All You Need to Know About Van Halen by Someone Who Was an Actual Teenager in the 1970s

A remembrance of the era that gave us Eddie Van Halen from someone on the ground during their ascension to superstardom

EVH4EVR (Art: Ron Hart)

Because so very many of the men and women who shaped visible culture and media for the last three or four decades came of age in the 1970s, we tend to cast a rosy, risible glow over that whole horrible decade.

Oh, we imagine high schools full of Farrah-flipped girls and Matt Dillon-esque beetle-browed boys racing through the halls listening to Cheap Trick and Blondie. Likewise, abominations like Vinyl and the (considerably less abominable) The Deuce have cast the entire 1970s as some sort of new wave/punk rock paradise, where even the crunchiest Manhattan bars played import-only punk 45s, and absolutely everyone is always on their way to a Dolls or Ramones gig. 

In reality, the 1970s fucking sucked. 

As a teenager, we lived in a choking, nearly inescapable cyclamate and Mateus foam of Styx, Kansas, CSN, Bread, and England freaking Dan and John Ford fucking Coley. Your cooler friends, like the kind who read New York magazine and Esquire and owned the Whole Earth Catalog, listened to the Dead, BÖC, and Floyd (and not Syd’s Floyd, either). I am fucking telling you, during the Carter administration when we slid down the hallways (close to the lockers to avoid excess exposure to patchouli and puka beads), the soundtrack wasn’t “One Way or Another” or “Surrender” or even the Babies or the Raspberries, but Dust in the Fucking Wind and Sweet Home Fucking Alabama. Oh, and mildly curious, pretentious mediocrities like “Stairway to Heaven,” whatever Beatles-fellating pabulum ELO had just whelped out, or Bosch-ian war crimes like “Karn Evil 9” were absorbed, reviewed, and worshipped in the same way a latter generation would prostrate themselves in front of Kid A. This is the absolute truth. Kindly set aside your revisionist fantasies, friend. 

Back in Great Neck South circa ’76 – ’78, I had two mates who could reliably be counted on to listen to punk rock and alternative sounds with me, and with whom I could scour Trouser Press and Melody Maker. And perhaps there were three or four others who could be considered fellow travellers, meaning they were good for some occasional discussion about the Ramones, Kinks, the Who, or Roxy, and even some oddball prog and kraut stuff. But the rest, and I mean all the rest, was a motherfucking wasteland of Mac and James Taylor and the Outlaws and god knows, the Beatles, so much Beatles you never wanted to hear the fucking word ‘Beatles” again. Oh, and Zeppelin, Billy Joel, and Springsteen were so absolutely omnipresent in this environment that, regardless of any future reconsideration one would have of these artists, they would always retain their identity primarily as flags of the opposition. Of course in retrospect, writing from the safety of late middle age and liberated from the omnipresence of an entire decade’s low expectations, much of that stuff seems pretty good. But when all around you there’s only compliance and accomplices, when the highpoints of the middlebrow are presented to you as the absolute, the perspective is entirely different. 

And I lived in an over-educated upper middle class bubble on Long Island; my god, can you imagine what it was like in Maine or Montana or Maryland or Georgia, or even Trumbull, Connecticut? 

This was not the 70s you see on TV. No one, friend, except two fucking weirdos, was listening to Big Star. That is the truth. So let me flip a famous adage on its’ head: If you lived through high school or middle school in the 1970s and remember it fondly, you weren’t actually there. 

And yes, of course, it was also the era of Kraftwerk and Neu! and Wilko Johnson and Wire and the Ramones and a thousand other heroes, but that wasn’t the noise that wallpapered our days, was it? No. WNEW and horrible, pompous Rolling Stone, all of it a chest-hair length measuring contest and leotard fashion show masquerading as meaning telling us what to feel, THAT was the ash-smelling weed-residue hash shit shitshow that enclosed our real lives. 

We would very soon go to universities, where we would find fellow travellers who also embraced something other than the Styxian, Poco-ish, hissing, tube warmed corn meal mush Scott Muni wanked over. For many of us, the discovery was immediate: We found these people within our first 48 hours away from home (and I honor them by stating their names: Matthew Barton, Sally Barkan, Tanya Seeman, and especially Dorian Beslity and Evan Davies, all found within my first hours at NYU, all of whom could reliably and excitedly speak about the Jam or be counted on to abandon homework and run up to Max’s). And when we found these people “like us” (whereas back in high school our only saviors were theatre geeks and the Rocky Horror fans, but that’s another story), we made a nation, which erupted in the 1980s into the foundation of a new mainstream. But that’s not the  part of the story I am here to talk about. 

 

AUDIO: Pete Fornatele on WNEW-FM 1976

I bring myself, again, back to the awful 1970s, the suppurating hole of Little River Bandism and 38 Specialism and the weeping constancy of the cold, over-watered potato soup that was “Mull of Kintyre,” and all of you MUST recognize that this, not some Blondies / Ramones / Dolls fantasy concocted by some horny film/TV producer with a buffed and polished memory, was the 19-fucking-70s. 

And all of it, every horrifying, hippie hangover / blown dry bullshit / Confederate-flag waving southern band wangle dangle/booger-flicking anti-ecstasy scale-climbing pointless prog workout/kidney-lipped fro-busters posing as powerpop heroes/acoustic strumming opium eating big-belt buckle wearing soulless seranaders/DAMMIT ALL OF IT, was worth it, WAS MOTHERFUCKING WORTH IT, for the five minutes and six seconds of “Everybody Wants Some” by Van Halen. 

If all of that trash, so heavy yet so very thin, that whole era that smelled like Merit Lights, diesel fuel and overheated stereo sets, and sounded like the chemical compound of mold decoded and musically transcribed, also gave us “Everybody Wants Some,” then, well, I will fucking take that. Fair deal. 

And that is all. 

 

VIDEO: Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some” from Better Off Dead

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

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