Basement Songs: Van Halen, “Little Guitars”
Unlike most of my peers in the 8th grade, I didn’t have an older sibling fixated on the guitar wizardry of Eddie Van Halen or the flamboyant showmanship of singer David Lee Roth, front men for the band, Van Halen, in the early 80’s. My only exposure to the hard rockers was through their radio hits, “Dance the Night Away,” and the two cover songs from 1982’s Diver Down, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” and Roy Orbison’s immortal, “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” The latter was also played regularly in our basement, a featured selection in the set lists of several of the garage bands my brother, Budd, played drums in. That’s how Diver Down wound up in our basement.
In late 1983, as anticipation swelled for the release of what would be Van Halen’s commercial breakthrough, the monster hit, 1984, I turned to the only source of Van Halen music I had. Being familiar with Diver Down didn’t help me much in conversations, though, as most kids talked about the band’s eponymous 1978 debut or their 1979 follow-up, Van Halen II. Sure there were some fanatics who could have given a full discourse on the merits of Diver Down and its superior predecessor, Fair Warning, but those kids had long hair, wore faded Levi’s jeans jackets and reeked of cigarettes. They made me nervous, no matter how cool I tried to appear.
The 7th grade had been a huge transitional year for me. I excelled in football and band, got my first black eye, kissed my first girl, went to my first rock concerts and even played in a rock band with some classmates. When 7th grade ended I thought for sure that 8th grade was going to be even better. It was not. In fact, 8th grade was a huge let down. I stopped hanging out with some close friends, I pined for a girl all year long, I contracted mono in the stupidest of ways- from drinking contaminated milk, seriously- and slowly realized that the kids I used to pummel in football were suddenly the same size or bigger than me. Sometime in the fall of ’83, while I was holed up in my parents’ basement, I fell in love with Diver Down, in particular a sensitive little song on side 2 called “Little Guitars.”
A strong, effective piece of songwriting that blended hard rock with some new wave leanings, “Little Guitars” first struck me because of the powerful drumming by Alex Van Halen, one of hard rock’s underrated backbeat men. With his usual restraint and knack for adding the right fills or double bass drum lick in the exact right moment, Alex really complements his brother’s unique guitar sound on the song, a sound created by playing on a custom made miniature Les Paul. What I found remarkable about “Little Guitars,” and still do to some extent, is the pained vocal delivery by Roth, which made him less of a cartoon and more human. Throw in bassist Michael Anthony’s always welcome backing vocals and you hear an unexpected poignancy in the track. That’s right, a Van Halen song that actually has feeling.
“Little Guitars” dialed into the lonely heart of my 13-year-old body. It was a weird period in my life when my friends and I didn’t discuss our feelings. Sure, we’d make comments about the girls we liked (“man, she is so hot,” or “man, she has really nice hair,”), but never the complexities of feeling alone and rejected. And I sure as hell didn’t talk about such matters with my siblings or my parents. Our house was one of suppressed emotions that came out in bursts of love, laughter, anger or sadness. But that’s how it was in every household in the Cleveland suburbs of the early ’80s.
Fortunately, I had music and great passages in songs like the moment in “Little Guitars” that occurs approximately 1:20 before. It’s just Alex Van Halen playing eighth notes on his floor tom and snare, leading into a crash on the cymbal that’s quickly muffled by his hand. This little build that immediately leads into the final verse explains the whole song. The heart quickens and beats harder when you fall in love, then suddenly stops, crushed, when the vessel is broken.
My daughter Sophie continues to grow toward that age where I started to seclude myself in the basement and listen to music. Unlike like her father, Sophie seems fairly comfortable discussing her feelings about boys. Not that we’ve had any long discussions about such matters – she’s only in 6th grade – but I’m glad that she’s not like how I was and doesn’t conceal her emotions. I’m so happy that she can be open when she wants to. I’m sure that Sophie will have her heartbreaks and that even though I’ll be there for her, she won’t think that I understand. The uselessness that I’ll feel will likely make me feel lonely all over again and send me back to Van Halen and their little guitars.