Don’t ask about the picture. It dates back — way, way back — to this blog’s LiveJournal origins, and was the product of an inside joke that was probably only funny to me.
I still think it’s funny. But it’s too late to explain it to you. And the point of this post isn’t why Michael Anthony is funny, but why a Van Halen without him is no Van Halen at all.
I know the Van Halen debate has always been between Roth and Hagar, but I tend to think that’s mostly just woofing; the Roth records were more important, but the Hagar albums were probably, on the whole, more consistent, and both frontmen sucked in their own special way. For the record, I’m a Hagar man, mainly because I always thought Roth was a shticky vocalist with an unbearable personality. This doesn’t mean I’m willing to defend Hagar’s clown pants (or solo albums), just that note for note, he’s a better singer, and marginally less annoying.
(Gary Cherone, of course, is probably a better singer than both of them put together, but no one will ever care, and no one who listened to all of Van Halen III will ever forgive him. It’s unfair, but that’s the way it is.)
So the news about the Big Van Halen Reunion Tour started making the bloggy rounds this week, and Jason and I were talking about it. Now, I used to be a pretty big fan of the band, but the post-Cherone years have been pretty hard to take. VHIII sucked, but at least they were making music; the decade since has just been one big embarrassment. Eddie Van Halen has gone from being the insecure genius at the heart of one of rock & roll’s greatest bands to…well, I’m not sure exactly what he is now, really, but he gives every appearance of being a paranoid, withered husk of the guy in the “Hot for Teacher” video. And of taking himself way too seriously. And of being a petty, childish jerk.
On this last count, I’m speaking specifically to Eddie’s decision to go public on Howard Stern’s show with the news that Michael Anthony had been dumped. The reason for this seems to be Anthony’s willingness to go on making music with Hagar, which is a little like a divorced mother tossing her kid out of the house after he has dinner with his dad.
(Hey, I said it’s a little like it.)
Let’s pause here to point out that Michael Anthony is not a very good bassist; in fact, he’s probably an extremely crappy bassist. I know people who think he’s the worst bassist in rock history, but I’m not willing to go that far, and anyway, it never mattered — when was the last time you listened to a Van Halen album and paid attention to the bass? The only people acutely aware of Anthony’s ineptitude with the bass are those who have seen the band play live. Like many of you, I’ve been treated to a Michael Anthony “bass solo” — if you never had the pleasure of seeing one, they usually lasted about ten minutes, during which the rest of the band would exit the stage, leaving Anthony to stumble around like a man frantically trying to extricate himself from a bass that’s been surgically attached to his body. Like the girls in TLC used to say, unpretty.
But again, his bass playing isn’t the point, because it has nothing to do with Anthony’s value to Van Halen. You probably already know where I’m going with this — that it’s Anthony’s background vocals that made him a crucial part of the band’s sound. I don’t want to get into this too seriously, because it’s really just rock & roll, and Anthony seems perfectly happy playing with Hagar and selling hot sauce, but it does chafe me a little that nobody seems the least bit concerned about his dismissal — and I do think those backing vocals really made a difference.
In talking with Jason, I actually made the mistake of saying they “defined” Van Halen’s sound, which is a great example of trying to save yourself some typing in an IM chat by condensing an argument into a single, totally incorrect word. They didn’t define it. But think about “When It’s Love” (download), “Jamie’s Crying” (download), “Black and Blue” (download), “Finish What Ya Started” (download), and “Right Now” (download) — or a lot of other Van Halen songs — without them.
Here’s what I’m saying: It wasn’t just Eddie’s guitar or Diamond Dave’s stupid prancing around that sold records, it was the fact that Van Halen was a terrific pop group in a kickass rock & roll band’s clothing, and Anthony’s vocals were a significant part of that pop sheen. Of course, they could have hired singers to do the same thing, but they didn’t have to.
Which sort of circles back to the root of my disgust with this tour, and the state of Van Halen in general. Throughout the band’s career, Michael Anthony gave the consistent impression of being a complete idiot who only wanted to get drunk and make music — in other words, he was everything a rock star is supposed to be. And for the last ten years, Anthony has been the only one in the band who seemed like he was having any fun at all. Van Halen wasn’t making music anymore, so he went and made some with Sammy Hagar, and that’s a piss-poor reason for him to be a member of something called Chickenfoot this summer while Eddie drags his brother, his son, and a failed disc jockey out on the road. I lay even odds on a soft market for tickets to these shows, and if a whole bunch of dates fail to sell out, that’s only fair. Even at age 15, Wolfgang Van Halen probably runs musical circles around Anthony. But he probably can’t hit those high notes — and the bass solos, though undoubtedly technically superior, will be a lot less fun to watch.