Van Halen taught me how to be cool. No, that's a lie. I was never cool, especially not as a high school freshman, when I bought 1984 on vinyl at Sam Goody's at the mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. I was so uncool that I was almost too shy to buy it. The Police's Synchronicity? Sure, I plausibly looked like a kid who would (and did) listen to that. But the shred-tastic solos of Eddie and the throat-tickling mating cries of Diamond Dave? With my Urkel glasses and Anthony Michael Hall (circa Breakfast Club) physique, I did not fit the target demographic.
But it didn't matter — and that was what made Van Halen the coolest band of their era, or arguably any era. In the rigid caste system of your average American suburban high school in the early '80s, they were the great equalizer, the only group the jocks, shop class kids and dorks such as myself could agree on — and even bond over, which is why listening to them occasionally fooled me into thinking I was cool myself. No matter what walk of life you came from, or what else was in your Walkman, no red-blooded teenager could hear the opening chords of “Panama” and not turn into a grinning, headbanging fool. (The synths on “Jump,” however, were a matter of intense debate, though I loved them even more than “Panama” — which, since I also owned Synchronicity, made total sense.)
Despite my passion for all things VH, I never saw them live. Did I mention how not cool I was? My parents barely let me out of the house before college, and by then, Van Halen had morphed into the abomination that was Van Hagar. David Lee Roth was off doing bad Beach Boys covers and making weird records with Steve Vai. The magic was gone all around.
When VH and DLR reunited in 2007, I was curious to see them, of course. But they were playing big, bloodless arenas, and Roth's cartoonishly over-the-top frontman shtick felt tacky for a 52-year-old, and most of my favorite songs — “Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love,” “I'm the One,” “Drop Dead Legs” — wouldn't be the same without Michael Anthony's high harmony vocals. So I didn't go. It was like Van Halen was my ultimate unrequited high school crush and I didn't want to attend the reunion and see what a haggard shadow of her former self she'd become.
But over the years, I kept hearing encouraging things. Roth was fit and, by most accounts, still capable of those shrieks and leg kicks. Eddie was sober and shredding harder than ever. Wolfgang was a respectable bassist with an Anthony-esque falsetto. Even their 2012 album, A Different Kind of Truth, though hardly on par with their best work, was the kind of comeback record I could get behind — a gritty, uncompromising set of rough-and-tumble songs based partly on old demos from the band's early days. It sounded like an honest attempt to make a Van Halen record, not a nostalgia-wallowing cash grab. I was intrigued.
So finally, when the band announced two shows at the Hollywood Bowl, I said screw it. After 31 years of fickle fandom, it was high time I went to a Van Halen concert — especially because there were rumors (though there are always rumors) that these two performances, the conclusion of a 40-date tour, might be the band's last.
From the opening chords of “Light Up the Sky,” those 31 years melted away. I was a 14-year-old again, and Van Halen were the greatest rock & roll band in the world again. Maybe they never stopped being the greatest, even during the Van Hagar years. (OK, probably not during the Gary Cherone years.)
Roth, looking impossibly buff for a guy just shy of his 61st birthday, strutted and preened and willed his aging voice through songs he barely had the range to sing even in his prime. Alex rode his drum kit like the '55 Bel Air he owned when the band first formed (as Roth told us, in one of several stories he regaled the audience with throughout the evening). Wolfgang nailed Anthony's bass parts and sounded great harmonizing with his dad.
The crowd went apeshit, and then more apeshit, and then completely mental when the band launched into “Panama” as their penultimate track. Dudes in faded VH T-shirts fist pumped. Women nearly Roth's age shook their hair like they were stretched across the hood of a Camaro in a Headbangers Ball video. Beck, a few rows away from us, joined the throngs videoing Alex's drum solo at the start of “Hot for Teacher.” If his phone had enough memory, he should have filmed the whole show. Every second of the entire 21-song set was a master class in rock & roll awesomeness.
At the heart of it all, of course, was Eddie Van Halen, second only to Hendrix in the pantheon of rock guitar gods, effortlessly spitting fire from his fretboard. Even when the whole band wore spandex pants and EVH covered his Frankenstrat with black and white masking tape, he was always the calm yin to Roth's high-kicking yang, grinning happily as he reeled off licks that other guitarists spent years trying to decode. In Van Halen circa 2015, he's even less flashy, wearing jeans and a gray goatee and mostly playing a white-bodied version of the Frankenstrat with a studied absence of showboating.
But when he tore into a 10-minute solo towards the show's end, he proved no showboating was necessary. When Eddie Van Halen plays the baroque, two-handed tapping climax of “Eruption,” the big bang of American heavy metal, it's still powerful enough to give you goosebumps. His mastery of his instrument is enough to move you to tears.
In an excellent new book called Van Halen Rising, author Greg Renoff argues that, in the era of disco and punk, Van Halen's arrival saved heavy metal. While that may be hyperbole, there's little arguing that the backyard party band from Pasadena put Los Angeles back at the center of American rock & roll, where it's largely stayed ever since. Without Diamond Dave's theatrics and EVH's guitar wizardry, there would have been no Sunset Strip revival, no Motley Crue, no Guns N' Roses.
I wasn't around for any of that. But as a 14-year-old kid with Urkel glasses buying 1984 at the mall, I was grateful that Van Halen was there to be my gateway drug into music heavier than Synchronicity. Three decades later, I was just as grateful that they're still around — for now, at least — to rock my inner 14-year-old's face off.