At the court of the Phaeacians, a concert by the minstrel Demodocus. This is the age of heroes, of myth, and the blind bard sings of just that: of a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles. With a taut-stringed harp in his hands, Demodocus performs with such skill and pathos, in fact, that the court’s guest of honor—a wanderer recently happened upon them—subtly draws his mantle down, concealing his tears.
Whatever we say of the ancient Greeks, they were—at least from what we glean from scenes like this—not much for crying. And yet cry they often do, if mostly in secret. Men (heroes, even) cry over lost lands and distant kingdoms, their forebears gone, their palaces in disarray. Even Odysseus, that most heroic among them, sheds tears for his beloved home on Ithaca and for his family there, if indeed he still has a home, if his family still lives.
The texts are certain of this stance on crying, particularly The Odyssey, in which this episode with Demodocus appears. And the guest of honor at the court of the Phaeacians, the one who pulls the heavy hood over his face to hide his anguish: that is Odysseus himself, recently washed ashore and saved by a princess; that is the hero, listening to a song about himself, a song about who he once was.
In the official concert video for “Unchained,” Eddie Van Halen—shirtless, wearing only the classic, winged “VH” necklace—sports white chinos and knee-high candy-cane socks. Half the time the camera catches him—this is early footage, part of the age of heroes, of guitar heroes, at least—he is all smiles, aping for the fans, both those visible in the arena and those beyond the lens. The rest of the time, his eyes appear closed, in some distant kingdom of memory, blind choreography, and joy. And it is joy, in fact, that he embodies, at least in my recollection, the perfect expression of it, dwarfed by those Marshall stacks behind him; and by Alex, his brother, enthroned amid a massive drum set on risers. Beyond the speakers and drums, beyond the gong—which, during the end of the song and video, Alex will light with fire and bang—beyond all that, a cityscape backdrop, lights panning over the two-dimensional citadel, out to the massive arena crowd, all those hands in the air.
And that opening riff: tribal, percussive, maniacal. Sure, the fiery gong, finally, is a tad purple, unnecessary excess; but then the entire stage, the entire performance is excessive. Yet catching one of the live Van Halen videos on MTV when I was young, in the heyday of the network, was like happening upon a spit of land after tossing about at sea. There amid waves of new-wave concept videos, which usually featured retro-stylized, ’50s-era big-government fears and Cold War trench coats on foggy riverbanks; amid the hokey editing—not yet an art, not yet recognized or even understood, a foreign idiom—in videos by Styx or Scandal; amid all that, this raw, sweaty, human performance erupted, and I would sit rapt, on orange shag carpet, in front of the big console television.
The year must have been ’81 or ’82, the footage from around then, too. (The band released Fair Warning, the album on which “Unchained” appears, in 1981.) The sensation I have of recalling it, though, which is the same sensation I have when I watch it now, in the year of our Lord 2019, is of a time much greater, infinitely more expansive. It’s as if I inhabit those rooms again, enlarging the present, dilating it, by injecting that past into it, Van Halen as a kind of bellows. The particular year of video’s making is irrelevant. It is, for better or worse, in all honesty, a rendering of my adolescence, part of the soundtrack of whatever I call my youth, however poorly I spent it.
I know I’m not alone, though. In the comments underneath the video on YouTube, any number of versions of me have chimed in, all with various shades of nostalgia and hagiography. I want to meet the people who do not love this, one fan writes, and just study their ability to not be physically assaulted by me. Or another: If you can’t get excited from this you are a corpse. Or my personal favorite: Simply put, the fan declares, in the late ’70s thru the early ’80s, there was Van Halen and then there was everybody else.
Odysseus does succeed in concealing his pain, his tears. How skillfully he dried them, Homer writes, when the song came to a pause! He throws back his mantle, thinking the worst of those haunting memories has passed, that Demodocus will bother him no more, will not once again turn the screws of nostalgia. But no. Soon, Homer continues, the minstrel plucked his note once more to please the Phaeacian lords, who loved the song. Even then, the obligatory encore. Even then, Odysseus weeps.
