Van Halen: Remembering when… sort of
In between the late-’70s inception of Van Halen in a California basement and their falling out in 1985, the original quartet of Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony and David Lee Roth played the Greensboro Coliseum three times – Aug. 25, 1981; June 16, 1982; and Feb. 3, 1984. (There were three more concerts under the name Van Halen in the ensuing years, but the days with Sammy Hagar don’t count for our purposes here.)
The ’80s were a long time ago. It’s been 26 years since Van Halen’s first Greensboro show, and to put it in context, 26 years before that it was 1955.
Memories can get pretty hazy in 26 years, as I discovered when I was searching for people who had been to these shows. A lot of folks, when I asked them if they had seen Van Halen in the ’80s, shrugged their shoulders and said, “Probably.”
I hit the Whiskey District on a Wednesday night. Surely someone slumped over one of these bars remembers something about the appearance of the world’s most famous band in that decadent decade.
Len Rush remembers.
“I saw the Fair Warning and Diver Down shows,” he tells me at a booth in the Wahoo. “And then I saw them in 1984.”
The memories bleed together a bit.
“Oh man,” he recalls, “David Lee Roth was hanging from the rafters during ‘Talkin’ Bout Love.’ I mean, he was in the catwalk above the coliseum. It was incredible. They only did two sets, and one of the encores was ‘Ice Cream Man.'”
Rush will not be attending the show on Saturday night.
“Because it’s bullshit,” he says, citing the absence of bassist Michael Anthony who was replaced for the tour by Eddie Van Halen’s 16-year-old son Wolfgang.
“Michael Anthony has been the only consistent thing in that band,” Rush says. “And they fired him to get Eddie’s teenage son a foot in the business.
“Michael Anthony sang the high vocals,” he continues. “Can Wolfgang sing the high parts?”
Next door at Walker’s Bar. Nick Kontoulas is sorting through memories of his own.
“Yeah, I seen ’em at the Greensboro Coliseum,” he says. “What year was it?”
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s when they kicked ass. David Lee Roth was the perfect singer for that group. To me, Van Halen aren’t Van Halen without David Lee Roth. They came up with so much damn tunes.”
Much of the evening has been lost in the ether, but Kontoulas remembers when they did “Jump.”
“They did that rope thing,” he says. After he takes a sip of his drink, “Hot For Teacher” comes on the jukebox. Seriously.
Greensboro drummer Eddie Walker has the clearest memories of the shows, all three of which he attended with guitarist Evan Olson.
“The thing I remember most,” he says to me on the back patio at the Blind Tiger, “is that someone threw a bra onstage and David Lee Roth picked it up and said, ‘No, it’s too small to be Valerie’s.’ Then he pulled [Eddie Van Halen’s wife] Valerie Bertinelli onstage.”
Walker is still an unrepentant Van Halen fan.
“I think Eddie was so keyed on his lead guitar that his rhythm work was overlooked,” he says. “Eddie was a great rhythm guitarist. And you know, Michael Anthony was such a bare-bones, workingman’s bass player. Plus those high harmonies were all him.”
Like everybody else in town, none of these guys know what to expect when Van Halen takes the stage Saturday night.
“God, I don’t know,” Walker says. “I hope they do well. I’m a fan of David Lee Roth. I’m always impressed with the fact that he comes out with a quick sound byte – he can still do that – but as for those jumps and stuff, I wouldn’t bet the bank on it.”
“I mean, he’s what, 54?” he says. “He used to do splits in mid-air. I mean, splits with his leg up beside his head. He can’t do that anymore. No way.”
“If they’re anything like Ozzy [Osbourne] they can do it,” Kontoulas says. “You think Ozzy’s brain dead, but that sumbitch can still get out there and he can still sing. He’s still coming up with songs. If Ozzy can do it, they can do it.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.