16 July, 2011

Can't Get This Stuff No More

I'm still working long hours, plus trying to get this stupid book finished. This weekend I'm housesitting two large slobbery dogs.

Syrian protestors attacked both the US and French embassies recently. The US is contemplating a lawsuit against the Syrian government in response. Apparently Assad - who shoots protestors he doesn't like - didn't go far enough to stop these protestors.

This is just stupid. Why do we even have diplomatic relations with Syria? Why aren't we bombing them like we are Libya?

And how's that going, by the way? It's been months. Qaddaffi's given up very little in that time. This is the sort of paper tiger bin Laden talked about as a reason for war against us to begin with. For our reputation in the Muslim world, this is a disaster. Sure we proved in Iraq and Afghanistan that when people give us problems, we shoot them and move on, but times change, leaders change and now we're at best coasting on those achievements.

[And let's not forget that GWB spent a long time going to Congress and the UN and building up forces for Iraq. The world woke up one morning to discover we were engaged in Libya with a dubious mission and a command structure that was even moreso.]

I'd certainly like to think we're doing the right thing with Libya, but I don't see how. Opening another front in the Muslim world could be a good step, and there's no good reason for Qaddaffi to keep breathing, but this is almost a deliberate show of weakness, especially when you consider how we've ignored Syria. What are we proving other than that our allies in NATO couldn't defeat a hot dog stand without the US and Britain holding their hands?

Europe, Canada and similar nations have been coasting on the benefits of Western Civilization for a long time without having to pay the price for it. At this point, the US, UK, Israel, Australia and Japan are it for the defenders of civilization. And Japan's got their own problems at the moment.

[Which, I've probably said before, they have been handling astoundingly well. There's almost no news coming out of the country, but that's a good sign, that they're handling the influx of massive disasters and picking up the pieces in a manner exactly unlike the weak-willed soft-boned slugs and leeches that whine about every little thing. It's inspiring and even a little scary. Maybe they're the *true* master race?]

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape charges have fallen apart, as the accuser seems to have been entirely lying about them. Apparently she's a prostitute, the sex was consensual and she immediately started talking to incarcerated boyfriends about how much money she could take him for. DSK's reputation has definitely suffered, perhaps deservedly given the other accusations women have flung at him, but this is how the system works.

A rich powerful socialist was hauled off a plane because he was charged with a felony. The immigrant accuser had rights which must be respected. When she turns out to have no credibility, the case is dismissed (and kudos to the prosecutors for not milking it for their own career). Nobody comes out any better for it, but considering other recent cases like Roman Polanski or the Duke Lacrosse Team, this is definitely a sign of a working system of justice.

Trying to think of other stuff to write. I feel a bit guilty for neglecting this blog, which is nearing its fifth anniversary. Facebook posts make it so easy to just fire off a one-liner whenever I come up with one, and with all the other stuff going on, I don't have as much incentive to try to come up with a long public monologue about something. Obviously I could write shorter ones, but that just isn't as appealing.

Van Halen is edging towards their first new album since 1998, after several trips through rehab and changes of lead singer for Eddie. It's strange, I was never a huge fan of VH when they were a genuinely functioning band [which pretty much ended with the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album and the zeitgeist-snagging video for "Right Now". I liked that song and a couple of the videos with David Lee Roth, mostly because of the sexy girls and his screen persona, that was about it.

The ill-fated reunion with Roth that blew Sammy Hagar out of the band in '96 caught my attention, and then suddenly a switch flipped in my head and I went out and got Best Of Volume One, with the DLR reunion songs. [This has also happened with Johnny Cash; one day I don't have the slightest interest, the next I must get a sample of their work] I certainly enjoyed both eras represented, with a slight edge to the Sammy Hagar era.

I freely admit that the Van Hagar era sounded like more of a generic hard rock band than the records with David Lee Roth. Sammy had more experience as a pop songwriter in addition to being a guitarist himself, and I can understand why some people would think the Roth era is somehow purer for its lack of polish.

