But 1978 marked an important year for air-guitar virtuosos all over the world. That was the year the rock quartet Van Halen, named after two brothers in the band, blew the collective minds of rock followers worldwide with their debut album. That self-titled release defied early classification, since its guitar-torturing sound placed it squarely in the metal realm while its good-times groove was more reminiscent of funk or blues or some infectious amalgamation of both.
I count myself amongst those guitar geeks that would lock themselves in their room with their battered Stratocasters, trying to decipher this indefinable new guitar playing. The sound of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar shredding is now familiar, since it shaped guitar playing for bands to come, but through the 80’s a Van Halen lick was as recognizable as the Golden Arches and everyone marveled when it even popped up in Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit Beat it. Singer David Lee Roth’s high kicks and raspy-voiced innuendo made the band sexually dangerous during those years when most of parental anti-metal obsession seemed to be focused on perceived devil worship or hidden messages in reverse play.
When the band announced its reunion tour — more than 20 years in the making — would kick off in North Carolina, it seemed the hand of providence, coaxing me to embrace the nostalgia rather than shun it like an embarrassing suppressed memory. Though the Sept. 27 Charlotte show sold out before I had a chance to get tickets, the Greensboro concert this past Saturday night was to be my return to the world of shredding metal. Every minute of that long drive to Greensboro from Waynesville was worth it.
The Greensboro Coliseum and every restaurant and gas station within three miles was full of aging metal heads, many with their kids in tow. The parking lot was predictably full of tailgate partiers, blaring their vintage pre-Hagar Van Halen tunes. The only difference was these tailgaters were driving family vans and soccer-mom SUV’s. The mix of young and old, black and white, black leather and J Crew khaki was at first bewildering and then magical.
But the energy was tangible and the expectant crowd gathered around the coliseum as if waiting for a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. All the local radio stations were playing nothing but early-Van Halen all day. Everyone seemed to be in a state of disbelief, caught unawares that the band that had sworn never to play together again, the schism between David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen seeming insurmountable, was not only touring again, but had somehow landed in our corner of the country.
Once in the arena, strangers would casually walk up to each other and just start up conversations they’d been waiting 25 years to finish. Many remember their last “true” Van Halen tour being in the late 80’s. Most of the die-hard fans of the “real” Van Halen consider the “Van Hagar” incarnation of the band as a wholly different band. Those years of the Sammy Hagar/Van Halen abomination were distinctly more 90’s “pop” than the heavy “party-rock” Van Halen had literally created. Many of those later singles now sound like the soundtrack to a John Hughes teen movie or a car commercial. Several T-shirts carried slogans such as “Sammy Hagar, Who?”
Folks from as far away as Tampa, Florida and Ohio had driven endurance-testing distances to recapture that youthful blip on their life’s timeline when all that was important was predicting which song David Lee Roth would kick of the concert with and during which set Eddie would choose to insert his blistering signature “Eruption” solo. Everyone could remember when the world stopped outside the arena seating row you and your friends had monopolized and you knew, without a doubt and without a care, that your voice would be gone and your neck would be sore from all the screaming and head banging.
Last night, when the arena went dark, and all there was to fill the room was the long drone of Eddie’s guitar dive-bombing into everyone’s soul, I was back there again. People around me were unabashedly crying like they had just been saved from a sinking ship.
As the roar of the crowd reached a frenzied crescendo and the spotlight fell on the Guitar God on stage, I knew that come Monday morning, without a doubt, I would have no voice left and would not be able to turn my head to back my minivan out of the driveway.