Perfect Sound Forever

Van Halen's Hagar years revisited

Why Can't This Be Love?
By Calliope Kurtz
(February 2009)

When surveying the job landscape through the somewhat sheltered eyes of youth, any number of individuals, not surprisingly, find the "career" of musician imbued with far more interest, status and freedom from wage tyranny than most others. The appeal of "making it" in the music business - with all the fame, glamor, money and "artistic expression" that goal implies - is a very powerful inducement indeed, and especially so for youths who question their opportunities for achieving economic independence in the sphere of job listings found in the classified ads. Motives for pursuing a musical career - expressed often as "working for myself" and "doing something that I really like" - tap into the very psyche of the Jeffersonian myth of the American Dream and provide a popular notion of capitalism at its most benevolent. Every sixteen-year old pumping gas at a summer job certainly finds irresistible the image of an Ice-T or a Slash - guys who definitely look like they might have pumped a little gas in their teens - telling the gas station manager to screw himself and then embarking on a satisfying adventure of "hitting the big time," handsomely paid and amply appreciated for expressing such potent revenge fantasies.

And, like all things American, the dream can evanesce and shift into free-falling nightmares of bitter atonement. Thus, the saga of Van Halen resonates with the incomprehensible grandeur of hell. Debuting with multi-platinum spectacle in pretty vacant 1978, Eddie Van Halen, surpassing demonic Jimmy Page, was the last guitar man standing before succumbing, in the belittling era of corporate grunge, to alcoholic obsolescence. Not content with mere showbiz degradation (media squabbles, reunion debacles, VH3), the dude fucked himself up and down with the same intrepid prodigiousness of his unnaturally accelerated solos; you have sold your soul to rock & roll when doing so claims body parts. Respect that unholy unity of opposites, the gift and the sacrifice, new love and dead love, when deriding detoxing deities.

The Cinderella tale begins in the sterile year of 1986 - before Guns n' Roses rebooted history - and the choice of Sammy Hagar, perennial minor-leaguer, adopted favorite son of St. Louis' KSHE-95 for chrissakes, was obdurate, at best. Following 1984's close scrape with #1, millions of dollars rode on the risk. That's a lot of lines. Of course, Eddie Van Halen wanted his hereditary spotlight back from the perpetually usurping David Lee Roth, but, what the fuck, puppy-faced "I Can't Drive 55" Hagar was, huh, Ted Nugent without charisma. I mean, who wants to supercede, as all the magazines averred, the extraterresitial exploits of Jimi Hendrix with Bud Man? There were sniggers aplenty when it was revealed Hagar, presumably a dude's dude, got the job after frickin' Patty ("bang, bang, I am the warrior") Smyth declined the offer.

But, no way, Clear Channel, infamous for exercising the flexibility of Stalinist auditors, embraced 5150 and helped pop it outta the park. #1. Not to be believed! Like, huh, that glossy chorussey guitar and protodigital bass thumping was but an virgin canvas upon which Hagar bellowed his parking lot "whoa!"'s with all the artistry of Margarita 2-fers. Was this a hit record - or prefabricated karaoke? But, no, "it's got what it takes," boom, megabig, deal done. But, how? Implausibly, it rocked, and Zeppelinesque epic at that, but also kinda vending machine. The secret ingredient, the miraculous dash in the glistening cellophane, was the shittiness. "This blows 'em all away!"

"What kind of crap is this?"

But, waitaminute:

I tell myself,
"Hey! Only fools rush in";
Only time will tell
If we stand the test of time;
All I know
You've got to run to win, and
I'll damned if I'll get caught up on the line!

Is it supreme banality or superb economy? That bump n' grind thing Eddie's plunking on almost resurrects the Stones weave (the asymmetrical double rythym made famous by "Honky Tonk Women," "Brown Sugar," "Tumbling Dice"), sludgily frosted for sure, but what's a molecule away from comprehensible is Sammy's retarded litany of cliches, hollered like a fire chief, invoking the spirit of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." I know, I can't believe I read that right, either. But the crass amateurishness intimates - oozes like surplus - an earnestness money can't claim. When it's the vertiginous real thing - and when it's emotional indeterminism. Now, the latter, Diamond Dave all the way - libertine hijinks, playin' around, good times; the former, totally Red Rocker - desperate loyalty, playin' for keeps, big time. This is the cusp of the promise, when gods falter and losers assume the world. Like, activated.