But what does Odysseus weep for? Must he relive some moment in his past, some squabble between himself and Achilles, simply because the blind bard sings of it? Why does the hero, the epitome, in fact, of Greek heroism—given his guile, his savvy, his mastery of a thousand faces, and a thousand turns—why does he weep over music? Elsewhere Odysseus remains poised and tearless under much more difficult emotional trials. In front of his wife, for example, or his son, he will endure challenges of concealment infinitely more formidable than simply listening to a song. Simply put, when it came to tests of moxie, at least in Greek antiquity, there was Odysseus and then there was everybody else.
The totalizing force of the music, however, the way it seamlessly marries word with world, language with the vibrations our ears are attuned to: in that realm even Odysseus’s beloved wife and son prove no match. For he cries not because of how beautiful Demodocus sings but on the contrary how completely the minstrel evokes ugliness: misgivings from the hero’s past. Listening to—being forced to listen to—the song, Odysseus confronts not pleasant memories associated with his family or home but rather a self almost banished from memory. Music—at least in Homer’s formulation—forces that recollection, demands that return, that particular coming home, if only in mental distances.
And The Odyssey of Homer, too, is a song that demands return. I am rereading it (relistening to it) now, again. And I hear the faintest hammer-on in those descriptions of Demodocus’s harp, little licks and riffs between the lyrics, Homer’s take on a man listening to stories of about his younger self. There are songs within songs.
My sensory experience is mostly myopic. I can only touch what is literally an arm’s length from me. I see what is right in front of my face. I hear not much farther. I note (often recoil from) particular scents: a manure pile or fetid lakeside, urine in an arena stairwell. Just as quickly, though, my olfactory machinery shuts off. What is constant becomes absorbed, assimilated, part of my environment. I become desensitized. True, if I smell some vestige from my past—an open can of Play-Doh, say, or that peculiarly universalized, musty damp of a basement, any basement—an odor part mold, part moth-eaten comforter, a dash of oxidized metal from a wash bin—I am transported to childhood, to play, to foraging in my grandparents’ cellar. Time collapses. This is not nostalgia so much as reification. This is time travel.
I hear certain Van Halen songs, though, and I am not so much transported. I recognize painfully the vast differences in time that separate me from my first hearing (or my one-hundredth or two-hundredth). In fact, that pain is the difference. And that pain of distance is what the song embodies, not what it says. (Most Van Halen songs pull from a fairly circumscribed subject inventory: lost love, dangerous love, forbidden love, frequent love, infrequent love, drinking—a form of love itself—and just plain sex.) Time does not collapse. Rather it expands to its full, crushingly dense dimension. I will never be that person again, the song reminds me, even as I am reminded of where I was when I heard it, where—for whatever reason—that song came to rest in the fossil bed of my adolescence. Listening to the song now is like shearing away at a cliff side in South Dakota, the mandible of a man-eater coming into sharp relief. And maybe that’s what Odysseus cries for: not who he was but who he could never be again, the home not so much out of reach but rather out of time.
Tell him your story, Gary, my mother said one night at the dinner table. Must have been ’85 or so. My father looked at me and smiled, finished whatever bit of food he was working on and wiped his mouth. At the tire shop at lunch today, he said, a guy sitting next to me in the waiting room asked all about my car. My father drove (still drives, in fact) a 1957 Chevy, sea-foam green, all original, which he let me take to homecoming, and in which I could not play Van Halen. (No tape deck; just AM radio, to this day, hand to God.)
My father then recounted how this burly guy with a bushy beard, in a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, how he asked all the right questions—how long had my father owned the car (since 1960), what size engine (283), what sort of transmission (“three on the tree”)—in short the kind of shibboleths that attest to and verify a man’s enrollment not just in the club of classic-car ownership but in the club of men, the ownership of one’s own masculinity. He told my father, too, that he had once owned a similar car, a ’56 (never as good in my mind, slightly less alluring, abbreviated, unfinished, caught in a molting stage), and that he lamented having sold it.
