As soon my high school buddies and I caught wind that David Lee Roth had reunited with Van Halen in 2007, events were set in motion too powerful to be stopped by any earthly force.
It started, like so much else, with an e-mail, to Dave and me from Wade. And with the word that immediately summoned up all things high school: “Dudes…”
The salutation was followed by news that the band that stood alone as the embodiment of our high school years was reuniting for another tour. Van Halen. And not just any incarnation of the band, but the reunion of the band’s core, the Van Halen brothers, and for the first time in twenty-two years, the original singer, the always entertaining and usually embarrassing David Lee Roth.
Dave, Wade, and I are all forty. One of us is a P.E. coach, another is a software sales manager, and one, a magazine editor. But first and foremost, at our core, we are all dudes. We grew up dudes, and when we enter each other’s company, we immediately and absolutely become dudes again.
Much of what it meant to be a dude in America in the early 1980s was to love Van Halen, a four-piece rock band that was half good-time party soundtrack, half neo-classical virtuoso run through distortion pedals. It wasn’t even really a choice.
What’s more, we played in a garage band in high school — Wade on drums, Dave on bass, me on guitar — and butchered our fair share of Van Halen material.
We were all dudes that grew up in McAllen, Texas, and graduated in 1985. We are dudes who underwent the typical post-high school dude diaspora but happily wound up just a few miles from each other in north Austin, dudes masquerading as responsible, white-collar family men.
We knew instinctively that this was epic, and that our dude honor required that we heed the call of duty.
We scanned the twenty-six dates of Van Halen’s tour schedule online: “East Coast, of course … high population density… West Coast, sure, L.A. band, after all … Midwest, okay. Hmm, that’s it.”
On closer inspection, we realized that the nearest they were coming to Austin was Kansas City, a twelve-hour drive.
Day after day we waited for them to add Texas dates, or even anything in adjacent states. But it was never to be. If we wanted to see them, it was Missouri. We speculated about why they would have snubbed Texas. No Houston? No Dallas, the site of their Calcutta-esque “Texas Jam” and “Monsters of Rock” appearances? We turned bitter. Perhaps they steered clear of the south-central states for fear the heat and humidity would affect their artificial joints and limbs.
We were convinced that — Murphy’s Law — the moment we committed to buying tickets they would announce a Texas date, probably even an Austin show. But with the perspective of history, we likewise suspected that even so, it also was even odds that they would 1) break up before then, or 2) one of them would die, and probably Eddie, the guitarist and creative fountainhead, a fifty-two-year-old man in a seventy-two-year-old’s body. In the last decade, he had survived mouth cancer, insisting it was caused not by thirty-five years of chain-smoking but by years of holding a metal pick in his mouth while surrounded by electronics. Not to mention wasting alcoholism. Oh, and a 1999 hip replacement.
We were like jilted lovers afraid to trust again — after the thirty years of personnel soap operas, breakups, reformations, abortive reunion tours, and questionable musical directions.
But there was never really any question that we would go. Something deep inside us compelled it. No band defined our precise generational slice as completely as Van Halen. Their odd mix of bacchanalia and virtuosic shredding wasn’t much seen either before or since. They evoked the dark gothic textures of heavy metal but frequently leavened them with melodic hooks and major-key ditties that helped them occasionally sneak into Top Forty radio. This mix also allowed them to bridge the teenage gender divide.
They had peaked in popularity just as we were peaking in our susceptibility to hero worship, and so they burrowed deep into our psyches, exemplars of power and rebellion, excess and virtuosity, thick-maned gods of men who jammed like Paganini and partied like there was no tomorrow (See alcoholism reference above). The archetypal fulfillment was to such an extent that — and we’ve verified this with each other — they used to make their way into our dreams.
If every decade had its version of this, then the Sixties had the Stones, the Seventies, Led Zeppelin, and the Nineties, perhaps the Red Hot Chili Peppers, too soon to tell.
