Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Van Halen, lost youth, and the downside of nostalgia

Matt Labash Columnist

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Dear Matt, I grew up as a huge Van Halen fan. What do you think about the group getting back together? Have you seen the new video? I’m stoked! – Jan K.

I wish I could say the same. For I grew up on them, too. Van Halen was one of the few bright spots in the cultural wasteland known as the “Eighties,” right up there with Yacht Rock, jellies sandals, and “Mr. Belvedere.” I didn’t merely listen to Van Halen, I became them. I sported mesh tops like David Lee Roth, and similarly accentuated my outfits with lots of impressive scissor-kicking. I left my smoldering cigarette in my fret strings, a la Eddie Van Halen — once the coolest man on the planet — even though I neither smoked, nor played guitar. I fantasized that my Lipton sun tea was Jack Daniels, as product-placed on the bass of Michael Anthony. Even though, after becoming a Kentucky bourbon man as an adult, I wouldn’t touch charcoal-filtered Tennessee whiskey with your lips. If you’re going to drink children’s drinks, you might as well just go with Schnapps or Jäger.

To this day, if I hear a song like “Dance the Night Away” off “Van Halen II” or my personal favorite, “Little Guitars” off of “Diver Down”, I am transported back to a time of youthful vigor and devil-may-care rebellion, of ripping down the highway with the wind screaming in my ears, along with my mom yelling that I’m blowing the rest of the carpool to pieces, and would I please change it back to the Contemporary Christian Music station so that she could finish listening to Sandi Patty. Reckless days, in retrospect. But I didn’t care. I was fully immersed in the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.

Somewhere along the way, however, I stopped listening to Van Halen. Times changed. My taste matured. I discovered reading and sophisticated ladies and songwriters who offered sentiments more complex than: Might as well jump!/ Go ahead and jump!  And while I discovered new worlds, Van Halen discovered tequila-maker Sammy Hagar and ex-Extreme frontman Gary Cherone as lead singers. Ours wasn’t an ugly breakup, or anything. We just grew apart.

Now at last, Van Halen’s Keith and Mick have reunited. For real, this time, after many false starts, stunted concert tours, and rehab stints. “A Different Kind of Truth” is the band’s first album of new material in 14 years, and their first recorded with David Lee Roth since 1984. I watched the video of the debut single, “Tattoo,” on YouTube the other day, since MTV hasn’t deemed to play music videos since the original Van Halen’s heyday. (Kids today would rather entertain themselves with white-trash procreation on “Teen Mom 2”, apparently.) And I must admit, while the band sounds fine — nobody fell over or drooled on themselves — it sent me into a funk.

First, though the album has gotten generally positive reviews, the lead-off single blows. The subject material — “Swapmeet Sally” and “Trampstamp Kat” turning from a “mouse-wife to mom-shell,” all because they got a tattoo — is about as painfully dated as an extended guitar solo (even if Eddie’s playing it), and speaks to a subject I’ve vigorously weighed in against in the past. The lip-syncing is off. The hook is aggressively forgettable. The flickering strobe cannot distract from the fact that Eddie now looks like Gloria Steinem and that the band is now using an animatronic Alex. While Michael Anthony was always the Ringo of the lot, it’s extra weird to see Wolfgang, Eddie’s son, standing in his place, since the latter looks less like a rock ’n’ roll scion, more like a dumpy roadie playing the real bass player’s guitar while the latter is hung up in traffic. (Plus, how’s dad supposed to get tail after the show now that son is on his arm? Though I suppose that never stopped him before.) Then there’s David Lee Roth. He still infuses the band with most of the energy it has left, with his goofy little hot-foot-shuffle. But his new close-cropped hairpiece now makes him look as safe as an Alamo rental car agent or a men’s suit salesman at a mid-level department store. Which could very well be what he’d be doing if he hadn’t reconnected with the band. Roth did, after all, briefly pull a stint as an EMT. Not that it isn’t more honorable work saving people’s lives than it is making mediocre rock ’n’ roll. I guess I just want my hair bands to come with, I don’t know — hair.

While having long ago lost interest in the band, I too always secretly pulled for a reunion just for old time’s sake. Though the fantasy going unrealized can often sustain us much more fully than when the fantasy become reality, as the former must then be reconciled with the latter’s diminished terms. Marketing/songwriting genius Paul McCartney always understood this about a Beatles reunion, which is why he had John Lennon killed.

What’s really eating me, however, is Thomas Wolfe’s notion that “you can’t go home again.” Yes, you can. If you want the house of your childhood to look a lot smaller, to realize that all the neighbors have moved away, and if you want to grow really blue. Frank Zappa once said, “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice.  There are two possibilities, one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” Which is where we’re left with the new version of the old Van Halen. There’s no shame in aging. It happens to everyone. A select few of us will do it gracefully. The rest of us will just do it. But in our lizard brains, we want the rock gods of our youth to transport us back in time forever. And that’s much harder for them to do when they’re lip-syncing uninspired music under an unflattering strobe, reminding us how loudly the clock is ticking.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.