Rediscovering Van Halen

Music is such a terrific vehicle for transporting us to another time and place. Hearing music from long ago can refire the wonderment synapses like few other stimuli.  Song memories take me away–to where I first heard them, how I felt during that era,….and some even retrigger a few of the emotions of being a 16-year old.  It wasn’t pretty at that age, but I was earnest nonetheless, and the music of the day was truly extraordinary, more than sufficient to serve as the backdrop soundtrack of my angst-ridden teen life.  

Hearing some long forgotten Van Halen recently took me back to that place when I first started driving back in 1978-1979. Having young nieces and nephews (actually cousins and kids of close friends) entering that very phase of their own life now, has lent relevance to the power of my own recollections. I don’t want to pass up this opportunity to give Van Halen credit for owning top billing in the soundtrack of my 16-year old mind, for a few months anyway.

Van Halen burst on the scene with their first album – Van Halen in 1978. I was a Sophomore at Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa. As a regular at Memorial Baptist Church, this album became a symbol of some degree of mild-rebellion. Beginning with “Running With the Devil,” it never failed to polarize a crowd. The Satanic angst of these lyrics wasn’t near enough to dissuade us from appreciating the virtuosity of Eddie Van Halen on “Eruption.”   Then follow that with the best recording ever made of “You’ve Really Got Me”—with all due respect to the Kinks. And follow that, with my own personal favorite—”Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love.”

Van Halen’s first album offered a blistering “Here We Are!”statement to a saturated rock scene, chock full of emerging, killer bands, including Journey and Foreigner. Van Halen was here and they were as good as anybody else. They set a standard that they would never match again…..but they did continue to produce amazing music.

I wouldn’t be writing this now if I hadn’t just recently taken my own Van Halen appreciation to a newer, deeper place. I don’t suppose I would have done that, had I embraced many of their later albums when they first came out.

After the first album, all of America’s rock-loving youth, waited for the sophomore effort. Van Halen (VH) II came out with enormous expectations. Beginning with another cover—which I also regard as the best recording ever made of the song—of Linda Ronstadt’s “Your No Good.” VH II delivered….just not as consistently satisfying as the first album. The second song, “Dance the Night Away,” is arguably as iconic and distinctly “signature” Van Halen as any other song. Song three, “Somebody Get Me A Doctor,” is my favorite on the album. Why it never made a “Best of” Van Halen compilation is beyond me. No sweat, it’s on mine.

The rest of VH II went sort of downhill for me, but I think that was true at that time, because there was so much good music to take in back then.  By the time (their third record) Women and Children First Came out, I’d lost my “amp” of anticipation for Van Halen records. Though I will say, to this day, that “And the Cradle Will Rock” is still the song that is most emblematic of what I like about Van Halen. Eddie wailed, David Lee crooned, kicked and screamed and I still love it.

That said, at the time it was released, I didn’t own Women and Children First. Nor did I buy Fair Warning when it came out. Likewise, no Diver Down either. The next Van Halen record I bought was to be the final of the initial David Lee Roth era.

The album 1984 recaptured some of the early Van Halen magic—wrapped in a 80s-synth vibe. Song 2, “Jump,” was all over the radio just as I was approaching going to the US Army’s Jump School at Fort Benning. I couldn’t avoid the connection. Radio saturation did little to dissuade my fondness for the album. I will say that I like “I’ll Wait” much more than “Panama” or “Hot for Teacher”, which were also radio staples.

The Sammy Hagar era of Van Halen began around the time I left Oklahoma for the active-duty Army. The album 5150 came out when I didn’t have the time or energy for any advanced musical discernment. If I listen and liked, well then, it must just work. And I liked “Dreams” and “Why Can’t This Be Love” well enough. But like most of Fair Warning, Diver Down and Women and Children First, there wasn’t enough on 5150 for me to buy the record.

Over the coming years, I came to look upon Van Halen as the band of my youth, without them being a band of my “right now.” That was until these past few months. After embracing Chickenfoot (Sammy Hagar’s Cabo San Lucas-based bar band—with Joe Satriani, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith—of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame), at a good friend’s behest, I got to poking around i-Tunes one day.

Stumbling upon Van Halen II, I decided I must solve my dilemma of not owning “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” or my favorite version of “Your No Good.”  So, I bought VH II. And I then began checking out some of the older albums that I’d mostly ignored when they were new.

I bought Fair Warning and Women & Children First….and then got to looking at Van Halen (VH) III. The much lamented Gary Cherone (formerly of Extreme) album. The i-Tunes reviews of VH III were as polarized as anything on i-Tunes. True fans loved it. True fans hated it. “True” fans made me question the use of that term.

In the end, I went with an articulate fellow’s summation—that beyond the vocals, there was still Eddie—and he was sober on this album—accompanied by the pounding, driving rhythm section of Alex and Michael. At his best, Gary Cherone sounded a fair bit like Sammy Hagar.

I bought it. And I was pleasantly surprised. Eddie remained the virtuoso. Gary was good. And I thought the naysayers were nuts. It wasn’t Van Halen I, but it was awesome in places. My personal favorites—“From Afar”, “Dirty Water Dog”, and “Fire in the Hole”—all showcase Eddie being Eddie.

I’m no guitarist, not a musician of any type…..but I can tell genius when I hear it. And like it or not, personal dramas and egos aside, Eddie Van Halen is a sentinel for guitar players, and will be for generations. Anybody who has seen the movie Back to the Future, knows the power of Eddie Van Halen’s music. It can change the course of the space-time continuum.

After going through a two month Van Halen renaissance, I have now created my own “Best of Van Halen” playlist. It includes some stuff from all three eras…..is arguably a little light on Sammy—but you’ve heard me say that it was my immediate love of Chickenfoot that got me interested in hearing Van Halen again in the first place.

With cousin/nephew Colton and cousin/nieces Alisha and Aundrea beginning to drive this year, I can’t help but remember my own 16-year old, 8-track soundtrack. So, here’s my “Best of Van Halen” playlist

1) Running with the Devil
2) Eruption
3) You Really Got Me
4) Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love
5)  You’re No Good
6) Dance the Night Away
7) Somebody Get Me a Doctor
8) And the Cradle Will Rock…
9) Mean Street
10) 1984
11) Jump
12) Panama
13) I’ll Wait
14) Hot For Teacher
15) Dreams
16) Right Now
17) From Afar
18) Dirty Water Dog
19) Fire In the Hole

The next time you’ve got a road-trip going, I suggest you give that playlist a spin.  I’m quite certain that Van Halen will sell themselves…..by amping up the drive’s energy.

Until next time/JDPF

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