Tag Archives: Guitar Virtuoso

27th Favorite: Van Halen, by Van Halen.

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Van Halen. Van Halen.
1978, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, 1983.

IN A NUTSHELL: Van Halen, the debut album by the band, is exceptional for many reasons: Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, of course, but also Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals, Alex Van Halen’s drumming, the sound of the record, and – perhaps most of all – its musicality. Van Halen is different from other hard rock/metal bands of the era because it adds interesting touches to everything it does. Even front man David Lee Roth’s shenanigans take a backseat to the record’s many charms.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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(FURTHERMORE: Fair Warning, VH fans! This post is going to take a little longer than usual to get to the album discussion.)

Dad, ca. 1960. Cleanup hitter and star catcher in the thriving local amateur baseball league.

My dad was born in 1940, a little too late for The Greatest Generation, a little too early to be a Baby Boomer. He grew up in a small house on a small street in a small neighborhood of a small city, but to him it was just a house, a street, etc. Today’s faddish “free-range kids,” who are allowed to walk to a playground or bus stop on their own, experience freedoms that are logarithmically short of those in my dad’s boyhood, when (as he told it) his aging parents and much-older siblings left him alone to take on the world since about age three. This upbringing allowed him to independently figure out a lot of stuff, and the rest he covered up by becoming a powerfully-built man of silent intensity whose intimidating first impression discouraged questioning, and also belied his charming, funny and gentle nature.

Mom and Dad, Ocean City, MD. 1961.

It is April, 2018, as I write this, and my dad’s body is still alive, but the “dad” part of him has been wrung out of that body over the past few years, drip by drip, by the persistent, loathsome twisting of Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. It’s been most difficult for him, and hard on everyone in the family, especially my mom, who’s still spry, still out for a good time, still deeply in love with everything and anything about that man of hers. I started to think a lot about my dad when I became a father and realized our relative experiences in fatherhood were very different, even to the point of where fatherhood began.

Dad and me, 1967.

My dad became a father as a 22-year old in 1962, the instant he got that phone call at work telling him that his wife and new daughter were resting comfortably. Then he hung up and went back to work at the machine shop, receiving, I’m sure, handshakes and backslaps all the way to the time-clock, where he had to punch back in after punching out to take the call. My entree to fatherhood was a gradual transition that began in the 90s, in my late 20s, when my wife and I decided we’d have kids. It wasn’t just having a kid at home, it was a feeling of being part of something larger than myself, of creating my role in this agreement between my wife and me, an agreement that would add two more partners in five years – young children, sure, but junior partners nonetheless. It was simpler for my dad and the men of his generation – a phone call, a smile and back to work.

Dad (l.), me (r.) and deer (front), ca. 1972.

But fatherhood is not simple. Fatherhood in my dad’s era was akin to someone imagining a house, then building a house based on that image and trying to live in it. My generation spent more time drawing up blueprints. There’s no inherent superiority to either path: people have built habitable, wonderful homes for millennia without blueprints; and shitty blueprints make shitty houses. However, my dad’s experiences of having had to figure out everything in life on his own, and his tendency toward self-doubt, meant that he wasn’t up for questions or (heaven forbid!) complaints about the fatherhood-house he’d built. Even simple questions like “why not put a window here?” could be taken by him as a criticism and met with anger and silence, and so were never asked directly.

Sisters and me with dad, in his annual hunting beard, ca. 1978.

So I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions. Certainly not “How should I behave as a man?” He was uncomfortable answering specific questions, such as how to treat girls and women, how to handle the romantic feelings I had about them, even what I should do on dates. My dad had figured out everything on his own, so he probably thought everyone else – including me – would figure it out, too. I observed him and learned to be helpful, courteous, kind, hard-working, and honest. (For the most part.) These aren’t really man-centered, but are qualities that anyone, male or female, from any social stratum or cultural background, could find valuable.

Me (l.) and dad (r.), 1985, before my prom. I know, I know, the gray tux and mullet. But check out the uncomfortable “should men be this close?” side-hug!

I don’t know who, really, could’ve answered the question “How should I be a man?” back then. The folks who feel they know the answers, and who’ve been spouting them forever (“You’re in charge! Show her who’s boss! Just act, deal with consequences later!”) are, frankly, assholes. Without another means to get the information (and not even being aware it was a question in the first place, really) most American men of my era were left to understand norms of masculinity, in particular those around gender, based mostly on what they saw around them. This meant not only the interactions between the people you knew, but also in the movies, TV shows, advertising and the world around you.

Mom and dad, ca. 1995, enjoying the Empty Nest years.

I don’t believe it was a failure on my dad’s part that led me, and most men, to be complicit in what’s now called “Toxic Masculinity,” a pervasive cultural attitude of strict, conformative gender roles that’s been reported to have negative physical and mental health effects on men, and most definitely has had a negative impact on women’s health. It wasn’t his fault that as a young man I found myself seething at a girlfriend who dared to make plans with friends without first consulting me; or surprised that a girl at a party hadn’t taken it as a compliment that my friend pinched her ass; or that I uncomfortably chuckled along with the crowd while a guy told us about his sexual assault of a blacked-out drunk girl in high school. My dad hadn’t told me anything about these situations, but from everything I gathered in the world around me, I was pretty sure I had handled all these situations pretty well.

Dad, ca. 2011.

As a father today, I want my own kids to have a better understanding than I had of the dynamics of society that often go unnoticed. My daughter is going to have a certain path, and for her I can treat her as a person, not as a girl, and focus on listening to her so that she can (hopefully) develop a sense that the men in her life should listen to her, and she should demand they do so. For my son I can try to make sure his perspective is broad enough to understand that his path is much different than many others’ and that he actually has some power to do simple things that will have a larger impact than it may seem. For example, telling a room full of guys that, indeed, that story of assaulting the drunk girl wasn’t funny and was sexual assault. I can help him understand the difference between being a “guy” and being a “man.”