And, that solo!

Correction - that "solo." OK, we get a dumbed-down fusion figure, a mere slot machine trick for the prestigitation master, and Sammy's managling Robert Plant over it, but then, excuse me, are those clusters of pregrunge deconstruction or izzit just the CEO blacking out on his legendary whammybar? Elsewhere on the album there's all the fastforward curlicues, slicing string scrapes, bottom strutting licks and horse snorts to keep air guitarists spastically infantile but the patent was fast approaching its expiration date. Meanwhile, swelling Yamaha keyboards provide Sammy an incongruous milieu, barcoded powerballads, ripe for mutilation: his rodomontading delivery on "Dreams" has everything Eddie's whirligig licks, garbled through enough stomp boxes to consummate North Korea's nuclear program, lack - agency. For this kinda stuff, that's practically startling.

Van Halen thrived in a contrived, superheroic context. Subsumed within a million familiar postures, "real rock" was a 99% closed delivery system permitting only the creativity of increased amplification. Eddie's unfathomable, elfin tapping, an ejaculatory velocity previously impossible at 33", was the final star visible to astronomic measurement. Van Halen epitomized the diamond terminus of fuzzed-toned libido boogie. The oscillation lick on "Why Can't This Be Love?" delineates the flashing span from Les Paul's '47 sides to Electric Ladyland, nothing more progressive permissible, which is exactly why Hagar's asinine "woo!" stapled to it (frickin' twice no less) is implacably congruous - and grotesquely inspired. More so than frat-house Dave, tech-school Sammy is Eddie's referee, his superego, the debt collector busting Kubla Khan's buzz - thus relieving the master the onus of illimitability.

Not to deny several revved-up exhilarations throughout 5150. "Get Up"'s got Eddie yanking off a tapping fusillade in quadruple-time, perhaps his fastest; "Good Enough" churns out Sammy's greasiest high-decibel double-entendre; and "Summer Nights" ingests AC/DC's entire oeuvre and hucks it up, full-blast, value-added - all the awesomer on the Live Without A Net New Haven, Connecticut performance where Eddie's nifty little Frankensteinberger allows him to simultaneously fulminate lightening leads and chainsmoke a pack of Marlboro reds - before the outro! A lot of VH's new juice cooked in the demographic downshift; St. Louis, always suspecting DLR's "Just A Gigolo" was kinda homo anyway, now had a World Series man fronting America's slickest rock & roll hotrod.

And, best yet, what's with all the mulletheads bemoaning the closer cut, "Inside," as a toss? "What kind of crap is this?" Another brick in the wall? You know my name (look up the number), the crunge - more apt, fodderstompf. And the boyish backslapping sounds spontaneous - that couldn't be possible - while, no surprise, at least a decade's worth of substance abuse went into the obligatory squonk-off. Any headbanging opener knows how to keep the customer satisfied and disguise the filler; it takes real artistic integrity to turn the trick with such remorseless conspicuousness. Impaired judgment, after all, wasn't invented by Kurt Cobain. Subsequent Van Hagar releases - home runs, all of 'em - further demonstrated Eddie's disintegration and Sammy's ascendancy in alacritous equal measure, a preternatural unity of opposites only possible in the pathological laboratory of rock & roll.

This was confirmed by 5150's clinical follow-up, OU812, a slaphappy bid to Meet The Van Halens. "Finish What Ya Started" finds the lads stylish only because they are so obliviously inept, chasing Queen back to 1980. Sammy's inner nerd exudes a blueplate charm ("If you wanna see other guys, baby, I could let it slide") but Eddie's Chet Atkins twang is astonishing as an ex-boyfriend in boxer shorts. "When It's Love" replicates "Love Walks In," more mush for the girlfriends; Eddie shows he's no Phil Collins in the songwriting department (duh) but Sammy steals a base belting out an inordinate note (at 3:19). "Feels So Good" is Starship bubblegum with a melody memorable as any of the hotel rooms in which the boss passed out. The problem isn't Sammy, groaning "feels so nice!" like any alienated laborer, but rather the man signing the checks, unable to conjure anything for his Prom jingle other than, what else, "Beat It." Jukebox.

