An Evening with Van Halen

Van Halen at Ak-Chin Pavillon September 2015. (Photo by Sam Stawnyczy)

Van Halen at Ak-Chin Pavillon September 2015. (Photo by Sam Stawnyczy)

By Jesse Stawnyczy

I originally had a few reservations about going to see Van Halen. Call me a fan, but someone who’s skeptical of whether or not all bands that stay together for 40 years are created equal. My main issue was the idea of David Lee Roth singing in 2015 when he never the greatest live singer in the world in 1985.

That turned me off a bit.

I also despise dealing with Ticketmaster (legal scalping extortion) as much as people who claim to have tickets on Craigslist. However, at the last minute, the roulette wheel landed on my number and I cast my unsure babbling aside to listen to my own advice for once: never turn down a good cheap concert.

The location in question was the Ak-Chin Pavilion, a venue with a vaguely casino-like name and shaped like a baseball field. I’d never been here before, so the trek would have to be made from 4th Avenue where my Jeep Cherokee was parked after class to 83rd Avenue where the Chin was.

Instead of being greeted with copious joy and exhilaration, I was dealt a hand of unrelenting traffic and a permanent-forehead-wrinkle-inducing headache. Not even Church’s fried chicken and sugar with a gallon of water cured the bugger, but the traffic finally eased once I cleared the ghetto stretch of Van Buren Street.

Van Buren to Van Halen.

By the time the Chin was in sight, I was nowhere near excited. This was one of those headaches that banishes any feelings of positivity or excitement to be drowned with iron neck shackles in the ocean.

Park close to the exit. Walk across the lot. Tailgaters at a concert? Stare down security. No motivation to sneak anything in tonight. Scan the ticket.

I meandered past the misters and took my sweet time. Anything to relieve the pressure. Why can’t I just have a small permanent hole drilled in my head to let some of the fluid out for occasions like this? Just a tiny one will do please.

Up the ramp and into the grass is where my ticket said I was allowed to venture. The seats here are so cheap; there aren’t any seats, just the grass. Just the way I like it.

By the time I located my dad and siblings and their friends, the air was thick with fruity vape emissions and R&B covers of Creedence songs. Luckily they had already staked a claim to a prime piece of real estate in the center of the establishment, right on the border of the grass and the numbered plastic chairs.

Advertisements scrolled across the two large screens on either side of the stage, like the venue had trouble making money in the first place. Don Henley’s face reminded me not to waste money going to his concert, and my wallet thanked him.

I had anticipated a rocking crowd, as I do with every show, full of insanely attractive people with whom to share musical critiques, talk philosophy and create a meaningful connection.

I guess I’ll just continue to be disappointed.

“Hey, we took a selfie of ourselves and we saw what you had in you hand,” said one of the two inebriated lesbians sitting next to me. She noticed one of the fashionable skinny guys behind her in his mid 20s had a little baggie of whatever she had in mind.

“Would you care to share?” she said.

“Not enough for sharing tonight,” he said, “but at least there’s beer for you guys.”

“Yeah, if you put it that way, it sounds all right.”

The great glowing full moon poked over the horizon and seemed to cue the stage lights. Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his gang entered the spotlight and made short work of some sweet sweet blues.

A man yelled “Sit down!” at a lady blocking his view of the stage, to which she promptly replied, “Stand up!”

About this time I had had enough of my brain trying to murder me and realized Van Halen would legitimately suck if I felt a stab every time Eddie hammered on his tremolo. So I complained, laid back and tried to rest it off, which didn’t work. However, my father with his infinite genius asked one of the ladies in front of us for drugs. Not the typical baggie-concert type drugs, but something that would cure me nonetheless.

Fuzzy screens and bright primary colored lights made the musicians glow with electric intensity. The full moon was mystical and the music was magical.

All five pills down the hatch, I jammed the earplugs in and lost consciousness around the time the band finished Blue On Black.

The sudden cheering and clapping woke me up. Kenny and the boys finished their set, and as soon as I woke up, miracle drug lady’s elixir had worked! I was ready! I was free, free of pain! I was excited! The biggest name in hard-hitting 1980s rock ‘n’ roll was minutes away.

My little brother, who I still call little despite his being 15 years old and taller than I am, came up to me with anticipation emanating from every hair on his freak-flag head.

“I thought you can’t leave the pit, dude. Won’t your seat get taken?” I said.

