The inductee list for the 2007 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in, and, all told, it's a pretty strong one.
Most of the list comprises no-brainers. Patti Smith married Beat poetry to Jim Morrison's William Blake fixation, pushed it into bed with the saucy strut of the Rolling Stones and became the high priestess of American punk rock in the '70s. Her impact -- as well as the supreme gifts offered by her bandmates, among them Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty -- should be acknowledged for its depth, enormity and continued resonance.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are rap/hip-hop pioneers, and inducting them into the Rock Hall will open the door for countless other rap artists who, nominally at least, aren't "rock 'n' roll" at all. This is long overdue.
The Ronettes? Well, duh. With Phil Spector working his strange magic behind the glass, these women made pop music into high art. R.E.M.? Naturally. U2 aside, the guys from Athens, Ga., are the most significant alternative-rock band to emerge from the '80s. Nothing shocking here.
The real juice in this year's inductee list, and the item that is sure to create the most controversy come the March 12 induction ceremonies at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, is the welcoming of Van Halen into the hall's hallowed space. Now this should be interesting!
Doubtless, there are thousands of disgruntled rock fans who, upon scanning the inductee list and seeing Van Halen on it, erupted in rage. "What? An arena rock band, but no Iggy Pop? This is an outrage!" And perhaps it is. But rock could do with some outrage these days, and Van Halen has been trading in the stuff pretty much from its beginnings, some 30 years back.
Even before the interband fighting, the mix of high drama and low living, the "Spinal Tap"-esque inability to find a suitable lead singer, the run-ins with the law, troubles with women and ill-founded reunion tours, Van Halen was an in-your-face outfit, a raspberry blown in the face of '70s arena rock. Why? Eddie Van Halen. When the Netherlands-born, Los Angeles-raised guitarist and his drummer brother Alex exploded onto the tepid and tired rock scene of the late '70s -- concurrently, it should be noted, with punk rock's ascent -- sacred cows were tipped, cocaine-addled guitar heroes were shaken from their daze, and no one trading in the arena rock of the day could afford to be lazy any longer.
Today, Eddie's blazing artistry -- Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix on a hyper-thyroid speed trip -- might seem like old hat, standard stuff, cliched, even. It must be remembered, though, that this is simply because everyone who played electric guitar had to deal with Eddie after they heard him. As a result, the fleet-fingered Van Halen spawned countless imitators, helped birth (unwittingly) the "shred" school of '80s guitar and "hair metal," and, ultimately, urged the post-punk/grunge movement that came along to snuff out the hyperbolic nonsense and excess of the metal form in the early '90s.
Van Halen's 1978 debut album set the rock world on fire. The band was smart, had its references in order, grabbed its first hit with a jet-fueled take on the Kinks' eternal "You Really Got Me," and boasted in frontman/singer David Lee Roth a visage with the throat of Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, the flowing mane of Black Oak Arkansas' Jim Dandy and the stage moves of a Jack Daniels-addled Baryshnikov. Eddie's guitar playing was a smart updating of the blues, and though his technique was dazzling -- part progressive rock/jazz fusion giant Alan Holdsworth, part Jeff Beck on way too much caffeine -- his taste and tendency to play for the song, rather than over it, could not (and still can't) be doubted.
Don't blame heavy metal on Van Halen. The band was too smart, too funny, too in love with the big pop hook and the indelible guitar riff, the overblown, tongue-in-cheek stage gesture, the rowdy garage-rock party anthem, to ever be tied to the self-indulgent tripe favored by the bands trying to grab its coattails and take the ride.
Of course, the controversy that has long dogged the band -- ever since David Lee Roth's ego outgrew the Eddie-and-Alex mantra of "Let's just play some music, dude," and veteran rocker Sammy Hagar came in to take VH through its second multiplatinum stage -- will be in full evidence at the induction ceremonies. Anyone recall the fiasco at the Grammys a few years back? Good ol' David Lee looked like he'd done quite a bit of partying before the gig, and the rest of the band visibly flinched as Roth cavorted across the stage like a monkey with attention-deficit disorder. The Van Halen reunion ended that night. Soon, Hagar was back. And then he left again. And then came back. And then left again. . .
Now, Eddie's 15-year-old son Wolfgang has joined the Van Halen ranks to replace recently departed four-stringer Michael Anthony. The band will tour this summer. Rumor has it that Roth is in the running for the lead singer slot once again.
Both Roth and Hagar have been invited to the induction ceremonies. Bassist Anthony will be inducted as well.
Whatever happens, Van Halen's importance can not be underestimated. Perhaps Eddie took it all too far. But boy, could he play guitar.