The following piece was originally published in a slightly rawer / clunkier form in 2008 via the Crawdaddy! website. Though the careers of both Van Halen and Weezer march on (inexplicably, almost vexingly) I believe the core truth here continues to ring true.
The biggest mistake my generation ever made, aside from dismissing funny man Norm MacDonald once he left “Saturday Night Live,” was believing from day one that Weezer was just kidding around about all those 1970s hard rock references. Oh, those jokers, we thought upon hearing “In The Garage.” No way do they have KISS posters on their walls. It’s probably all Frank Black collages. We were similarly tickled when the Weezer logo was unveiled, a giant W that aped the flashy symbol of party metal gods Van Halen. Finally, Gen X had taken a direct shot at those Dutch assholes, and it felt so good.
A decade later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Weezer fan from way back who isn’t infuriated by the trajectory their career has taken. The quirky little bubble gum grunge band behind such heart-on-the-sleeve anthems as “Say It Ain’t So” and “Tired of Sex” has become an arena-filling Top 40 machine, authoring vapid hits like “Beverly Hills” (the video of which was filmed at the friggin’ Playboy Mansion!). Shame on them for selling out? No, shame on us for not realizing much sooner that Weezer’s prime directive was never to keep the Cobain flame burning. Unlike their Seattle contemporaries, this slick, L.A.-birthed group never openly declared war on David Lee Roth and the spandex nation he begat because their dream was always to conquer it.
After all, lead Weez Rivers Cuomo started out in a heavy metal band, Avant Garde (later called Zoom), decked out with requisite poofy hair, severe facial expressions, and six string wizardry. Had the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams not crushed the Sunset Strip’s skull with their Doc Martins and dropped D tuning, there’s a chance we’d know a very different Rivers C (whose “rocker” pseudonym was Peter Kitts). Luckily, Riv wasn’t just a flashy guitarist—he could also craft a heartbreaking melody. This would prove useful in the days of flannel and Luke Perry sideburns. Ultimately, it would make Rivers Cuomo the Clinton-era’s Eddie Van Halen (read: guitar genius with funny name).
At a time when Van Halen was floundering, wondering how they’d connect with the kids of the rabid fans they drew into football stadiums fifteen years earlier, Weezer burst forth with 1994’s Weezer; the album has its beautiful, introspective songs, but it also has plenty of rockin’ radio anthems teenagers loved to blast as they zoomed out of their high school’s parking lot on any given mid-nineties afternoon (“My Name Is Jonas,” “Surf Wax America”). It was definitely the record you threw on a party if you wanted to get people moving. Loud guitars, isolationist lyrics, earnest melodies, sitcom references—there was something for everybody. This broad appeal and demographic balance was something bands like Everclear and Silverchair couldn’t quite master. At a time when it was still slightly frowned upon, Weezer became America’s only bona fide rock stars.
The so-called “glory years” of Van Halen and Weezer were both relatively short. David Lee Roth exited VH after half a decade (give or take) and was replaced with Sammy Hagar. This was considered blasphemous to hardcore fans, many of whom disowned the band immediately and dubbed the new, mature Van Halen “Van Hagar.” The departure of Weezer bassist Matt Sharp after 1996’s cathartic Pinkerton didn’t illicit a comparable reaction, but it did close the book on Weezer’s “classic era.” What’s interesting is that while Van Hagar soldiered on making albums that bordered on adult contemporary and struggled for relevance, Weezer went on hiatus following Sharp’s take off, almost as if to say, “You know what? This might be it.”
Oddly, the disappearance of alterna-rock’s favorite sons allowed them to ascend to Van Halen-esque levels of reverence in the minds of anyone who was on the fence before. At the close of the nineties, lyrical couplets from Pinkerton were just as oohed and aahed over as any pentatonic explosion Eddie V. ever played. Emo bands proudly wore the Weezer influence on their sleeve in the same manner late eighties hair bands solemnly praised Roth and Co. in their prime. Would the now-legendary nerds ever return and grace us with their awkward pop laced with junk culture quips and wanky leads?
Yes, they would, at the exact moment the world was just bursting at the seams for more Weezer. In 2001, Rivers, rhythm guitarist Brian Bell, and drummer Patrick Wilson came out of hiding (with rookie bassist Mikey Welsh) and mounted the arena tour they probably always dreamed about. Fans made cross country treks and hung out in parking lots for hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of the sweater-wearing foursome in their giant Ecolounge bus. Sound like steaming heaps of rock n’ roll bullshit? It was.