I may have invented that last detail, since I’ve heard countless versions of it while driving around in the ’57 with my father. Any gas station or convenience mart, any grocery-store parking lot becomes a kind of regal court, in which my father holds the scepter and various men come to kiss his ring, lament the passing of their own versions of his car and, by extension, former versions of themselves. Ubi sunt, the Latin poets said, qui ante nos fuerunt? Where have they gone, those who came before us? Or to put it another way—the way The Kinks framed the question in a song that Van Halen covered (Diver Down, 1982)—Where have all the good times gone?
That’s the end of the story, though, really. My father said the fellow was quite amiable, that they sat there and chatted while the mechanics lowered the other guy’s car—a Porsche—back to the world, gave him some paperwork to sign in the office. And when that other guy left my father in the small waiting room (black coffee in white cups, car mags with crusty edges stacked uneven on a side table) and entered the Vulcan-like forge of the shop proper, with its grime and men with their names in patches like tattoos on their chests (all this emphasis on being, on individuality, on attribution), with a boom box for all I know blasting Van Halen (something early, a deep cut), the clerk looked at my father, then out the office window to the shop again.
You know who that was, he said to my father, the guy you were just talking to? Oblivious as usual to celebrity of any kind, my father simply knitted his brow (I like to think he did anyway; this is my epic to tell), jutted his lower lip out like he does, and replied that, no, he didn’t, that he had no earthly idea.
That’s Michael Anthony, the clerk said. That’s the bass player from Van Halen.
Certain songs—for me, many Van Halen songs—allow for two simultaneous auditory events: in one I am my former self in the early ’80s; in the other, I am the person listening to it in his home nearly forty years later. Take “Romeo’s Delight,” particularly the coda, in which Roth repeats, feel my heartbeat, while the band builds behind him: I am again driving my ludicrous, midnight-blue 1968 Camaro up Benson Avenue, stereo rattling the seats, as I take the curve into 21st Avenue, in Upland, California. (That small town with its nifty name, its aspirationally urban and orderly thoroughfares.) The silvery leaves of olive groves shimmer in the windshield, and the world seems expectant, alive with my own sense of dominion over it.
Or consider “Running with the Devil,” which plays forever low in the bedroom of my friend Kirk, late at night, his parents sleeping in the room next door with the television on. (Westerns; always Westerns.) We stare at the lone, red LED on his boom box and imagine the power of those instruments the band wields with such sprezzatura, a word I surely didn’t know then but which I understood perfectly, intuitively. Such sprezzatura, such artful nonchalance. Or “Dirty Movies” in Tony’s El Camino, windows down, driving to the beach. Tom and I singing, belting out (out of tune, of course, but in our minds idealized versions of ourselves) the silly, almost Vaudevillian mayhem of the lyrics to “Ice Cream Man” or “Happy Trails” or any number of Van Halen half-jokes, recorded because they could, because they were that good, that loveable, that powerful. I remember them all, remember in the deeper etymological valence of that verb. I am reconstructing those moments, re-membering them, those auditory hallucinations once more made whole.
Reconstructions, though, are often painful. I swear I can feel the excruciating moth-weight of Eddie’s guitar pick in my right hand (even though I’m a lefty), the equal and opposite reaction of Alex’s stick hitting that dampened drumhead. Nobody else played with such a dead snare—that sound of primitivism, of animal skin or of animals being skinned. (Remember the fiery gong.) I swear I feel it all, the way a war hero feels a ghostly limb, feels its ache as loss, or its loss as an ache: air-guitaring as a form of stretching the muscles of my atrophied past, a not wholly unpleasant sort of pain.
That’s not quite right. I don’t feel those sensations again as much as I feel the distance between that me and the person writing about it now. Sometimes—even for the crude, outdated, predictably sexist, stupid lyrics and programmatic structure of a Van Halen song—I am moved, not so much by the music but rather by the lack of it, by the absence of that song over the past twenty or thirty or even forty years, and by the painful recognition of this fact: time has passed. I am moved, yes, but by my own volition. I have done the moving. I have traveled out of that innocent, ignorant, childish, childhood realm. I have left my home.
Rituals of dispossession mark us: toys neglected first then banished to a spare bedroom closet, finally given en masse to other people’s kids, or dumped on the loading dock of a Salvation Army; those tragically unfashionable bell-bottoms or Members Only jackets purged from the wardrobe, and with them the bonds that tied us to former iterations of ourselves. We are pupa in that regard, maturing through acts of metamorphoses and castings off, moltings, discarding previous versions, shells of ourselves.