All of these thoughts about my dad and fatherhood have surfaced while considering not just Van Halen’s debut album, but many types of media from my youth. Van Halen is certainly not the first artist, or the only artist, to present women solely as objects of sexual pleasure. And sure, that drive to derive pleasure, shared by almost all people, is what’s kept humans on Earth for all these years – so it seems like something worth singing about. But like many bands of this era, in this hard rock genre, Van Halen’s message to teen-aged boys was that they should be out there bangin’ some chicks, any (hot) chicks, with little regard for said chicks’ opinions on the matter.

Everything about the band – their look, their sound, their actions – pointed toward the pursuit of some type of desire that was outside the terms of manhood I’d seen in my dad. My family didn’t discuss … that. I had friends in middle school who loved the mighty VH, but I always left when they played their records. I felt there was something … bad about them. I felt the same way about punk acts as a pre-teen: I was disgusted by these musicians who seemed to disregard the decorum and dignity I knew my dad (and mom) valued, including issues around, you know … that. I ignored them for many years.

It wasn’t until sometime around 1983 that I heard their version of the classic Kinks’ song “You Really Got Me” at a friend’s house, and it suddenly clicked: this band sounds tremendous! By the time their mega-album 1984 came out, I had all their albums on cassette (many dubbed from my friend Rick’s vinyl) and I was listening near-constantly. Sure, the lyrics and front-man David Lee Roth’s antics continued to suggest that, still made me a little uncomfortable, but I just focused on the amazing guitar, the cool harmonies and depth of sound, and the overall sense of FUN the band exuded! There was, and is, much to love about Van Halen besides (or in spite of) that.

First and foremost is Mr. Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen, now considered a national treasure worthy of a Smithsonian Institution gathering, heard here introducing himself, his guitar, and the band’s version of “You Really Got Me.”

The solo at the beginning is called “Eruption,” and it sure does sound like one. This song introduced Eddie’s famous “two hand tapping” technique, which he didn’t invent but that he sure did master. All kinds of poofy-haired, pouty guitar players of the 80s tried to hijack his style, but what you realize when you listen closely to Van Halen records is that Eddie is so much more than flash. There’s a musicality to his playing that seems to require his technique. It’s like he had a sound in mind and had to learn the flash to get it out of his head; others learned the flash, then looked for some reason to showcase it. “You Really Got Me” has a straightforward, cool rock sound that the band makes their own. It makes use of bassist Michael Anthony’s terrific high harmonies, doesn’t strain Roth’s (let’s face it) limited singing abilities and allows Eddie to have fun throughout and play a solo (3:05 – 3:27) that sounded like nothing else at the time. I was hooked.

Van Halen may be the album I’ve listened to most often in my entire life. It seems like it was on a constant loop in my room from 1983 – 1985. That siren opening the album, leading to Anthony’s pulsing bass (which he pretends to play with his teeth in the clip below!) and Eddie’s unmistakable riff meant I was home from school and “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

A dorkish, do-gooder kind of teen, I never really ran with any devils but this song made me want to. I love Eddie’s simple strumming on the upbeat through the verses, which he nicely embellishes with all his harmonic tricks. Roth’s “singing” through the chorus is hilarious. The only way you’re going to appreciate Van Halen is if you make peace with these two facts: he’s a vocalist, not a singer; and he’s sort of a buffoon. Roth isn’t going to write brilliant lyrics, he’s not going to expressively melt hearts with his voice, but he’ll give you a show. And spout weird squawks, shrieks and phrases like (1:41) “God damn babe, you know you like this, I’m only gonna tell you one time, aaaahhhhhh.” Instead of worrying about Roth, listen to the SOUND of this album. The robust bass sound, and the way the guitar, which is clearly the star of the show, is pushed to the front, loud and clear, is really noticeable in Van Halen records. Eddie’s playing is actually subdued (for him) in this song, although his solos are terrific.

A secondary star, often overlooked because of how brightly Eddie shines, is drummer (and Eddie’s older brother) Alex Van Halen. He has the million-piece drum kit, like so many hard rock and metal drummers, but it’s not how many drums he hits that’s as impressive as how well he swings. In “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” it’s his swinging beat that, to my mind, makes it more musical than if played by a band with a different drummer. He keeps it from being a simple pile-driver of a song.

Eddie’s riff is great, and Anthony’s harmony lyrics in the chorus are strong as ever. It’s a catchy song, with a nice breakdown, at 1:54. The breakdown has great rhythmic punctuations, and some more of those fantastic Eddie harmonics. At 3:00 the iconic “Hey! Hey! Hey!” shouts are heard, and at 3:30 during the coda, the band again shows off their musicality with a fantastic ending instead of a simple fade-out. During that earlier breakdown, Roth asks us to feel sorry for the fact that he’s lost a lot of friends – apparently for having a girlfriend with a disease, with whom he’s not in love? I think it’s a waste of time to look too closely at Roth’s lyrics, which I once heard him state he writes during TV commercials, but I do think it’s interesting to look at Roth’s use of the term “love” throughout the record. Here he states clearly he’s not talking about love, and I don’t think he’s talking about “love” whenever he uses the term. He means that thing I dared not talk about when I first heard the band. I wasn’t talking about sex, and he’s not talking about love.

For example, in the fun and catchy “Feel Your Love Tonight.”

I can feel the love of those dear to me whenever I spend time with them. However, I don’t think this is the type of love Roth means when he apologizes for taking this girl “a little too far” in his car, an incident he seems to have told the fellas about behind the bar. In attempting to feel her love (tonight) he uses various tactics: he flatters (“you’re the prettiest girl I know,” although the modifier “I know” sort of undercuts the flattery a tad …); he makes plans (having gotten into work 10 minutes early, he proposes hitting the town after midnight); he warns of vague consequences (“use it before it gets old,” which seems rather alarmist for someone described as a girl); he disparages (“you’ve let your life grow cold,” which may actually touch a nerve, as her trips up and down his road indicate she may have some compulsive tendencies, and she could be the type to stew over her life circumstances …); and finally he begs (on bended knee, no less, which must seem a little bit creepy to her, right?) Anyway, clearly DLR didn’t spend much time on lyrics, and so defaulted to “let’s get laid” themes. But this nonsense aside, the song sounds terrific, with Anthony’s bass pulsing below Eddie’s riffs and Alex’s thumping swing moving it right along. It’s another song in which Eddie’s playing – even on chords in the verses – sounds distinct. The vocal harmonies are once again terrific, and of course, as a Beatles fan, I love the Fab Four-esque “Ooooh” in the chorus.

