At the peak of Van Halen’s popularity almost 30 years ago, few people considered the band to be artists, much less philosophers. Van Halen was just a rock ’n’ roll band: a guitar-riffing, hard-drinking, skirt-chasing quartet known for huge hits, catchy hooks, and one pouty-lipped, big-haired front man, David Lee Roth.
Roth became something of a media darling at the dawn of the video age—a one-man quote machine in spandex and tattered shirts. If founder Eddie Van Halen was the band’s quiet guitar hero, Diamond Dave was the vaudevillian clown.
For six years, from 1978 to 1984, few rock bands were bigger: In 1983, one concert alone reportedly netted the band $1.5 million. The following year, the band released 1984, its most popular album to date, and “Jump” quickly became a number one single, spending five weeks at the top of the US charts. If you were alive then, you probably still know the words (“I get up/ And nothing gets me down”) and the song’s opening synthesizer riff by heart. But poetry it was not. It was just the ’80s.
Now a new book by British sociologist John Scanlan is suggesting that we’ve misunderstood Van Halen all these years—or at least not given the band its due. Roth and his comrades weren’t just hard rockers, Scanlan argues, but avatars of a kind of philosophy.
In “Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ’n’ Roll” (Reaktion Books 2012), Scanlan, a senior lecturer in sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, argues that Van Halen were purveyors of what he calls Zen rock, worthy of comparisons to the Beat poets—if not for the work they created, then at least for their state of mind. “Van Halen’s exuberance,” Scanlan writes, “produced a kind of ‘unthinking,’ unassuming—but often exhilarating—rock ’n’ roll that was evocative of its time and place.” He believes it was pure 1970s Southern California, where the band met and formed. “But like much of California culture,” Scanlan adds, “it was touched by a Zen-like attitude to everyday life.”
Van Halen might seem an unlikely candidate for a serious book by an academic sociologist. Such treatments are generally reserved for acts like Bob Dylan or the Beatles. But as the author explains it, it wasn’t really a choice. Scanlan said he had to write the book. He’s 47. He grew up listening to Van Halen in Lanark, Scotland, and couldn’t shake the music’s hold on him—even three decades later.
He spoke to Ideas from his home in Manchester.
IDEAS: How much Van Halen music did you have to download off iTunes to prepare for this book?
SCANLAN: Zero. None. Because I already had it all. I still had all my old records.
IDEAS: Your neighbors must have thought it odd to hear all this Van Halen music coming through a scholar’s walls.
SCANLAN: I happen to live in the top floor of a building. No one can hear me, whatever I do. But it was interesting because I would listen to it and find that I would be almost thrust back into 1980, when I was 16 years old. I’d listen to the music very loud. I’d want to kind of drink and smoke and do all these things that you’re not supposed to do when you’re a responsible adult.
IDEAS: You suggest that Van Halen believed in a certain kind of rock ’n’ roll—a “Zen-like idea,” you call it, that was “attached to the creative unconscious” and an answer to rock’s “growing seriousness in the 1970s.” Is that giving the band too much credit?
SCANLAN: Not at all. It’s there in the statements the band—Roth, in particular—has made over the years. It’s all there. It’s just a matter of stitching it together.
IDEAS: Were these guys really deep thinkers, pondering their place in the music universe?
SCANLAN: No, they weren’t. There’s a quotation in there from David Lee Roth from back in 1978—it’s in their first story in Rolling Stone—and he said the point is to keep it as stupid, as simplistic, and as unassuming as possible. He was an adherent of Zen philosophy and had been since he was a teenager. And that’s a big part of my book.
IDEAS: At times in the book you compare the band to the Beat poets and to Jack Kerouac. Is that a stretch?
SCANLAN: I’m not necessarily saying look at the lyrics that David Lee Roth writes and look at the books that Kerouac’s written; it’s more to do with the artistic process. There’s a similarity in terms of the process. But then you’ve got the historical and biographical connection. Roth actually spent quite a lot of time in Greenwich Village. He was around there at the time of the dying embers of the Beat movement.
IDEAS: Kerouac fans might cringe at the idea that David Lee Roth is somehow like him.
SCANLAN: They may indeed. But if you look at Kerouac’s aesthetics—what he said about the creative process, what he said about the influence of Zen on the Beat movement, and the importance he placed on jive as a means of expression—David Lee Roth is all those things in his own way as well. I wouldn’t say he’s a Beat poet. But he shares that attitude.
IDEAS: Van Halen just wrapped up a reunion tour. The critics, more often than not, panned the shows. The general sentiment was that Eddie Van Halen was still an incredible guitarist, but Roth was a mess.
SCANLAN: It doesn’t surprise me because Roth was always more about being up there on stage and being a cheerleader, a toastmaster kind of figure. And he never, ever, nailed the songs on stage the way they were on the record.
IDEAS: Do you feel like David Lee Roth is misunderstood?
SCANLAN: That’s quite an interesting question. People thought he was a bit nuts, a bit over the top....He’s an odd person, you know? He trains sheepdogs.
IDEAS: Apparently, he spent a lot of time on this last tour haranguing the audience about his love of sheepdogs.
SCANLAN: Yeah. He’s a strange guy, David Lee Roth.
Freelance writer Keith O’Brien, winner of the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, is a former staff writer for the Globe. E-mail him at email@example.com.