Making news during the last month was the announcement that Van Halen was reuniting. The band was finishing a new album, planning a world tour—and had even released a new single!
Chances are those under 30 know Van Halen as an irrelevant band played only on classic rock stations…which is what it’s been for the past twenty years. But for those who weren’t around back in the day, a quick recap:
Van Halen was once the biggest band in the world. In its heyday, the band sold millions of records. The guitar player was revered as ingenious and daring. The singer was brash and charismatic (if not incredibly dopey in his lyrics). Like everyone else, I worshiped the band. I stopped counting when I reached 15 posters on my wall. My happiest moment was seeing the band in concert for the first time. My best Christmas gift was a knock-off Eddie Van Halen guitar, with the red and black stripes across the front.
But that was many years ago. I’m not one who holds on for the sake of holding on. I don’t watch Robert Deniro movies simply because he was once great. I don’t still listen to AC/DC or U2 or Van Halen because they used to be my favorite bands. DeNiro has been sleepwalking through movies for the past ten years. U2 hasn’t written a great song in fifteen.
Still, I was curious about the new song, so I got online and listened to it. Though the bandmembers are older and look different (David Lee Roth no longer wears bottomless spandex while performing the jumping splits), it still sounded like a Van Halen song. Eddie still plays like no one else. DLR’s voice is the same, even if the high notes are strained. The song was even rumored to have been written in 1979, during the band’s most prolific period. Yet it bored me, and I couldn’t figure out why. What was missing? What made the song fall flat?
It was the spark. That’s what was missing.
I live a few miles from Venice Beach. Venice Beach is an experience everyone should experience at least once in this lifetime. Drum circles, the smell of pot wafting through the air, homeless men and women (lots and lots of them), tattoo shops, near-naked men posing still as statues…and dozens of street performers. You can’t walk the Venice Strand without having at least five rappers approach you with headphones so you can listen to and buy their CDs.
Meanwhile, only a few blocks away, near the Venice canals, sit some the most expensive homes in Los Angeles. Multimillion dollar mansions within a scream of one the largest homeless populations in the country. I’m sure those rappers—with ideas of luxury in their minds—stare at the nearby houses and dream, “That’s what I want. Someday I’m going to live there.”
My advice would be to run away—away from the canals and their lure. The Venice street performer will push himself to succeed so he can live in a Venice or Malibu home. But once he’s there, he will lose the creative edge, just like Van Halen did. The guys in Van Halen: it’s not that they’re lazy. It’s just they can’t do it anymore. They’re no longer able to write from that deep place, the place in the gut that’s born out of hunger and desperation. They’ve grown too comfortable.
It’s the spark that moves audiences, and makes fans want to spend money on a concert ticket.
There aren’t too many artists who still push themselves after enjoying long-standing success. Most become risk averse. Stop taking chances. It’s why I admire Tom Cruise. As crazy as he is, he still makes good movies because he pushes himself. He hasn’t coasted. But he’s the exception.
I believe Neil Young was right. To the once-great artist who is simply going through the motions, hoping to still attract a loyal fan base, I say retire. Retire and make way for a new batch of singers and songwriters, ones who are hungry to make it, who don’t know what it’s like to be fat and lazy because they’ve never known what it’s like to have money. Retire and make way for the new generation, whose artistic spokesmen live in crowded apartments, tour in beat-up vans and share hotel rooms with twelve other guys, three stacked to a bed and the rest on the floor. Retire and make way for the singer who has to sell his own merchandise before a show to pay for the gas in his van, then drive a thousand miles in the dark of night to the next town.
That’s when genius is born.
Better to burn out than to fade away, right?
Still curious, I read a recent interview of David Lee Roth, given from his 20-room, Italianate mansion in Pasadena. Asked about Van Halen’s past, present and future, DLR said: “You’re asking for a lot of introspection here. Nobody well adjusted ever got my job, much less kept it this long. There’s some grasping drive, and it precludes self-satisfaction. You’re always questioning.” (When asked about Eddie Van Halen) “There’s an old Russian saying: ‘There’s no more lines in that guy’s stomach.’ It means somebody got fat and slow. There are still a lot of lines in Eddie’s stomach.”
Who knows? Maybe it’s true, and the boys in Van Halen have found their inner hunger again, driven by a desire to create something fresh and inspiring. Maybe they’ve rediscovered the passion and will deliver heart-pounding concerts to their adoring and long-suffering fans, who have paid $150 a ticket, hoping to see more than shadows of the musicians they once adored, that they will be witness to the renaissance of the band’s career, when it recaptured its former glory. It could happen, right? Maybe…just maybe.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
Besides, I preferred Sammy Hagar over David Lee Roth, anyway.