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Interview: Author John Scanlan about Van Halen, Zen, and California

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen died on October 6th. Rest in peace.

Here’s my complete interview with John Scanlan, author of the book Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll(2012).

ØH: Would you say that Van Halen sums up the state of California, its history and culture, more than any other cultural expression?

JS: Well, that’s a big question, I think. My opinion is that they certainly could never have come from anywhere else, and still have been who they turned out to be – not from New York, London, or Oslo, y’know. I really do think they express something of the essence of California, and especially when you look at the era they emerged from – i.e., the post-60s, and the end of hippy utopianism, and the idea that rock music and popular culture in general could sweep away all the old values. They had no grand aims, and never ever really had any real ambition, which is why they probably languished in obscurity for almost half a decade before making their first album in 1977.

It seems, on the face of it, that they were all about the party, and having a good time, and the pursuit of oblivion, and all those things that don’t demand any serious attention. They certainly were not singer-songwriterly in that confessional way, which was the predominant mood of the time they followed close on the heels of.

That mood, to me, was often a lot to do with introspection and a kind of lyrical approach that was about a certain kind of personal expression being the means of telling of one’s truth. I don’t think Van Halen, and David Lee Roth in particular (as the one who was the main public front, and the source of the song lyrics), was remotely interested in that kind of approach. But I also think he was, nonetheless, being true to himself – pretty much always: I don’t think he could really fake anything. So, in a way, he was about telling the truth. I think it is interesting that he has been saying in some interviews since their new album was released that Van Halen was always ‘an island unto itself’, and that the title of their new album (A Different Kind of Truth) is intended as a reflection of that. I always thought that a more accurate comparison for Roth than rock frontmen like Robert Plant or Ian Gillan, or whoever, would have been Iggy Pop. Listen to «And the Cradle Will Rock» from the Women and Children First album and tell me that it could not be a quintessential Iggy Pop song – it’s in the lyrical sentiment, and the nonchalant mode of expression. No one ever says that, however, because they saw a guy with long hair and (often) bad outfits standing in front of a stack of Marshall amps!

But to get back to the question, I think there are a couple of significant aspects of the California state of mind that I explore in the book, and which are exemplified in Van Halen’s attitude, in their postures and – especially – in the way they performed their shows and recorded most of their albums (certainly in the 77-83 era) – there’s the idea of being young: the cult of youth in California has been disseminated in a multiplicity of ways (from live-forever cults to health food fads and working-out as a way of life, and all sorts of other things that express some kind of general idea that if you couldn’t live forever, you could at least live your life in a manner that would be a convincing argument that living in the moment was as good, and as laudable a way of living, as anything else.

So, whatever you say about the way it is expressed in Van Halen, referring again to the original incarnation of the band, because actually being young is an important part of it being true to itself, I don’t think it was purely about hedonism. I think it would be far too reductive to see it that way – it might look that way, but David Lee Roth is, I think, a pracitioner of Zen (and has practiced associated martial arts most of his life), and I think he truly believed that life lived in the moment was a route to a real kind of artless, non-thinking, non-grasping (to use the Zen terms) art. To make pronouncements about the state of the world, which is often taken for seriousness, or for critical acumen in this field, would be to miss the mark – because the performance is the thing; it’s in time, and anything can happen in a certain situation according to the circumstances. And I think because they cut those records whizz-bang style, in mere days, they remained not only true to themselves, but they captured moments in time that would otherwise have been lost forever. And, I think anyway, that’s why those albums still sound vibrant and full of life and energy. they approach timelessness because they were made in an environment, a world, and a culture that had no conern for posterity or the future, or what the critics might think – they were made for that moment. I think you find that in other areas that are seemingly unrelated to Van Halen – Elvis’s Sun Recordings, even Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. They are moments condensed, but because of the fidelity shown to the importance of doing it then and there, they will always sound of the present.

But that passion for the moment, and living it now, is very Southern Californian, although, not exclusively so – Van Morrison is from Belfast, after all! But it is an attitude also shared with jazz performance, and so on. As an academic I have an interest in aesthetics, and I think in aesthetic terms – in the mode of the performance and the approach to what could be ‘art’ – Van Halen were an expression of a Californian sensibility that had a fairly long heritage. Whether or not people like it, or if it is ‘good’ or otherwise, is always going to be up to the listener to decide.

ØH: I once read Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California, followed by Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography, and was surprised to see that Kiedis’ father was a hustler in the Laurel Canyon. So now it strikes me that Van Halen’s maybe biggest challenger must be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Do you agree, and how do these artists represent Zen California?

JS: I think there is something in that, as far as carrying the mantle of that Southern Californian attitude. What I try to say in my book is that the cultural climate made people live and create in certain ways that were not the way it was done elsewhere, even allowing for the surface similarities. The Los Angeles punk scene of the late 70s / early 80s, for instance, was something quite different to what you found in England in the 70s, or New York, or Ohio, etc.

In the book I quote an old UK music journalist, Mick Farren, at one point when he reports on the LA punk scene around 1980, and he is intrigued by the fact that it has none of the ‘we’re taking on the world’ kind of ethos found, especially, in UK punk. They were taking on themselves, and each other, rather than the world – and in a way not that dissimilar to Van Halen, just doing IT. The Chili Peppers were an extension of that. I’m not that familar with their recent work, but I do see the extension of the idea of embodied youth, living in the moment, in the way they presented themselves. For a time I thought that the only rock musicians who ever appeared always shirtless were Iggy Pop and Eddie Van Halen, but then you have Anthony Kiedis and Flea – never have a shirt on! And, you know, you can’t be an old fart if you can prance around on stage without the need for a shirt! I think the albums I know, and love, by the Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magick and One Hot Minute – are very Zen California; they evoke a similar kind of response in large part to Van Halen, although, I think Anthony Kiedis is a tad more melancholic sometimes than David Lee roth ever was.

