The Rise and Stall of Van Halen

Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga by Ian Christe (Wiley, 320 pages)

"We play rhythm and blues, shot from cannons." --David Lee Roth

All guitar geeks remember the first time they heard "Eruption," Eddie Van Halen's one minute, 42 second guitar solo from Van Halen's 1978 debut. I was 12 years old, at summer camp. I had just taken up the guitar, learning to plink out some pitiful sounding blues tunes on my friend Robert's beat up old Ibanez Martin knock-off. He could play almost the whole introduction to "Stairway to Heaven," and this impressed me deeply, so I used to follow him around and get him to show me chords. One night as I was getting ready to go to sleep, Robert walked over to my bunk and handed me a scratched up cassette with the words "Van Halen" scrawled on it.

"Yeah, I've heard Van Halen." I told him.

"Have you heard 'Eruption'?" I hadn't.

"It's cued up," he said.

What came next was kind of a blur. I remember slipping the tape into my cheap Caldor's walkman, hitting play, and things going dark.

The general public was introduced to Van Halen via the first single off their debut, a cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." A few years ago, I attended a Seattle panel of local rock musicians and critics, each sharing the one song that changed everything for them. Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks chose Van Halen's "You Really Got Me." "That guitar," he said, "it was like nothing I'd ever heard." Indeed it was like nothing anyone had ever heard, except for the hundreds of Southern California teenagers who had been with Van Halen ever since the band was playing backyard parties in Pasadena.

Eddie Van Halen hit the late '70s L.A. rock scene like an atom bomb. No guitarist since Jimi Hendrix had set the community back on its heels like this half-Dutch, half-Indonesian American kid did. Scores of musicians report seeing Van Halen play for the first time and just being utterly shamed by his complete mastery of the instrument. In the space of five records, Van Halen (1978), Van Halen II (1979), Women and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981), Diver Down (1982), and 1984 (duh), Van Halen redefined hard rock, and established heavy metal as a huge moneymaking machine for the various bloodsucking lawyers who ran the record industry.

In the first Van Halen biography ever written, Ian Christe tracks the rise and stall of one of America's greatest rock bands. Christe knows hard rock: He wrote Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, a well-reviewed survey of heavy metal music from Black Sabbath onward. Christe traces Van Halen from their very beginnings, two immigrant kids, Alex and Eddie, banging away in their dad's wedding band, eventually becoming the highest paid, biggest selling rock act in the world.

Christe hits all the marks that a fan might expect, retelling the various stories which make up Van Halen lore: Young Eddie returning from his paper route to find brother Alex playing Eddie's drums, decides to take up Alex's guitar. Eddie slowing down Cream records to more easily dissect what Eric Clapton was doing, obsessively practicing, preparing to do just what Clapton did a decade earlier -- send a generation of teenage white boys to their rooms to bloody their fingers against his riffs.

Christe does a great job of placing Van Halen within the continuum of the heavy metal genre. This is appropriate: Van Halen is the band that made metal marketable, for better (Metallica) or worse (Winger), but it would have been nice if Christe were more of a general rock historian, and were more able to place Van Halen within the continuum of rock music in general, not just metal. Van Halen deserve this; they are unquestionably one of the Great Bands, and their impact was felt further than the metal genre. By the early '80s, they were a genuine pop phenomenon.

Christe spends all of a page on what is arguably Eddie Van Halen's single most significant recorded performance: His solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It," which was uncredited, unpaid, and recorded in two takes. The song turned out to be groundbreaking for both artists, helping Jackson cross over to the rock crowd, and letting Van Halen show off for a broader pop audience, laying the groundwork for the massive success of 1984. Christe clearly understands this, but he doesn't see fit to spend any time on it. A more serious work might have traced the ripples of that single, and the various hard rock and rhythm and blues crossovers that have come in its wake.

One of Christe's most significant contributions is to place Eddie's obsessive search for the perfect tone (tinkering and tweaking with the electronics of his instrument, sawing off bits here, grouting there, fitting necks with jumbo frets, dipping pickups in wax to reduce feedback) within the hot-rod, gear-head do-it-yourself garage culture of Southern California. There were many fellow hobbyist/obsessives around to assist our hero in his quest for the elusive "brown sound," and to collaborate with him in creating what would eventually become known as the "hot rod guitar."

Though Christe tries hard to give the Sammy Hagar years their due, you can tell that his heart's just not in it. He knows what we all know: Van Halen, at least the Van Halen that mattered, ended when David Lee Roth was fired. Roth certainly wasn't everybody's shot of whiskey (as David Fricke put it in his Rolling Stone review of Women and Children First: "Megalomania of this kind is an acquired taste") but there's no denying that he was a born showman, putting a unique self-parodying, borscht-belt comic spin on the by then tired Jagger/Plant lead vocalist-as-satyr routine.

As Christe tells it, the Van Halen brothers brought David Lee Roth into the band primarily because he owned a PA, because he had a station wagon to haul gear, and because they could practice in his parents' basement. So mercenary, so rock. In contrast, Eddie met Sammy Hagar through their mutual Lamborghini mechanic. So. Not. Rock.

The Hagar era, and the post-Hagar era with that other guy from that other band, were an almost constant nightmare of lite-metal bushwa. I say "almost" because, even in their worst synthesizer-driven power ballads, even in their most tragic ersatz-U2 "saying something important" mode, you knew a guitar solo was coming. And to be perfectly honest, I have yet to hear an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo that wasn't one of the coolest things I've ever heard.

Frustratingly, Christe head-fakes in the direction of deeper analysis throughout the book, without ever quite getting there. The biographies he writes of Eddie and David Lee Roth are twin tales of alienation: Van Halen hidden away in his bedroom, medicating his debilitating shyness with alcohol and obsessive guitar practice, Roth calming his insecurities through constant performance and self-deprecation. The two men's alienation from their peers brought them together, their eventual alienation from each other tore the band apart.

As I turned the pages of this book, I kept thinking of Elvis Costello's famous quote: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." There are really no words I could put on the page that could begin to describe the experience of hearing "Eruption" for the first time. It might be interesting to try. Ian Christe is clearly a Van Halen fan, and he has written a book that is purely for the fans, but not guitar geeks. If you're interested in reading about Van Halen's huge backstage parties, this book is for you. If you'd like a book that dissects Eddie Van Halen's unique approach to the electric guitar, or which seriously analyzes the band's impact on pop culture, it has yet to be written.