Or take my collection of CDs and my periodic culling of them, the attempts to portray a certain sensibility, a habit of mind, an intellect, simply through the ordered spines of jewel cases. Is it fate, testament to some more objective assessment of the group’s ultimate power, or just plain obstinacy that made me never want to sell off those Van Halen CDs? Something in me, even as I willfully, gleefully traded in the hair metal for bossa nova, classic rock for classic jazz, something in me could not part with Van Halen I and II, Women and Children First, Diver Down. I can picture them all now, can even reimagine where I was when I first saw their covers. My friend Vince could freehand the vignettes of the Fair Warning design. I adored the simplicity and angularity of Diver Down. (Only much later did I realize that the cover was just the iconic Scuba flag.) I remember how my cassette version of Van Halen II bleached over time, the tape losing its higher frequencies, muddying. (We might hold onto cassettes for the value of their physical form, not for their capacity to preserve.) These are relics to me now, meaningless to most but for me still carrying nostalgic charge.
I am not proud of my enduring love (can I call it that?) for Van Halen. Hardly. I am embarrassed by my juvenile adherence to these artifacts, let alone to the audio hallucinations they engender. I am embarrassed by who I was when I first listened to those songs, who I am again (always, sort of) when I hear them. It’s not Van Halen’s fault I was stupid and careless and somewhat dangerous to myself, gunning that silly car of mine around Upland like a fake hoodlum, fake bad boy with a busboy job, blasting bad music out the windows. Not Van Halen’s fault that I did, as their song encouraged, take my whiskey home one fateful night, and drink too much of it while jamming with friends in the garage, my parents out to dinner. Okay, maybe Van Halen was a little at fault there, since “Take Your Whiskey Home” (seventh track, Fair Warning) instructed me to get half way to the label before I might even make it through the night. Surely not Van Halen’s fault—how could they have known?—that my erstwhile uncle, a man I never knew, a man who died in prison (phony checks and scams galore), was an alcoholic and that my drinking, as stupid and posture-obsessed as it was—rekindled those memories in my mother, who laid into me the next day, crying over a different species of nostalgia.
Not Van Halen’s fault that I idolized them, wanted to be some amalgamation of them all: the flamboyant, big-circus acrobatics; the deft handwork; the sheer machinery of the band. They were an enterprise, a culture, an economy, but even more than that. They were—for better or worse—the roundest, fullest expression of the joy of being who I was and the suppression of all that I never thought I’d end up being. They were the tidy embodiment of a raft of emotions—the finest I could fathom—in the mythic world of adolescence I navigated.
The cover design of Stanley Lombardo’s translation of The Odyssey features that famously stark, black-and-white print of planet Earth, seen from the surface of the Moon. William Anders snapped it on December 24, 1968, while part of the Apollo 8 mission. What a gorgeous visual analog to the sense of desperate exile that Homer’s epic tries to capture, the overwhelming pain of removal. True, to the astronauts on that mission, Earth (their home) was mere hours away, even if the distances were far greater. Odysseus, on the other hand, was absent for twenty years. We know that fact before we even crack open Homer’s text, or at least we learn it very quickly: ten years of warfare, ten years lost at sea, amid all manner of sorceresses, nymphs, ogres, lotus eaters, cannibals, and the like. That image, though, that tiny swirling marble cast into thick ink—with the slightest bit of the Moon present for scale—that image is The Odyssey encapsulated. All Odysseus wants is simply to go home, and yet.
At times, in fact, home is right in front of him; he just can’t get there or doesn’t know where he is in relation to it. Looking at any map of Odysseus’s purported voyage home after the Trojan War (at least as charted by Homer), we see instantly the great lengths he has been forced to travel, the distances he suffered. We see them: from the shores of Ithaca, to the Trojan citadel, to Africa, Sicily, and beyond. We see them, but we remain—because of the confines of the frontispiece map—geographically restricted, the Mediterranean framed and cropped. The truth of it is this: Odysseus didn’t really go that far at all. Cruise ships manage something similar in no more than a week. And with piña coladas.