Roth doesn’t just want to feel “love,” he wants his gal to “show her love,” which I’m presuming does not mean he wants her to leave a cute note in his lunch bag. This request is made on one of my favorite songs on the album, a real feature for drummer Alex, “I’m The One.”

The lyrics may actually be about the love the crowd shows him at his concerts. But why are we discussing words when Eddie is playing stuff like the intro, from the beginning through the incredible run at 0:31? This is a song that demonstrates why Van Halen is different from all the other fast-fingered guitar bands from the 70s and 80s. That introduction, the descending, syncopated pre-chorus (first heard at 0:50), and even the goofy, yet well-done, “Shooby-doo-waa” doo-wop section (2:50) are musical touches that set the band apart. And Alex’s drumming is both bombastic and subtle (if that’s possible): the triplets heading into the second verse (1:45) are cool, and the way he controls the tempo, pulling back slightly through that pre-chorus. The harmonies are great, as usual, and, also as usual, Eddie’s guitar playing is off the wall.

A few of the songs aren’t as interesting as the rest, but even in the rather mundane songs like “Atomic Punk” and “On Fire,” there’s always Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drumming to keep a listener involved. On “Atomic Punk,” the brothers are locked together, Alex answering each of his brother’s riffs, and Eddie plays a solo (1:30) that isn’t particularly flashy, yet is brilliant nonetheless, finding notes that sound like they shouldn’t fit, yet fit perfectly. And Roth’s lyrics take a science fiction turn that’s rather unexpected. “On Fire” features an Edwin Starr-esque “Good God, y’all” from DLR.

One characteristic that definitely set Van Halen apart from many of the imitators was their reluctance (thank heavens) to record a Power Ballad. They’d play some slower songs, sure, but “Little Dreamer” isn’t a power ballad – no screeching vocals, no “love forever” lyrics. It’s just the VH basics, slowed down: great guitar, great harmonies, and a guitar solo (1:47) that goes in a direction one wouldn’t expect.

I’ve written before that what makes me love VH is their sense of fun, and that sense is certainly evident on the rave-up “Ice Cream Man.”

The David Lee Roth version of the band has always loved playing cover songs (besides “You Really Got Me,” the band would also cover The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” 60s classics “You’re No Good,” and “Dancing In the Street“), and this is a fine example. It opens with acoustic guitar played by Mr. Roth himself, and singing lyrics well-suited to his persona, but he soon gives way to the full band. Alex again shows his penchant for swing, and the bass is fun, but this is a guitar highlight of the record. Eddie plays a solo at 1:42 that shows all his musical gifts. At 2:40, he and Roth do a call-and-response that’s loads of fun. And loads of fun is how I describe the mighty VH.

“Jamie’s Crying” is one of the band’s most popular songs, and it’s easy to hear why.

It’s got a mid-tempo groove courtesy of Alex’s drums, a terrific melody, a memorable riff and those harmonies again. The syncopated bars just before the chorus again show a musicality many lesser hard rock bands lack. After the second verse, the song picks up a dance beat for a few measures, giving it something else a bit different. Eddie generates a number of sounds in the song, and all fit perfectly. The lyrics are really asshole-y, however, mocking a woman who falls for a man who only wants to have sex with her, not a relationship. Her two choices are to feel sad about not being with him, or to have a one-night stand and then feel worse. Roth sings the song through a smirk, clearly relishing the woman’s heartache. I used to hear this song and think, “Yeah, well, it’s a man’s world. That’s how it goes.” Nowadays I think Roth sounds like an asshole. (I still love the music, though!)

Dad (l.) and me (r.), 2017.

Maybe my dad could have done more to make me aware of the world around me, of the privilege I’d been given for simply for having that Y chromosome. Maybe he could have listened to Van Halen with me and pointed out, “You know, these songs about women …” and provided a long discourse on the nature of power and control in human, patriarchal societies. (After all, he did like a few Van Halen songs, including “Big Bad Bill,” “Could This Be Magic?” and their version of Roy Rogers’s “Happy Trails.”) However, this was an impossibility for him for many reasons. But I’d say he did the job well regardless, as he raised three kids who continue to learn and develop and (hopefully!) model those characteristics we observed, even into our 50s. My dad didn’t have any plans for fatherhood, he just had a lot of love. The kind David Lee Roth wasn’t talking about.

Track Listing:
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“Eruption”
“You Really Got Me”
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
“I’m The One”
“Jamie’s Crying”
“Atomic Punk”
“Feel Your Love Tonight”
“Little Dreamer”
“Ice Cream Man”
“On Fire”

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47th Favorite: Fair Warning, by Van Halen

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Fair Warning. Van Halen.
1981, Warner Brothers. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1983. Purchased, ca. 1998.

IN A NUTSHELL: A record by a band that I describe in one word: “fun!” Eddie Van Halen’s guitar heroics are all over the place on this album, and he always plays with a sense of enjoyment and laughter. David Lee Roth is the clown prince of cock rock, and the band’s rhythm section is second to none. This album has all the hallmarks of a VH classic. It might not be for everyone, but if it’s you get it, you’ll want to get it!
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Everyone likes to have fun, right? At least a little bit? I’m sure there are a few people you can think of who seem completely disinclined to have fun. I myself have a relative or two who seem to need a lesson in fun. But I’d venture to say even those dour folks you know who seem to have gone to some weird face gymnasium to build up their Zygomaticus muscles (major and minor) to ensure their lips can never curl into a smile have some little thing in their lives that they consider fun: weather-stripping the house, perhaps, or looking at their Commemorative Spoon collection. Fun means different things to different people, but it’s a universal feeling, known across cultures, throughout history.

