van Halen album and 1984 were two albums I absolutely wore the names off the cassettes by playing so much as a young man.

In the late 80s and 90s however I discovered alternative rock, punk, and post-punk, so- The Replacements, The Pixies, The Cure, later Nirvana, The Beastie Boys, Beck, Sloan, Thrush Hermit, The Rheostatics, etc. And that world seemed more closely aligned with my evolving sensibilities and pretence. The new world I dove into was sensitive, ironic, poetic, a little more ramshackle and to my mind just plain deeper. Moreover, it felt like in order to fully embrace, this new, alternative, appreciation for music, I had to fully reject mainstream rock. Van Halen were the ultimate symbol, the Kings, of 80s mainstream rock.

The absurd outfits, the ode to debauchery and heavy drinking, the rock’n roll posing, the ludicrous sexual innuendo and misogyny. All of it had to all be chucked overboard in order to move forward it seemed.

So I chucked it all. Unaware I would decades later happily amble back to pick it back up and joyfully press play.

About a month ago I created a 90-minute playlist of Van Halen songs essentially running through their creative sweet spot- The first album through 1984. The Diamond Dave years as it were. I didn’t share it then because I thought- “The world doesn’t need me to tell them about Van Halen.”

I have no idea why I think things like that though since the world has indicated consistently that it doesn’t really care whether I do, or don’t do, something. And maybe/probably the truth is that on some level I felt it uncool to share my love for Van Halen.

But coolness be damned.

Much is made of the Roth vs Hagar debate and given there is zero Hagar era Van Halen on my playlist it’s pretty clear which side I am on. But I’m not really on any side and I’m not going to debate anybody about it. This is just the Van Halen I love, that digs into me, that gets my pulse to beat a bit faster, that tickles my fancy, that makes me laugh. If Hagar era Van Halen does that for you- good for you.

For me that Roth-Van Halen dynamic was perfect chemistry. There’s a Youtube reaction video from the guys in Lost in Vegas to Van Halen that nails what the band was at its’ best.

For the uninitiated, Lost in Vegas is a Youtube channel wherein two gentlemen who are not traditional rock fans explore and react, to various songs, old and new, that they’ve never heard before. The first song they did from Van Halen was, Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love and they nail the Roth-Van Halen dynamic in their reaction. On the guitar sound they note, “That shit just sounds good!” and regarding the allure of Diamond David Lee Roth they opine that while Dave doesn’t technically have a great voice he has an undeniable charisma along with a gift in channelling the buildup and release of the fervent music behind him. The second video they did was Hot for Teacher wherein they exclaim upon spotting Diamond Dave, “THIS GUY!

David Lee Roth was THAT GUY.

There is nobody in the world who dislikes Van Halen as much as my wife. And her hate is predicated mostly upon Diamond Dave’s bravado and cartoonish machismo (not to mention the folks who, back in the 80s, mimicked him without the underlying wink). Eddie Van Halen she never mentioned. Which made me think- Why do I never mention Eddie? Why? Because Eddie Van Halen is someone you listen to, not somebody you talk about. You listen in awe and then talk about David Lee Roth. Because what do you say about Eddie’s guitar playing and not sound ridiculous? Eddie Van Halen is the Northern Lights, David Lee Roth is the carnival that just came to town. One you gaze wordlessly upon while the other is, by design, intended to be gossiped about. As the guys from Lost in Vegas point out in regards to David Lee Roth, “It’s like the cool shit, like the cool Fonzie shit…”

So let’s talk about David Lee Roth.

Diamond Dave was part Flying Walenda, part Liberace, part Jack Kerouac, part THAT GUY!

I don’t argue with my wife regarding her disdain for Roth. Diamond Dave is the friend you have that you understand other people may dislike. But you love him anyways. You love him because while yes, there are many things troubling about him, there’s also something genuinely, uniquely, amazing about the guy.

I remember a night one winter in the 80s where I was driving around aimlessly, the radio tuned into a Buffalo rock station. As luck would have it they were interviewing David Lee Roth that night. It was a complete blast of an interview. An interview that, almost fourty years later I can still quote in large chunks. For example, I can hear Diamond Dave, speaking through a shit-eating-grin in that beatnik poet at the whorehouse, radio static crackle and smooth cigar smoke, voice, “Buffalo… Buffalo is the glovebox of America.”

Buffalo is the glovebox of America. I mean come on, how can you not want to hear more from a guy who dreamed up that turn of phrase?

Dave went onto wax philosophical about how rock’n roll was like Christopher Columbus sailing across the ocean to find new worlds. And the genius of David Lee Roth then and today (word to the wise- his podcast is pretty great) is the genius of Van Halen- Just when you are about to dismiss it as gratuitous, ludicrous, frivolous, it catches you off guard with something glorious- it’s a tossed off, over the top, line like- “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” followed immediately by Eddie Van Halen chopping out rambunctious waves of feedback before churning out stutter-stepped, infectious, funk, via his Frankenstat, it’s the opening drum extravaganza from Alex Van Halen on Hot for Teacher, it’s the keeping it real, blue collar, bass lines of Michael Anthony.

After listening to Hot For Teacher the guys on Lost in Vegas mused on the current whereabouts of David Lee Roth, “He’s gotta be the coolest old dude ever.” And he kind of is.

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen went their separate ways in the 80s with some quick, mostly fruitless, reunions over the years. What David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen ultimately became in their later years I don’t know really but for a time they made amazing things, sailed across oceans and discovered new worlds.

And they will never be here again.