Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the house critics at esteemed scholarly journals like People lambasted the group as lame inheritors to the throne that had been vacated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Grand Funk, Black Oak Arkansas and God knows who else. A few million records, some landmark videos and one world-changing Michael Jackson guest session later, those same writers were confidently declaring what a virtuoso Eddie Van Halen was, and how David Lee Roth was the wittiest, most endlessly entertaining mouthpiece in the business.
At least they figured it out, if only belatedly and by force. As Roth noted at the time, “Once you sell a million albums, you become an internationally recognized expert on everything.” When he eventually flew the coop, however, it became sadly apparent that much of the listening public had never gotten the joke -- which they showed by largely embracing replacement singer Sammy Hagar, the living, straight-faced embodiment of everything Roth had ever lampooned. It took over a decade of shifting musical styles, widely publicized internal discord and “originals-only” nostalgia for the world to again clamor for the real VH -- a desire that was fully consummated with this week’s release of “Tattoo,” the leadoff single from the band’s first full album with Roth since 1984’s, um 1984.
And whaddaya know? The reaction has been surprisingly negative, sometimes even vehemently so. On YouTube, at EW.com and even to a lesser extent on fan sites like the Van Halen News Desk, listeners are coming out in droves to proclaim that the song “sucks,” and in particular that its lyrics are “awful” and “corny” -- as bad as Hagar’s, in the devastating estimation of some long-time observers.
As a critic, I can’t do much to negate the musically oriented brickbats; that’s all opinion and personal preference, so it doesn’t accomplish much to argue that “Tattoo” is the most simultaneously catchy and ballsy first single from a VH record since 1982’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” (If you want to restrict the focus to original compositions, you have to go back three more years to “Dance the Night Away.”) Hey, some people can listen to “Jump” without being locked in a dark and unfamiliar environment. It’s a big world.
But comparing anybody’s lyrics to Hagar’s celebrated farragoes is like saying the bartender at your last party was “every bit as good a mixologist as Lucretia Borgia.” Them’s fightin’ words, and they can only be answered adequately by somebody whose personal path happens to wind from heavy metal parking lots to the even more desolate wasteland that is graduate education. “Look at all the semioticians here tooo-night!”
Anyway, Tattoo doesn’t just rock, it does so with a purpose. Let’s take a walk through it and see.
The first verse is unassuming enough:
I got Elvis on my elbow
When I flex, Elvis talks
I got a hula girl on the back of my leg
And she hulas when I walk
Hey, good for you. But as Andrew Dice Clay used to say, I got jock itch; what’s your point?
Things get a bit more interesting once we reach the pre-chorus:
Tramp stamp tat
Mousewife to momshell in the time it took to get that new tattoo
Ahhhh, now that’s more like it. Clever wordplay there, and a vintage bit of Rothian cultural anthropology. You could interpret it as sexist, or even derisive, I guess. But Dave has always genuinely liked and celebrated people (unlike the average arena rocker, who regards them mainly as useful idiots). So I’m going with a suburban-empowerment angle -- a paean to the ability of fresh ink to effect a personal transformation in the wink of an eye (or maybe to unleash what was always there under the surface). Besides, listen to the music: That’s not the soundtrack to mockery; that’s the sound of shared triumph.
The second verse only reinforces that interpretation, with Roth inviting the (presumably equally branded) listener to “Show me you, I’ll show you me.” On the way there, we get to sample the deceptively simple pleasures of the chorus, which extols the “dragon magic” of the tat in question -- which, we’re told, is “so autobiographic.” Hmmm
“autobiographic”? That’s “bio” as in “body” and “graphic” as in “art.” Nice one, Dave. Gonna nab you the cover of Inked for sure.
It’s the final verse, however, that really brings the hammer down:
Uncle Danny had a coal tattoo
He fought for the unions
Some of us still do
On my shoulder is the number
of the chapter he was in
That number is forever
[sounds like] like the struggle here to win
Hol. Ee. Crap.
Let’s be honest here -- if Springsteen or Rage had written anything so unabashedly pro-labor, the so-called liberal press would be heaping a metric ton of praise on them right now. Instead, even the Village Voice missed the solidarity angle entirely. But by next week, when some FOX stooge stumbles across it and starts fulminating 24/7 against VH’s detour into commie socialist pinko-dom, the lamestream media is going to say it had been hip to Dave’s game all along. Just like old times, huh, fellas?
Allow me to clear a path for them. This is what “Tattoo” is, really: not just a hymn to the reinvention of the self as a lifestyle option, but a reminder that, for centuries, people have used body art to declare their allegiance to ideas -- ideas that meant enough to them that they were willing to fight and even die for them. Some of those people may even have been in your own family. Or Roth’s family, which is far more fun to imagine.
That’s why it’s silly that some VH cultists are complaining about “Tattoo” bearing certain musical similarities to “Down in Flames,” one of the many recorded artifacts that predate 1978’s Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen could have written “Tattoo” in 1976, but Dave could not -- simply because you don’t think those thoughts when you’re 21. If you do, you: a) are forcing it; b) have no idea what you’re on about; or c) both. And you sure haven’t figured out that the way to get those musings before the public is to warm them up by describing a two-dimensional snake crawling out of the crack of some chick’s ass.
Personally, I’ve never been interested in getting a tattoo. For the life of me, I couldn’t be sure there was any image or concept I’d be comfortable endorsing for the rest of my days. But I’ve never wanted a tat as badly as I did the sixth or seventh time I listened to “Tattoo” in rapid succession. Suddenly, I was briefly but seriously considering getting myself marked up in a way that could broadcast my kinship with the Swap-meet Sallys and Uncle Dannys of the world. Of course, that would probably entail simply getting a tattoo of the word “Tattoo.” I’m sure Diamond Dave would find that uproariously meta.