In the early '80s, Van Halen always seemed like the dudes you'd want cracking jokes at your house party. They made weekend-ready hard rock without all the tough meathead bullshit. They were equal parts David Lee Roth's Vegas vamping and Eddie Van Halen's virtuosic guitar playing. They wrote songs about tonsil hockey with teacher. Together with Michael Anthony on bass and drummer Alex Van Halen on the white sweatband, Van Halen exuded technical showmanship and campy attitude, down to their shredded-these-clothes-with-safety-scissors duds. I was still in grade school when 1984 came out, but I'll never forget the videos that followed: Roth as a bus driver or throwing out jazz hands; all those man-manes teased to heights that rivaled that of the leggy ladies they put on parade; those goofball Eddie Van Halen grins. No arena act has pulled off such a feel-good blend of female-ogling rock since David Lee Roth and company had their falling out.
And by falling out, I mean that in the past 22 years, Van Halen has done nothing of note but add a couple zeros to Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo account. So driving down to the HP Pavilion in San Jose for the band's Dec. 16 reunion show, I'll admit my level of anticipation was minimal. A lot has happened in the past two decades. Michael Anthony is no longer in the band. Red spandex has become an ironic accessory for 20-year-olds. David Lee Roth's chest has gotten bald and oily. Who knew what to expect of the old Van Halen in this new world?
The minute the curtains came down and “You Really Got Me” kicked in, though, the '07 Van Halen agenda was clear: Bring back the total awesomeness of the early '80s, with none of that bummer '90s filler (i.e., act as if that whole thing with Extreme's singer never happened). Diamond Dave looked as if he'd been beamed back as Dr. Teeth, sporting multiple top hats, bedazzled jackets, and an open-mouthed Muppet smile locking his jaw well below the chin. He contorted his face into a spastic Can you believe this shit?!? look whenever the cameras got close, holding court like the same old jester of yesteryear (except that he now has the hairdo of Siegfried of Siegfried and Roy). Even his canned banter was charming.
On the band's relevance: “You get a free history lesson with this concert!”
On general excitement levels: “Is everybody having as good a time as we are?”
On San Jose: “I come from the suburbs! A little place down the way called Pasadena. The suburbs are where they tear down the trees and name the streets after them.”
Pretty much everything Roth said was still some shade of ridiculous, which makes you wonder how Eddie ever fired him (twice).
The other Van Halens didn't mess with small talk, but their beaming expressions conveyed everything. Alex looked 80 but played like he was 20, clocking in with an extended drum solo full of banging and smashing and clattering, but egregiously leaving silent the giant gong hanging behind him. Eddie's son, Wolfgang, is now Van Halen's touring bassist and, as such, is pretty much the coolest 16-year-old on the planet. Wolfgang's look was your standard rock garb (bulky black hoodie, dark bangs covering his face, his pa's signature grin sneaking out occasionally). His playing was neither legendary nor distracting, but rather represented a rock fantasy made real for the many teenagers in attendance.
Eddie's wizardly 15-minute solo (with widescreen close-ups of all the fancy finger work and drumstick-on-guitar-strings tricks) was one of the evening's best moments. Lesser musicians look like total wankers doing that much noodling, but the rock (and cancer) survivor's flashy fretwork and squishy-mouth faces made the crowd delirious. He then put his ax head-to-head with Diamond Dave's big mouth to see who could make the better squawking-toucan or revving-motorcycle noises.
It was a draw.
In between we heard all the jukebox faves: “Runnin' with the Devil,” “Dance the Night Away,” “I'll Wait,” “Ain't Talking 'Bout Love,” and more. My complaints were few: namely, that “Panama” skipped the best lines (“You reach down, between my legs, ease my seat back”), and — well — why was “Little Guitars” on the set list? After two full hours of entertainment, Van Halen pulled off the perfect encore with its biggest hit, “Jump,” featuring Roth running around and waving a giant red flag as blue and white confetti dropped from the ceiling and onto the crowd.
Reunion shows can be sad displays of how poorly '80s shtick ages, but Van Halen's performance felt fresh even with all of its scripted moves. Maybe it's because the sound guy was piping in a whole load of backing vocals. Or maybe it's because we've had so much bad Van Halen over the years that it was reassuring to be reminded that there used to be a good Van Halen once upon a time. But most likely the show's success was due to the fact that Roth and Eddie are the clowns of classic arena rock. Stopping the clock in 1984 bodes well for Van Halen. That means no ballads, no bad crossover experiments, and, best of all, no Hagar.