(3) Ratt, "round and round"
(6) david lee roth, "yankee rose"
and plays on in the sweet 16
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/15.
kirk wisland on david lee roth's "yankee rose"
I can’t tell you the story of David Lee Roth’s "Yankee Rose" without first telling you about the greatest day of my young life. The scene: early September 1986. The last day of the summer before high school, the day before I would be striding into the hallowed halls of Minneapolis South High. My friend Todd and I had crafted a truly epic last day blast-off. First, a cinematic horror double-header at the Southtown Theater: The Fly followed immediately by Aliens. That night, the adrenaline of four hours of sci-fi death still buzzing in us, would be the apotheosis of our Junior High era when we went to see David Lee Roth in concert. David Lee Roth, our talismanic hero, the former front man of what had been inarguably the greatest band of all time as of the first half of the 1980s.
Ever since the first time I had put my cheap, rented Gorilla guitar amp up to my open bedroom window and blasted out the only riff I knew—the opening chords of "Smoke on the Water"—I had dreamed of being in Van Halen.
What had separated Van Halen from Heavy Metal was that it was primarily fun. Van Halen were just a bunch of California guys showing the rest of America what they were missing: California Girls and parties and never-ending good times. Van Halen as Sonic Cali Utopian Soundtrack. Van Halen was part of my childhood vision of California as promised land: roller skates and sunshine and palm trees, and the suburban California of ET and Back to the Future. Van Halen was the soundtrack of all of these snowbound childhood dreams.
David Lee Roth, released from the group-think of Van Halen circa 1986, was free to crank up the California fun vibe to 11 on his solo debut. That’s what "Yankee Rose" is, more than anything else—an ode to the unending joy of being. In the classics of true shred-dom there is no moment other than the present—a form of Zen, a communion in the church of sexy absurdity, in which grown men wear spandex attire like resplendent gay kings while the ladies flock to them.
Half-deaf on my first day of high school, I nevertheless felt so cool walking those new hallways in my Eat ‘em and Smile tour shirt. I imagined that Roth’s crazy tribal face blasting off my chest would give me some toughness cred, maybe inoculate me from the expected bullying of 9th grade. I was wrong of course; the sophomore tough guy who knocked my books out of my hands and sent them skittering down the stairs behind me could see right through Roth’s shield into my tiny scared soul. But I would meet up again with my tormentor in a couple years, when I had shot up seven inches and could literally look down my nose at him.
"Yankee Rose" was a solid bridge between Roth’s Van Halen past and his new, liberated solo persona. It was a safer, less interesting song in many respects than the work he did on his second solo album, like the weird, trippy Zen of Skyscraper, and the Beach Boys-channeling pop-bounce of "Just Like Livin’ in Paradise." "Yankee Rose" was also a needed sonic reassurance to David Lee Roth’s fans, letting us know that his dalliance with croonerism, as seen in his versions of "Just a Gigolo" and "That’s Life" on his preceding solo E.P., in no way heralded the end of the badass rocker we had all come to love.
Can I delve momentarily into the essayist’s prerogative for doubt? I am struggling to fully access that fourteen-year-old joy, because there was something ridiculous about 1980s metal, no matter how much it shredded (or still shreds). Metal, like rap, is primarily the purview of youth, of rebellion, of angst—real or manufactured. There is something inherently sad about seeing a fifty-something creakily banging their head along with one of the perpetually-touring bands on the has-been ballroom metal-tour circuit.
But maybe in this, David Lee Roth is different. Roth pre-dates the excesses of 1980s metal. Roth is the original heir to Robert Plant’s sexy lion-mane swagger. The early Roth of that initial Van Halen eruption of 1978 looks like Plant at the Chateau Marmot five years earlier. Roth was in the rock game, but soaring—and scissor-kicking—above it.
"Yankee Rose" has all the required elements of Rock Shredness:
Muscular guitar riffs and squealing solos, performed by a guitar virtuoso: check.
A front man with a solid lower register and the necessary high-octave guttural scream: check.
A ritualistic worship at the altar of hedonism: check.
The Idolatry of the American Woman, whom every American teenage boy grows up knowing is the most spectacular woman in the world: check.
Rampant sexuality, saturated with patriotic American double-entendres: check. When she walks, the sparks go fly, fire-crackin’ on the Fourth of July. She’s a vision from coast to coast, sea to shining seat. Raise ‘em up and see who salutes. I wanna get a little bit of apple pie.