But what few seem to recognize is that Roth didn't bring much to the table. He did a great job with what he had, but his voice is limited and his lyrics are barely better than Sammy's. [I love Sammy, but his lyrics are competent at best]. Roth was a great dynamic frontman, but as his solo career demonstrates, it's all sizzle. His self-absorption is also a wonder to behold. During the '96 reunion, he went out of his way to steal all the attention from other members of the band. Even when Eddie - the guitar wunderkind without whom none of this would be possible - mentioned he was getting hip replacement surgery, Roth told him "this night's about me, not your hip."

Roth has never been able to get beyond Van Halen because he can't do anything without EVH's guitar to insinuate himself around. Sammy, by contrast, had a well-established career before joining VH and when the band originally signed a record deal, some of the executives even suggested he replace Roth.

In 2002, when Sammy and Roth went out on the "Sans Halen" tour, the set lists demonstrated this point. Sammy played a total of 8 songs from his time with Van Halen, filling out his set with songs from the rest of his career ranging from "Red" (1977, remade a couple years later by Bette Midler) through "Mas Tequila" (his most recent hit from 1999). In comparison, Roth played 8 songs from the first VH album alone, and only one song from outside VH, "Yankee Rose". He played covers done by VH ("Pretty Woman", "Ice Cream Man"), but his only two solo hits are a cover of "California Girls" (most notable for its video entirely focuses on women in bikinis; not even the pre-"Frasier" Jane Leeves who also appears in it, fully clothed) and "Just a Gigolo", a song from 1929 that has been covered by everybody from Louis Armstrong to Betty Boop.

Sammy has said - and I have no reason to doubt him - that besides the novelty of two former Van Halen singers touring together, part of the reason was to jolt the Van Halen brothers into action. This didn't really happen, they would reunite for a tour with Sammy a couple years later, a tour with Roth a couple years after that, and nothing since then. I also think Sammy was just trying to get along with Roth, whom he'd never met before the tour. Maybe they could swap a couple songs or sing a duet, you know, something the fans would really like. He was thinking it might lead to a stadium tour, Sam and Dave and Van Halen and be huge. No such luck. Roth made a lot more money than he'd been making - he insisted on being paid what Sammy got paid, even though it was Sammy's usual fee which he wasn't even close to earning on his own - but refused to have anything to do with Hagar other than that. The Van Halen brothers didn't rise to the bait.

So Sammy had a really good thing going without ever joining Van Halen. Roth didn't, but he does have those VH records to show for it. Now, over a quarter century after he left the band, they're finally recording again.

I don't know what they expect. The music business they knew is totally gone. They might get some airplay, and will probably sell a number of copies on the novelty alone, but this won't go anywhere. There are several reasons for this, but probably none more central than the lodestone of the band, Eddie Van Halen.

A Dutch immigrant with a family tradition of music, the guy's a guitar genius. He doesn't play difficult chords, but plays them so unbelievably fast and with such control that any teenage metalhead (or adult, let's not fool ourselves) will be enraptured. His "Eruption" solo is the first thing on Best Of and when I heard it, it was like 'oh, ok. THIS is why everybody's loved Van Halen for so long. See, I didn't get that before.'

(live from '94)

Eddie also has (to put it mildly) a serious weakness for alcohol. Sammy's autobiography describes the devastation on tour, and ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli (who was so cute on "One Day At A Time") probably describes the same thing at home in her own book. Ok, it's a common rock star failing, but most rock stars aren't responsible for multiple diamond albums (signifying more than 10 million copies sold). EVH was able to indulge himself far beyond the limits of humanity and it's possible there's not much left.

Having proven his guitar hero bonafides, Eddie went on to demonstrate the potential for crossover in different music areas by playing the guitar solo for Michael Jackson's "Beat It", and he applied his considerable musical ability to learning keyboards with the same devotion he displayed on guitar. [Alex Van Halen described going out on Friday nights as a teenager to party while Eddie stayed at home to play, and coming back six or eight hours later to find Eddie hadn't moved, he was still playing.]

People blame Sammy for making Van Halen's music "commercial" (like that's an insult), but "Jump" was keyboard driven and deservedly a classic song from 1984. Three seconds into that song you're hit by the infectious synthesizer riff and it doesn't let up. Sammy was able to write ballads as well as rockers, and had far more range as a singer, but he didn't force EVH to write that sort of music. One can hear the studio wizardry required to make DLR's vocals suitable for the reunion songs on Best Of. He never had to sing in that key before.