Van Halen not only represented our decade, the Eighties, but our milieu within that decade. The Dude Nation. The Spicolis, the O.P.-sporting, Vans-wearing, hacky sack playing, surfer posers. They were not simply leaders of our tribe; they were the totems, the templates. If not Van Halen, who? If not now, when? We simply had to go.
But what of the twelve-hour drive? Being Rio Grande Valley boys, we were no strangers to marathon road trips; from the southernmost part of Texas, with the exception of Mexico, you can’t get out of the state in any direction in fewer than ten hours. Still, this was hard-core stuff, and we weren’t resilient twenty-year-olds anymore. We were forty, with back surgeries and blood clots already in our past. No matter.
Preparations were made. Significant political capital would have to be expended to get our three wives each to agree to the thirty-six-hour kitchen pass; this would certainly preclude our fall fishing trip. We have seven children between us, from twelve years down to nine months. My own wife would rise to such sacrificial heights as to agree to solo with our three boys under six.
To her further credit, she got nearly as caught up in the pre-trip hype as we did, even buying us a hand-held version of the period video game Asteroids when she spotted it in the grocery check-out. This kitchen pass would stand eternally as their monument of love to their dudes. (Plus, payback would be forthcoming, with interest.)
The concert road trip was a throwback, but modernity kept forcing its way in. Other well-meaning dudes who learned of our plans began sending Internet links. Now a leaked jpeg of their stage set-up. Now a song from a dress rehearsal recorded on a cell phone. Now more cell phone video of opening night. Now the set list on a fan page.
Finally I snapped. What was I doing?! If this kept up, I would have seen the entire show on YouTube before we ever even gassed up. Would we arrive after a twelve-hour drive to no surprises at all? No. I went cold turkey, self-embargoing all VH 2007 online references.
I searched memory for any surviving Van Halen paraphernalia and dug out of a box in the garage my VH painter’s cap, 1984 vintage. Inspired, Wade went on e-Bay and secured same for ten dollars plus shipping and handling. Dave dug out the wooden VH logo he had crafted one day in my grandfather’s woodworking shop and rehung it proudly in his music room. Our sacred relics in place, we were ready to proceed with the pilgrimage.
But these relics led naturally to questions about the way we had changed physically since high school, ways numerous and profound. In high school, I was 6’1”, 130 lbs; suffice it to say that such was no longer the case.
The other most obvious change was above the neck, or slightly below it, as the case may be: the hair. As teenagers we bore the mark of our generation as proudly as the hippies owned their flat, greasy look and the current generation embraces its shagginess and bagginess — the signature fashion statement of the time, the mullet. Long in back, short on top and sides. So we resolved to grow out our mullets as much as we could in the six weeks before the show.
Alas, you can never go home again. Gone, the silky brown locks of youth, replaced by the coarse gray neck hair of middle age, which looks even worse in combination with the receding front and thinning top. At four weeks, as it crossed over the one-inch mark, observant co-workers started to take note.
“Going a little longer with the hair, huh?”
“Yep,” I replied cryptically, suppressing a smirk. “Yep.”
Undeterred, the Kentucky waterfall grew and at last after six weeks peeked out beneath the bottom of the painter’s cap, like a cicada emerging after seventeen years’ dormancy.
As the concert was on a Friday night, I would have to ask off of work on Friday, which wouldn’t be a big deal since I had plenty of vacation accrued. There was really only one scenario that would have kept me from going: a board meeting. The association where I work has three board meetings a year, and those are all-hands-on-deck, with staff deeply engaged in hosting the board members and fielding their questions during the day-long meeting.
A week into the planning process, I finally got around to checking my Outlook calendar for Friday, October 26. From several offices down the hall from mine could be heard “Mo-ther scratcher!” before I regained the presence of mind to slam my door shut. There it was, the dreaded yellow “busy” box: “Board Meeting.”
