Van Halen's 'Tattoo' a Bad Ink Job

Van Halen recently played a much-discussed show over at Cafe Wha?, a small club owned by David Lee Roth’s nonagenarian uncle. The small crowd was made up of celebrities, music industry types and journalists like Grantland’s metal guru Chuck Klosterman, who proclaimed the show to be “incredibly, insanely, undeniably awesome.”

There is no doubt in my mind that seeing Van Halen, fronted by the mega-personality of Roth, in an intimate club setting the way God intended us to exhibit rock n’ roll, must be akin to a religious experience.

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Along with the pop-culture powerhouse of KISS™, Van Halen helped usher in the era of ’80 heavy metal, when mainstream rock n’ roll was all about partying hard and living in the red, before MTV switched from cocaine to black tar heroin in the ’90s, and everyone playing music became depressed and started killing themselves.

“Eruption” announced to the world that Eddie Van Halen was pretty much the gnarliest guitarist around, and Roth’s Jim Dandy-influenced stage persona made him the model frontman of that era. After a wildly successful run, the band kicked Roth to the curb, bringing Sammy Hagar into the fold, leaving Roth to find some success as a solo artist before slowly fading away. Despite doing four solid albums with Hagar, he too was eventually shoved out, leading Van Halen into a chaotic period that included an aborted reunion with Roth and an album with Extreme’s Gary Cherone on the mic that most would rather forget.

Long story short, bassist Michael Anthony, whose soaring backing vocals were a big part of classic Van Halen tunes like “Dance the Night Away,” was given the boot to make room for Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, and Roth was finally brought back in for a full-blown reunion and a much-anticipated new album. Last week, we heard Van Halen’s first single with Roth since 1984, “Tattoo.” Generally bands put their best foot forward when tossing a single off, and if “Tattoo” is any indication, this new album is gonna be a snoozer.

There’s no denying that even though Roth may be too old at this point to do crazy windmill kicks, his energy as a frontman hasn’t diminished much at all. But “Tattoo” is a song that sound like moldy leftovers from Roth’s original tenure with the band, like a tune they wrote and cast aside because it wasn’t up to scratch.

Old rock stars talking about getting Elvis tats and ink of the number of the labor union a family member comes off as forced and ridiculous. Anthony’s presence is also sorely missed, and having Eddie’s kid in the mix, who is barely out of high school, reeks of nepotism. But Anthony is better for it; he and Hagar are making music superior to this stuff in Chickenfoot with the great Joe Satriani and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Seeing Van Halen’s latest line-up live must be an excellent experience; hearing Roth belt out classic tunes from his original stint has to be as cool as Klosterman described. But having high hopes for the new album seems a bit optimistic, as re-vamped rock groups that had their heyday before the scourge of grunge don’t play well. The music they produced is about youthful pleasures, and such music gives its creators a short shelf-life when it comes to cranking it out. This is why bands like Rush and Iron Maiden can keep making music as old men and it doesn’t give anyone pause, because their music has nothing to do with youthful themes. They’d rather sing about Ayn Rand or Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” respectively.

Perhaps the new Van Halen album is better than its first single indicates, but right now, “Tattoo” makes it look like Van Halen will join the ranks of Motley Crue and KISS as bands producing tired material that makes futile attempts to recapture the sound of their glory days.