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Tuning Up: Music Critics - A Different King of Loathing

Many moons ago when I was in journalism school, I covered the local music scene for the student newspaper. Stylistically, it was a small, somewhat homogenized scene—mostly kind of

Many moons ago when I was in journalism school, I covered the local music scene for the student newspaper. Stylistically, it was a small, somewhat homogenized scene—mostly kind of tame alt-rock, with the occasional jam band or jazz outfit. Like all scenes, though, there was a great variety in the quality of music being played.

As a passionate musician, I took my job seriously—I felt I owed it to students to be frank about the performances put on by bands vying for a piece of their meager ramen-noodle budgets. The hilarious part was the reaction I got when I called out certain bands for what I felt was offensive audacity. I’m talking about the ones that seemed to think investing in POS gear and posing like a rock star— without putting much time into practicing and songwriting (or even remembering song lyrics)— made it okay to charge a fairly significant entrance fee.

The hate email I got—mostly from band members’ relatives and friends—was hysterical in its contradictory exclamations: “Who do you think you ARE?! What gives you the RIGHT to say such-and-such about so-and-so! You are [INSERT THE MOST IMMATURELY INSULTING THING THAT COMES TO MIND HERE]!”

I eventually had to write an op-ed on the subject. In a nutshell, it said, “Who do I think I am? Er, I think I’m the guy whose job is to share his opinion. You don’t have to agree with it, but it’s still my job. Take it or leave it.”

This jaunt down memory lane came to mind after writing my recent review of what’s probably the most anticipated album of the millennium so far—Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth (click here to read it). I’m not in any way comparing Van Halen or their new album to the shoddy bands I reviewed in college. It’s just that the virulent response the review has gotten from some readers is similar. But I knew from the outset that I’d be playing with fire if I wrote anything other than a glowing piece, because Eddie has arguably inspired more guitarists than any other player to emerge in the last 35 years or so.

We put the review online the day the album came out, and I prepared for the crap storm. And what a storm it was! It’s gotten far more comments than any other album review we’ve ever done—and it’s in the top five for most comments on any article ever posted to our website. I’ve been pilloried left and right as everything from a bitter Van Hagar fan to an Elvis Costello wannabe to a hater of rock ’n’ roll. Frankly, some of the comments had me questioning some people’s reading comprehension levels, but in the end it all slid like water off a duck’s butt. I mean, I get it—we all have a passion for music, so it’s natural to have these vehement reactions to such a huge album.

Now that the review is also in print, I anticipate a bit of a repeat. So let me add a little context for anyone mortally offended by my lukewarm reception of the album. For the record, I started playing guitar because of Eddie Van Halen. In a third-grade careers project, I wrote that I wanted to be a rock star because of Eddie. I doodled pictures of striped electric guitars and pictures of myself with long hair and a VH-logo necklace. I took our 8-track tape of Van Halen II to friends’ houses in effort to convert them. One friend’s dad, an evangelical preacher, told me I was a big disappointment and that the music was, and I quote, “straight from the pit of hell.” My brother and I recorded the band’s live 1983 U.S. Festival appearance on cassette and listened to it over and over. The first concert I ever went to was the 1984 tour when I was 12. The whole time I sat in the nosebleed section, fantasizing about being invited onstage to jam. I stood up to endless ridicule from New Wave-loving ’80s peers for being a hardcore Van Halen fan instead of being into Erasure. When Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” came out, I stayed up late for the video debut on Friday Night Videos, crossing my fingers that Eddie would come sliding in on his knees for the solo. Because of Eddie, the first electric guitar I chose for myself was a red Kramer—the same model Floyd Rose is playing in an old ’80s ad where he’s sitting on the back of a Harley driven by Eddie himself. I went to the 5150, OU812, and Balance tours, bought T-shirts at all of them, and, as a teen, even named our dog Eddie. I had at least 10 posters of Eddie and the band on my bedroom wall, and I had my artist sister paint me a custom sweatshirt depicting Eddie onstage playing Frankenstein. The first four VH albums are some of my all-time favorites, as a reread of my review should make pretty clear. Yeah, I’m a Van Halen fan.

Some readers said my comments about rehashed, old material proved I didn’t know jack about old Van Halen, and they compared Ed & Co. to AC/DC—a band that proudly refuses to evolve. But that argument overlooks a wealth of evidence to the contrary. I don’t have room here to run down the laundry list of items I think conclusively prove evolution and progressive thinking have long been integral to what many of us love about Van Halen. But I’ve listed them in a series of four posts in the review’s comments section.

So if you feel the need to beseech the gods to rain “Blood and Fire” upon me and my house after reading the review (in which case, I would definitely want to “Stay Frosty”), by all means, click the link above to read Exhibits 1-4 in my closing argument, and then submit your opinion. Hell, we might as well do this in proper EVH fashion and cause a cyber “Eruption” of jaw-dropping proportions.