What to do? What to do? Worlds collide. Mentally I assume the fetal position. Have to go. Can’t miss this. But it’s a board meeting. Have family of five to feed; must stay above all reproach at job. Doesn’t matter. Cannot miss road trip. DLR/VH reunion millennial in nature. Cannot miss.
Finally, seeing no compromise possible, I swallowed hard and crafted a careful e-mail to my boss. I felt he had a right to know the nature of the absence, but some primal fear prevented me from using the words “Van Halen.” I must have thought either that the name wouldn’t register with him at all, or, if it did, that his mind would immediately go to the silliest possible artifact of the band, say, Roth strutting across the stage with the buttocks cut out of his pants. I proceeded cautiously:
Unless you are planning some specific role for me to play at our board meeting on Oct. 26, I was wondering if I might be excused from that one. I have a rare opportunity to make a road trip that weekend with some high school buddies to see a certain show that is on that Friday night in Kansas City. There are no other workable options at this point based on the tour schedule.
I think I’ve only missed one board meeting in 15 years so I hope it’s clear that I don’t ask this casually. …. I just wanted to get this on the table earlier rather than later.
The one-line reply came via Blackberry within the hour: “Have a good time.”
“God bless you, kind sir,” I muttered at my desk, “God bless you.”
The final obstacle surmounted, we moved ahead making final preparations at biweekly lunch meetings, which included the wearing of the painter’s caps, progress checks on the mullets, and a road atlas-assisted debate on the merits of staying I-35 through Dallas-Oklahoma City-Wichita or taking the more direct but stoppier route through Sherman and points northeast.
There was a fourth member of our gang, who, as fate would have it, lived in Wichita, a paltry three hours from KC; it would be wrong not to include him. Like many high school boys, aping a sort of military machismo, we called him only by his last name, Butler. (This naming convention proved prophetic, as Butler would be the only one of us to serve in the armed forces: a stint in the Navy, before twenty years of repping power tool companies throughout the southern plains.) As we had decided against the I-35/Wichita route, we would meet Butler in the Overland Park suburb of Kansas City. Butler did his bit for the cause by securing the tickets.
Perhaps the most fitting detail of the trip would be the transportation. We briefly entertained the thought of flying, but we were on budgets, and we knew instinctively the intangibles we’d miss out on. No flying. Nor would we rent a car or drive any of our own cars. Rather, due to gas mileage considerations, we would wind up borrowing Wade’s mom’s van; our time-travel project was complete. The silver 2002 Chrysler Town and Country minivan would be our capsule, replete with handicap hanger on the rearview.
With Van Halen’s rapidly aging fan base, we expected that it would not be the only such marked vehicle in attendance. If he were not receiving the VIP drop-off, surely Eddie himself would qualify for the hanger. We joked about setting up side businesses with extra for-pay port-a-potties in the arena parking lot, or perhaps colonoscopy screening stations in the lobby.
We feared we might arrive to find the concert like one of those Doo-Wop specials on PBS at pledge time, blue-hairs bobbing along in the audience to hits of performers ten years their senior who had been taken off life support just long enough to perform their three-minute single before being helped off stage and wheeled back to Shady Acres.
We wondered if, per the early days of The Lawrence Welk Show, there might be a huge “Geritol” banner hanging above Alex in exchange for a hefty sponsorship. Ticket stubs would read “Metamucil Presents …”
• • •
At last the day of the trip arrived, and eerily bore all the marks of the only other event for which the three of us would go to these lengths, a fishing trip: the five o’clock alarm, the driving in the dark to Wade’s, the taquitos from the drive-through.
Dave had been up late the night before burning the entire Roth-era catalogue onto CD as well as that night’s set list for each of us as a thoughtful keepsake. We slid in Van Halen’s self-titled debut, cranked the intro to “Running with the Devil” — thump, thump, thump, thump … — angled Wade’s mom’s minivan toward Kansas City, and put the hammer down.
