LOS ANGELES, Nov. 26 - Van Halen's performance at the Staples Center this last Tuesday resolved several free floating bits of suspense. For one thing, the band declined to perform any Sammy Hagar songs. Although the stage had been laid out in a mighty "S" formation - one half a raised parapet, the other a curving catwalk - this was apparently done despite their second singer, not to honor his monogram. Reunited with David Lee Roth, Van Halen devoted two solid hours to their 1978-1984 material, 25 songs heavily weighted towards their first LP, plus one drum solo. A giant movie screen behind the band proved that yes, this was really happening, no celebrity look-alikes or tribute act could so closely mimic the motions of the performers below. It was hard to hear music this good and this loud and not be gunning a Porsche 911 down the Pacific Coast Highway or piloting a space shuttle into combat. The only polite response was to applaud at every possible opportunity.
There is a rule of male gerontology that has all men age into one of only two dozen predetermined celebrities. This rule holds for men who are already celebrities. The large movie screen confirmed for us that David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen are both assuming the face of actor Lance Henriksen, and that drummer Alex Van Halen has already completed his transformation into 1980's Leonard Nimoy. Still, all three original members seemed limber, energetic, and in very high spirits. Roth, 53, is unable to perform the flying splits of his youth, yet he frequently displayed that manic grin of rapture last worn by Liberace. Following the lead of The Rolling Stones, this reinvigorated Van Halen could have another 40 years of performing ahead of them.
This is where the other bit of suspense came in. New bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, son of Eddie and nephew of Alex, is only sixteen. He has yet to age into his own face. Wolfgang was born six years after David Lee Roth left the band. The man he replaced, Michael Anthony, was the bass player of Van Halen for twice as long as Wolfgang has been alive, and Anthony's squat, cartoony degeneracy and custom Jack Daniels bass were noticeably absent. The new bassist held his own within each song, even if it was a little distressing to hear a high school sophomore sing along with "Hot For Teacher". Only once, during the chorus of "Jamie's Cryin'", did Wolfgang's voice seem off, not so much cracking as simply flat and unripe.
Will Wolfgang himself crack? He'd only played with Van Halen two dozen times by this night. Stepping into the family business must seem not so much a thing he was born into as bred for. Audrey Hepburn was charged with similarly strenuous public appearances in 1953's "Roman Holiday", and she simply walked off into the night. Defection must have crossed young Wolfgang's mind. The pressures and expectations must be enormous. When Roth needled his young bandmate with the "you'll get some leg tonight for sure" line from "Unchained", the moment verged on hazing. Not all teenagers could cope.
Curiously, the camera crew stayed far away from the new member. For every one shot of a distant bassist, there were five lingering closeups on David and Eddie's creased, nut-colored abs. The camera pulled in close enough for us to read Eddie's "Wolfgang" tattoo, but never close enough to Wolfgang to read his t-shirt. It would be nice to think of this remote coverage as some manifestation of Eddie's fatherly overprotection. But it may have had as much to do with the young Van Halen's girth. On the far side of "husky", he simply does not look like anyone else in the band. The entire night was reminiscent of the soft-focus treatment an overweight Carnie Wilson received in Wilson Phillips videos. By the time the last encore rolled around ("Jump", the band's only #1 Billboard single), David Lee Roth retrieved a giant inflatable microphone from a stagehand and lugged this across the stage for a final victory lap; we saw more of this prop than we did the bassist.
This reminded me of the three-foot inflatable microphone I owned in high school. Every afternoon I'd come home to find it dangling limp from my bedroom ceiling, and every afternoon I'd mount my dresser and breathe new life back into the thing. I thought it looked cool. I also listened to punk records and sitar music, and burned a lot of incense, and had a large Pink Floyd poster on my wall. I didn't really know who I was at that point, or even what I liked. I was prone to frequent hormonal spikes that caused me to do and say things I couldn't explain. I was 16, the same age as Wolfgang. If I thought there was even the remotest possibility of David Lee Roth mocking my lack of sexual experience in front of twenty thousand people, I would have jumped in front of a bus. Then again, my last name isn't also the name of America's greatest rock band.