Popular music has often celebrated fun, as well. Hit songs from the past 60 years that extoll its virtues include those by Cyndi Lauper, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, Sly & The Family Stone, Madness, Wang Chung and Tom Tom Club. (Less popular musical artists, such as Bruce Willis and Charles Manson, have also cut tracks about fun). Plenty of other songs describe such fun activities as jumping around, driving around, going on vacation, going to parties, playing basketball, playing baseball, playing cards … even cosplay (sort of). Throw in fun activities like dancing and sex, and it becomes damn difficult to think of a song that isn’t about fun. (Songs by 70s-sad-sack-sap-spewers Bread notwithstanding.)

Despite the universal appeal of fun, and despite the fact that it’s a standard topic of song, musical artists devoted to fun are not typically held in the same regard by critics as those artists with a more serious worldview. The most-admired rock and roll artists from the Turbulent 60s® had at a bare minimum at least one phase, or important work, that touched on universal human and political themes. Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan did, of course, as did The Beatles, James Brown and Marvin Gaye … even good time party-boys The Rolling Stones had their “Street Fighting Man” era. Through the 70s, gravity reigned: The Who wrote operas; Led Zeppelin wrote serious-sounding songs about serious-sounding subjects; prog rockers like Yes and Genesis and Rush demonstrated a serious devotion to virtuosity and Grand Ideas; and earnest dudes with acoustic guitars became unlikely pop stars. Then punk came – and while its pogo-ing fans were having fun, what The Critics™ responded to was the bands’ anger and passion. Fun was certainly a big part of the 70s Disco Movement, but the music itself wasn’t taken very seriously.

The 80s were a heyday for fun-themed music, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to the scourge of Hair Metal. MJ was always a critics’ favorite, and Madonna eventually got there, but the music of the 80s that The Critics tended to love – more serious artists like Tom Waits, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü – weren’t really all that popular in the U.S. in the 80s; they were niche acts. Popular, fun acts like Huey Lewis and The News and Bon Jovi and all the other Hair Metal acts were already starting to sound tiresome to critics (and record buyers) by the time the 90s dawned. The lasting 80s rock bands – U2, R.E.M. – were serious bands with some (at times embarrassing) fun thrown in.

Fun mostly took a backseat in 90s pop music. Sure you had some goofballs out there, and the decade’s “Swing Revival” tried to encourage us that fun could be had for a mere 2 years of dance lessons and a few $500 Zoot Suits. But from Gangsta Rap to Grunge to College Music, the 90s were not really an era of much musical fun. Just ask Cher, from Clueless. (Although, to be fair, inter-genre pairings in the decade did produce a pretty fun soundtrack album for Judgment Night.) The music of the 2000s may have had some fun – I was having my own fun with a couple of young kids, so I kind of missed a lot of what happened in that decade. But I’m going to take it for granted that once again, fun was an afterthought for most of what was considered critically-acclaimed music.

I sort of understand why Fun wouldn’t be more critically-appreciated as a musical topic. The fact is, nobody experiences fun the same way, and what’s Fun for one person probably isn’t for another. For example, statutory rape, mass murder and poorly-conceived-and-unsubtly-executed-double-entendres aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, so it might be difficult for some folks to just accept “hey, it’s fun!” as a reason for finding redeeming qualities about the music. Also, part of what is expected from the arts – any of the arts – is a reflection of the human condition by an artist. The more complete that reflection is, the more deeply a listener will respond to an artist. So, if only the sunny, fun side of life is being reflected by an artist’s work, it may make the listener feel like the artist is either disingenuous or lazy.

However … some musical artists have been celebrated for their achievements in Fun. The recent death of Rock and Roll architect and future only-Rock-and-Roll-name-in-Music-History (according to Chuck Klosterman) Chuck Berry elicited heaping mounds of rightfully-deserved praise on the man.

 

And something that stood out to me in all of the obituaries, memorials and tributes to the man was how much FUN his music was. Of course, there was a lot of talk about his impact on the sound of Rock and Roll, and about his lyrics, which were the first in rock and roll to express stories poetically about people. But the fact is that his music was always FUN, as well!

He wrote about driving around, about school being boring, rock and roll, the USA, and cars – both fast and not so fast. He had a few serious songs, like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” but even they sounded fun. He had a signature guitar sound and performance style that wowed audiences, and nobody expected him to get very philosophical with his songs. Nobody clamored for “a different side of Chuck Berry,” in which he plumbed the depths of his mind and soul for multi-layered reflections on life’s true meaning. Listeners wanted Chuck Berry to kick ass, and ass is what he kicked.

It’s in this ass-kickin’, fun-havin’, let’s-just-rock-and-roll, Chuck Berry spirit that I love the band Van Halen. They can be as goofy as that duck-walk, and as dumb as a song about playing guitar, but they have a signature sound and performance style I love, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen is an innovator and sound-generator who stands apart even in a crowded field of rock guitar virtuosos. They are my Chuck Berry

I remember hearing and seeing Van Halen as a middle schooler in the late 70s. There was a pair of brothers who lived up the street, the Starrs, and they LOVED Van Halen. I was still in my disco/pop phase, so I thought the band – with its scarves and poofy hair and loud guitars and tight pants – were just silly. (Somehow, grown men dressed as a Cowboy, Indian, Biker, Construction Worker, Cop and Army Man didn’t seem all that silly to me. Go figure.) As I moved through high school, Van Halen videos would turn up on MTV, and I sort of shrugged. They weren’t really my thing. But that changed when they released their 1984 album in my junior year of high school, and – pop music fan that I was – I bought in. My good friend and high school music guru Rick immediately told me that 1984 was lame, and brought to school the Van Halen Canon to that point, all on cassette tape. I bought in big-time, and was just becoming a super-fan when lead singer David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth left the band in 1985. Neither his new schtick nor the band’s new direction interested me much, so I kept delving into those cassettes.