Transgressions of Machismo in Hair Metal
That was the weird thing about 1980s metal—this macho (often misogynistic) undertaking was clothed in androgynous glam-era trappings. Men wearing mascara and lipstick and eyeliner and teasing out their long hair into ridiculous rats’ nests. David Lee Roth shimmying across the stage in painted-on spandex skin, an acrobatic cheerleader doing scissor-kick jumps off the amp stacks. It must have been confusing for the buzz-cut macho man of the 1980s, who was instinctually drawn to the obvious guitar-riffing maleness of heavy metal, to find that the men behind this sound were so feminine in their couture.
Seeing David Lee Roth in concert was infinitely better than seeing Van Halen with Sammy Hagar. You can make the argument that Hagar-era Van Halen was as good a band as the Roth-helmed version; maybe even a bit more mature, more adult. You could argue that Why Can’t This Be Love and Dreams, from the 5150 disc spoke with an emotional depth that was lacking in previous Van Halen albums, which were limited to a pleasing two-note symphony of raunchy fun and sneering menace.
The voice is the defining element of a band. There’s no way around that truth. Sure, there is something to the idea of chemistry, capturing lightning in a bottle—Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant, David Lee and Eddie V. But the fact is that Steve Vai could play all those Eddie Van Halen riffs. As a fourteen-year-old in the nosebleed section at the Met Center I was not concerned with the fact that it wasn’t Eddie V on guitar. It sounded like Van Halen. Even if we were all aware that this was David Lee Roth, solo rocker, there was no cognitive dissonance in hearing the Steve Vai and David Lee Roth version of "Panama."
But while great guitarists can play the same notes, no two singers sound the same. Sammy Hagar could never sound like Roth. I would be in the Metrodome in July of 1987 for the Monsters of Rock tour, less than a year after that Eat ‘em and Smile show, exhausted and tired of drinking warm $4 Cokes because the concession stands had run out of ice. So maybe I was destined to be underwhelmed by Van Halen when they finally came onstage, the fifth and final band of the day (following fellow March Shredness contestants Dokken and The Scorpions). But the truly disappointing moment was when the reconstituted Van Halen kicked into "Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love," the seminal single from the debut Van Halen album. I pogoed ecstatically and howled through the opening guitar riff, and then…the wrong voice came through the speakers, as if some terrible karaoke poser had invaded my hallowed rock moment. Oh Sammy. Just don’t…
When you watch the "Yankee Rose" video there is an element of Roth’s performance that almost makes it seem like he’s in on the joke. Something so over-the-top absurd in his wagging-butt close-ups and constantly undulating snakelike torso. An in-the-know smirk I have seen once before—in Elvis performances from the early 1970s, when Elvis would briefly channel an otherworldly power, mesmerizing 20,000 people, before stepping back with a laugh and a self-deprecating joke, as if to acknowledge the surreal world that he strode across. I get some of that from Roth in the "Yankee Rose" video. It’s so easy for him. He knows his 80% still beats all comers.
I almost accidentally bought the Spanish version of Roth’s debut album on cassette at Musicland when I was fourteen. Sonrisa Salvaje—Wild Smile, a neutered translation compared to the original Eat ‘em and Smile. Sonrisa Salvaje was a fairly radical idea—not the fusion of languages and cultures, which has been transforming pop for the last thirty years—but to record two separate versions of an album in different languages. Having attempted to learn, at various points in my life, French, Russian, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish, I have to marvel at the undertaking. Because there are so few direct translations that would keep the original tone and tempo of a song intact. For my multilingual readers, try this little test: hum your favorite song and try to translate it into a second language: luces fuerte! luces de la ciudad! estoy hablando a una flora del norte! This is what Roth did with his first album. That Sonrisa Salvaje was a commercial flop is irrelevant: the fact that it was completed in the first place is a testament to Roth having been an alien visitor from twenty years in the future.
All-Time Great Rock Shirt
I wore the hell out of that David Lee Roth shirt. For most of my four years of high school it was a banner of my implied craziness, the badge of the wannabe badass. It didn’t matter that I didn’t drink, or do drugs, or have sex, or do anything remotely crazy in high school, aside from obsessing about older girls who wanted nothing to do with me. That shirt—Roth in his face-painted glory—that was who I really was, underneath the façade of a scared boy. That was my inevitable butterfly destiny that would resplendently emerge from my angst-ridden teenage pupae.
Of course, by the time I got to college, and actually got more than a little crazy, my musical tastes had changed. David Lee Roth was relegated to the mementos drawer in my old childhood closet, the naive joyful California exuberance of Eat ‘em and Smile usurped by the jaded, nighttime Berlin cool of U2’s Zoo TV Tour.
