On November 3rd I drove to Montreal for my first Van Halen experience. This show had been a long time coming for me, since that fateful day in 1984 when I stood in front of Maple Leaf Gardens searching in vain for a scalper ticket to that evening’s Van Halen concert for any amount under $20 (face value: about $12). The worst seats in the house were going for $75 well after the show started and I took the subway home alone and dejected, having been shut out of a concert for the very first time.
Seven years later felt like a lifetime. David Lee Roth had long been unsuccessfully replaced (as if) by the very mediocre Sammy Hagar (Sam Halen, as I grudgingly called it) and I had gone from a Grade 10 dropout working factory jobs in Toronto, alone, friendless and struggling to make rent to working my way through a music degree at Carleton University surrounded by amazing, like-minded friends who shared things like Van Halen concert road trips with me.
I bought tickets in advance – once bitten, twice shy – and a bunch of us rolled into Montreal in my red Toyota minivan, the Big Red Tomato. We undoubtedly drove home after the show; having the freedom to splurge on extravagances like a hotel room (even split among a half-dozen people) was still several years away. We looked around for a free place to park and went straight to the venue.
Alice In Chains opened the show but I paid little mind. I was there for Van Halen, dammit, so I spent the opening set waiting in line for beer and splurging on the cheesiest Van Halen tie-dye you’ve ever seen. I still wear it regularly, and with great joy. It’s ironic because people must surely think I’m wearing it ironically and I’m not. Actually it’s super-ironic.
And finally, after a seven-year itch, Van Halen hit the stage. I jumped up and down and pumped my fists even though they opened with Poundcake. Then another new one. And another. When It’s Love was barely a relief, being a horrible song but at least one I knew the changes to.
When they finally got around to the good stuff – Panama, You Really Got Me, Jump – it all fell somewhere between awesome and…well…lame, with a heavy leaning towards lame. I know Sammy spent more years as a member of VH than David Lee Roth did but that doesn’t mean that those were better years.
I was even unimpressed with the great Edward Van Halen (1955-2020). It was my first time seeing the original grand wizard of six-string acrobatics and I feel like he had a bad night. Maybe I was just disillusioned because he was playing his then relatively-new Peavey Wolfgang guitars instead of his classic stripey Hamers.
Sure, Finish What You Started is a great song, and it was fun to hear Hagar do his Driving 55 song (or not driving it, as the case may be), but that potato chip that got yanked from my mouth seven years before was still wanting, my itch remained unscratched. It would be years before that itch finally did get scratched, when the guys (minus Michael Anthony) would swallow their vomit and allow the unbearable Diamond Dave back into their fold for a tour or three, all in the name of nostalgic, classic rock and roll.
And million dollar paycheques of course.