As the road trip progressed, we fell into a sort of natural rhythm: Van Halen album, other album, gas/drink stop, cell phone call home (Dave checking in with Lisa on a croupy toddler; Wade getting the half-time little league score from Kelly), bathroom/munchies stop, photo op (the first being in front of the Starship Pegasus, a large-scale knock-off of the Enterprise next to a gas station in Italy, Texas, home of the Monolithic Dome Institute), next Van Halen album, and so on.
At a few stops, we talked Dave, the P.E. coach, into leading us in some stretches to prevent blood-clotting. I can only imagine the conversations going on inside the convenience stores.
By 9:30 we were making our way through Dallas. We crossed the Red River an hour and change later and took the eastern route up through the hilly woods toward Tulsa, passing casinos, brow-pierced Indians running convenience stores, and, in yet another throwback to childhood, an abundance of Mazzio’s Pizzas, a staple of our Rio Grande Valley youths but sadly absent in our Austin adulthoods. It was as if the world through which we were driving was retro-morphing along with us.
On our way through Tulsa, we checked into the Quality Inn, the plan being to make a quick turn and head south again after the concert, grabbing a few hours of sleep here before the long push home.
We arrived in Overland Park at 6:15, in perfect time to grab a bite and make the eight o’clock show, and Butler was waiting for us in front of the K.C. Masterpiece. We dined on pulled-pork sandwiches and caught up with Butler on families and jobs as we nervously glanced at our watches.
Seven o’clock came and went. Where was our waiter with the check?
As the restaurant filled up, he kept being waylaid by other tables, and still the second hand swept around and around ever faster. Now we became aware that we were well outside of downtown and our timely arrival was not a given.
Blood pressure rose as we realized how emotionally invested we were in making the show on time. Finally, we called the manager over.
At last on the road for the final leg of our journey, we consulted our Yahoo! map and teed up our next turn: I-670E. Butler read it out from under the back seat dome light and, like a nuclear silo protocol code, I confirmed it: “Yeah, I-670E.”
Finally downtown at 7:40, we were all on high alert. “There’s I-70E,” said Dave, riding shotgun.
“No, says here, I-670E. Keep going.”
And so we did, heading west out of downtown now, and crossing the Missouri River, with more and more signs that read “Des Moines.”
Pulses rose. The non-stop silly banter that had ricocheted around the minivan for more than twelve hours now grew strangely quiet. We all felt it in the pits of our stomachs.
“Dudes, this isn’t right.” After endless e-mails to confirm who was coming, and e-mails about the tickets, and e-mails about when we were leaving, and twelve hours of driving, we were so close, and yet, if we didn’t make it, we may as well have been back in Austin.
We knew the seriousness from the tone of the direct address, “Dudes.” This is the wonder of the word dude. It can convey so much with such little effort. It is the most versatile and useful of all syllables in the English language.
The word burrowed deeply and forever into our linguistic consciousness in high school. Who knows precisely where these memes originate?
Movies certainly play a part, and the spate of high school party flicks in the early Eighties had to have been a prime carrier in spreading the vector nationwide: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club.
In its deep history, we’re told that dude could be of Irish origins, as dúd in modern Irish is a derogatory term for a foolish person. Of course, for us, it was the farthest thing from a pejorative.
But from a form of direct address, for us it really morphed into an exclamation capable of conveying any emotion. If the driver didn’t see a car coming: “Dude!” An expression of disappointment could be conveyed with a low, soft “dude.” With raised eyebrows it became a question: “Dude?” There was no occasion for which it was deemed inappropriate. Whether it was a celebratory “Dude!” in a phone call after a certain girl had accepted a date invitation, or whether it reached into the depths of heartfelt sympathy at a funeral — “dude,” with nothing else needed to be said, there was no moment it could not properly address.
Like the tonal Mandarin of the Chinese, it could take on a rainbow of meanings based on where in the voice it is pitched. We cultivated an exclamation that involved dropping the voice about an octave in the middle of the word, then elongating it, as in: “DOO-ooooooooood.” This of course led to a sort of inverted bell curve in which the word would start sforzando, then die away, then end with a fast crescendo: DOO-ooooo-OOD!