But a weird thing happens in a man’s life when he crosses the threshold from youth into middle-ish age. His concept of being cool changes. He is no longer concerned with hipster cred and diffident posturing. He rediscovers those unrepentant joys of his youth, and he exuberantly embraces them, feels those youthful dreams still pulsing in his wiser blood. He recognizes the silliness of those teenage dreams—and yet he finds some comfort in the knowing, in the remembering. He is transported, for precious moments, back into the face within the face staring back at him in the mirror.
He still knows that boy.
He still is that boy, sometimes, howling along and air-guitar shredding.
Bright lights…City Lights…I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Yankee Rose…
Kirk Wisland teaches, and writes, and sometimes rocks. While he was a wannabe headbanger in high school, his hair was more Flock of Seagulls.
BRIAN OLIU ON RATT'S "ROUND AND ROUND"
The secret is that “Round and Round” is a testament to the world—a lens blurred by whatever mist is left over by hair spray and fog machines; each choreographed chunk of a guitar riff a proclamation of loudness; that this, somehow, is our true self.
The secret is that the band name was a bad pun on “Mickey Mouse”—what if the cupcake sheen of Southern California hid the true rodent; that everything was much more sinister than it seemed. How we think nothing of a mouse, yet everything of a rat—their elongated bodies, the gaps in their teeth.
The secret is that the popularity of Out of the Cellar is accredited to combining the large sweeping riffs of early glam metal, with the more technical staccato picking style found in 1970s prog and British rock.
The secret is that as a child, my parents found a rat underneath my crib—a story they did not tell me until I was much older, and something that I am eternally thankful for. Of how this story was told after me, as a melodramatic teenager, was upset at the sight of a field mouse scurrying across the tile floor before disappearing into a coffee mug. Things could be worse, my parents told me, and this was true: the ratio of body to fur is important when thinking about rodents.
The secret is that, yes, it is Tawny Kitaen on the cover of Out of the Cellar, crawling toward a back alley crawlspace covered in fog and smoke. Kitaen was the high school girlfriend of guitarist Robbin Crosby, dying her bleach blonde hair bright red for the shoot, because Crosby preferred brunettes.
The secret is that I never listened to hair metal when I was younger—at least not on my own. I grew up on a steady diet of Motown’s Greatest Hits, pop country, and the soundtrack to The Big Chill—the same rotation found in the tape deck of my mother’s Volvo; the one with the torn ceiling and the chunk of foam missing from the passenger-side front seat. My mother had a love for Van Halen—the vastly underrated Sammy Hagar years, and would play “Love Comes Walking In” on repeat on those mornings where I would purposely miss the bus because I couldn’t bear the name calling as I tried to find an empty seat for my body and backpack, both stretched to their limits.
The secret is that my familiarity with “Round and Round” comes mostly from those Hair Metal Compilation commercials that would play ad nauseam during late night cable television binges. Each song would only get about three seconds of air time, typically choosing to highlight the chorus of these iconic hits and quite often choosing the moment of the song where the title was sung for maximum effect. Here I go again on my own. Every rose has it’s thorn. Round and Round. With love we’ll find a way just give it time.
The secret is that everyone in the video is a fan: the butler, when setting the table, reveals a metal studded bracelet. No one is disgusted when, instead of what presumes to be a dinner roast, is revealed as a swirl of rats under a metal serving plate. The noise from the attic is welcomed—it is not interrupting anything.
The secret is in the house I grew up in, there was a tiny crawlspace where I would hide. I wouldn’t dare go too far, because my mother told me that the insulation would make me itch. One time, I got to close, and it brushed up against my arm—I was worried that the itch would be so bad that I’d want to scratch off my own skin, but the sensation never came.
The secret is that the song appears to be multiple songs at once: a story that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Sonically, this is a theme in most hair metal songs: there is always room for a guitar solo that doesn’t quite match the rest of the song—an extended break where the audience is treated to a self-aware aside where it is the guitarist’s time to shine.
The secret is that I too feel this way about writing—that it is impossible for me to craft something without telling my own truth; that somehow, some way, I will get my solo, even if it doesn’t adhere to the story.
The secret is that the cover features Kitaen on her hands and knees returning to the cellar, rather than away—as if this is a return of sorts; she has seen the real world and wishes to go back underground, through the dense fog toward something known, rather than being amongst the unfamiliar.
