A few minutes before David Lee Roth and Alex, Eddie, and Wolfgang Van Halen walked onto the tiny stage at low-ceilinged Greenwich Village club Cafe Wha? last Thursday night, a colleague of mine leaned over and asked what was, at the time, a very important question: “Is there any band that fits into 2012 less well than these guys?”
Of course, a few minutes later we were both making the championship-belt gesture at each other, signifying that Van Halen’s hour-long set had secured the heavyweight title. It was easy to get wrapped up in the group’s first show together since 2008, and not just because the band picked up everybody’s bar tab.
The name Van Halen has always sounded like a code word for the sort of neutron bomb that Slim Pickens could ride into oblivion, and each one of the songs they played — including the not-at-all-new “new” song “She’s the Woman” — cut perfect four-minute swaths of destruction that wiped out any negativity or cynicism that might have been in the air.
Which came back to my friend’s point: Before Roth gave 250 journalists (and Jimmy Fallon) the chance to shout along to “Panama” with him as they got drunk with their friends, would Van Halen have made sense in a vacuum in 2012? Let’s take a look:The band hadn’t produced any new music since 1998’s woeful Van Halen III, and hadn’t created any meaningful songs since (arguably) 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. (1995’s Balance is 37 kinds of terrible, and Carnal Knowledge only gets a thumbs up because of how huge “Right Now” was.) Think about that: The last time Van Halen recorded songs worth hearing, one if its members — 20-year-old Wolfgang — hadn’t been born yet.
They play the very definition of corporate rock, filling giant arenas with smoke and mirrors and big riffs designed to make you buy beer (or drink Crystal Pepsi). Roth introduced the set at Cafe Wha? by saying, “Welcome to Occupy Van Halen!” Didn’t he realize that, in the world of big-time rock and roll, Van Halen are part of the 1 percent?
But by the time the music ended with a faux-encore (faux because the band couldn’t actually go backstage, because there was no backstage) of “Jump,” I couldn’t remember any of those concerns at all. Musically, the performance was merely pretty good. Roth didn’t have all the notes, Wolfie has improved a great deal but remains somewhat stiff, and Alex seemed a little hamstrung by having to play on such a small drum kit. Diamond Dave’s long, drawn-out stories in between songs (especially the first ramble that somehow ping-ponged between Lady Gaga and grandmothers in Spanish Harlem) seemed like they could end the reunion right then and there.
Emotionally, however, it was probably the second- or third-best show I’ve ever seen.* The band was about four yards away from me, eight out of the 11 songs they played were big hits, and the other three (“Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” “She’s the Woman,” and “Ice Cream Man”) were all completely awesome.
Four of those songs (“Panama,” “Running With the Devil,” “Everybody Wants Some!!!” and “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love”) are among my favorite songs of all time. The show was loud but not painful (I only had ringing in one ear on Friday), and went on exactly as long as it needed to go (I was back home well before The Daily Show).
So the moral of the story is that Van Halen may have been gone for way too long, and it’s entirely possible that their forthcoming album A Different Kind of Truth isn’t going to be very good at all, but they still remain relevant to fans like me. And though time may not have been kind to their bodies, the songs are as vital as they were in 1984. Just remember to always reach down between your legs and ease the seat back.
*For the record, the best show I’ve ever seen was Nine Inch Nails at the L’Olympia Bruno Coquatrix in Paris in 2007. I was on vacation with my girlfriend (now wife), and we went to the show on our last night in the city (which also happened to be her birthday). The venue was the perfect size, the performance tremendously powerful, and the set list absolutely perfect.