Being a fan of the “classic” DLR-era Van Halen is a bit like being a fan of The Three Stooges, an act I also greatly enjoy. With both acts, you’re just going to have to accept that a) much of the stuff they do is ridiculous; b) some of the stuff they do is going to miss the mark; and c) you’ll meet as many people who hate the act, and judge you for your love, as you will those who understand. But fuck them. An interesting thing about being human is that you can’t really control what it is that’ll make you laugh or tickle your music-receptors. Both tastes, all tastes, evolve, for sure, but I find that certain stimuli abide, and never lose their power to excite. And the opening of the Fair Warning album, the song “Mean Street,” excites me every time.

It opens with some weird, fabulous guitar nonsense from Eddie. This album was the band’s fourth in four years, and fans were expecting guitar histrionics and brand new sounds from Eddie every time out, and it sounds like he wanted to get some of it out of the way right off the bat. Then its a simple, driving riff that propels the entire song. I’m not going to get into D.L. Roth’s lyrics just yet, but I will say that I doubt that this son of a wealthy ophthalmologist, from a long line of wealthy doctors, has really only ever known the Mean Streets, as claimed. One of the finest, and least-appreciated, aspects of Van Halen albums has always been bassist Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals. They are perhaps the “Larry Fine” of the band, if we’re going with a Three Stooges analogy; always providing a small, key piece to lift group performances to a higher level. At about 2:20, above, Eddie begins a really cool guitar solo that almost sounds Arabic in places. He’s known for playing very fast, but it’s not just the speed that’s amazing: it’s the style and the sound, as well. His brother, Alex, pounds a great drum track throughout, especially during the nice little breakdown part, at about 3:15, and then it’s on to the end of the song. Just as The Three Stooges were smart enough to make short films, Van Halen knows that it’s in their interest to keep songs compact, and I rarely hear a song of their’s that I think “Okay, time to end it, boys.”

Van Halen appreciation is easiest if – regardless of gender – you are at peace with your inner 13-year-old-boy. You’ll need that comfort to fully comprehend the genius of a song like “Dirty Movies,” allowing you to either laugh off or fully embrace the song’s juvenile reflection on pornography and its performers.

But as with every goddamned song Van Halen ever made, the focus should be squarely on Eddie and what he says with his guitar, instead of what any lyrics might say. (And I’ll get into lyrics soon … I swear.) This song opens with a nice, gentle swing beat courtesy of the terrific Alex Van Halen, and cool bass harmonics by Anthony. Eddie’s guitar squawks give way to a fluid solo, about 0:40, and the entire thing builds to a very strong intro riff about 0:49. The band often throws interesting little song-structure things into songs, like, for instance, at 1:18, when they end the verse with a little syncopated run, or the syncopation behind the pre-chorus, heard about 1:29. It’s things like this that elevate them above other “flashy guitar” bands of the 80s. Anthony’s bass line is particularly nice in the chorus, where – once again – his strong harmonies help lift the song. We Van Halen fans awaiting a scorching solo actually have to look elsewhere, as Eddie confines his histrionics to background wails and runs.

I remember reading a quote from David Lee Roth – who, during those wild and woolly early MTV days was always good for a hilarious quote – regarding his lyrics. I scoured the internet looking for it, but I couldn’t come up with it. But I recall him stating words to this effect: “nobody comes to Van Halen because of the lyrics. I write them during time-outs watching football on TV.” However, this lack of effort hasn’t left him as a lyricist without personal style. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could pull off such lyrics as “Who’s that babe with the fab-oo-lus (sic) shadow?/It’s only one scene but to me it don’t matter.” Just as some people will never find Moe poking Curly in the eyeballs funny, some people will never appreciate the ridiculous humor of Roth’s lyrics. But I still find myself laughing when I hear lyrics like those in “Sinner’s Swing.”

Couplets such as “She looked so fucking good so sexy and so frail/Something’s got the bite on me I’m going straight to hell” crack me up. And Roth can perform the lyrics well, too; I won’t use the term “sing,” as his delivery varies between singing, speaking, barking and laughing. He doesn’t try to be earnest about thrown-together lyrics such as “No one is above suspicion, no one’s got it wired/I’ll eat it with my fingers want my iron in that fire,” but unleashes them with an implied wink, as if to say, “come on, we’re just having fun!” Alex again shows he’s one of the more inventive drummers in rock, even in the first few seconds as he doubles the main guitar riff on drums. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, even though – once again – Eddie’s role is mostly left to background runs, although at 1:40 he unleashes a seemingly Galaga-inspired solo that is both impressive and typical. The signature vocal harmonies on the chorus’s “G- g- g- g- g-/Get out and push!” (I do believe Roth when he says he doesn’t spend much time refining the lyrics) are also terrific.

But goofiness aside, just as you’ll find that The Three Stooges are actually far more clever in their wordplay than one would expect given all the slapstick, Van Halen songs are often more interesting musically than expected. A great example of that is the song “Hear About It Later,” a piece that begins with a cool, subtle build-up to a Dave scream. But at the end of the verse, at about 1:18, the band throws in some nifty triplets as Roth sings “tried and convicted, it’s winner take all.” It’s little things like this that elevate their songs beyond the standard hard-rock, guitar-wanking BS.

Similarly, about 2:25, the song smoothly transitions to a nice minor chord in the bridge – again unexpectedly. Then there’s a breakdown at 2:40, and Eddie begins his solo, which sounds like it could be part of a different song. But that’s not a knock – it’s a fantastic bit of playing, and it makes the song interesting, especially when he leaves the solo and the band enters the bridge again. Also, for all I’ve said about Roth and singing and lyrics, he really does have a knack for writing catchy melodies. The song’s got a really great ending, with Eddie playing quintuplets as it draws to a close. Look, it’s not The Brandenburg Concerto, but it is a step or two beyond what one expects from a Guitar God band. And I love it.

Another song I love is the (sort-of) “hit” from the album, the fun, propulsive “Unchained.” It’s classic VH, with excellent guitar, cool harmonies, great drumming, unexpected musical nuggets, and silly-terrific lyrics by Diamond Dave.

