My apologies for starting this post like a cooking blog that delves into long, drawn-out aromatic memories before getting to the dang recipe. But in my first book review, while I’m stirring up two good reads into one pot, I have to throw in a dash of my usual self-chat.
I am one of those people who has had my nose in a book since I was a toddler. As Grandma Hill liked to tell it, I came home from my first day of kindergarten crying because I didn’t get to learn everything in the big encyclopedias. Looking back, I can clearly see how the books I’ve read have shaped my life, from Judy Blume stuff as a kid to the Jim Morrison bio No One Here Gets Out Alive as a teenager. For years now my reading has tended toward generation-spanning historical fiction, á la James Michener novels, with a good blend of the never-ending stream of musician biographies. I love stories of people, whether lives imagined or lives lived, famous or ordinary, in whatever place and time they happen to be. (If only they taught history this way.) Having just been yanked out of an epic, multi-novel-world that had me intimately exploring the characters of ancient Rome, particularly Rome’s biggest rock star Julius Caesar, I turned to my bedside assemblage of rock star bios. Another book, another world.
Living in a Van Halen loving household, we have two books lying around: Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal (2015) by Greg Renoff, an academic historian and writer, and Runnin’ With the Devil: A Backstage Pass to Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen (2017) by Noel Monk, VH’s first tour manager and then manager until the end of the DLR era, with Joe Layden, a noted writer.
Generally speaking, Renoff’s book goes deep into the childhood, adolescence, and club-playing years, while Monk’s book goes deep into what life was like on and off the road as a fifth member of the band during their rise and ascension to fame. I consider the Renoff and Monk books a complementary two-volume perspective.
One of the main things you learn is that it was quite the complicated flock of personalities that was signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1978: two close-knit brothers, both genius musicians; one intelligent and focused “diva of the first order”(I quote Monk, p. 20); and one wholesome nice guy. Learning where they came from and where they went was just as epic-ly fun as reading about the lives of Pompey and Julius Caesar.
Van Halen Rising is the result of Renoff’s extensive research into the early lives of the band members, their families, and the community they grew up in. As far as the Van Halen brothers, it’s as if they are the American dream coming out of a historical fiction novel, maybe even a Jackie Collins novel: In 1962, a talented German gigging musician (a big band clarinetist) emigrates to the U.S. with his two young sons, uses his meager funds to buy them music lessons to stoke the family genius, only to see them become decadent rock stars of the highest echelon.
Like many sons throughout history, the dreams of Edward and Alex Van Halen did not exactly align with their father’s. But as Renoff’s book tells us, one day Jan Van Halen, realizing his talented long-haired rocker sons were following the same but different path, took his boys to the local music store. He traded in the family instruments and financed the purchase of an excellent drum kit and a Gibson Les Paul guitar, everything they’d always wanted. It was what they didn’t have – a PA system – that was a fortuitous twist of fate, a cooperative incident, for the VH brothers. Something a rival band member, a confident showman with a fierce determination to be a star and an endless supply of perseverance, did have.
Photo: My first concert ticket stub – Van Halen in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1980.
Renoff’s book cites hundreds of sources and talks to a lot of the people who were there: the classmates, neighbors, and bandmates, and he digs up old stories, photos, and band flyers. He also goes into detail on the bar band years, which I had never read about before. I was amused and not at all surprised to learn that David Lee Roth hosted wet t-shirt contests at dive bars in the San Fernando Valley.
In looking back at 1970s rock music from my own perspective, I readily agree with Renoff’s premise that Van Halen saved heavy metal from the soft rock that had taken over in by the mid-70s. He makes a good case for the book’s subtitle and highlights the influence of the late 60s/early 70s darker (and often British) hard rock on some kids in oh-so-sunny Southern California:
They’d transformed the staid sound of metal into something that sounded fresh and vibrant…Greg Renoff, p. xix
It’s cool that this meticulously cited historical account, Van Halen Rising, is such a smooth read. I would totally watch a movie of this book, á la Dazed and Confused (a nostalgic, small-town teenage movie set in the 1970s arena rock years), with some local backyard, garage, and community center bands thrown in. The story of these kids’ youths, set in that fortuitous place in space and time, is all there.
