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GROB: Cool! I get to write a column about Van Halen

By James Grob, jgrob@charlescitypress.com

I had no idea who Billie Eilish was until last week.

I just don’t listen to that kind of music, and honestly, if I did, you’d probably think there was something wrong with me.

My children are all adults, and my age currently resides on the north side of Half-a-Century Street. In the last week, I’ve learned that Billie Eilish is a 17-year-old pop music sensation, and the youngest artist ever to be nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. I can only assume that she’s quite talented.

The fact that I’ve never listened to one of her songs shouldn’t be a surprise. I never cared too much for the Grammys when I was young, so it would be really weird if I was paying attention to the latest pop music trends and listening to the crooning of a 17-year-old pop star, now that I’m old.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized and accepted that popular contemporary musicians aren’t exactly writing songs with me in mind. I’m not their target audience anymore, not sure I ever was. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

My parents couldn’t stand most of the music I listened to when I was in high school. Regularly, they complained that it was too loud, too obnoxious, too vulgar. That was kind of the point. Imagine if my parents would’ve said things like “that’s a great song, play it again, turn it up louder!” I would’ve been horrified.

If a song was good, it was good. If that song annoyed, enraged or disgusted my parents, it was even better. If my parents actually liked it, then there was obviously something wrong with it. Put that cassette back in the case.

My musical horizons expanded exponentially once I got out of high school, and I started liking just about every kind of music available, from rock to show tunes, from metal to classical, from calypso to country to jazz to blues to much more. I still don’t listen to most of what’s on the pop charts, but overall, my taste is diverse.

In high school, Van Halen was the tastiest ear candy I knew, and that’s why I’m writing about Billie Eilish.

The young singing sensation was recently on one of the late night talk shows, and the conversation revealed that she had no idea who Van Halen was. Apparently, she’d never heard of the band. This exchange went viral on the world wide inter-webs and twitter-nets and further fueled the generational feuding between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials and GenXers and whoever else dares to have a completely uninformed knee-jerk opinion.

A blood-red flood of abusive invective washed down on Billie Eilish, and for a couple of days, she became the poster child for everything that’s wrong with everyone who’s under 30. You know, they are all ignorant and lazy and self-centered and eat laundry soap and don’t know who Van Halen is and inappropriately pierce all their body parts and won’t pull up their pants and have a closet full of meaningless participation trophies.

And the young people responded with “OK Boomer” and “get off my lawn,” and pointed out how ironic it is that the generation that thought up the idea of giving participation trophies to kids is the same generation that calls the kids “entitled” for receiving participation trophies.

We’re the ones who gave them the trophies, folks, so let’s stop yelling at them for just going along with our stupid idea — but that’s a whole other column.

This column is about Van Halen, the amazingly talented and innovative guitar band that restored hard rock to the forefront of the music scene and provided the structural template for hundreds of successful rock artists who followed them.

“We came here to entertain you, leaving here we aggravate you. Don’t you know it means the same to me?”
— Van Halen, “I’m the One,” 1978.

My parents hated them, I loved them. (We won’t factor in the Sammy Hagar debacle here — that’s a sore subject for me.)

Pay attention now, young people. The crazy, “unwoke” old guy is about to teach you something about music and culture.

Van Halen’s energy and virtuosity reinvented live concerts, turning a music show into a four-ring circus. Van Halen brothers Eddie and Alex were the freak shows, as they reimagined what could be done on guitars and drums.

David Lee Roth was more than a lead singer. He was a wise-cracking ringleader, a mock-poet, a pop-philosopher, an extreme athlete, a slightly enlightened wise-cracking, toke-holding surfer dude.

Bass player Michael Anthony held it all together and provided unique high harmonies.

The lights, explosions, antics, mesmerizing guitar hooks, howling vocal growls swirling around a crunching heavy metal sound — tempered by a sugary pop-music mentality — demanded the world’s attention.

Most importantly, it was so darn fun.

Van Halen’s music led to the sale of more than 80 million albums worldwide. Most of those albums were sold in the years between 1978 and 1988 — 14-24 years before Billie Eilish was born.

Why on Earth should I expect a 17-year-old kid to be even vaguely familiar with a rock band that was at its musical and popular peak almost 20 years before she was born?

Every day, I hear from people my age, and older, who are remarkably uninformed — or criminally misinformed — about what’s going on around them, in the world, in their own communities. None of these people have the excuse of being 17 — too young to know, or too young to care.

Every member of Van Halen’s original lineup is in his 60s now. How many 60-year-old rock stars were you aware of at 17?

I hope Billie Eilish has taken a few minutes to listen to some old Van Halen tunes in the last week, and I hope she likes what she hears. Maybe they’ll even influence her musical direction in a good way. If she doesn’t like them, fair enough. To each her own. I just hope she gives them a good listen.

I plan on listening to a few of her songs at some point very soon. I won’t promise I’ll like them — as I said, typically not my thing — but I’ll hear them out.

I hope she doesn’t feel as though all of us old guys think less of her for not yet experiencing Van Halen’s music by age 17. It’s actually our fault, for not introducing Van Halen to her.

And really, I hope she doesn’t give a damn about what any of us old guys think of her at all. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. Old people aren’t supposed to matter, that’s the whole point. If she annoys, enrages or disgusts us, that makes her music that much better.

“ … Look at all these little kids, takin’ care of the music biz. Does their business take good care of me?”
— Van Halen, “I’m the One,” 1978.

Face it — if you’re really, honestly upset with Billie Eilish, it’s probably not because she doesn’t know who Van Halen is.

You’re upset because she’s 17, and you’re not.

And you’ll never be again.

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