No matter. Come headlining the Monsters of Rock tour, Van Halen obliterated all opposition with totalitarian aplomb. All fired up! Naturally wired! Originality, bah; one tune had the indolent arrogance to sound like it was titled "Black and Blue," which it was. Eddie incontestably was, well, who else but Zeus in '75, dreams lift off, while Hagar, aiming considerably lower, did Daltrey in '69. Halloween. And the fuckin' weird thing was, the inauthenticity of the gesture was sincerely enchanting, arena gods capable of hero worship, as if Van Halen realized seizing the empyrean scepter in the late 80's wasn't exactly a millennial deal. Whatever. Just a few clips from the Toyko show, '89, and it's unassailable, while Eddie's stage moves are predictably self-parodic and Sammy's are only marginally professional, whoa, here's the final form of the (guitar end of the) British Invasion - gargantuan, amok and malformed with vicarious ecstasy - before it crumbled down, forever.

A decade after VH roared outta the clubs, Monsters was the tour that disfigured kidneys and livers by the wardful. The subsequent commodity, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, was one of those "back to a harder sound" responses to all those opening-act hungries clawing outta the sulphurous depths which signifies strategic retreat. Guns 'n Roses rocked the world and Nevermind was about to scorch the earth. And VH was getting down to brown M&Ms. "Poundcake"'s got Eddie not really drilling his ultratweaked machine while Sammy's having second thoughts about "sex without love" - they're dispatching their damn good times, and not with a whole lotta lust. "316" demonstrates Eddie's got no bron-yr-aur in him, his fugues are running on fumes, while "Right Now" suggests Sammy would rather be in the Who, that is, he's craving some statesmanship. Lotsa luck, man on a mission! When supreme sorcerers close an album with "standing on top of the world - for a little while," well, shit (but, dude, it ROCKS!!!).

A presidential term came and went before Eddie sobered up enough to proceed with Balance. Def Leppard and Bon Jovi had since been vaporized by Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, and VH's newfound gnarliness betrayed a reluctant awareness of altered market imperatives. Eddie starts the album doing the upstroking Edge thing, which didn't presage eruptive events, while many of Sammy's lyrics suggest downtime flipping through Newsweek instead of American Chopper; not so fun. "Big Fat Money" conjures up some Chuck Berry propulsion but, jeez boys, consider whatcha coulda spawned just doing a big fat cover. Anyway, 10 turgid tracks notwithstanding, "Can't Stop Lovin' You" makes the whole sordid trip worth the price of admission: what the hell could be less plausible than Fast Eddie Van Halen penning a standard, getting outside his penalizing guitar legacy (although his "jazzy" solo almost sinks the momentum), than the insupposable surprise of Slammin' Sammy Hagar, of all AOR barkers, earning the right to sing "hey, Ray, whatcha said is true." Talk about class, this thing's got, like, two middle-eights!

Whoever says love ain't true, I'll punch their lights out.

And, more fightin' words, straight from my heart: Hagar - still sporting the stage moves of a wedding reception singer after 25 years' stadium experience; how does he do it? - did justice enough to "Jump," admit it, punk, so, c'mon, let's hear Roth pull off "Can't Stop Lovin' You." Hah! And yes I'm stumbling, my skull is stunned, whattaya expect, I've been hitting replay on this stuff 48 days straight. But what I'm trying to get at here is this: there ain't no conspiracy, no brainwashing paradigm, dude, there's a reason concocted glop like this exists and sells by the rocket load. Whether it's pheromonal fertility, post-divorce brio, teeniebopper pitter-patter, wising up at 29 or 49 - it's got what it takes:

The love in me is never straight and narrow
Unless the love is tried and true;
You take a chance with new beginnings;
Still we try, win or lose, take the highs
With the blues.

I'd deny you nothing.

POST-SCRIPT: Van Halen reunited with David Lee Roth for a successful reunion tour in 2008 while Hagar's Cosmic Universal Fashion CD hit Billboard's Hot 100 in the same year.

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