Runnin’ With the Devil is Noel Monk’s 2017 memoir reflecting on his time adulting over this group of hard-partying rock stars. Monk, just off the road from the 1978 Sex Pistols tour, became Van Halen’s first tour manager and eventual band manager who lived, breathed, and bled VH from 1978 to 1985. Monk eventually became a fifth band member with a one-fifth business share, whose job and talent was to keep the dream afloat amidst the chaos. Until, like other band members, he got the bad break-up treatment.
Monk’s way with words that had me busting out laughing a few times. It’s another easy throwback read that gives you a realistic look at life on the road – which was pretty much exactly what you would think, and at the band members’ personalities – which were not always what you would think. Monk’s interactions with the band were up close and personal on every level, and he makes both interesting and obvious personality commentary. For instance, Monk confirms that unlike David, for Edward it was the music, not the stardom that came first. But they knew they needed each other.
They were friends, partners, rivals; they both inspired and infuriated each other.Noel Monk, p. 22
Like many singer/guitarist relationships of great bands before and after, it seems as if the lifelong contrast between every aspect of their personalities – the balance, the binary – was key to their success. It reminds us that contrast is what makes things work; there can be no creative expansion without it.
It also occurred to me that Michael Anthony deserves accolades for more than his unmistakable bass chops and brilliant back-up vocals. His chill nature surely acted as some type of Universal gorilla-glue to hold this band together through both eras. Can you imagine what implosion might have happened if at least one member wasn’t a no-drama, happy, gentle good guy, who stayed loyal to his high school sweetheart? Who appeared to demurely sign a contract relinquishing his one-fourth rights to VH in exchange for hired help status? I actually relate to this guy. I’d take the blue pill too. It’s as if he said ‘hey guys, thanks for the crazy ride and thanks for setting me free…I’m good with money, it’ll all be cool, I’ll go play with my good buddy Sammy and enjoy this next phase of life immensely.’ I love happily-ever-after.
Monk, a take-charge-of-the-situation-and-make-things-happen sort of guy who was integral to Van Halen’s success, has tons of great stories: a bullying technique used to stop Ronnie Montrose from hogging all the warm-up time, how the level of partying changed after their tour opening for Black Sabbath, the Jimi Hendrix logo that looks suspiciously like the Van Halen logo…the list goes on. He shares a lot of his personal photos, which are thoroughly enjoyable and akin to pulling out the old photo album of yore.
Photo: Clip of book cover, photo and copyright Neil Zlozower.
I’ll also point out Monk’s contemplative choice of a book cover, which seems genuinely storytelling in itself: Alex drowning in malt-liquor, Eddie and his guitar in his own happy little world, David being provocative with a bottle of alcohol, and Michael looking at David like wth are you doing, as if snapped right before the eye roll. I love it. A raw and honest photo by legendary photographer Neil Zlozower.
Between these two books there is an endless list of cool tidbits you will stop and read out loud to your spouse or whoever you feel the need to stop and text. From the VH brothers working with their dads’ polka band at bar mitzvahs, to their mom serving lumpas during band practice to their middle school set lists, to how Eddie’s guitar techniques evolved, to DLR’s life-changing radio moment and taste for soul music, to old band flyers to bootleggers to payola to Valerie. And to discovering new music by some of their early influences, like Cactus and Mountain.
Both are great coffee-table books, whether you read them from start to finish (like me) or check out a few pages every so often (like my husband). I think good follow-up reads will be David Lee Roth’s 1997 Crazy From the Heat, followed by a re-read of Sammy Hagar’s 2011 Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock.
But up next is Valerie Bertinelli’s 2022 release Enough Already: Learning to Love the Way I am Today. And I might sneak in a few happily-ever-after magical 1800s London stories (C.J. Archer lunchtime escapism, anyone?). Can anyone recommend any other VH-related books to add to my reading list? Just let me know in the comments below. Thanks!