In Search of Lost Rock-Part IV: David and GomorrahBy Art Edwards
June 26, 2012
In Part I, we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth. Part II delved deeply into the squat as a Van Halen performance tool, and we examined why you damn well better have a good time at a Van Halen concert in Part III. In part four, we now take a closer look at what’s really happening onstage…
Between songs, Dave announces “I’ll drink to that,” and heads toward the back of the stage, summoning, of all things, a midget from stage right. The midget looks about thirty, sports a mullet, wears a black T-shirt with “SECURITY” printed across its front, and carries a bottle of Jack Daniels. He shows Dave the bottle, then shows the crowd, who whoop it up. Dave takes the bottle, takes a whiff, makes a face, holds it up to the audience in a “cheers” gesture, and guzzles, consuming what must be a fair amount. I’m reminded of a Diamond Dave quote from some magazine back in the day: “The Jack Daniels we drink onstage is real.” Considering the rest of the artifice on display in this show, it’s not hard for me to imagine the crew filling this bottle with Lipton tea. In fact, that’s where I’d put my money. Those jumps don’t happen if you’re hammered–or they do, but they end in traction.
I don’t bring this up to call out the band for its chicanery, or if the booze were real, to marvel at Roth’s ability to hold his liquor. Rather, the sum of these little deceptions call into question another criminally-overlooked aspect of the singer…
As I watch the band perform “Jamie’s Cryin’” and Dave seductively takes off his jean jacket, prances around the stage like Little Lord Fauntleroy, shakes it in his red tights and what I’m going to call a sash running across his torso, and ends the song with a little flutter-jump, I can’t help but remember a friend’s comment in 2002.
My wife and I were living in San Francisco and we had some people over, one of whom was a woman in the fashion industry. As it often does with me, the topic came around to heavy metal bands. Not long before, Rob Halford of Judas Priest had come out of the closet, and we were going through various hard rock icons, wondering if they were gay. When we came to David Lee Roth, I said, “Straight.”
The woman’s face twisted with incredulity. “I thought he was kind of obvious.”
I was taken aback. During his Van Halen career–and during his eighties solo career–Dave went way out of his way to convince us he was very much heterosexual. I remember the end of the video of Dave’s cover of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” where he performs dance moves amongst bikini-clad women and does these kind of googily-eyed double-takes we associate with smitten men. Dave’s entire persona was built around his image as a ladies’ man. Everything he did suggested “I love women.” I bet he even said, “I love women.”
To be clear, I don’t care which side of the plate Dave swings from, but in light of the smoke-and-mirrors routines so prominent during this show, it’s possible Dave’s ladies’ man act was just that.
Most of what I’m drawn to in this video are the little deceits Van Halen practiced for the sake of their show, but in this instance, I’m more interested in the timeless art of self-deception. How would you like to walk around pretending to be diametrically the opposite of some characteristic central to you? It gives you an idea of the kind of folk who front these bands. In “Runnin’ with the Devil,” Dave sings, “Got no love, no love you’d call real/Got nobody waiting at home,” and you believe him.
Eddie is the standard bearer of hard rock guitar for his or probably any other generation, but I can’t entirely let him off the hook with his performance. He occasionally spirals into Roth-like antics that probably look good for the photographers in the well but that otherwise leave you scratching your head. Right after the breakdown in “Little Guitars,” Eddie takes off running stage left and slides on his knees, bending his head back in mock orgasmic jubilation. This is a classic heavy rock guitarist pose–I can picture Hendrix doing the same thing–and Eddie pulls it off as well as can be expected. Still, it strikes me as phony. “I wonder if he wears knees pads,” runs through my head.
Don’t get me wrong; Eddie’s a majorly talented guy, but as a performer he’ll always finish second to the glittery stork at center stage. This is, of course, because Dave is preternaturally disposed to sucking all of the attention out of a room, but it’s also the nature of pop music. When it comes to grabbing the spotlight, lead singers have an unfair advantage over the rest of the band. First, a voice draws a listener in more than any other aspect of music. Guitars can be wonderfully compelling, but they’re rarely as interesting as a voice. Second, a singer’s part almost always combines melody with language. In other words, not only are lead singers offering something musically–as guitar players do–they’re also giving that music words, which gives it extra dimension. A singer can tell you in a very specific way what to think and feel about the song you’re listening to, while the rest of the band paints with a broader, less definitive emotional brush. Third, for reasons no doubt relating to the above, pop singers always have their part mixed louder than other elements of a band. Think of a typical forties-era pop song, say, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Bing’s voice is front and center–it’s just about all you hear. It wasn’t until the Beatles emerged that pop listeners started acknowledging the other members of band. This changed even more in the seventies with supergroups like Led Zeppelin–whose singers weren’t necessarily the focal point of their respective bands–and in the eighties with bands like REM–whose singers prided themselves on being “just another instrument.”
But even during these more democratic rock eras, no musician has ever eclipsed the singer in aural importance. In other words, no matter how wonderful Eddie is, he will never be a match for the singer of his own band. His band is even named after him, and it doesn’t matter.