Occasionally we became so enamored of the word that we didn’t want it to end. This led to mutations as such: “Dudie.” And then hyphenated elongations: “Hey dudie-dude.” “Dudie-dudie-dude, dudie-dude” and so on ad infinitum.
Moreover, further shadings of silliness were achieved through slight mutations of the vowel sound. In addition to the pursed-lipped “Dooooood” mentioned above, there was also a sort of silly, inexplicable flattening of the vowel as we positioned it halfway between “dude” and “dead.” To convey it in writing, one would have to resort to the German umlaut: “düd.” This in turn was combined with previously mentioned mutations to achieve “düdie,” and “düdie-düd,” and so on.
Don’t judge this heavy reliance on a single syllable as a poverty of expression; rather see it for what it is: a glorious economy. Like the Sanskrit OM, it is simplicity itself, but a simplicity capable of infinite variation.
We exited the highway and used dead reckoning to get back downtown. At a light, we asked a couple next to us to roll down their window. “Where’s the Sprint Center?”
“You’ll have to turn left at this light, then follow us. That’s where we’re going.”
Follow them we did, down the street, into a parking garage, and all the way to their parking space. If we could have parked in that space with them we would have.
A great ingathering of youth of the Eighties streamed out of the surrounding parking garages toward the arena, each with some residue of his or her high school rock-and-roll persona — the bespectacled insurance adjuster in biker jacket, the actuarial in that little black dress in which she looked so hot twenty-five years and forty-five pounds ago.
The Sprint Center finally loomed up over us, and there was electricity in the air. After so many years of assuming all this was in our past, and so many weeks of anticipation, and so many miles, it was surreal to behold the marquee flashing “TONIGHT: VAN HALEN.”
But the excitement was quickly checked by the sight of hundreds of people still waiting to get in.
We looked at our watches: eight sharp.
“Is this the line to get in?” we asked incredulously. Turns out everyone was having to go through airport-style security checks, a system they’d obviously never tested before. Nervous pessimism still haunted us. What if, like at Vacation’s Wally World, just as we reached the door, a security guard cut us off with a cheery: “Sorry, folks! We’ve reached capacity. Come again!”
We knew there was an opening band (Ziggy Marley) and so were not completely despondent. By 8:30 we had finally made it inside, but still weren’t home free. As we trekked back and forth through the circular lobbies in search of our section, the parallels to Spinal Tap were too clear to be missed.
“Wooooo! (then quietly) Dude, this is Section 134; ticket says 234. I think we’re up another level…. Wooooo!” This was the Universe’s final attempt to keep us from glory.
At last we reached our seats in the mezzanine, seemingly just a few feet from the sheet-metal ceiling. As we settled in, the contrast to our concert-going years of yore became still more evident. Chief among the differences in my own behavior was the absence of a beer, now that I was five years a teetotaler.
Also, we all remained seated unless the person in front stood, partly because we had become old and we’d been awake since five a.m., and partly because if we stood up, we were just that much farther away from the band.
Lastly, all four of us wore earplugs. Perhaps this, most of all, was the sign that age had brought at least a little wisdom.
But what of the concert itself?
• Diamond Dave, admirably fit at fifty-three but barely recognizable with hair cropped short and a freshly waxed torso (two grooming decisions that together probably accounted for ten pounds), commanded the stage cheerily and cheesily, wearing that familiar square smile and keeping up a sort of Vegasy snapping, waddling thing for the full two-plus hours. But behind his eyes I could see him thinking through the entire show, “Sweet Lord I wish I had pitched these vocals a third lower twenty-five years ago.” Dave is one part used-car salesman, one part male bimbo, one part lounge lizard, one part martial arts enthusiast, and, only incidentally, one part rock singer. You know going in you’re getting the whole package; it’s no use trying to parse it.