This is a song that I think I could listen to just as the isolated Eddie Van Halen guitar track, and I’d be happy. The entire time he’s making simple stuff sound cool with squawks and flanges and other inventive sounds. Musically, the syncopated rhythms during the pre-chorus – about 0:40 to the descending syncopation around 0:53 – once again show there’s more to the songs than just “4/4, play chords.” At 1:49, Eddie unleashes a weird, noisy solo. Lyrics such as “blue-eyed murder in a satisfied dress” are classics. Plus – as with the entire album – there’s a depth of sound on this (and every DLR-era) Van Halen album. My high school chorus director loved the sound of Van Halen albums, and credited their richness to producer Ted Templeman, who gets a vocal credit on this song during the breakdown section, beginning about 2:15. Whatever the case, the entire production is perfectly suited to hold and feature Eddie’s guitar heroics.

The band does a few other things on the album. “Push Comes to Shove” is a subtle, nifty guitar feature, with a disco beat and DL Roth’s crooning about the vagaries of love, while Eddie creates some excellent, angular, reggae-inflected gems and blasts off a terrific, guitar-hero solo. “So This Is Love?” is a shuffling, good-time boogie with – you guessed it – phenomenal guitar. “Sunday Afternoon In The Park/One Foot Out the Door” is a punk song (the latter) with a weird, blobby, guitar-generated introduction (the former). Alex kicks some double-bass drum ass on it, but overall it’s a pretty weak song on which to end a great album.

So, anyway, listen: these are some pretty scary, lousy times in the USA. Your life could use a little more fun, so why not get some from the music you’re listening to? I find it fun being impressed by Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drums, and enjoying Michael’s harmony vocals and “Diamond” Dave’s ridiculousness … Maybe you’ll find fun somewhere else. But try to make a place for it in your music listening: life’s really too short not to!! In the immortal words of Diamond Dave: “Don’t waste time/g-g-g-g-g get out and push!”

Track Listing
“Mean Street”
“Dirty Movies”
“Sinner’s Swing”
“Hear About It Later”
“Unchained”
“Push Comes To Shove”
“So This Is Love?”
“Sunday Afternoon In The Park”
“One Foot Out The Door”

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50th Favorite: Axis: Bold As Love, by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

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Axis: Bold as Love. The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967, Track Records. Producer: Chas Chandler.
Purchased, 1997.

IN A NUTSHELL: Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are in fine form on songs both heavy and light, each song bursting with the unmistakeable virtuosity of Hendrix’s guitar – sometimes subtle, sometimes bombastic. He plays a few pop songs, too, and always makes them sound like Jimi. He also displays an under-appreciated, soulful singing voice that particularly stands out on the lighter, slower songs.
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Everyone wants to be a VIP. All over the internet, folks are using the allure of VIP status to entice you to buy yoga apparel, car washes, cameras, and sporting goods; access to restaurants, zoos, muscle-car clubs, pinball museums and places that aren’t even real. And while it’s probably true that nobody really thinks their longterm commitment to buying quality socks online actually makes them more important than they were when they were simply buying Kirkland socks at Costco, it’s also true that if the letters “VIP” didn’t actually help sell things then vendors wouldn’t use them.

It is well-established that people want to feel important. But we also like to acknowledge those people who are important in our own lives. Many of us, it seems, need a little help letting those people know how special they are to us, but we all (mostly) recognize those important people are out there. (If you don’t know who they are, there are several online quizzes to help you figure it out!)

Of particular interest to humans seems to be those people we think are “most important.” Schoolchildren of all ages have likely written at least one essay on the topic “The Most Important Person in My Life.” And if they can’t think of someone, there are plenty of example essays for sale on the topic! It’s not just teachers who like a good “Most Important Person Essay,” either. Many websites post such features for all their readers to enjoy. It’s also a popular topic on websites devoted to particular religions.

These essays and stories and blog posts all tend to focus on longtime relationships that are obviously important. The singular fact that your mother carried you inside her for nine-plus months immediately renders her important, whether or not her laugh is all that great. If you’re a big-time athlete, you’re bound to have a coach or two with whom you’ve developed a special bond. Most of us probably have several of these types in our lives making it quite difficult to pare a list of important people down to one single “most important.” (And remember: when thinking about those “most important people” in one’s life, always keep in mind – as we children of the 70s learned on TV – that the most important person is YOU!)

Parents, coaches, teachers, mentors, friends, grandparents … these are all obvious types of important people. People in your life who fall into these categories have earned a claim to the title of Most Important Person, I am sure. “For fifty years, my sister has been there for me.” “I learned so much more than World History from Mrs. Meyer in 10th grade.” However, there is a type of Important Person that I find far more interesting. It’s a type of Important Person who perhaps hasn’t had such a broad or philosophical influence on your life, but who had a direct, specific, turning-point-facilitating impact. When you ask yourself “How did I get here?” and follow the thread of your actions and decisions back through the twisting maze of your past, you will come across a person or two without whose words or deeds a significant turn in your path would have been missed – even though you Don’t Remember Their Name! This is The Forgotten Person in Passing. Better-known as The ForPerInPass. Or maybe the Forg-Pip. Or F-PIP. Whatever, I suck at nicknames and acronyms.

FPIPs are often only recognizable if you allow your memory to step back through the stages of your life and consider how each link between stages was made. For example: I’ve had a 25-plus year career in the biotech/pharma industry. How did I get there? Well, I can easily walk back through the various jobs I’ve had at different companies in New England and California … and before arriving in California, I can go back in my mind to Pennsyltucky… where I can remember getting my very first pharma job at a Bayer Aspirin factory … a job I got because I had a minor in Chemistry … which was a degree I took only because of … Some Guy. An FPIP.

In 1989 I was days away from graduating college with a degree in Biology Education. As with everything pre-internet, the administrative process of graduation involved filling out a lot of forms and getting a bunch of signatures on these forms. One of these forms was to be signed by the Department Chair (a terribly Important Person, no doubt), who, having reviewed the paper copy of my college transcripts would, by signature, assert that indeed I had fulfilled the requirements to receive a Bachelor’s degree.