[I also think it was a collaboration with Brian May that helped lead EVH in that direction. Queen was taking a break in 1983, and bored in Los Angeles, Brian May called up EVH and asked if he wanted to do some jamming. The resulting mini-album The Starfleet Project is a guitar fan's wet dream and I'm sure the interaction with another guitar god in a huge pop band led Eddie's thoughts to replacing a troublesome lead singer as well as expanding his own musical range.]

Perhaps none of this is clearer than with the way Michael Anthony was forced out of the band. By his own admission, he didn't participate in any of the writing, but neither did Alex Van Halen. Alex, however, was the brother of the guitar hero. The bass player didn't have any such luck. Anthony's role was reduced in the band until he was ejected for reasons no one but Eddie seems to know. He only played bass on a few songs on the album they made with Gary Cherone and Eddie played bass for the reunion songs with Sammy (on the follow up greatest hits album commemorating the reunion tour from 2004; are you keeping all this straight? There will be a test later). Eddie didn't even want him on that reunion tour except that Sammy insisted, and even then Anthony was given much less money.

This makes no sense. Anthony's no more of a drunken fool than anyone else in the band, he's an awesome bassist, and his replacement is none other than Eddie's teenage son, whose birth was commemorated on the FUCK album with the instrumental "316" (his birthday). This sort of misdirected resentment can only be a recipe for disaster - even if it led to a string of multi-platinum albums, the devastation on their lives and souls would be worse. Anthony, fortunately, has found other work with Hagar since then, but even the most die-hard of Roth fans have to be wondering why he was removed in the first place. Even VH's website briefly removed him from all album credits until they realized how stupid that looked.

After firing Sammy and realizing they still couldn't work with Roth, Van Halen hooked up with Extreme lead singer Gary Cherone, destroying that promising young band in the process. [Extreme opened for Roth on one of his first solo tours and he told them they were good enough to take the crown from Van Halen. Anyone who saw their Queen medley at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert knows this wasn't hyperbole.]

[Heh, Gary even opens with "Mustafa", that Muslim call-to-prayer I mentioned a few posts ago]

Extreme were an extremely talented group. I don't think they really clicked with the public because they wore their influences - Queen, Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, others - extremely loudly. Beyond their one major hit, the acoustic ballad "More Than Words", they didn't have much of an impact on the rock scene. It's a shame because, again, they were extremely talent, especially guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. Here's my favorite Extreme song, from their third album, "Rest In Peace", whose lyrics sound like a hippy peace anthem unless you actually think about them. "Make love not war sounds so absurd to me/we can't afford to say these words lightly/unless our world will truly rest in peace" Great band, very artistic, everything they need for an awesome song except the actual songwriting.

Cherone didn't overplay his role in the band who just wanted a lead singer. His album wasn't a hit - the only non-hit album Van Halen ever had - and he just didn't fit. I think his youth was a part of it as well, but there's no telling. With most of a second album recorded, he amiably left. When Van Halen was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, he was notably not included and to his credit, said he was only a small part of the history that the fans (himself included) were celebrating by the induction. To Van Halen's credit - well, Sammy and Mike Anthony's, since they were the only two who showed up - they thanked him for his role. Yes, he was only a small part of the band's history, but it was still a part and he deserved the public recognition.

The Hall of Fame induction was symptomatic of the problems surrounding Van Halen since Sammy left (the first time). There were endless discussions on who would show up. According to Hagar, he wasn't included in the original induction list even though he was in the band longer than Roth and with more hits to show for it. He suspected his manager left him off the list just so he could get him added and look good in Sammy's eyes. Whatever, then the question was who else would appear. Eddie refused to have anything to do with Sammy or Mike, and this was on the cusp of the reunion tour with Roth. But at the last minute he had to go to rehab, and Alex stayed away as well to support his brother.

Roth was more than willing to show up. However they were being inducted by Velvet Revolver - made up mostly of ex-Guns'n'Roses members - and he insisted on singing "Jump". Apparently the Hall of Fame has some say in what songs are played by inductees upon their induction (why?) and they didn't want that, but were still willing to accomodate him. However, Velvet Revolver didn't have a keyboard player and weren't about to play with pre-recorded tapes like other bands would (like, you know, Van Halen).

