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“I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly sane person, but chronicling this experience is kind of making me wonder why.” Those are the last words Theresa Smith, guitar player in one of New Jersey’s best bands, Home Blitz, has to say on her bizarre, year-long decent into obsessively analyzing one of rock’s most bombastic punchlines: Van Halen.
In a Tumblr called 20 Facts About John Rustey, in dozens of posts spread out over many months, Smith wrote exhaustive, scholarly pieces on the band, translating their songs into Latin, generating graphs of their lyrical content, and drawing complex stage plots of 30-year-old live performances. As she herself admits, the line between playful thought experiment and debilitating obsession become increasingly blurry.
I went to college with Smith. I knew her to be something of a monastic rock and roll figure — living in a dark apartment on the edge of town filled with guitars and keyboards and other instruments I couldn’t identify. It had ripped wallpaper, and she incongruously kept a (surprisingly clean) hamster in a cage next to her bed. She could talk for hours, more knowledgeably than I could even fake, on basically any music topic under the sun. It goes without saying that I was hopelessly in love with her. We moved to New York around the same time, and kept in touch over the years.
Home Blitz is fairly popular in the more uncompromising, fuck-you corners of the internet. It’s not unusual for articles about them to have curse words in the title: “New Jersey’s Home Blitz Knows a Shit Load About Australian Music,” Vice wrote in a representative, questionably punctuated piece (shouldn’t it be “shitload” or “shit-load”?). They even got name-checked on The Guardian the other day. The occasion of their show tonight at Shea Stadium with Blues Control seemed an ideal time to wade into the murky waters of her rock and roll nightmare.
During the period of, say summer 2011 to summer 2012, you seemed to go through an intense period of Van Halen fascination. Why?
As much as I’d like to think it had to do with some intrinsic and deep-seated truth struggling to the surface of my conscious mind through the medium of Van Halen, I think it was simply a case of Van Halen becoming, more or less arbitrarily, the shrapnel in my brain explosion. I have a quasi-seasonal job in which the work slows down quite a bit from June to August, so I’d be willing to bet that was the source of the sudden surplus of mental energy that made this project possible. A day later, and the world might’ve been treated to a frame-by-frame analysis of Point Blank or a study of the coincidental relationships between Bloom’s Taxonomy and Anal Cunt song titles. I never know what fun, cool thing my brain is going to distend into three weeks of grueling, compulsive technical dismantling. It kind of makes the whole game worth the candle.
Why Van Halen? Why not Def Leppard? Black Sabbath? U2? Led Zeppelin? What sets them apart among extremely popular late-Twentieth Century guitar bands?
I have a theory that most bands, if they’re around long enough, complete a sort of ‘karmic rocking cycle’ that goes something like this: An initial creative spark impresses a few people and establishes cult status. These few impressed people heap lavish praise on the band to anyone who’ll listen, some of which eventually makes its way through ink or tongue to a larger audience — and back to the ears of the band itself, invariably creating a kind of self-awareness feedback loop which either resolves itself into healthy self-conceptualization or leads to the narrow highway of self-parody. Self-parody is a disease in which the happily incidental qualities of a band become necessary and perfunctory. Some bands exist quite naturally and happily in a state of self-parody and figure that as long as they’re having fun, what ain’t broke don’t need fixing. For others, it leads to an existential crisis of sorts, which leads to withdrawal, self-contemplation, and the choice of one of three paths: career change, legacy rocking, or spiritual rebirth and rededication. Van Halen beat the rap from the get-go because they realized that abstract concepts like “authenticity” and “integrity” weren’t worth losing sleep over. If it felt good, or bad, they did it. And I don’t mean to get misty, but that’s kind of the point of all of it, the feels-bad-do-it, fuck-me-don’t-touch-me exaltation of the stupid/transcendent-Byronic apex that plenty of formerly great bands try to conceptually replicate by means of industrial-grade pyrotechnics and NASCAR-trained road crews. Van Halen reached it, though, with big shit-eating grins on their faces and pupils you could fit on the head of a pin. They didn’t burn themselves up in the ascent. They were already fried.
What do we talk about when we talk about Van Halen?
Fucking. Masturbation. Loneliness. Drugs. The will to power. Nepotism. Deceit. Discipline. Technique. Capitalism. Growing up.
In a post which is ostensibly a defense of Sammy Hagar’s time with Van Halen, you say: “Here’s a thought experiment: Try to imagine what Hagar’s dick looks like. If you aren’t clawing through your scalp in a hopeless attempt to remove that image from your brain right now, you’re barely human.” What does Sammy’s dick look like, to you?
A helpless baby bird sweating rum.
In that post, you compare David Lee Roth to the queen in a game of chess. What about Dave is queeny?