The secret is Stephen Pearcy, the lead singer of Ratt, wanted to be a top fuel race car driver and had no interest in music. When Pearcy was eleven, Pearcy was the victim of a hit and run accident while on his bicycle and was laid up in a hospital for six months. During that time, a friend brought him an acoustic guitar.
The secret is that ideally, everything should be compartmentalized. Crosby later played with Bon Jovi. DeMartini played with Whitesnake. Pearcy formed a band with the drummer from Cinderella. The spinning model in the video is known best for playing Dirty Diana. Tawny Kitaen is known as the woman in the Whitesnake videos, not the cover model for Out of the Cellar.
The secret is that no one is really surprised when Warren DeMartini comes crashing through the ceiling and lands on the dinner table—it’s as if they knew that this was inevitable; that the floor would give out in the middle of the dinner party.
The secret is that when I was eleven years old, I wanted to be a lot of things too: a musician, a chef, a writer. While a friend and I were waiting in my mother’s Volvo while she returned a book to the library, my friend pulled the emergency break, and the car started to roll down the slope of the parking lot. Panicked, I jumped out of the backseat of the car, only to have the front tire of the car roll over my ankle. I did not go to the hospital for six months. I did not pick up a guitar for the first time. I don’t know why I’m telling you these things.
The secret, of course, is that Milton Berle plays two parts in the video: the head of household and the wife.
The secret is that Milton Berle agreed to be in the video at the request of his nephew Marshall, who was Ratt’s manager at the time. Berle’s characters are the first to leave the scene of the video due to the loud music because family favors don’t extend to full-day shoots.
The secret is that we are perpetually in the attic, waiting to be heard.
The secret is that the debutant, the one with the long gloves, the one with the pearls, is secretly a lover of RATT—she hears the double guitars and feels drawn to the attic, slowly climbing up the stairs in hopes that the door remains open for her.
The secret is that Robbin Crosby, the writer of “Round and Round”, had a pancreatic condition that caused him to balloon up to over 400 lbs. “It’s not like I am a pig or a slob,” Crosby said in an interview just before his death in 2002.
The secret is that I wanted to leave the theatre during The Witches, when Anjelica Houston’s character turns Luke into a rat—how he gasps when his face begins to elongate and his body starts to shrink into nothing. Instead, I stayed, not wanting to be chided by my friends—of how the fat kid got what he deserved, just like in the film—how dare we feel too much.
The secret is that I too weighed close to 400 lbs, but it’s not like I am a pig or a slob.
The secret is that we find meaning in everything that we see: that our lives are circular, cyclical.
The secret is at a recent fundraiser in town, a woman was dancing along to the sounds of the cobbled together cover band. The woman was by herself and moved in a way that can only be described as “kind of ridiculous”. And yet the dance looked so familiar—not necessarily in that the woman was emulating something, but in the fact that it struck a chord somewhere in the same way that memory is circular. I had seen the dance before—it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was the dance of the woman in the “Round and Round” video: the odd tight spins, the long arms not knowing what to do with themselves.
The secret is that the model in the "Round and Round" video is dead too.
The secret is that the lyrics seem to be two concepts spliced together. If you were to hear only the chorus, it is a love song—about how through everything love perseveres, if we give it time. That love, and therefore a happy ending, is always inevitable. And yet when you listen to the verses, it is a song of revenge: of abusing ourselves, of putting those who oppose who we are on “your shelf”. The pessimism is apparent: that everything is the same, so it’s no use fighting anything anymore.
The secret is that there are multiple Ratts: Ratt featuring Stephen Pearcy, Ratt, Bobby Blotzer’s Ratt Experience, Dirty Rats, Rat Bastards. Somehow the true Ratt exists between all of these variations; if you were to spin the gyroscope in such a way to meld all of the parts together, you could find a way to assemble something that resembles a whole.
The secret is that upon re-watching the video, I was waiting for the debutant to turn into a rat—how low she gets to the ground, how it appears as if she is molting out of her skin.
The secret is that I am trying to find myself in these songs: of how when my mother’s new car came with a six-CD changer, I burned her a mix of her favorite hair metal songs: of how when I was looking to fill out the 90 minutes, I included “Round and Round” solely because of that hair metal compilation commercial—that in hopes a sum of parts can somehow become whole.
The secret is that in admitting things you believe to be secrets, you find yourself confessing things of little consequence in the grand scheme of things: secrets, when out of context, get lost in the drywall. There is no shedding of gloves, of kicking through a dress, of smearing of makeup to transform yourself into something truer than what you have been.
The secret is the neon light is always on us; tonight and all nights.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping
(Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner's World, and elsewhere.