I'll never forget the night my older brother burst my bubble about something I'd believed to be true. It was like finding out that there was no tooth fairy.
I was in the ninth grade and had just come home from my very first Van Halen concert. Earlier that evening, Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth had said something from the stage that thrilled me as much as Eddie Van Halen’s supersonic guitar pyrotechnics. It was as though Dave, king of all Jewish surfer dudes, had pointed me out in the back of the arena and spoken to me directly: "Hey kid! Yeah you! Up there in the balcony! Ya see this bottle of Jack here? I’m takin’ a sip for you, buddy … L’Chaim!" I did a "play by play" recap of the concert to my older brother, an aspiring bassist who’d chosen not to attend, and waited for just the right moment to relay the big news. That's when I quoted the exact words of Mr. Roth, who’d made me and approximately 13,999 others swell with pride by saying “San Francisco—you guys are the best crowd of the whole tour!”
To which my brother responded with five words of abrupt magnitude, like a 6.5 Earthquake on the Richter Scale: "He says that every night!"
NO!!! I refused to believe it. My parade had been overtaken by a torrential downpour. I felt like Neo, a character from a film that would come out 15 years later—The Matrix-who finds out everything he’s ever believed to be true has been a lie.
But it was no joke: Diamond Dave had been two-timing us. As I’d soon hear from numerous witnesses, Roth would tell audiences night after night that they were the best crowd of the whole tour, regardless of whether or not they actually were. So while my brother’s musical ambitions would be thwarted by misjudgments (he’d soon give up playing altogether) when it came to this matter, he’d prove to be absolutely right.
I’d like to think I’ve gotten over any issues of trust violation that this experience may have created between me and the classic Van Halen line up. But I tell this story not as a disgruntled fan. Rather, it is to illustrate an interesting point about the music industry.
From Vaudeville to Van Halen, show business has traditionally been steeped in illusion. Illusion turns mere mortals into giants. Sometimes it’s stage props—can you imagine a stadium concert by U2, Pink Floyd, or The Rolling Stones with no props? Sometimes it’s make up—Kiss, Marylyn Manson and Alice Cooper are extreme, but effective examples. And very often, as I learned that night, it is something much less obvious: lies which, when told for the sake of a band’s public persona, take on the form of ‘verbal illusions.’
Van Halen’s verbal illusions weren’t limited to Dave’s stage raps. They extended to the press. In countless interviews, the band would make statements like, "We’re having the best time ever,” “With Van Halen, every night’s a Friday night," and “We don’t even consider this work!” But today, it’s no secret that the very same tours and recordings Van Halen was promoting were marred by drama—yelling, screaming, awkwardness, even an occasional fistfight. The band nearly imploded on several occasions.
I’d been a fan of Kiss, but that was different. Kiss was a band with comic book superhero personas and a show that resembled a circus on steroids. My friends and I knew full well that Kiss was a group whose entire career had been based on illusion. But Van Halen? That was a bit of a shock. After all, it was Eddie Van Halen, who’d said this: “It’s a lot easier to have a gimmick. But if you lay your personality on the line and they don’t like you, you’re gone. So far we’ve gone the personality way, and it’s worked. And that’s how a band lasts—being real.” (Guitar Player, 1980).
Now before you think I’m singling out Van Halen, let’s look at one more example, a band that showed up a few years later who, like Van Halen, came across as one of the "real" bands with no gimmicks: Metallica.
Those of us who were youths in the Bay Area music scene all felt the presence of its most noteworthy metal band, whom we watched rise to the top like the foam in a just poured pint of Guinness. The story went like this: Metallica had never intended to "make it big." From L.A. to San Francisco, they’d play at any tiny rock club that would have them and were perfectly content to do so for the rest of their lives. They were the "people’s band." They were "just like their fans." They had no "plan" and were as surprised as anyone else as they began to rise through the ranks of the music industry. And it is with the utmost respect and admiration that I point out that this story is largely fabricated.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that Metallica’s career moves were part of a carefully orchestrated master plan, their lack of interest in "making it big" a clever bending of the truth. Their press quotes were carefully chosen. They wisely employed an exclusive photographer, Ross Halfin, and retained tight control over their image. Their fashion had an effective, uniformity even for "street clothes." Their artwork and merchandise, punk-like in its simplicity, had an Andy Warhol pop-art aesthetic, sophisticated yet highly accessible. And most of these effective creative decisions were the work of Lars Ulrich, the band’s drummer and founder and an upper class Dane with a prep school vocabulary, a knowledge of modern art, and a business savvy that rivaled his own band’s powerful management team.
Metallica’s transformation from music industry black sheep to one of the top selling acts in history was partially built on the illusion of the whole band being nothing but a bunch of average, scruffy headbangers who didn’t really know what they were doing businesswise. Van Halen’s rise to the top was aided by the illusion of their lives being all smiles—one big, happy party, 24/7. But illusions aside, neither band’s ascent towards immortality would have been possible without something very real at its core: timeless music that touched a nerve, resonated with legions of fans, and broke a lot of rules in the process.
It is not a criticism, just an observation, to point out that illusion, verbal and otherwise, is a frequent component for the world’s biggest rock bands. The use of strategic "lies" has proven true, even amongst bands that, at one time, couldn’t have been seen as more "real" or less "gimmicky." For in the music business, the concept of a band that has "no gimmicks" is very often, in and of itself, a gimmick.