Everything, baby! The hair metal gravy train was (and is) full of diva frontmen — but how many of ’em wore ballet slippers onstage and traveled with twin bouncers? Drafted logistically perverse tour riders with Machiavellian glee and held all-night rollerskate fuck-contests with free Colombian septum snacks for everyone? Dave’s only become more brilliantly deranged as he’s aged, drugs having done for him what speed-reading courses on Alpha Centauri would do for the rest of us. If you haven’t yet seen “The Roth Show”, the latest repository for Dave’s thoughts on everything from etymology to clit piercings, I highly recommend it. The world at large seems to have formed the opinion that DLR is a sad geezer clinging pathetically to the tattered scraps of a once-shithot reputation, but exposure to this transcendent half-hour of television gives the impression that he is a perfectly happy, batshit-insane geezer with a Ph.D. in oblique conversational strategies and a penchant for Escher-izing the most mundane of topics into terrifying, horizonless monologues that twist back on themselves via his own singular brand of pun-filled Procrustean rhetoric, with the overall effect, at once monumentally depressing and strangely exhilarating, of a bank vault watching itself on closed-circuit TV while the faint, snowy outline of a public access aerobics video silently bleeds through the feed. Long, squirmy monologues on why cusswords are the Esperanto of America’s polyglot cities? Check. Discourse on the ‘language of video’ that comes off like a Futurist manifesto by way of Bob Costas? Check. A reference to the ‘dialectic of supermodels’? Check. Digression into the subject of how much pussy Gerry and the Pacemakers were getting? Double check.
Perhaps inspired by Dave’s flights of fancy, I figured it’d be pretty easy to compare the Van Halen concert experience to a game of chess. The first thing you notice is that everyone moves around a lot (except for Alex), but some basic patterns emerge from the chaos. As the frontman, Dave’s obliged to interact with the audience as much as possible, which means he’s constantly in motion and working both sides of the stage. Because he’s at liberty to move in pretty much any direction, confined only by the boundaries of the stage and the limits of the human body, he’s the queen in Van Halen’s chess game. Eddie’s constantly in motion too, with much of his movement being on the diagonal between his position at stage left and Dave’s position at front, and also along a backwards diagonal to execute jumps from Alex’s drum riser. He’s the bishop in this game. You can see that Alex is severely restricted by his drum kit, so he exhibits the limited movement of the king. The knight’s progress on the board is notoriously hard to track because of its unique pattern of movement, which recalls Michael Anthony’s erratic paths across the stage during his Jack Daniels-sponsored forays into experimental music. This configuration, as arranged on a chessboard, will see the queen protecting the king, flanked by the knight and bishop. A strong position, if one is lucky enough to perpetuate it into an endgame.
You have a detailed and thought-provoking post outlining the similarities between Eddie Van Halen and 17th Century British reformer/revolutionary/dictator Oliver Cromwell (sample: “Cromwell was considered a “regicidal dictator” by David Hume. Eddie was considered a “fascist asshole” by David Lee Roth” and “In 1649, Cromwell’s troops set fire to the town of Wexford, Ireland. Eddie launched into a surprise version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” at a benefit concert for Toto’s Jeff Porcaro.”). What brought this comparison to mind? Had you been reading the work of Hilary Mantel? Been watching The History Channel?
I was particularly proud of the Jeff Porcaro one. It’s the only one I still laugh at! Actually, I still like the one about Cromwell being Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658 and Eddie being voted “Player of the Year” by Guitar Player magazine 5 years in a row. It just hits that sweet spot between Parliamentary history and cunty pro-Steve Vai editorials that’s kind of like the homeland of my heart.
Your crowning achievement, though, may be your charts of Van Halen lyrical content. What were your methodologies? Did you actually enter every word of every Van Halen song into an analytical program?
I did. The methodology was extremely unscientific, but as I wasn’t planning on submitting my results to the Journal of Van Halen Studies, I figured that was OK. I was also operating under the assumption that the final product would be seen by about 6 people, which as I write this, is probably still correct. The first charts I made broke down the subject matter of Hagar-era vs. Roth-era lyrics. (For the purposes of this study, I ignored Cherone, as most everyone did.) Of course, many of the songs dealt with two or more of these subjects, and it was up to me to determine in which single category the balance of the subject matter resided, a process which lacked a concise methodology and was subject to the vagaries of personal interpretation.
Next, I made charts examining the frequency of word use in VH songs, again broken down by singer. This time, I included Cherone. I copied and pasted the lyrics from one of those ad-farm lyrics sites which all seem to be equally reliable/unreliable sources of lyrical content, because I simply didn’t have the patience to type them out directly from lyrics sheets. Sadly, due to this shortcut, these charts represent a data set that falls far short of the six-sigma standard for statistical reliability, and therefore cannot constitute proof of any experimental conclusions about Van Halen.
I’m curious if you’ve taken any lessons to Home Blitz from your scholarly work on Van Halen.
Not explicitly, but I was delighted to find out that Eddie holds his pick between his thumb and middle finger, just like I do. Presumably this is so he can free up his index finger for tapping. However, I have to assume that I learned to play that way purely by accident, as there is no tapping in any Candlebox song.
What lessons can Van Halen teach the general public?
If a bunch of ugly sons-of-bitches can figure out how to fuck the whole world, then so can I.
When I proposed this interview, you claimed that your Van Halen fever had broken. Do you look back on this time as unhealthy in some way?
I probably should. I’m not sure whether I should take the work produced in this period as a strange game I played with myself or the kernel of actual mental illness. I guess it was also around this time that I started working on what eventually became a 78-chapter treatise on a religion started by aliens called Metonymics. I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly sane person, but chronicling this experience is kind of making me wonder why.