By all accounts, this has been a difficult issue for Eddie throughout his band’s history. A few years after the Largo video, Eddie famously threw Dave out, which led to the years with Sammy Hagar as lead singer. Then there was a brief stint with Gary Cherone at the helm before Eddie seemed to learn his lesson and asked Dave back in.
Still, Eddie as complement to Diamond Dave makes for an undeniably vital hard rock tandem. They’re the Mick and Keith of metal, and that’s going to have to be enough.
As the band finishes “Where have all the good Times Gone?” Dave offers a couple of “Thank ya”s, and things get dark and quiet. The silence is broken by what sounds like a synthesizer. When the camera pans the stage, lo and behold, it’s Michael Anthony conjuring this sound from his bass–or so we’re to presume, as Michael offers a dramatic slash of his instrument as the sound goes quiet. The synth gets going again, and again Michael slashes it to silence. After a third round, the stage goes dark–it’s hard to tell what’s going on–until the synth comes back, this time more warbled. Then Michael comes into view, playing a clipped gallop on his bass. He clearly digs this rhythm, hopping around, grimacing at the audience. He does a climb up the bass and ends on a note one octave higher than where he started. His mouth is open as he looks into the crowd, a kid on the playground taunting you. He continues with a series of notes down the neck that ends with a low E drone, which conjures an expression from him like a male character in a romance novel embracing a damsel. This man loves his bass playing.
The electric bass is primarily a support instrument in rock music and by itself, it often sounds like the doddering, mentally challenged older brother of the electric guitar. This perception leads many bass players to overcompensate with “entertaining” schlock, and Michael is no different. He comes back to his clipped gallop, “finds” a cowboy hat at his feet and–all the while keeping the gallop going–puts it on his head. Then he plays the main riff of the theme from Bonanza. Then he plays it again, his face the perfect expression of ecstasy. I’ve played rock and roll bass for thirty years, both professionally and for fun, and enjoyed much of it, but I’ve never felt anywhere near as good while playing as Michael’s face suggests here.
Michael flings away the cowboy hat and breaks into an arpeggio-themed lick that takes him all the way up the neck. He winds up at the bass’s highest note, plucking with abandon, and ends with another low E drone. The crowd (what else are they going to do?) cheers. Then Michael begins a series of moaning bends, which leads to feedback and a hell of a lot of noise as he slaps the bass at random, falls backwards, does a somersault. He also un-attaches his bass, letting it drop to the stage. As it feeds back, Michael stands up, looks down at it, mouths “whoo.” A tech runs another bass out, and Michael goes through a similar rumbling series of noise. Finally, his space age effect is turned back on, the lights above flicker, and we’re left with the sound of an alien spacecraft lifting off. Michael is at center stage, ostensibly conducting this sound (although it’s never clear exactly what he has to do with it), and he lifts his bass over his head as the aural ship drifts away. When Roth yells “Michael Anthony,” we know the sequence is over. All this coincides fairly well with what I remember of Michael’s solo during the 1984 Peoria show, except I remember him log-rolling too.
It’s clear Michael only gets this time because the other three members have solos, and it would be awkward not to let the fourth guy have some. Give him his moment, and balance is restored. When the band breaks into “Hang ‘Em High,” everyone can breath a little easier that it’s over.
Part V here.
“prances around the stage like Little Lord Fauntleroy” is frickin’ hilarious.
The stuff about Eddie not being front and center despite the band being named after him is super interesting.
Thanks for this piece, Art!
It’s funny, but the idea that Roth might be gay never even crossed my mind until that conversation. Of course he’s straight, right?
Maybe Eddie should start and all instrumental band. Who could compete with him on that playing field?
Eddie Van Halen
Jesus, careful what you’re mixing there, J.M.
That combo will either save the planet or blow it to kingdom come (not the band).
I put Largo on my TV hard drive
the other day & tried to watch it but kept
coming up empty.
Which is weird because I can watch
Judas Priest at the Memphis Colosseum
Or Rush Exit Stage Left or Ozzy 82 with Brad Gillis…
But VH on this date seems exactly what you say here — too staged.
Van Halen sponsored by Jordache.
One thing I did notice though was that
Michael Anthony seemed to be the workhorse
holding the act together.
You know how you grow up & figure
out (especially if you play music)
that yeah, Angus & Brian are the stars —
but Malcolm & Phil Rudd are holding
down the fort & holding the rock secure.
Except with VH, it seems like its just Mike Anthony.
We’ve all heard that rumor that DLR put tea in the JD bottles
(agreed, he’d have to)
& I once heard from a tour bus driver that Roth
liked to put on chaps and nothing else
& play frisbee with good-looking young men.
Is Roth gay? Is it all an act?
This is the kind of rock & roll writing
I want to read.
There is something vital about the Largo vid for me, but the staged aspects do get in the way. It actually gets worse as my piece moves forward.
I left out of this piece the one very famous heavy metal rock singer ladies’ man who is in fact quite gay. Email me if you’re curious.