Late in 2011, I typed “Van Halen” and “live” into YouTube’s search box.
I’d started this habit earlier in the year, diverting myself from whatever I was supposed to be doing by plumbing my rock fan past. I’d wasted entire mornings watching Kiss, Rush and Led Zeppelin videos, each filling me with a nostalgia that, all of a sudden, wasn’t nostalgia anymore. There it was, right in front of me, as close as it had ever been. I watched some of these videos obsessively, bookmarking them, feeling something of that original surge each time. ABBA, Uncle Tupelo, Fastway (Fastway!), the supply was bottomless. It was like finding long-lost friends and those friends having stayed as young and vital as ever.
Somewhere on the first page of results I found a video titled Van Halen – Live in Largo. A subheading revealed more: Van Halen Live in Largo Maryland (1982). A quick look at the counter revealed the video’s length: 1:55:22.*
I clicked “Play,” completely unprepared for the deluge that followed.
Watching this concert struck me on many levels–as will become apparent in this seven-part series–but three come to mind. First and most forcefully, it spoke to the teenager who spent a good chunk of his time worshiping at the altar of Roth, Van Halen, Anthony and Van Halen. Back then, my friends and I found only snippets of Van Halen footage on MTV and USA’s Night Flight, and the fare was frustratingly homogenous on each channel—the same three live segments from what I’m guessing was the Fair Warning tour. In our blue collar town of Moline, Illinois, I was the lucky kid with the VCR, which made it my job to sit by the thing, MTV on, fingers poised over the “Play” and “Record” buttons, until all three segments were captured. With each successful recording, I end zone celebrated in our living room. These three clips–“Unchained,” “So this is Love?” and “Hear about it Later” (order not random)–all but induced my friends and me to buy cheap instruments, pretend to practice them, and dream about someday escaping our lame hometown for the magical world of Van Halen.
We also managed to find three live songs from the US Festival in 1983, featuring a huge stage and David Lee Roth’s butt-less chaps. We had US Festival clips of two songs each by acts like Ozzy Osborne, Triumph and Judas Priest. Van Halen was the only one with three. This was as it should be–Van Halen always deserved more.
And I did see the band live once. It was in Peoria, Illinois, about three hours from Moline, during their tour for the album 1984. My friend’s mom drove my friend and me, and we screamed from the cheap seats of that 5,000 seater until the band quit taking encores. My first pass at the Largo video reminded me of that Peoria show, especially the Michael Anthony bass solo…but let’s save that for later because I have plenty to say about it.
The second level at which this concert spoke to me: It takes place after I had a short rock career of my own in a band called the Refreshments. The Refreshments had two albums out nationally in the 1990s that sold a combined 400,000 copies. We toured the country many times, had a hit single. I know a little more about rock life than I did back when I was glued to Van Halen videos. How did this film strike me almost fifteen after the break-up of my band?
And finally, there’s the level of the forty-two year old searching out rock concerts from his past on YouTube. What was I searching for? Was I trying to understand something? My youth? My rock and roll past? Had I lost something? Could it be regained? Didn’t I have something better to do?
This video spoke to each of these Arts at once, filling me with not a little joy and gleefully reacquainting me with some old memories that were long overdue for a visit.
This is the first shot from the back of the venue as all the lights go up, which gives us a full view of the stage. A general breakdown might be helpful, especially for those who are unaware of how a Van Halen concert looked in 1982. Van Halen, even before their huge crossover sixth album 1984, was one of the biggest hard rock bands in the world. In this video, they’re on tour supporting their fifth album, Diver Down, which features the radio hit “Pretty Woman,” an amped up version of the Roy Orbison classic, and the stage is appropriately huge for a band of this magnitude. It’s maybe fifty feet wide, with stepped risers at stage right and left that take it another twenty or so feet–and ten feet higher–in both directions. The back of the stage is lined with what look like speakers–big, round woofers in large cabinets–on both sides of the drum riser, which is roughly four feet up and covered with an elaborate set of drums: rack toms, double kick, an array of cymbals, and a giant gong.