When I was twenty-three, Vince and I—self-styled voyagers ourselves—backpacked across Europe. To us, who, in unguarded moments (by then also self-styled music aficionados) probably still listened to Van Halen, we thought we saw a serviceable chunk of the world. England, France, Netherlands, Germany; the shores of Liguria, the monuments of Rome, Florence’s crowded opulence. We experienced Greece (ate McDonald’s in Athens), even Turkey, Austria, the Czech Republic. For nearly two months, my friend and I crossed the continent, eating strange foods, meeting strange people, visiting strange lands. We were little Odysseuses, especially when we returned, since we brought that expanded sense of the possible, along with our own self-congratulatory vision of who we were, masters of European transit and money, brought all that home, a place then hardly large enough to contain us.
And maybe that’s what home is, what coming home signifies: that the place can no longer afford to have us there.
I can still draw, with reasonable fidelity, the classic “VH” logo. Like the wings of a majestic eagle, its twin letters soar over the memory of my teenage years. Or they resemble sails, part of a larger vessel bearing me beyond the threshold of the ’70s and into the ’80s, where the nautical metaphors of popular music continued to suggest that sailing away, that escape in some seafaring form, was not only desirable but possible. But escape from what, exactly? And why?
I can still draw the logo, and I am not alone. Here, then, is a brief and incomplete corpus of answers I gathered from friends, when asked if they, too, if called upon, could freehand those signature Van Halen initials:
I’m going to say yes
Without a doubt
With my left hand
On every notebook I ever owned from 1982-1985
Odysseus, too, if called up, at ten or fifteen or twenty years’ distance, in the very cave of Polyphemus, or skirting the vortex of Charybdis, could have probably sketched with reasonable fidelity the contours of Ithaca. His kingdom, at least the version in his memory, was immutable, immaculate. So, too, is my kingdom, the realm I access only through Van Halen songs, the citadel of adolescence. For childhood, as my friend Jeff wrote, is the country we all come from and to which we can never return. We are all, in other words, exiles. It’s just that some of us never realize it.
A particularly poignant moment occurs late in The Odyssey, when the hero finally reveals his true identity to his son Telemachus, who—a young man by then—could have barely recognized his father, gone twenty years. It takes some convincing. Finally, though, the son realizes that this stranger, who, as Van Halen put it, was just moments before, in disguise, broken down and dirty, dressed in rags (“Dead or Alive”; Van Halen II), that this stranger is his father. He has come home, Telemachus. Salt tears, Homer writes, from the wells of longing in both men.
Here again, more crying.
In fact, their shared tears engender a curious simile. Cries, the bard continues, burst from both as keen and fluttering as those of the great taloned hawk, whose nestlings farmers take before they fly. Their tears, it seems, form two divergent types: those shed in joy at reunion and those testifying to the loss of some twenty years and, with them, the absence of an entire relationship. Odysseus’s son is no longer a child. He never knew Telemachus as a nestling. His son was, in a metaphorical sense, stolen from him. Odysseus has missed the sum total of his own son’s growth, and Telemachus his father’s presence. The tears are salt indeed, since there is no way for us to distinguish which sort of tears they are. (Salt, after all, is painful in a wound but essential as well. Its sting also purifies.) So helplessly they cried, Homer writes, and might have gone on weeping so till sundown. But what then? They’re just wasting more time in eulogizing the time already wasted. Or is it that the pain of recollection and joy of homecoming are, essentially identical, and that there is just one kind of tears shed here?
We are all exiles, yes, and, by remembering our exile, more beautiful—at least more human—because of it.
What, then, to make of my own father, whose musical canon fossilized in the late ’50s, who seems caught in a kind of audio amber, forever asking me with near breathless excitement, when a particular song comes on the radio, if I have heard it before. Yes, dad, I say, a hundred times. “Theme from A Summer Place” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Pink Shoelaces,” pretty much any song by Elvis prior to 1960: these and many others constitute the still-living soundtrack to my father’s perpetual adolescence and teenage years. I want to know what it feels like to him when he hears Sam Cooke or Otis Redding again, while driving his ’57 Chevy. I want to know if there’s any shock from the distance irrevocably revealed not ahead of him on the actual road but metaphorically behind him, in an irretrievable past.