Weezer could still put together a catchy tune or three, though, as evidenced on that year’s creatively titled Weezer (a.k.a. The Green Album) and 2002’s Maladroit. If those two were the Women And Children First and Fair Warning of the Weezer catalog, respectively, then 2005’s Make Believe was without question their 1984. The difference is, whereas Van Halen was praised for graduating to light, fun pop, Weezer was derided for not offering up more mopey opuses of regret and longing, the stuff many fell for in the first place.
Anyone who goes to see Van Halen or Weezer in this day and age is trying to recapture something from years past. With the former, it’s probably the beer-soaked nights of the Reagan eighties, when the sex was loose and pink mesh was not a crime. With the latter, it’s the self-conscious nineties, when the sex was a painful mystery and buttoning the top button was not a crime. Weezer as a nostalgia act stings for many people I know, people who were hoping the band’s 21 Century return would herald Pinkerton II. As much as we want Rivers Cuomo to be our Brian Wilson, that’s not the way he wanted it. Otherwise he wouldn’t have added those wings to the W in the first place.
Our shared frustration be summed up in a lyric Diamond Dave shouted on 1978’s Van Halen at the start of the ferocious “I’m the One”:
“We came here to entertain you, leaving here we aggravate you, don’t you know it means the same to me, honey?”
A Different Kind of Truth
A Different Kind of Truth is so unexpectedly driving, so utterly animated, and so unabashedly Van Halen it may actually make this band relevant again. At the very least, it will remind humankind how VH managed to conquer turntables and car stereos back when Apple Computers was considered a bigger joke than Scott Baio’s career. That is to say, this album is a two-sided coin of frisky heavy metal swing and keen pop sensibility that basically cloaks the median age of its creators (which is somewhere in the hundreds, I’m guessing).
Perhaps credit should go to Truth co-producer John Shanks, who counts amongst his knob-fiddling credentials such fresh, dewy starlets as Hilary Duff, Ashlee Simpson, Diana DeGarmo, and Kelly Clarkson. Maybe he carried/transmitted all their spunk to Van Halen like an airborne disease. Then again, consider the material on display itself: a number of the songs on A Different Kind of Truth have been reconstructed from unpolished b-sides dating back to this legendary group’s nascent years. Of course Van Halen reclaim their macho ’70s strut on “She’s The Woman”—it’s been locked away in a vault since then. Lazy? Maybe a smidge, but remember the last time VH tried to adapt to the times? Gary Cherone was involved, and the results hurt us all.
Only one front man in the galaxy could sell with any shred of honesty gimmick lyrics like “headless body in a topless bar!” and “you wanna be a monk, you gotta cook a lot of rice!”—walking orgasm David Lee Roth, who’s back on record with Van Halen after several millennia of drama. Roth’s vocal range plateaued long ago, but the guy can still coo, screech, and growl unlike any other pervert on the scene. He feigns some singing here and there, too, and that’s really all these bouncy sleaze nuggets need (apart from a touch of that backup vocal cotton candy Michael Anthony used to provide, recreated here to an acceptable degree).
The real surprise on A Different Kind of Truth concerns the Ferrari-like tempos the Van Halens achieve throughout the album. Guitar god Eddie and his rock solid drumming brother Alex haven’t lost their speedy synergy; the boys careen through a dense thicket of riffing on “China Town,” offer up an engine-revving classic in “Bullethead,” and remind you they invented the fractured hard rock template Mötley Crüe rode to infamy with “As Is” and “Outer Space.” The group’s noob, twenty-something bassist Wolfgang Van Halen (son of Eddie), not only keeps up with his elders but plays such buttery rhythms you’ll forget nepotism is the only thing keeping him from being stuck at home rockin’ his hairy nutsack.
And so it comes to pass: Van Halen loosen their Dockers and decide it is once again time for our nation to have a beer-soaked party featuring dogs in Hawaiian shirts and dump trucks full of double entendres. Yes, Eddie’s six string sorcery will make your jaw slack. Yes, “Diamond” Dave’s lyrics will make you roll your eyes as often as they make you smile. Yes, A Different Kind of Truth makes up for Van Halen III and every year these guys spent clawing each other in the press. A legitimately great Van Halen album in 2012? Maybe the world really is ending.
FINAL SCORE: Four headless bodies at a topless bar (out of four).