My transcript included grades from two years spent at PCPS, a college of science whose hefty, science-packed course-load included about 23 credits of Chemistry in my two years of study – which is a shit-load of chemistry. As I walked through a science building on my way to get a signature, some FPIP took a look at my transcript and said, “Holy crap! You have enough Chemistry credits to get a minor!” (or words to that effect.) “Why should I do that?” I asked. “Why not?” he replied. “It couldn’t hurt!” So, on my way to get the Biology chair’s signature, I stopped in at the Chemistry chair’s office for his signature, and voila!! I had a Chemistry Minor! If I hadn’t gotten that Chemistry minor, I probably wouldn’t have gotten my first pharmaceutical job. And since I wasn’t looking for a career in pharmaceuticals, but only took the job (which was supposed to be temporary) so that I’d have some flexibility to tour with my band, I probably wouldn’t have had a successful career in what has turned out to be my field if I hadn’t bumped into that FPIP.

In terms of my life’s path, that dude who gave me the tip about obtaining a minor was WAY more important than any advice-giving coach or hand-holding aunt could ever be! And he’s just one of several such FPIPs.

Other FPIPs in my life include this wacky, effervescent, middle-aged dancer/actress/singer I met in San Rafael, CA, soon after I moved there in 1993. She was a friend of a friend, and I met her once, at a lunch with our mutual friend during a break in rehearsal for some cabaret show she was hoping to mount, and during that one meeting she told me that of all the acting programs in San Francisco, the only one worth attending was the Jean Shelton Acting School. On that advice I started taking classes, and one of the first friends I made there introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. If not for the wacky FPIP, I might still be single.

Another FPIP – who I definitely can picture, and who I knew pretty well at the time, but whose name I can’t recall – was the guy who said “Axis: Bold as Love was a life-changing album for me.” He was an improv teacher at Sue Walden & Co., (now ImprovWorks) a school in San Francisco where I trained and performed for years. He played guitar, and in the mid 90s he was in his 40s. As a teen-aged guitar player living in the Bay Area in the 60s, he was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix, and as I recall, he told me that Axis: Bold as Love had been released just as he was starting to get really good at guitar. But, he explained, when he heard that album he realized just how hard he was going to have to work to become the type of guitarist he wanted to be. I don’t remember the details of what he said, but I recall the reverence with which he spoke, the deep connection he had with the work, not just as an album of rock songs but as a true work of artistic expression that had left an impression still palpable some 30 years later. It was like hearing a Catholic priest speak of seeing St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time.

I was already a fan of The Jimi Hendrix Experience album Are You Experienced?, so I knew immediately that I had to get Axis: Bold as Love. In this case, the chances are likely that I would have purchased this album at some point – so maybe he doesn’t precisely fit the FPIP definition. But I still can’t hear this record without thinking of that guy, and feeling lucky to have met him, and in a way I still consider him responsible for my love of this album, and deepening my appreciation of Jimi.

I was already familiar with this album’s cover because my high school buddy, Josh, had used it to decorate our room in 11th grade World Cultures class when we had “India Day.” The story goes that Jimi didn’t particularly care for the artwork, as nobody in the band had any Indian heritage (apart from Jimi’s Native American “Indian” lineage). And although depicting the band members as gods of the third largest religion on Earth is undoubtedly offensive to many, it’s still a pretty cool-looking album.

Cool-looking though it may be, Axis: Bold as Love starts off rather cornily with a sort of amusing, kind of pointless, though maybe sort of wild-for-its-time skit, called “EXP,” about aliens that allows Hendrix to make some futuristic sounds with his guitar. But more importantly, it serves as a prelude to the cool groove of “Up from the Skies.”

It starts with a jazzy, brush-stick intro from fabulous drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Jimi begins singing right away. This is perfect because it allows me to state immediately that Hendrix’s acknowledged guitar virtuosity has overshadowed the fact that he’s actually a terrific singer! On this song he’s expressive and controlled as he takes the voice of the alien in “EXP” to ask us all about our life here on Earth, and why it’s so degraded since the last time he visited. Behind the outer-space words is some fantastic wah-wah guitar that subtly distorts the sound of the entire song – giving me a feeling of bobbing in water. The drumming – I can’t say enough about Mitchell. Hear for yourself just 15 seconds of brilliance, between 0:30 and 0:45. Jimi’s solo beginning at 2:25 – I need better words to describe his playing. Those who think Hendrix was only about guitars lit on fire and playing with his teeth must listen to this solo: restrained and lovely, incorporating both the wah pedal and studio panning to achieve its full effect.

Next up is a song in a heavier vein, the type for which Hendrix is perhaps more well-known: “Spanish Castle Magic.”

It sounds like early heavy metal, based around one chunky riff doubled by bassist Noel Redding. The lyrics are purported to be about an old rock club on the outskirts of Seattle, called The Spanish Castle, where Hendrix played as a high schooler, but I’m thinking they might also have to do with Jimi’s use of LSD. Regardless of their content, I’m always amazed at how Jimi can sing and play guitar so well at the same time. In this and many songs, the melody he sings is a different rhythm than what his hands are playing – and sometimes his hands are doing additionally crazy things. I recognize that in a studio overdubs are used to make this task easier, but Jimi pulled off this shit live, too!

These two songs are examples of the two main styles in which The Jimi Hendrix Experience traffics: 1) gentle, subtle grooves; and 2) heavy riffs; both based in the blues and both with brilliant guitar. One of the most well-known Type 1 songs is the beautiful “Little Wing.”

It’s a song loved by guitar players, with a sound lifted by many artists over the years. When I listen closely to what Hendrix is playing, I understand why my FPIP was so overwhelmed. At first listen, it sounds rather simple. But when you focus in on his subtle bends and arpeggiated strumming you recognize how advanced the playing is. For example, the 20 seconds before the solo – at about 1:20 to 1:40. His playing doesn’t even sound like fingers and a pick on strings – it sounds like it’s just emanating from him. (By the way, he also played the glockenspiel on the piece!) The lyrics were apparently inspired by “… a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it,” Hendrix stated. “And me with my crazy ass couldn’t get it together.” As with many Hendrix lyrics, the meaning isn’t immediately apparent from the actual words … but who cares? It still sounds beautiful.

