“I’m from the suburbs. You know the suburbs? That’s where they pull up the trees and name the streets after them.”
—David Lee Roth
I envy Northwest natives. Even if you grew up outside of Seattle or Portland, if you grew up in Bellinghan or Olympia or Eugene, you had good music. Tons of it: K Records, Sub Pop, Phil Elvrum, Built to Spill, riot grrrls. You physically grew up alongside it—you saw those young bands in 100-seat clubs and you’re still seeing those not-so-young-anymore bands in 100-seat clubs. Maybe they were even your friends. It’s an intimate, personal connection that you’re fortunate to have had and even more fortunate to maintain.
I’m from West Palm Beach, Florida. Musically, we had almost nothing to grow up alongside of. What we did have didn’t survive graduation. Even if I was somehow hipped to K Records and Sub Pop early on, the bands they featured weren’t my bands—they were someone else’s, someone three thousand miles away. I didn’t have K Records or Phil Elvrum. I had Led Zeppelin and the Doors, Billy Joel and the Beastie Boys. I had Van Halen. The connection wasn’t intimate or personal; it was pop. It was loud and buzzed on cheap beer and bad weed and riding around in a Chevy Beretta listening to 1984.
So there was a fair amount of nostalgia going on in last night’s concert. It came to a palpable, weirdly cosmic point suddenly, maybe an hour into the show: I was 16 again, back in West Palm Beach and feeling my brother and my dad and my friends, back in a moment that was actually a only a memory of accumulated moments from way back when. It was as vivid as an illusion can be. Then I thought myself out of it and it was gone. That was some super-powerful stuff—the music removed me from the moment, which, in any performance, is double-edged: Yeah, you’re transported, but yeah, you’re not all there.
There was more to last night than nostalgia, though. Van Halen have always been arena-sized showmen (Was there ever a time when they were a bar band? Look at the cover of their first album—they’re on a stage as big as a basketball court.), especially Diamond Dave, who must’ve clothespinned his ears behind his head to create the Tammy Faye-esque grin he wore for two solid hours. The last arena show I saw was Duran Duran—too metrosexual to really run with the necessary testosteroics the oversized venue demanded. Van Halen had it down, starting with a logoed dirigible that floated over the crowd before the show. Literally an inflated sense of self, exactly what’s required for the masses.
When the lights went down and “You Really Got Me” kicked up, those masses erupted. I erupted, too. How could you not? Looking around at the dads and sons, the Microsofties pounding airplane bottles of Stoli, the teenage and college-age kids at their first mega-concert, I couldn’t deny the energy. I headbanged more last night than perhaps ever, though VH isn’t really metal. It’s pure, perfect arena rock—there could be no better setting for the music and there could be no better music for the setting. Big, dumb, and self-aware—America, baby, but with a jester in command rather than a cowboy, which makes all the difference.
For someone who goes to three or four concerts a year, it was all you could ask for—they played everything (not really), there was a huge drum solo (badass) and a huge guitar solo (took too long to get to the good part), there were lasers and confetti and a giant inflatable microphone (brilliant). For someone who goes to three or four concerts a week, there were some week spots. Though the band looked great and had the energy level redlined the entire show, it took a minute or two for Dave and Eddie to fall in synch. Wolfgang, Eddie’s trench coat Mafioso, bass-playing son, was no Michael Anthony—kid’s not old enough to drink, let alone hold a Jack Daniel’s-shaped bass (though Anthony’s original bass lines approximated a 16-year-old’s skill level).
Minor quibbles, really, made more apparent by a mid-show lag that let my mind wander, and not in a good way. I thought about deadlines, bullshit. But then “Dance the Night Away” and “Pretty Woman” and “Hot For Teacher” and “Unchained” and “Panama”—!!! Those songs are radtastically awesome, suburbanly anthemic. David Lee Roth, spin-kicking the air and nun-chucking the mic stand. Eddie Van Halen, synchronized split-jumping off the drum riser with Wolfgang. Alex Van Halen, looking the worst for the wear, twiddling his drum stick before slamming into gear. High fives in the crowd, fist-pumping and horn-throwing. My music, my history, my people.
Funny, then, that the best moment of the night was the only intimate one. DLR brought an acoustic guitar to the front of the stage and gave a monologue—five minutes of the most brilliantly detailed reminiscence, from which the quote at the top of this review is taken. Others: “Everybody knew a Kenny that lived above the garage or behind the garage…” “Kenny rolling joints on a Pink Floyd album cover…” “Pot had seeds back then…” Watching the seeds slide down the album cover like in slow motion…” “Sitting in a circle, passing joints in both directions…” “I remember like it was yesterday. Thursday night, 1972…” Then the band played “Ice Cream Man,” my favorite Van Halen song.
We’re all grasping at a cultural narrative, I guess. Some of us find it close to home. Others find it in a basketball arena in Seattle, surrounded by a couple friends and 16,000 strangers.