1984 Pazz & Jop: The Rise of the Corporate Single

The 11th or 12th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is fraught with many significances. You got capitalism rampant and alternative capitalism and maybe even alternative politics, you got 1984 come true and the light at the end of the tunnel. You got three top 10 bands from Minneapolis and try to make a “sound” out of that Mr. Bizzer; you got three top 20 albums on Black Flag’s label and try to beat that Walter Yetnikoff. You got a Panamanian law-student-turned-sonero-turned-law-student and an Obie-winning musical and a British invasion that went thataway. You got three “black” albums in the top 10 and six “girls” who just want to have everything. You got a shitload of rock and rollers past 35 and more than a couple pushing 50. But for the moment let’s reappropriate that line from singles-charting Deniece Williams. For the moment, let’s hear it for the boys.

The boys in question aren’t young turks like Minneapolis’s Replacements (now at Warners in spite of themselves) or NYC’s Run-D.M.C. (now running for “kings of rock”) or Britain’s Smiths (cut ’em off at JFK). In fact, they’re boys only in the most abstract sense. As he turned 35, Bruce Springsteen put out more exuberantly than he had for almost a decade at least in part because he no longer dreams about being a teenager forever; at 26, Prince is an old pro with six LPs behind him. And between them they dominated American popular music in 1984 — not as monolithically as Michael J. in 1983, of course, but jeez. They dominated commercially. And in the opinion of the electorate — to nobody’s surprise, since they’re old Pazz & Jop faves and had already topped several smaller polls — they dominated artistically as well.

The critics’ runner-up album, Purple Rain, has sold some 10 million copies and spun off four major-to-huge singles b/w non-LP B sides, one of which, “When Doves Cry,” won our poll in a walk, with its follow-up, “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City,” finishing sixth. The winner, Born in the U.S.A., is now quintuple platinum behind Springsteen’s last-chance power drive on what was once AM radio. His three top 10 singles (bringing his career total to four) sported not just non-LP B sides but disco remixes by Arthur Baker; Baker deserves as much credit as the ur-rockabilly neoclassic “Pink Cadillac” (a B that got 17 votes on its own) for propelling “Dancing in the Dark” to number two on the singles list, though “Born in the U.S.A.” made 15 on its own stark authority. Pretty good, huh? Never before have two artists finished one-two albums and one-two singles on our own charts, let alone Billboard’s too. And when I compared previous polls I really got impressed with these boys. For with one exception, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain are the biggest point-getters, proportionally, since Pazz & Jop went over 50 voters back in 1976 — not counting This Year’s Model in 1978, they’re the only albums ever named on more than half the ballots (56.7 per cent apiece) and the only albums ever to earn more than seven points per respondent (7.3 and 7.0; This Year’s Model averaged 8.1, with London Calling’s 6.7, Imperial Bedroom’s 6.6, and Thriller’s 6.3 trailing).

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Me, I was rooting for Bruce, who finally overcame my abiding distrust of his abiding romanticism. By enlarging his sense of humor and adding a vibrant forward edge to his music, he got tough, as the Del-Lords might say, which means refusing despair as well as nostalgia and born-to-lose mythopoeia. Despair was my problem with Springsteen’s baldly anti-pop Nebraska, and it’s also my problem with Prince’s quirky, dangerous, unabashedly pop Purple Rain. For Prince, Purple Rain is ingratiatingly unsolipsistic — but that’s only for Prince, aptly described by Howard Hampton as a “meta-Byronic auteur” who’s “callow, insular, and arrogant in all the time-dishonored rockstar traditions.” What’s someone who doesn’t trust Bruce’s romanticism to make of romanticism that doesn’t even promise to abide — that dances by apparent preference on the lip of apocalypse? As if in illustration, Minneapolis’s pride accepted one of his made-for-TV American Music Awards while Alternative Poobah RJ Smith and I tallied the “When Doves Cry” mandate: “Life is death…,” he announced, and waited the full three beats of a born bondage-master before adding, “…without adventure.” Whew — another close call, climaxing, typically enough, with a message marginally salutary and not exactly true. And yet there’s no denying his achievement. Unabashedly pop though he may be, he’s no Michael J. (or Lionel Richie, or Tina Turner). Rather, he’s the first black to appropriate “rockstar traditions” and put them over since Jimi Hendrix, and you can bet your boody he won’t be the last. So, especially given the rhythmic bent of the electorate — who but Arthur Baker would have figured dance stalwarts Vince Aletti and Michael Freedberg for Springsteen voters? — I predicted a handy Prince victory. And instead got Bruce by a head, a margin reflecting the more responsible artist’s marginally more nutsy critical support.

