“Before we went on tour a lot of people were saying that Wolfgang got the gig just because he’s my son. But after that first gig, forget it. It’s just hands down, hands up, hands sideways: he’s a musician and a Van Halen.”
Eddie Van Halen said that to Guitar World magazine in 2008, when the legendary rock band that bears his last name let bygones be bygones with original lead singer David Lee Roth and reunited for a tour that filled arenas across the country.
There were two primary story lines then. One was Roth coming back into the fold — the breakup following the release of the multiplatinum “1984″ album had been acrimonious, to say the least.
The other was the health of Van Halen himself, an innovative virtuoso who’d endured a hip replacement and cancer treatment. There was also, if you believed ex-frontman Sammy Hagar’s scathing 2011 autobiography, “Red,” Van Halen’s crippling alcoholism, which had rendered him a mentally pickled former six-string virtuoso now missing teeth and pretty much any sense of personal hygiene.
It was an ugly portrait. The band reunited, sacked original bassist Michael Anthony and hit the road with the then teenage Wolfie on bass. Their fans filled the seats and the band’s playing drew raves. Wolfie didn’t really do anything to warrant attention, but that was OK – you didn’t need to be Jaco Pastorious to recreate Anthony’s bass parts.
Fast forward four years and Van Halen is back on the road, this time supporting a new album of music with Roth on the mic. “A Different Kind of Truth” has big riffs and lovably stoopid wordplay with Roth in full Diamond Dave mode (“mousewife to momshell …”), though he struggles to hit the high end of his range. The album’s received generally positive reviews.
My immediate reaction after hearing lead single “Tattoo” was that it was a blatant money grab – but who cares? It’s like pizza, right? It’s good no matter what. The chorus is great, classic earworm material. But I was prepared to not like the album. That’s probably because I’m harder on Eddie Van Halen than any other musician I listen to.
And that is because of this now-infamous article in Musician Magazine written back in the early 1990s. Van Halen’s touring with Steve Morse and Albert Lee, and the picture that emerges is one of a star who’s not overrated but has failed to tap out his enormous talent. He hasn’t pushed himself; he’s chosen to play variations on the same three or four songs his entire career, with the same players. There’s a comfortable sameness to his career possibly rooted in a lack of confidence, which is stunning considering how big and confident his sound and technique are.
So what the hell does this have to do with Wolfgang Van Halen?
The JaVale McGee era was an entertaining one in D.C. basketball.
Entertaining mostly for the wrong reasons, but the 7-foot McGee had people talking. For the time he purposely bricked a shot in order to grab a rebound and pad his stats. For mugging after countless dunks with his team woefully behind opponents. For running back on defense after a missed shot — not realizing his team still had the ball.
And for his mom.
Pam McGee was a great college hoops player. And as readers of the Washington Post learned, she’s also fiercely protective of her baby, and thinks highly of his abilities. So much so that she told a Post columnist that the Washington Wizards weren’t using her son right on the court, that the offense should flow through him, that they needed to unshackle an otherworldly talent.
It was every bad sports parent cliché, times 10. It was laughable considering young JaVale’s body of work.
“He is not a knucklehead,” McGee told Mike Wise back in January. “JaVale is a good kid. My son is special. He has gifts you can’t teach: hands, height and heart. If I’m the Wizards and I’m really trying to build a franchise, really committed to rebuilding and developing, I would nurture that talent. I would help a kid like JaVale the best I could.”
For good measure she added: “My son is the future of the NBA.”
The Wizards thought so highly of possessing such an asset that they shipped him to Denver a couple months later.
Pam McGee considers her son the future of professional basketball. Eddie Van Halen believes his son was destined for Julliard if he hadn’t been pulled out of high school at 16 to hit the road with a legendary rock band. These probably aren’t healthy expectations, let alone realistic ones.
But why am I judging them as parents so harshly? Maybe it’s because I wonder if I am pushing my kids enough to achieve. Maybe it’s because I worry about the kind of future I’m creating for them. Maybe their failure would say more about me than them. Or maybe I’m just lazy.
“One of the things I always tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right. When you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.”
The great soul singer Bill Withers says that in “Still Bill,” the fascinating 2010 documentary of his life.
Withers, if I’m remembering the movie right, is speaking specifically of his daughter, who aspires to a career in music. Her dad, meantime, is mostly indifferent to the industry. He last recorded an album in 1985 – not in the midst of a career in decline, it should be noted, but on the heels of a hit, “Just the Two of Us” - and mostly focused on raising his two children in the decades since. In the film, we see his son graduate law school. And we see his daughter work on songs in a recording studio.
They sound like boilerplate R&B, candidly, but Withers offers suggestions and encouragement. As I watched I wondered if he thinks, as I do, that these songs will lead her merely to all right, not wonderful.
Maybe Bill Withers has ambitions for his children just as outsized as those harbored by Eddie Van Halen and Pam McGee. Just because he expresses them in a way I find more appropriate doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess that kind of fierce pride. Maybe his pride is a bit muted because he didn’t play in a band that could famously demand in its performance contracts the removal of certain-colored M&Ms. Or work in an industry that drafts kids one year out of college and pays them millions even when they can’t defend a pick and roll.
Which brings me back to “A Different Kind of Truth.” I guess the point is I like this album, though I was prepared not to.
Not really for the songs. Or the lyrics. Or the musicianship, much of that created by Eddie Van Halen on a series of custom-made “Wolfgang” guitars. Or the production, which in several spots seems to purposely bring fleet-fingered bass runs up high in the mix.
I like this album because Eddie Van Halen very clearly loves his son.
“It’s an amazing feeling. I’m just so truly blessed. I have pictures of me sitting in the racquetball court in my pajamas with an acoustic guitar and Wolfgang is probably just two-and-a-half-feet tall. I’ll never forget the day I saw his foot tapping along in beat! I knew then, I couldn’t wait for the day I’d be able to make music with my son. I don’t know what more I could ask for.”