Alex Van Halen mans these drums, and with the exception of his bobbing white head-banded head, we see little of Alex during the film. I consider Alex a competent hard rock drummer, but there was always this sense his abilities were exaggerated because of some weird transference of having Van Halen as his last name. He is, of course, Eddie’s older brother, who is far more talented, which can’t be easy for an elder sibling. Still, if there’s envy it’s not apparent. Alex, a less compelling and less cute version of Eddie, seems to enjoy himself enough, working away at his skins, smiling here and there. His kick drums are accented with cylinders of various widths that jut out a foot or so from the main, and the overall effect is like multiple exhaust pipes coming from a motorcycle. Motorcycles seem to be an Alex Van Halen fetish, as the intro of the band’s 1984 hit “Hot for Teacher” features what sounds like a motorcycle’s idle along with Alex’s playing. That might be the best metaphor for Alex–idling along while the rest of the band blazes off in all directions.
Speaking of blazing, Eddie Van Halen, who mans stage left, has long been heralded as one of the best hard rock guitarists of his time, but Eddie’s appeal stretches beyond the music into the performance element of a show. In the video, he wears red and white striped overalls, which vaguely match his primary guitar: a red Stratocaster-style body with white and black stripes crossing it at varying angles. His signature stage move is a scissor splits that he springs to from an almost flat-footed position. Combine this with his skinny yet built frame and aw shucks smile, and you have something of a visual complement to the apocalyptic drag queen at center stage, who I’ll get to in a moment. Despite his crazy get-up, Eddie’s presence lends a more down-to-earth appeal to the band. Without it, Van Halen–at least to non-guitarists–would’ve long before become the David Lee Roth Show.
Van Halen’s bass player, Michael Anthony, whose primary position is stage right, is bearded and mulleted, with a scarf or multiple bandanas hanging from his neck, and what seem a precursor to Ugg boots on his feet. He’s always hopping around, or dashing from this side of the stage to that, even though his stocky frame seems to keep him more earth-bound than the others. He likes to give the thumbs-up to the crowd, and he sings his background vocals without ever losing his grin. Michael has always struck me as a happy secondary member of the band–like a guy in high school picked by the popular kids to be on their dodge ball team–knowing he’s no match for the visual smorgasbord of the others but damn glad to be there anyway.
Speaking of visual smorgasbord, manning center stage is Van Halen’s lead singer, David Lee Roth. DLR is tall, with a Statue of David-esque physique. He sports a chaos of blond hair that’s frosted at the ends to the point of looking white, and wears (at the beginning of the film) a sleeveless denim shirt with chain-like items running from front to back, roughly tracing his ribcage. He accents this with bright red tights and colorful bandanas tied around his wrists and shins.
So, let’s say you’re blond, well-built and dressed like some kind of Amazonian prostitute who just put her finger in a light socket. Plenty to look at, right? Surely no one needs to be any more ostentatious than that. Well, my friend, you’ve clearly never experienced the force that is Diamond Dave. What’s perhaps most memorable about Roth is the way he performs. His moves are so fluid they resist analysis–one flows naturally into the next, so it’s hard to imagine them as separate things–but let’s try anyway. Easiest to explain are his kicks, which run the gamut from standard college cheerleader fare to dramatic jumping air splits from the drum riser. Dave also uses the microphone stand to full effect, brandishing it like a baton, holding it upside down like a umbrella, or sharing a relationship with it similar to that of a stripper and her pole. This last is often accompanied by a gyration of the waist that would be the envy of most belly-dancers. The point is, Dave is going to do whatever it takes to get your attention, and with his arsenal of moves, it’s going to work. When performing, not only is it like he’s on fire. It’s like he likes being on fire.
It’s important to understand that, despite all apparent joviality amongst these three, they seem in constant competition–friendly or otherwise–to see who can create the biggest spectacle of themselves. Poses, kicks, oscillating instruments, brandished microphone stands, there’s nothing they won’t do to pull your eye to them. The result is a circus-like effect, and the winner, I suppose, is the audience, who get to watch these hams perform for their pleasure. If you like heavy metal, you like this kind of thing. I don’t know if I like it anymore as much as I’m fascinated by it, which I’ll start to tackle during Part II of this piece.
* Sadly, the YouTube video I used as a reference for this essay was set to private in the middle of its writing, which means you can’t see it anymore. This led to not a little panic on my part, and all entreaties to various parties went unanswered. Fortunately, a poster named guitarzforsale has posted the exact same Largo concert but in 24 segments, each segment the length of a song. The links in this essay refer to the guitarzforsale clip numbers and the time within the clip, even though these were not the clips I referenced when writing most of the piece. From what I can tell, the videos are identical.
Next: Part II.