I love “Little Wing,” and am in fact drawn to all the mellower songs on the album. Perhaps my favorite is the evocative “One Rainy Wish.”

The guitar in this song is wonderful. Much has been made of Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and his ability to make his guitar sound like rockets and bombs. In “One Rainy Wish,” his guitar doesn’t sound like rainfall, but it conjures rainfall imagery, with its cascading descending runs and wavy bends, giving the listener the feeling of standing in the rain. The mellow 3/4 time of the verse kicks into a more raucous 4/4 in the chorus (at about 1:13), and Jimi solos through the whole thing. Drummer Mitch Mitchell plays a distant-thunder roll on his tom at about 1:57 to bring it back to the drizzly verse, a seamless transition of the type the band makes easily throughout the songs on the album. I get chills at the guitar in this song, and it makes me wonder if I have ASMR. It’s another Jimi-style, dreamy love song, with lyrical content (“you were under the tree of song / Sleeping so peacefully / In your hand a flower played”) that could only be written by one man.

Another magical piece – and the more I think about it, “magical” is a great way to describe this album. It seems to get better and better and reveal more and more with every listen! – is the spiritual “Castles Made of Sand,” with its slice of life lyrics that together urge the listener to seize the day – for it all could wash away tomorrow. This song features some backwards guitar, and once again Mitchell’s drumming is tight. But come on: just go back and listen to his guitar playing during the “castles made of sand” sections – 0:47, 1:25, 2:13 – tell me that’s not just otherworldly brilliance? I get carried away – I almost forgot to post the song.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience only had one Billboard Top 40 song, but it is useful to remember that the band WAS a POP BAND, writing songs contemporaneously to artists like The Grass Roots and The Cowsills, and some of the songs on Axis: Bold as Love clearly seem to be Jimi’s attempts at writing a pop song. Of course, being Jimi Hendrix, the result isn’t exactly “Sugar Sugar.” “You Got Me Floatin’” has too much Jimi vocal style and overdriven guitar, wild Mitch Mitchell drumming and a Noel Redding bass solo to ever be mistaken for Neil Diamond. “Ain’t No Tellin’” is a radio-friendly one-minute-fifty, but it has those triplets the kids can’t dance to, and a section (beginning about 0:46) of jazzy chord changes, and so much smoking guitar that Cousin Brucie would’ve blown out his headphones. The weakest of these pop songs is the one written by bassist Noel Redding, “She’s So Fine,” which actually sort of sounds like a 60s pop song. Mitch and Jimi do what they can on it, including Jimi’s soloing (about 1:30 and 2:12), in which he seems to be saying, “Fuck that shit, Noel, let me take over.”

One song I find really interesting on Axis: Bold as Love is the rather humorous offering, “Wait Until Tomorrow.” It tells the tale of our hero wooing the lovely Dolly Mae, who continues to ask him to wait … until Dolly Mae’s dad’s gun finally puts an end to the relationship.

It’s got a terrific riff, some excellent Mitchell fills toward the end, and is one in a long line of songs (“Hey Joe,” “Machine Gun”) Hendrix played that featured gun violence, and they each approached the topic differently. “Little Miss Lover” at first seems like a throwaway song, until about 1:07, when he plays a killer riff and a solo that – frankly – deserves a better song behind it!

The only songs left to discuss are two serious songs, key in the Hendrix Canon (in my humble opinion.) First there’s the trippy journey of “If 6 Was 9,” not one of Hendrix’s best lyrical outputs, but I couldn’t give a hoot about that.

This entire album is very “headphone worthy,” offering more sonic tidbits with every listen. But “If 6 Was 9” is particularly great on headphones, with a guitar that almost sounds like it’s inside a tin can – but in a really cool, positive way. Right around 1:40 the guitar builds, and then Noel Redding gets to play some scales on the bass that whirl and expand, and provide a kind of tether for Jimi’s guitar atmospherics. Jimi gives a little chuckle at about 2:52 that – coupled with all the guitar on this record – always makes me think he knows a lot more about everything than I’ll ever know … That’s the best I can explain it. Even Mitchell’s drum solo afterwards can’t beat that feeling out of me. At 3:56 Hendrix begins to bring it all home, creating flutes, industrial sounds, outer space chirps … it’s the kind of song I’d have HATED as a Middle Schooler, because it would’ve scared the shit out of me. But I love it now.

The album closes with “Bold as Love” – a sort of poetic salute to rainbows, whose lyrics I don’t try to understand – I just sit back and enjoy them because they create something beautiful.

“They’re all bold as love,” he sings – and who can argue with that? I’m glad this is the last song to write about because I don’t know how many different ways I can say “Boy, he’s a really excellent, moving guitarist!” Listen at 1:46 how he approaches the solo with a run, and how the solo seems to end the song at 2:40, until a coda begins that takes the song to a new level. It’s one of the most perfect album-ending tracks I know. Satisfying, it somehow says “goodbye,” not so much in words, but just as plainly as the alien in “EXP” said “hello.” As the track fades, I’m always left feeling like The Jimi Hendrix Experience may have actually been from outer space, and may have arrived here for the sole purpose of guiding us listeners to a very, very happy place.

It’s not unlike those FPIPs in your life, who seem like they were visiting you and only you to direct things, to set you on your course. You don’t need to know their names, you don’t need to know how they knew to give you that important information. All you need to do is hold them in your memory, and hope you can be as helpful to others as they were to you. If you can get someone to become a fan of Axis: Bold as Love, you’ve done something wonderful.

Track Listing:
“EXP”
“Up From the Skies”
“Spanish Castle Magic”
“Wait Until Tomorrow”
“Ain’t No Telling”
“Little Wing”
“If 6 Was 9”
“You Got Me Floatin'”
“Castles Made of Sand”
“She’s So Fine”
“One Rainy Wish”
“Little Miss Lover”
“Bold as Love”

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