But, yes, in terms of the main California bands I think you have – and I’m probably forgetting some here – The Byrds, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac (!), Van Halen, the Chili Peppers – Guns N’ Roses. California otherwise? You have all these brilliant individual artists, from Randy Newman to Warren Zevon, and a zillion others; but in terms of bands … they are the ones who might express this Zen California attitude. You know, I think the band aspect might be an important contributor to the attitude, just because you are not looking at an individual artist, growing – almost introspectively, or self-consciously – over the period of a career.

ØH: How much of Van Halen’s legacy is a result of the unique chemistry between Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth? Is this the ultimate marriage of the arty and romantic California and the carefree and sexy California, the artist and the surfer so to speak?

JS: I think it is almost totally about them; I really think they found each other by accident, and – for all their individual flaws or limitations, and disappointments with each other – they made a pretty good pair. I think it’s probably a love-hate relationship, but they know without each other they are less than they could be. If you think about it:  the first Van Halen album, with the blistering all-out guitar that had a sound and attack that no-one had really heard before – at the time – and which pretty much blew everyone away, and what happens?

The singer, who you always hear people saying «he can’t sing», gets as much attention as that guitarist. That is pretty rare. What other singer could stack up against Eddie Van Halen on that album? It’s not because Roth was a great vocalist, although, in his own way – as Bob Dylan or Iggy Pop are – I think he is, but because he just flat out projects himself as some kind of pure essence of Californian spirit. But, yes, Eddie Van Halen is more of the romantic, aesthetically-speaking, and Roth would be more like a surfer, attitude and temperament-wise. Surfing is one of the great expressions of Zen California, as the historian Kevin Starr would have it – it is mind, body, and enviroment in the moment. That, to me, is what David Lee Roth was about.

ØH: And do you see Van Halen as forerunners in the «californization» of the rest of the world? How is Van Halen’s idea of «California», and how did they sell it to the world?

JS: Not really! I think the Californization of the rest of the world was more evident in things like diet fads, the cult of fitness and exercise, and the myriad of esoteric religions – and other cults – that have since that time spread across the world. Van Halen, in fact, were not very good at spreading it around the world! They spent their first half-decade as a band not getting out of Los Angeles County and, thereafter, they ventured into the world beyond the USA quite infrequently indeed. But, then again, in their initial flush of creativity it was all over with in little more than five years.

ØH: What do you think of their [2012] comeback?

JS: Well, I’m surprised by it. I’m usually the kind of person who would say that there’s a time when rock and roll  bands should definitely call it quits. I think it is harder for them to have the kind of creative longevity that solo performers can have. Even The Rolling Stones, who I am huge fan of, have not really made an album in the last 30 years that can live with their great 70s albums – you just accept that it’s a young man’s game, being in a rock and roll band. In Van Halen’s case, I thought they’d have real problems getting out there and doing it again, just because so much of what they were about was about being young, and living it, expressing it.

So, I really expected them just to be relatively old guys (now all verging on age 60) who would just come out and possibly embarrass themselves – and embarrass people like me, who are now middle-aged fans, who should have better things to do with our time. But, you know, they haven’t.

And I’m really happy to see that Roth and Eddie Van Halen can get along, because I always thought they sort of belonged together, even if they didn’t believe it for a long time. Apart from David Lee Roth’s bad decision to use one of those stupid headset microphones in some of their earlier recent concerts (he has since went back to a traditional microphone), it all seems quite impressive. They sound great onstage from what I’ve seen on YouTube, and I think they made a really good album, and one that exceeded my  – and many fans’ – expectations. The Stones, for example, haven’t managed to do that, I believe.

The surprising thing, and it probably shouldn’t be to me after writing 200 pages about this and how essential it was to who Van Halen were, is that there is just an amazing energy on their new album. I think they spent a lot more time on it than standard six days of the likes of 1980’s Women and Children First album- that album to me is the essence of Van Halen – but it still has that kind of fizz to it that you would find on their earlier albums. I don’t think it is an earth-shattering record, and it’s not going to change music or the world or anything like that – but they just delivered the goods in away that exceeded expectations.

How do you account for it? I think Eddie Van Halen was all used-up for about ten years between the late 90s and the end of mid-2000s, all out of inspiration – but his son Wolfgang on bass, now seems to be a genuine inspiration, and I think he brings a lot of energy to what they are doing now. But, also David Lee Roth – always derided as a ‘not very good singer’ – adds an awful lot to this sense of energy. I really think he has a vision of what Van Halen is, should be, and his presence makes a big difference. He puts a lot of work into making his vocal performances on record sound kinda spontaneous – little yelps, whoops, and so one – and there’s a lot of guys at his age who’d just say, ‘ what the hell, I’m too old for that’, and leave it all out now that they were nearly at pensionable age.

But he’s David Lee Roth – it’s who he is, and it brings it to life. If you look at some of those youtube clips of their comeback performance at the Cafe Wha in New York you can see it onstage. Alex Van Halen is 59, but watch him nail that drum part on «Hot For Teacher» on a drum kit you could fit in your bedroom. They are men who know how to deliver – that’s what I think of their comeback. It’s a love it or hate it kind of thing though – I don’t see them winning over legions of new fans – and, in my experience, you either «get» Van Halen, or you are sort of baffled by their appeal.

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