[I respect Slash's desire to not play with pre-recorded tapes, that's totally fine. Queen was the same way, which is why it took them years to figure out how to play "Bohemian Rhapsody" live. But it's the f*cking Hall of Fame, you mean they can't FIND a single person who likes Van Halen and is willing to learn keyboards for "Jump"? Isn't anybody else going to be at that dinner, the keyboard player for, I dunno, Journey or some shit? You'd get to play with him (cool) and celebrate Van Halen (cooler) and play "Jump" (still cooler) with David Lee Roth (awesome) who's the one being celebrated by the Hall of Fame. What am I missing here?]

[Slash, by the way, played lead guitar for "Little White Lie", the first song on Sammy's first post-VH album, which is all about his problems with EVH. Since this was just before Slash left G'n'R, methinks he could relate to the issues of a volatile singer/guitarist relationship.]

In the end, only Sammy and Mike showed up to represent the band they used to belong to. They were as complimentary as possible towards everyone else. Eventually Eddie left rehab and the reunion tour with Roth actually happened. Those fans who'd been waiting 25 years for it got what they were after (I guess).

And now they're finally ready to release the follow up to "1984" and the Best Of reunion songs. Oh. Joy.

Has DLR learned to sing in different keys? If not, there's going to be a problem. Reportedly - as in I've heard it from one or two sources but I have no idea if it's the truth or not - he needed extensive help from the producer to put vocal melodies to Eddie's songs way back when. He does a great job of growling and screaming, but he's not that talented as a singer. One doesn't suppose he'll do much better now that he's been spoiled and pampered for decades and Eddie still knows how to play keyboards.

In some ways it's similar to problems with the Who (a big influence on VH). Roger Daltrey could growl and scream with the best of them (the end of "Won't Get Fooled Again" being the best example) and was an amazing front man, but he did not have a melodious voice. "Behind Blue Eyes" is probably the closest he ever got to a delicate vocal, and that only works because it turns into a hard rocker halfway through. [much like "Bohemian Rhapsody", come to think of it]

Pete Townsend taught himself to play keyboards for the Who's third album and with this skill came a wider range of song possibilities. "Won't Get Fooled Again" wouldn't be possible without the keyboards.

[well, sorta...]

But with the compositional opportunities afforded by keyboard playing, Roger Daltrey had a good reason to feel even more threatened by Pete Townshend's dominance than before. This reached its climax with the Quadrophenia album which was more keyboard than anything, and Townshend's raging alcoholism didn't help. Fists were thrown, Townshend spent some time bleeding and unconscious and Daltrey had a bit higher standing in the band than before. Roth actually has done things such as mountain climbing which have tested him as a man, but he's never had to live a poor downtrodden life where rock music was his only salvation like Roger Daltrey did, or Sammy Hagar.

I'll probably get the new album when it comes out, but more out of curiousity than anything else. Van Halen was part of the zeitgeist for a time, and such things aren't dependent on the chronology of cause-and-effect. It would be easy (and tempting) to say that overall, they were a huge, influential band simply to prepare them for Sammy Hagar's time with them. [For a different example, the Beatles would never have become the Beatles without Pete Best spending a few years as drummer, but he was in no way suitable for what the Beatles did, what they became, or what they've meant to rock music for the last 40 years.] But for whatever reason, Eddie is still walking and talking, his brother is still playing drums and they have a bass player Eddie constructed in his bedroom one drunken night back in 1990. And they have that guy who sang "California Girls" and honestly believes his voice provided the soundtrack for several generations of young people.

I don't know what they're doing, I'm just fascinated by the fact that they're still around.

Amazing, I've written all this about Van Halen (a few hours ago I was trying to think of something to write) and I still haven't tackled Aerosmith, truly the greatest American rock band ever. Someday...

In closing, I'd like to link to the Youtube clip of an early Van Halen singing Montrose's "Make It Last", but the embedding feature has been disabled by Youtube at someone's request. Roth once said that Sammy had to sing his (Roth's) songs every night but he would never sing a Sammy song. "Make It Last" was written by Sammy Hagar, so Roth was probably the one who demanded it.

Here's Sammy taking questions from his career, probably promoting his autobiography with Rolling Stone.

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