• Eddie, as ever, was an orgy of guitar excess, all squeals, groans, and fretwork too fast to be discerned in the acoustic muddiness of the arena’s stratosphere. And either he was back on drugs or the road was good for him, because he was bouncing around like a little kid the entire time, hip replacement be damned.
• Alex was the rock, the unsung brother, ever the workhorse, the one who stays out of trouble, out of headlines, and out of rehab.
• The members’ sparser hair and the way their thinning flesh hung slightly off their jaws was only accentuated by the extreme youth of the band’s replacement bassist, Wolfgang, Eddie’s sixteen-year-old son. Wolfie acquitted himself and, although a bit flat-footed for the occasion, was smart enough not to overplay this hand he’d been dealt with rock-star posing.
As the concert started to draw to a close, and I reflected quietly on the show that unfolded far, far below me (my contemplative mood in stark contrast to the middle-aged drunkenness and rheumy doobage that predictably blossomed all around us), I had a warm satisfaction that, if this was the music of our subslice of Generation X, that was okay with me.
In comparison to what little I heard of rock music today — much of it having devolved back to simple power chords and brooding — this music felt fairly smart. Lyrically, it wasn’t poetry, but at least there was a wink and a nudge. Musically, it wasn’t fine art, but there was mixed meter and key changes. There were longer arcs of thought, there was pioneering virtuosity, and, in a world in which the term is so overused, there was authentic genius at work.
When the confetti all had fallen and the house lights came up, we searched each other’s faces to glean the consensus verdict. Had it been worth the drive?
Truth? Our enthusiasm was tempered. Ultimately the concert was somewhat doomed by the hype, the six-week build-up, the blogosphere, the millennial expectations of the second coming of the original creative lineup. That and paying one hundred dollars for a seat so high that our view was significantly obstructed by the speaker stacks hanging over the stage.
As we climbed the stairs of the parking garage, a stranger heading down was imparting some little critique to each person he passed. When he reached me he extended his fist. I obliged him with a hesitant knuckle-punch, then, like a long-lost classmate, he summed it up thusly: “Dude, it was good. It wasn’t solid gold, but it was good.”
But in the final analysis, we all knew that it was never really about the concert. It was an event built around a concert, but was much larger. It was a reunion. Not a reunion with each other — we stay close — but a reunion with our past selves.
And in addition, over twenty-four hours of minivan time we got completely caught up on one another’s family concerns, the soccer, the little league football, the status of our mothers and fathers, the career aspirations, the avocational pursuits. We picked apart in excruciating detail the music we were about to hear and the music we had just heard. Like an irreverent church litany, we recited dialogue from Idiocracy, This Is Spinal Tap, Strange Brew, Monte Python, Blazing Saddles. We launched Garage Band on my laptop and played along lamely with the stereo.
And we laughed. We laughed, probably more than we have ever laughed in any thirty-six-hour period.
We bro-hugged Butler goodbye in the K.C. Masterpiece parking lot at 12:30 a.m. and turned Wade’s mom’s minivan toward Tulsa. Four hours’ sleep in a motel, and morning brought one last incongruous photo-op: in front of the seventy-foot-tall praying hands at Oral Roberts University, followed by an epic breakfast at Aunt Bea’s Cafe.
Then it was all business: our kitchen passes were running out fast. Time to obey the law of domestic gravity and return to wives and kids, to drive back through the wormhole, probably somewhere in eastern Oklahoma, that led us back to our forties. There’d be time to hum “And the Cradle Will Rock” while standing at the diaper table that night.
My wife’s extraordinary sacrifice for such an outing was not diminished by the fact that it was precisely sixteen minutes from the time I pulled back into the driveway to the time she left to go shopping, the baby having been wailing in his crib for an hour.
“Go, honey,” I said. “Fly, be free!”
“Hmm, hmm, hmm, and the cradle … will rock …”
• • •
Postscript: Three weeks after our return, a San Antonio date was announced. One month after that show, the tour was suspended for medical reasons related to Eddie’s health.