This was originally published in the May, 2003 issue of CMJ New Music Monthly. Illustration by Nick Meola.
I was just five years old, in the summer of 1979, when an explosion startled my older brother and I out of bed. The sound of falling, as though descending into hell, and after a few eerie thumps and rumbles…B-B-BANG! Imagining something like a demon riding a tornado, we ran downstairs to seek safety with our father, only to realize that it was his 10-inch woofers spewing forth this devil, and there he was, gleefully running right along with it.
Like any old man worth his salt, my dad liked old music—classical, big band, rock ‘n’ roll. But when the 1970s came forth bearing heavy metal, my dad fell in love with the pounding, visceral experience of it all: KISS, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and of course, Van Halen.
Upon reaching my musical age of accountability in the 4th grade, my personal relationship with Van Halen started with “Jump” and the album that housed it, 1984. Inevitable lip-syncing and air-guitaring ensued, and soon, I graduated to a cardboard and electrical-taped tennis racket with a tin-shank whammy bar my older brother made for me, a really touching gesture I didn’t properly appreciate at the time, being more accustomed to trickery and abuse. I practiced the “jumping-off-the-bed on-the-dramatic-downbeat” move, perfecting, in my mind’s eye at least, David Lee Roth’s spread-eagles and roundhouse kicks, which, despite my best efforts, didn’t endear me to my friends practicing to be ninjas. (Seriously: my neighbor’s personal hero was Sho Kosugi). The “guitar” came with me for three straight Halloweens in which I dressed as Eddie himself (though I usually had to explain that), and nearly made it into the talent show via a “Panama” lip-sync, but for the grace of an ill-fated decision to instead try out for host with a handful of jokes and anecdotes from my mother’s Reader’s Digests. Fortunately, they let me do neither, but I still enjoy imagining me at age 11 reciting and acting out the line “I reach down…between my legs…eeease the seat(d?) back…” in front of the entire school.
It was the music first and foremost that moved me, but the embodiment of my obsession was the logo—that vast, gleaming, metallic, three-dimensional flying VH, the classic rendering of which festoons VHII, demanding awe and worship. I drew it on notebook covers, in the margins, on my Trapper Keeper, on T-shirts, desks…I even cast it in aluminum in metal shop once. One of my tracings bled through and left marker spots all over my step-dad’s album cover, which I then buried ¾ of the way into his record stack, hoping he wouldn’t get the itch to hear “Light Up The Sky” again until well after I’d left for college in five years.
Band logoing, the mark of the heavy-metalled classes, began in 5th grade for me and my peers, 1985. The other boys at my suburban Minneapolis school were drawing that barbaric Twisted Sister TS in bones on everything—polar opposite to the glorious and exultant VH. By middle school, logos were equivalent to identity: heaps of heap-haired girls sported crisp black Poison and Cinderella T-shirts, while loner guys with poor hygiene wore faded Iron Maidens with the sleeves cut off. The kids with budding mustache fuzz who smoked in the woods behind school spray-painted the murderous knife-edged logos of Metallica and Slayer on the crumbling concrete wall by the creek. And embodied the looming threat of beatings.
Though I avoided them, I nonetheless fought the battle of iconolatry tenaciously, if meekly. My VHs continued to grace everything I owned, their soaring figures triumphing over the sinister logos of other bands. I knew my VHs made me cool beyond mere human judgment, in some sort of a priori sense, the universe of absolutes. I didn’t hold it against anyone else for not singing Van Halen’s praises all the time: I understand that for some, life was to seek out and explore the “new” cool. But I was a priest, keeping the old fire going lest it be forgotten, and somewhere inside each person in middle school, I knew they recognized that, and credited it to me with a quiet sobriety.
My five years of tagging culminated in a single moment: It was 9th grade, 1989, we were making launchable rockets for science, and were left to decorate them however we wanted. I held my rocket horizontally at arms length, contemplating the glory of the flying VH I’d (naturally) drawn on it. The vision of my bold VH soaring through the air on a powerful rocket, with accompanying music (probably “Jump”), was dazzling my imagination a la Ralphie in A Christmas Story when a popular kid with his cute girlfriend glanced at my handiwork and said, “Dude, you put Van Halen on your rocket?!”
I was shocked—not insulted, or embarrassed (for once), just shocked. I said nothing, but the implications had to be contemplated for several months: A cool kid didn’t know that Van Halen was cool? Obviously, to be cool is to be tapped into the secret well of cool things. Equally obvious is the fact that Van Halen was the original life-giving spring from whence that well emerged. Can God play a guitar so loudly He can’t hear anything over it? It was philosophically (and possibly theologically) staggering.
Resolving the dilemma in my mind was a simple exercise in logic, but the jolt to my belief system had much greater implications for my soul. I eventually broke my musical monotheism and began exploring other music: Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Cat Stevens. I still took refuge in my dad’s record collection; he even shepherded me into the terrifying Metallica fold after I expressed trepidation, enjoining me to read the lyrics to “Master Of Puppets” before I even listened to it as an object lesson in judging a book by its cover, which was rampant in the anti-metal witch hunts of the time. And he actually had an appreciation for Twisted Sister long before I did. Really, my father, a devout Christian, deserves much of the credit for making so-called “devil music” of all kinds safe for me to listen to (except, of course, for actual devil music). And while I’ve stopped tagging all my shit with Van Halen logos, I still get the same feeling of power, reverence, and glory whenever I happen upon it. For many of my most formidable years, it was my coat of arms and talisman.