“Nah, I have my ticket,” he said.

“How crowded is it?”

“Not very. I’ve got a really great seat though.”

$175 is the cost of a 5th row pit ticket to see Van Halen. My poor peasant lawn seat only cost $15. So, yes, I’m cheap, but it doesn’t matter here. This venue is so open and well set up that there is almost no way to have a bad seat anywhere. $175 is a lot of money, especially for a 15-year-old with no job and a record-buying habit.

In the end, it was worth it to him.

Well worth the money to see his guitar idol from a dozen feet away – the guy who inspired him to start playing and practicing, to get to the level that he’s at. I tried to learn guitar once, years ago. I sucked and I quit. Some people have it, and some don’t.

Eddie Van Halen does and so does my brother. This has never made me jealous of him and his skills, only impressed supremely proud of him.

I laid back down for a minute and relaxed.

“So I hear Wolfgang is sick tonight,” a man said to a fellow seated on our left. “Michael Anthony is filling in… Nope! Just kidding!”

“Joke’s on you man, I saw ‘em in ’79!” the man replied.

Another ad flashed and told me Madonna is going on tour. Is Madonna still alive? Must look into that, it would make for a good investigation. I guess Peter and Paul are touring too, but without Mary – still plugging away, still hanging on.

The two rotund ladies in front of me rolled closer to each other to share vaping preferences and a group of teenagers asked me to take their picture.

“This guy looks outta place,” a drunken guy said to me while pointing at one of the more innocuous looking kids. “Get your intense face on!”

The lesbians were teasing the younger beer-laden guys behind them about how young they looked. Maybe they just wanted free beer and thought some impressionable dudes in their mid 20s might get a small inferiority complex and decide to prove they were indeed not too young.

“The old people around here are assholes,” a longhaired teenager said. “You know what this guy said to me?”

“No, what did he say?” I asked.

“He said, ‘Hey man, you’re all standing by the railing, and all the people behind you are standing now. It’d be really cool if you could sit down.’ ”

“Wow. Well, everyone is standing now. Screw him.”

“He kept saying ‘cool’ all the time, like that made him cool.”

“I wonder how that’s working out for him.”

I walked off and said thanks to the lady who gave me the headache pills, who chuckled and told me not to worry about it.

Then, without any warning, Van Halen burst onto the stage with a furious force of noise. Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang banged on their instruments and crescendo-ed the sound into the beginning of the first song followed up by “Runnin’ With the Devil.”

We weren’t right next to the speakers, but they were so evenly spaced throughout the arena that it was loud no matter which direction you were facing. Eddie’s massive riffs echoed across the lawn from his massive amps.

You know you’ve made it as a rock guitarist when your stage setup consists of an eight and a half foot wall of amps and heads behind you with your own name on them.

David Lee Roth, as sparkly as ever, did a typical striptease and switched to wearing just a vest and white scarf on his top half after the third song. His singing was better than I had anticipated considering my expectations equated to nothing more than his sounding like Bugs Bunny in a blender after watching recent performances on Youtube.

However, whatever he lacked in vocal prowess was quickly dominated by the energetic way he prances about the stage with just as much vigor as he ever has. Between the wrinkles, the scarf and how skinny he’s remained over the years, my faraway view made him seem only an 80s wig away from going full drag queen. He’s excellent with a pole whether a microphone is attached to it or not, and in an alternate history, he may have become the world’s greatest stripper and/or captain of the world’s only famous color guard team.

Diamond Dave strikes again! There was glitter everywhere!

The rest of the band simply nailed every note spot on and sounded tighter than a file of CIA secrets. Notice I said CIA there and not NSA because that would have been a bad simile, and I don’t like when people are lazy with comparisons.

Eddie Van Halen played almost effortlessly. There’s something incredible about a show where the performers are clearly enjoying themselves versus wondering why they have to be there. It just brings the vibe down. Thankfully, the whole crew of Van Halen, Eddie especially, looked like they were having the time of their lives.

Alex played a drum solo. It was loud and intense and included so everybody remembers that Eddie is not the only Van Halen.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Roth said after going on a rant making fun of Bono and Bon Jovi for how they pose onstage. For a self-proclaimed heathen, Roth’s rather proud of it too. He threw his hands up over his head in his “double-Jesus” pose, palms facing the heavens in beseechment of God during “Dance The Night Away”. I found him funny, his glorification of heathenism despite admitting to believing in a higher power.