My sense is that there is no shock, just a continuum. Those are the same songs he has loved for most of his life, playing out of the same radio, the same speakers, the same car; the same tunes compressed and filtered through transistors, part of the very air he breathes. He is an Odysseus who stayed home, who passed on the great voyage.
He never set sail. His kingdom is still intact.
The story of Van Halen—and here I mean the brothers—is also one of epic travel. Actual travel, too, from the shores not of some mythic land but from Amsterdam, whence their Dutch father (a musician himself, a clarinetist) and Javanese mother took the boys and a piano by boat to the New World; to Pasadena, California, not far from where I grew up. In the Smithsonian interview with Eddie, he talks of that voyage, of being exiles themselves, of playing that piano on the ship between his father’s sets (playing music to pay for his family’s passage). And of the ascendancy of Van Halen the group, in the waning days of disco and punk, in Los Angeles, and of the tinkering Eddie did to guitars, carving holes out of his Fender Stratocaster to accommodate the Humbucker pickups from a Les Paul, of all the innovations rendered that much more impressive by the fact that this legend, this guitar hero could not read music, never could. Like Homer, he too was blind.
And strangely musicless, if I don’t count his childhood immersed in the tunes of his father: big band repertoires and wedding polkas, played at gigs in which both Eddie and Alex were at times part of their father’s backup band. In the Smithsonian interview, Eddie says he idolized Eric Clapton (as Odysseus idolized Achilles, I like to think, one hero’s admiration of another) but only while Clapton played for Cream. Once he went solo, Eddie says, his interest waned, and not just for Clapton. The last album Eddie bought, so he claims, was Peter Gabriel’s So (1986). Before that, he couldn’t say. Eddie, I could argue, lived metaphorically blind and deaf, in an auditory realm all of his own making. What is nostalgic, would could be, for him? What music could summon tears? My bet would be one of his father’s tunes: the warm, round sound of a clarinet, the almost human resonance of a reed on a tongue.
I say that because at the end of the Smithsonian interview, during the Q&A, when a guy with a Van Halen shirt (the VH in a kind of mock alloy) asks Eddie about all the dead musicians who came before him, of all of them, whom would he choose to play with again, Eddie stares into and past the small audience in the auditorium, so much smaller than the arenas to which he has by then become accustomed; stares into it, past it, takes just a moment. Wow, he says, I’d like to jam with my father again.
Sing to me, Muse, of that man skilled in all ways of commuting, the father, in his vintage car, who braved Baseline at rush hour, who exited the 210 Freeway four exits early to snake and wind amid the subdivisions of West Covina, to avoid the worst of the honking and the backup, to labor finally in a distant kingdom. Many taillights home he endured, blurring the edges of sleep and boredom, abiding the hawk’s-eye traffic reports from Bruce Wayne—KFI’s “Eye in the Sky”—enthroned in helicopter, trolling above fleets, flotillas of cars awash in the Los Angeles basin. He suffered his son’s juvenile excess, the mock drag-race he lost his license for, the times he drove his father’s car half-drunk and underage, under Helios, god of the sun, and the judge that blotted out his driving privileges, wanted to lock him up. But he could not save his son from his poor music taste, could not fathom why the windows of his bedroom and his own badass car rattled often. Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus. Start where you will. Sing for our time, too, of this man of 500,000 miles, three engines and just one car.
Songs within songs. Songs, in some sense, about songs, self-referential but not wholly similar. Sons who resemble their fathers, who emanate from their fathers; sons who, at times, are frightened by the likenesses. I wonder if Telemachus—whose own miniature epic comprises much of the first four books of The Odyssey—ever worried that he was merely doomed to follow his father’s plotless journey, to be sucked down a watery hole or be forgotten: bones picked over on a far shore in front of a broken city wall. I wonder if Eddie and Alex—growing up in Pasadena, getting bullied at school for their foreignness, sleeping with their parents in the same room, the same bed, in a house with two other immigrant families—if they imagined for themselves a fate similar to their father’s, a talented but largely luckless musician washing dishes and gigging on the weekends.
