Van Halen

Staples Center, November 20

By Randall Roberts

Jack and Coke? Check. Bic lighter? You know it. Rocker passed out on sidewalk, girlfriend exasperated, before the show? There were a few of them here. This is Van Halen, after all, and them up there is Diamond David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, on the stage together again. Mr. Sparkle and Mr. Fingers, the yang and the other yang, home, at peace, revived, rejuvenated, and re-dentured.

All photos by Timothy Norris

It’s been many long years since Van Halen haunted the Sunset strip, and many years too since Roth and Van Halen palled around on stage. Years of darkness, years that are gone and we can never get back. That Dark Period, when Van Halen lost its true lead singer and became this other creature, this Non Halen with that Dude Who Shall Not Be Named who’s actually a really great guy but who is not David Lee Roth. The songs created by the fake Van Halen, you can’t unhear those songs. “Why Can’t This Be Love?” Because it just can’t because, well, you’re not the one we fell in love with.

We fell in love with a couple: Eddie and Dave from Pasadena, and like a pair of divorcees who seem so lost after the break-up, so halved and lonely, one without the other is weird and wrong. And because we love Hollywood endings, Van Halen at the Staples Center was a joy to behold, even if Dave can’t jump as high as he used to and there was no Michael Anthony swinging from a rope and swigging from a bottle of Jack.

So what did they play? What do you think they played, a Pixies song? Of course not. They played all the hits. “Panama.” “Hot for Teacher.” “Runnin’ with the Devil.” “You Really Got Me.” “Pretty Woman.” “Jump.” All of them sounded excellent, sounded alive with pleasure, sounded whole again. The crowd lapped it up — especially, of course, the men in attendance, men with thinning hair and expanding bellies who were in hog heaven, air guitaring like they were speaking in tongues, feeling like they had finally come home. There they were, back in the basement with the black light and the bong and the stereo and an air guitar tennis racket just in case the dude on the FM station played “Runnin’ With the Devil,” which was the show’s highlight if only because it’s the hardest song of the bunch. “I found the simple life ain’t so simple,” sang Diamond Dave, a man born to be up on that stage, and because we know his post-Halen life, the truth of the lyric has a certain resonance.

It’s important to remember when contemplating Roth and the huge smile on his face that until a few years ago he was driving an ambulance in New York City. So I imagine that for a guy like him, last night was pretty special. For a long time he was a castaway, lost at sea, drifting, drinking salt water, hallucinating albums like Crazy from the Heat in thrashing seas. Tonight he seemed like he had finally washed ashore. He was overjoyed, overwhelmed, his face wide open in huge cheesy smile.

And Eddie? Let’s just say that Britney needs to go to wherever they sent Eddie, because he seemed reborn. To see him less than a year ago looking so decrepit, so debased, so fuct was to see sadness and failure personified, was to see the ugly reality of the rock and roll lifestyle that Van Halen in their prime so fully embraced. Eddie still has his chops, his fingers are pure and nimble, his licks intact. Yes, his wailing guitar style and wank-off solos are inherently lame in the same way that Mariah Carey’s melisma vocal gymnastics are, and it’s hard to forgive Eddie for the million imitators who ruined 1980s rock. But when he sat down near the end of the show, just him and his guitar, and played a ten minute solo, he delivered serious emotion, and illustrated that, sure, he can wail, but if he wanted to he could toss off an album of solo acoustic material that’d make George Winston cry.

Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s son, is a really good bassist, and though nepotism got him the job his talent proved he earned it. And to see him leaning against his dad during “Jamie’s Crying,” their foreheads touching and so obviously connected, is to see pride and deep, honest love personified. Knowing that last year at this time his father was at rock bottom made the moment feel special not just on the rock and roll stage, but on the human stage. And Wolfie’s uncle, Alex, can still drum, can still unload a perfectly, brilliantly stupid drum solo unlike anyone in the business save maybe Neil Peart of Rush.

So, yeah, it was Van Halen whole again, and it rocked. Do I ever need to see it again? Nah. I got what I was looking for last night, no more, no less. It’s not like I’m going to reevaluate Van Halen’s oeuvre, am going to submit that there’s more depth to their body of work than there actually is. They’re a dumb rock band, nothing more, nothing less. But they’re one of the best dumb rock bands, and every once in a while it’s a hell of a lot of fun to get stupid.

All photos by Timothy Norris

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