Van Halen: A Howlin’ Escape

From The News Tribune:

By Sean Robinson; Staff Writer

The year was 1982. I was 18, and a couple of younger guys had asked me to sing in their band.

Their idea of a lead singer was Roth, the bad-ass blond howler from Van Halen.

I loved Van Halen, but I could not scream like David Lee Roth. I tried – it felt like swallowing an exploding cigar.

About the same time in Minnesota, before she knew me, my future wife, Metalgirl, frizzed her blonde hair into a massive chemical heap. She donned boots fringed with goat fur, flipped off pimply teen geeks and turned up the Van Halen cassette in her white Camaro.

She was a headbanger. She loved Van Halen. She and her best friend, Metalchild, went to all the concerts. They saw the band live, at its sweaty, silly MTV peak.

And they loved Roth. They were card-carrying Dave Slaves – the fangirl phrase of the time.

Cue the present, 30 years on: Metalgirl and Metalchild are about to take over our house for a grand reunion. They give orders. They demand food and wine. I’ve added extra insulation, installed caution tape and alerted the neighbors.

Metalchild is flying in from Minnesota and we are going to see Van Halen play the Tacoma Dome this weekend. We will drive to the Dome in the Soccer Taxi – the minivan with the dog kennels in back. We are rebels.

We’re taking Guitar Kid, the teen prodigy and heir to Metalgirl’s prized possession, her Precious: a souvenir Eddie Van Halen guitar pick, acquired three decades ago and preserved in a temperature-controlled chamber beneath our home.

The metal women saw Van Halen at the pinnacle of the Roth era. They brag that one on me. I never saw the band in the old days – I just listened.

But Van Halen saved my sanity in Alaska. While Metalgirl and Metalchild were dolling up and going to concerts, I was working summers at a salmon cannery in Bristol Bay.

The job was terrible: picture wet, ancient assembly lines pumping out cans of salmon by the acre, workers standing 14 hours at a stretch in soggy rubber raingear, and everything stinking of fish guts. The town wasn’t much better. No paved roads, one convenience store selling suspicious fried chicken, and a whole lot of rain, mud and tundra.

Workers lived in a barracks at the cannery. You worked, ate, collapsed into a crummy bed, got up and did it all over again. The cafeteria specialized in salmon.

Music was the only escape. I owned a Sony Walkman, the iPod ancestor. (Portable! Headphones!)

The creepy convenience store carried cassette tapes, including Van Halen’s first album. I bought it for one song: “Jamie’s Cryin’, ” a lumbering pounder with a good hook. I didn’t know any other songs. From the first notes of the first cut, the tape blew my head off. I’d heard big guitars before, but this one sounded 20 feet tall. Eddie Van Halen played so fast, impossibly fast – yet it was still music. His guitar cackled. It laughed.

I played “Eruption” for my dad when I got back from Alaska – the hall-of-fame solo that made Eddie’s name, a series of lightning-quick runs, explosions and skyrockets. Dad scoffed and told me to listen to Al DiMeola.

Over the top of the band, Roth ran his mouth, belting demented macho lyrics punctuated by ridiculous patter, a running stand-up routine. An interviewer once told him most critics preferred Elvis Costello. He shot back: Most critics looked like Elvis Costello.

The band was funny. They didn’t bother with demonic poses. They were anything but serious. They were beach boys, but bigger and louder. A song packed with giant guitar riffs could stop for 30 seconds of genuine singing.

They could slide into metal-injected punk (“You Really Got Me”), then shift into pure pop (“Dance the Night Away”). Every album came with an Eddie solo, a little piece of virtuoso picking. I played one of them (“Cathedral”) over and over, learned it note for note on piano. Eddie made the guitar sound like an organ.

The typical hair-band lead singers sounded like they’d inhaled helium. Roth was different. He growled. He screamed like a coyote. Plus, the girls liked him – very useful knowledge for a teenager.

The geeks among us – the Rush fans – couldn’t understand why girls weren’t interested in them. Metalgirl explained the pecking order to me years later. The milky guys in Rush T-shirts were automatically rejected. You couldn’t dance to Rush.

By the time I met Metalgirl, Roth and Eddie Van Halen had split. We played the old songs and ignored the new lead singer. His name was forbidden in our household.

We waited long years for the reunion, for the good stuff. Metalgirl snagged tickets for Saturday’s T-Dome show within hours of the tour announcement. She spotted the new line of tour T-shirts, and sent me a pointed email that identified her selection.

Guitar Kid knows about Eddie Van Halen. I’ve played him the best cuts. He flicks his fingers around the quick runs of “Eruption.” Not bad, he admits, though he sniffs a little. It’s old, nothing special. Guitar Kid is sophisticated. He likes Joe Satriani and Jesse Cook. In rebellious moods, he’ll opt for Kurt Cobain. He’ll attend the concert for educational purposes, but he vows to be unimpressed.

After years of trying, I figured out some of the Roth screams. You start by imitating a cougar, then add wolf. It still makes me hack. Eventually, I found an alternative: imitate Ethel Merman. This actually works.