When Odysseus finally beholds his son, a man by then, aged twenty or so, twenty years have passed between them. Odysseus is, in some sense, looking at himself at the age at which he left Ithaca, barely a man, brave and dumb enough to follow some of his buddies out on the wine-dark sea, antiquity’s answer to the road, the original sold-out world tour.
I wonder if every Van Halen song—though the lyrics chronicle the usual debaucheries and mock freedoms of being young and stupid, though critically and hopelessly mannered and, thus, lacking in most any redeemable quality—I wonder if the songs essentially had to be about nothing in particular. They were aggressively pointless in the way art often strives to be, repeating sexual metaphors the way Homer repeats his epithets: grey-eyed Athena; feel your love tonight; cow-eyed Hera; baby, baby, baby; rosy-fingered you know what I like.
The song, it seems to me now, inside any Van Halen song, is one of continuity with the past. Perhaps that’s true of most any rock song: that it first and foremost references itself, reinforces the surprisingly strict set of invariable characteristics of rock-and-roll the way each home in the subdivisions that surrounded me growing up in California, the way each one reinforced the rest: each with a tidy lawn making the adjacent lawns glimmer, timed sprinklers, a low wooden fence, the big bay doors of the garage concealing the hold, the past, the ruptured bicycles and exposed ribs of patio umbrellas, the messy workbench with its menagerie of turpentine and caustics and foul-smelling emollients in coffee cans, the reels and reels of family footage yellowing in their metal shields. This is true of most any rock song, perhaps, but is particularly poignant with Van Halen, whose lyrics, whose nifty, doo-wop background harmonies, whose shuffles and big-band-era showoffness never seemed wholly part of the contemporary soundscape anyway, and instead conjured an alternative past, the past in which their father with his clarinet, the boys with their piano on the boat, all of it kept shifting back and forth, from verse to chorus to solo to coda.
What does Odysseus weep for, really, when he hears Demodocus sing? It’s complicated, I know, but so is the machinery of nostalgia. We don’t choose our own brands of it. We don’t order it readymade, though it arrives intact and instantly deployable. A certain Van Halen song plays, and already I see the past unload its cargo, its nostalgia (Greek for home pain) into me. I come face to face with who I was all those years ago. I have traveled back, I have returned, the song tells me, and I am surprised to find myself once again on the shores of my old kingdom.
And when Odysseus boards the Phaeacian ship bound for Ithaca at last, the ship loaded with gifts from King Alcinous and his court, grey-eyed Athena casts the hero into a deep sleep, so deep in fact that even upon arrival he slumbers still. And after the crew has gently laid the hero and his treasures safely upon the shores of his own island; after they have set out again across the sea; when Odysseus wakes, home at last, he doesn’t even recognize it. The final irony of Homer’s epic of homecoming is that the hero can’t even celebrate it properly. He simply thinks he’s landed on another strange shore.
Then again, that Ithaca, the one stabilized in his memory, calcified, inert, dipped in amber twenty years prior: that Ithaca is gone, and in its place this replica, where a model of his palace stands but is instead populated by rowdy suitors, rival bands, rocking all night long; where Odysseus’s great father Laertes, once king, has taken himself away to a farm in the hills, overcome as he is with grief for his missing son. No wonder Odysseus doesn’t initially recognize his home; in some respects, it no longer is.
And then I think of my father, how—though no musician—he waves his pointed index fingers in arcs toward one another and back away, as he imagines an orchestra conductor would do, when one of his many favorite oldies plays on the radio, and he interrupts me and turns up the volume, asks if I know the song, if I have heard it, which I have, a hundred times. I think of my father, as Odysseus does his, cast into the hills with his olives and sadness; as Telemachus does his, gigging out on the wide Mediterranean, tearing the house down; as Eddie thinks of his father, now gone, part of memory and music, the song within a Van Halen song, which, when I hear it, makes me think of my own father, born in the year of our Lord, 1941, in the kingdom of Pasadena, state of California.