Bold statements for a human.

“Beautiful Girls” ended and one of the lesbians stumbled over to me and asked,

“So what’re you smoking tonight honey?”

“Nothing tonight,” I said, “just feeling the music.”

Eddie played a wicked fast selection of solo stuff, showcasing every guitar technique in his repertoire that he helped create and perfect in eight or so minutes. He looks a bit like Ron Perlman now, with the grey and black hair and beard, shaved short compared to years past. I suppose it’s better to look your age and own it than try to conceal it and end up looking like a jar of squash preserves with a nice label job.

The audience stood transfixed and near silent when he broke out his volume swell technique, hammering the fretboard while simultaneously twisting the volume knob back and forth at a tremendous consistent pace. It’s amazing how fast this guy can move his hands, especially without developing Parkinson’s through years of swift spastic finger flicking. Whether you can get Parkinson’s by fingering for as fast and long as Eddie Van Halen has, I don’t know, but he’s more than impressive for someone old enough to be my grandpa.

The expected show closers went on as expected. “Panama” was a powerhouse, and Roth showed what he could still do with his voice if he actually tries. Not only did he try, but there were moments where, dare I say he sounded pretty good.

I was surprised.

“Jump” came on last, and all the people in the crowd who had waited for their favorite song the whole show got increasingly excited. Lights flashed and people screamed and I still can’t see the appeal of the song. It’s not the best off 1984, and 1984 isn’t Van Halen’s best album anyway. Why would people get more excited over catchy keyboards than what they just heard come from the stack of amps five minutes before?

Every song they played was from their early albums with Roth, and not just the greatest hits either. ‘Dirty Movies’ off the album Fair Warning has never been played live before this tour, so that’s a first, and it sounded stellar. No Van Hagar songs at this show. And especially nothing from Van Halen III, an album so terrible, Eddie won’t admit to even making it.

That’s not actually true, but it’s a horrendous record regardless.

The light and sound died down, I said goodbye to my dad and sister, put my shoes back on and sauntered through the remains of the audience. The lesbians were holding hands and they laughed as they walked to the exit, coming down off the concert high with one of them hopefully sober enough to drive home. I wanted to get out quickly too, or risk having one of many drunken faces surrounding me plow into the rear of my Cherokee.

Suddenly, I spied my brother scampering up from the pit and trying to get to where we were sitting on the lawn.

“Sam!” I yelled, then louder again, “SAM!”

“Hey bro!” he yelled back as he noticed.

I gave him a hug.

“Was that not the greatest show you’ve seen this year? You go stiff at all?” I asked.

“Hell yes it was! Even better than Black Sabbath,” he said. “I cried a little when Eddie did his solo. I tried to hold it back but I just couldn’t.”

“It’s all good. It was beautiful.”

“Check out what I found!” he said, and showed me a pick that Wolfgang had thrown into the audience.

“He threw it and it was like nobody else saw him do it, but I saw where it went and I got it after the show.”

“That’s rad dude. Quite shiny.”

“You have a most excellent night!” said my brother to an elderly security guard, waking him up a bit.

We walked toward the exit, ears still ringing with euphoria. I can’t tell if they put on as good a show as they could have. It’s been a quarter of a century since they were at their peak, so I can’t imagine 2015 being substantially better than what was in the past. You’d probably have to ask someone who’s seen them a dozen times before in order to get an accurate judgment. I wasn’t there at that time. Neither was my brother. It’s the past. How am I supposed to accurately judge a band that’s been performing for over 30 years by seeing them for the first time after all the history, hype and expectations? I can’t.

Maybe this wasn’t the setting for judgment. David Lee Roth isn’t afraid of being judged.

Not his looks, not his voice, and certainly not when he pretended to give self-massage to his microphone at hip level when it was under his scarf. Yes it’s a cheap gag that mainly appeals to 15-year-old boys, but in a way, it still fits the profile.

Van Halen’s target audience was never intended to read into deep lyrics and philosophize about music’s impact on the world, but rather just let loose to some of the greatest, most fun and rocking musical acts in history.

Simply put, it’s a good time, but don’t try to think about it too hard because you might hurt yourself and we can’t have anyone suing Van Halen over that. Preferable physical injuries related to nostalgia act concerts are more along the lines of a sore neck and hangover anyway. Those are your own damn fault.