Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll

New Van Halen book takes an unconventional look at the band’s origins

From The Examiner:

B62C1John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books – Reverb) is a different kind of book. Instead of the typical rock bio that documents the chronology of the band’s rise to fame and inevitable excesses and egos while at the top, Scanlan took a unique approach.

“My intention, initially, was to look at Van Halen in terms of creativity and aesthetics,” the author said. “I figured that Van Halen at least represented something culturally significant, in that they could only ever have come from Southern California in the early-to-mid 70s. So, that became a starting point for writing a new book.”

Scanlan, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK), extensively researched the formative years and early influences on Van Halen – including a comprehensive look at the Sunset Strip from the 1960s, as a center of music, to its decay in the early 70s, and Zen as another influence. He also wanted to “try to re-establish the idea that they are a 70s band,” the author said. “This was partly because I was so fed up with people associating them with the 80s and hair metal.”

He delves into David Lee Roth’s background, especially the summers he spent as a kid with his uncle Manny, the owner of Cafe Wha? in New York City. Scanlan points to this as evidence of the singer’s roots in the Beats and Zen, further separating Van Halen from the hair metal bands of the 1980s.

Much of the book focuses on the volatile relationship between Eddie Van Halen and Roth. In fact, the period of 1984-2007 (Roth left the band in 1985 and returned for a successful reunion tour in 2007) is covered in less than 15 pages.

Fortunately, the band’s early years are the most interesting, and Scanlan doesn’t disappoint. He gives an in-depth history of how Eddie’s most famous guitar solo, “Eruption,” came to be – as well as how “Top Jimmy” developed from Roth’s involvement in the LA underground scene (especially his financing of the Zero-Zero club), and the Van Halen brothers’ explanation of the “brown sound” they try to achieve.

Reverb is Reaktion’s new series of books about music, and this is the first in the series. “The books would be about how music is inseparable from the times and places of its making,” Scanlan said.

Book description:

“I hate the word maturing“, singer David Lee Roth once said. “I don’t like the word evolving – or any of that bullshit. The point is to keep it as simplistic, as unassuming, and as stupid as possible.” Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll follows Van Halen’s pursuit of the art of artlessness, and describes how they characterize ‘Zen California’ – a state of mind and way of being that above all celebrates ‘the now’. In rock’n’roll terms it stands for the unregulated expenditure of energy; for a youthful exuberance that seems destined to extinguish itself.

While many have attempted to discover the secrets of Van Halen’s appeal through more conventional biographical approaches to their career and music, John Scanlan looks instead at the deeper and unexamined aesthetic and philosophical influences of a band that were always an island unto themselves. Through a series of illuminating moments and impressions – from origins in the decaying Sunset Strip of the early 1970s to eventual retreat into the Hollywood Hills a decade later – he shows how Southern California in the wake of 1960s was the only time and place that Van Halen could have emerged. Along the way, the book explores the brittle relationship between David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen; the unique climate of Southern California, and what it lends to a sense of cultural exuberance; the echoes of Zen and Beat aesthetics in David Lee Roth’s appreciation of spontaneity and transience; and the real roots of Eddie Van Halen’s so-called ‘Brown’ sound.

Van Halen is a groundbreaking account of an extraordinary band, caught in the events of a revolutionary time. The book will appeal to all fans of the group, as well as readers with an interest in the history and aesthetics of rock’n’roll, and the culture of California.

Published June 15, 2012 by Reaktion Books. Paperback. 216 pages with 29 illustrations.

Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll is available now at