March 1, 2012
Madison Square Garden
New York City
Was this some sort of mid-life crisis?
A bunch of 40-plus dudes rocking out to the transformative tunes of their youth? Were we trying to reclaim some lost aspect of ourselves, some pure vision of teenage possibility and transcendence?
The past is now!
Quite possibly, yes, but some things in this life are worth doing on their own terms, without judgment, guilt, regret…or too much thought. Hell, maybe it was just an old-fashioned good time at a good old-fashioned rock show.
Pay the ticket, take the ride.
We were going to see Van Halen, live in 2012, a hundred years past their prime, and maybe even past their relevance, but I didn’t care. Let the ridicule begin, because I am a True Rock Fan in the old tradition, with no ethical hang-ups when it comes to ROCKING THE FUCK OUT.
Gimme razor-sharp guitar riffs and pounding double bass and I am spiritually aligned, made whole and ready for the infinite.
With Rock File contributors Joe Popp and Mac Cancribbe, we hit the streets around the Garden and everybody was feeling fine. Mac saw Halen open for the Stones in ‘81, and a most memorable night was had by all. Popp saw the band in ‘84 in Jacksonville, and it most certainly rocked. I was the odd man out. I tried seeing them at the old Hollywood Sportatorium in ‘84, but it didn’t pan out. Was I home doing geometry homework? God, I hope not.
Pre-show was a roundabout crawl through the old haunts of Hell’s Kitchen. The revived Blarney Stone on 8th avenue was packed with tailgating fans, blasting the juke with vintage Halen, swilling Guinness by the truckload. A good start. Then, over to the 9th avenue version of the Blarney Stone, a darker, divier, more locally infused affair. It’s amazing what a one-avenue difference will do to a place in Hell’s Kitchen.
Anticipation was high. The night was cold and wet, a perfect evening for stepping into the past darkly to recapture some of that Young Man’s Glory from the Epoch of Bad Ass, a time before irony ruined music, art, everything.
The Garden was buzzing. We hoofed it up to the nosebleeds, got a round of ridiculously over-priced beers, and took our seats. We missed the opener, Kool & the Gang, by minutes. We weren’t sure why Kool was opening for Halen, but it wasn’t a problem worth figuring out—we were here for one thing, and one thing only.
Van Halen took the stage moments later, blasting out of the gate with a fierce, charged version of “Unchained.” Wow, what an opener—a crowd favorite and one of the great songs in the catalog. Well played. Where do you go from there?
“Runnin’ with the Devil,” of course. A signature classic, a great one-two punch of songs from the era that mattered most. A furious start to the set. “The Full Bug” was a surprise, a deep cut from Diver Down, a track the band probably hasn’t played in 30 years. Classics were blowing by at this point, coming hard and fast, the band sounding confident, getting louder and more forceful. They were tight, well rehearsed, on top of their game.
They came to play, and play they did.
“Panama” was full-throttle hard rock, meaner and edgier than the original. Moments of total clarity, songs lifted to levels unknown. Van Halen had something to prove, and they were attacking the mission with a fierce determination not seen in decades.
“Hot for Teacher” cooked, faster paced and nastier than the studio version. “Outta Love Again” was faster than everything, ending almost as soon as it took off.
Did they really just play that?
I wondered what the rehearsals were like.
At some point you realize you’re watching Eddie Van Halen, one of the greatest guitarists who has ever lived, and there really can never be enough of this: Eddie Van Halen Playing the Guitar. I mean, who’s gonna ask him to stop? And why would you?
The fundamental paradigm of the Van Halen sound, the immovable weight of its resonance, is Eddie’s sleight of hand: the spellbinding touch of his left, scaling the fretboard at unfathomable speeds; the magnetic draw of his right, with a movement of the wrist that is metaphysical; and the atomic ruination of the total effect of the thing itself, when both hands come together on that transformed piece of wood and electronics—the strange harmonic convergence of beauty and destruction.
Eddie played his unaccompanied guitar solo two songs before the finale. It was what everybody was waiting for, and it was a thing of beauty—pure sonic poetry, a master at work, right in front of our eyes. Watching pure genius in real time is something rare, amazing.
Did anybody ever watch Picasso paint?
I’m not exactly sure how long it lasted, but it didn’t feel long enough. In fact, I could listen to Eddie play alone for a very long time without sensing time. A singular virtuoso, one of the very few people who actually live up to the term “guitar hero,” a defining artist of the modern era, or any era.
“That was the best fucking guitar solo I’ve ever seen in my life!”
— Joe Popp
We count ourselves lucky.
Moments later, it was all over. Back to the reality of the streets and the subways and the silent road home, trying to contemplate what we just saw, how it all fit, and how fucking awesome it all was.
I used to avoid the big spectacle shows. Not intimate enough. Too many video screens. You’re most often stuck in seats that suck and can’t rush the stage. Ten dollar beers in plastic cups.
Um, can I borrow your binoculars?
But then something happened.
Cream, that great English trio, the original Super Group, splintering apart faster than they could keep it together, reunited in 2005, played a few shows in London and came to New York City to play the Garden—a show I just could not miss. So I went with my family, and it was one of the great concert experiences of my life. For many reasons.
I realized it wasn’t about the size of the venue, or the age of the musicians, or the need for binoculars—it was about the total concert experience.
Was I really going to pass up a chance to see Van Halen live? Was a stadium show reunion with 50-year-old-plus rock stars that offensive? What was more important, my aversion to the big concert experience, or the enjoyment of the music itself?
What’s to say older rock musicians can’t still do the daily business of making their art? Did anybody ever tell Picasso he was too old to make ceramic plates? Sure, Van Halen, as a band, may not be worthy of comparison to the great Genius of Malaga, but Eddie Van Halen is an undisputed guitar genius, an artist of the highest caliber, and watching him ply his craft is one of the great pleasures in life and has always been on my short list of Players to See Live Before You Die.
The Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones are celebrating 50 years of artistic endeavor this year. I’d like to meet the person who is going to tell Brian Wilson to stop playing those angelic odes to the California dream, or convince Keith Richards to put down his axe and stop rocking those riffs that make your body align with your soul.
I certainly will not be the one to tell Eddie Van Halen it’s time to hang up the guitar strings.
In fact, he didn’t play nearly long enough.
Runnin’ with the Devil
She’s the Woman
The Full Bug
Everybody Wants Some!!
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Hear About It Later
Oh, Pretty Woman
You Really Got Me
The Trouble with Never
Dance the Night Away
Hot for Teacher
Women in Love
Outta Love Again
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love