This close finish suggests that Springsteen’s victory isn’t any more a vindication of what he personally stands for (compassion as agape, maybe agape as conscience) than Prince’s would have been (eros flirting with compassion). It’s more instructive to see both as the stars of this year’s big story: an art-commerce overlay unparalleled since the poll began. The onset of hegemony makes critics even more nervous than marginality-their-old-friend always has, and their ambivalence is drastically apparent in the results. On the one hand, we’re not just talking gold albums; about 10 or so selections will eventually achieve that distinction, which is par at best. We’re talking one multiplatinum blockbuster after another, a formidable chunk of the biz’s 1984 profits, well-made albums by such artists as Tina Turner (album at 5, singles at 3 and 24), Cyndi Lauper (album at 11, two singles at 10, video at 2), Van Halen (album at 25, single at 5, videos at 3 and 6), ZZ Top (album at 32, video at 7), and even Huey Lewis and the News (whose Sports finished a creditable 49th, between Lindsey Buckingham and John Lennon/Yoko Ono; 41 through 47, by the way, went The Black Uhuru, Eurythmics, XTC, Van Dyke Parks, That’s the Way I Feel Now). And on the other hand, we’re talking unkempt indies rising: Los Lobos, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Run-D.M.C. in the top 10 with Minutemen and Meat Puppets right behind (previous top 20 high was four, including Island/Mango’s Sunny Ade as an equivalent of Warner/Slash’s Los Lobos, in the big indie year of 1982). And amid a record 14 Corporate-Hits-for-Radio and a complement of airplay pleasures and damn few straight dance records come two all but unprogrammable Amerindie smashes, both spawned if not made in Minneapolis: the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” tied for 17th and Hüsker Dü’s outrageous “Eight Miles High” an amazing fourth.

There’s no factionalism to speak of here, no rad-lib or boho-bourgie split. Forget Los Lobos and the Replacements with their Warners connection and Run-D.M.C. with their (that’s right) gold album and stick to Pazz & Jop’s rawest indies, the three SST finishers: of the 23 voters who listed two of them, 15 supported Bruce or Prince (or both) as well, just as a random sample might have. The common thread? Ho-hum Tim Sommer (who says he likes both albums) may have tripped over an actual idea when he labeled Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime “coffee table hardcore,” but not because they flaunt their chops and certainly not because they’re slick or well-made. It’s because their double-LP size proclaims their ambitions in recognizable terms while obscuring their limitations — which are by no means crippling but which a lot of critics listen right through. Which is understandable. You look around at America and conclude that it needs yowling nay-sayers even more than it did in the yowling nay-sayers’ heyday, back around ’77 or ’80 or ’82 or whenever. You’re aware that these are articulate yowling nay-sayers, with big ideas. And if you’re like a third of the voting critics, they’re where you make your stand.

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I don’t want to be reductive — tastes differ. Me, I like to have my raw and cook it too. I love the Dolls and the Clash (and the early Beatles) because they yowl tunefully, which is also why I prefer Let It Be to Zen Arcade and Double Nickels (and Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus to the Replacements’ Hootenanny). On strictly aesthetic grounds, others may well find this disposition a touch genteel; they may simply get more of a charge out of Hüsker Dü’s dense rush or the Minutemen’s jerky beats. But even the strictest aesthetic grounds are usually informed by or productive of general beliefs, and it’s those beliefs I’m trying to pin down. I’m a fan of the SST albums myself — “Turn on the News,” the enraged never-a-single that leads off side four of Zen Arcade, gets my nomination for song of the year. On strictly aesthetic grounds, I ranked the perhaps pop but definitely fucked-up Let It Be, a more precise and impassioned piece of half-a-boy-and-half-a-manhood than Bruce ever pulled off, just a shade below Born in the U.S.A. And I’m also high on Los Lobos, whose powerful third-place showing was the poll’s most gratifying surprise (and an even bigger one than the soft finish of third-handicapped Cyndi Lauper). Let me emphasize too that the critical resurgence of the indie album reflects serious drawbacks in the way popular music is now produced. But for all that, I thought 1984’s real action — its excitement, believe it or not — was in corporate rock.

I reached this conclusion listening to the radio — specifically, CHR, which is bizese for Contemporary Hit Radio. In January, April, and August three blatant white-male CHR commodities zapped right through my defenses and diddled my synapses directly, as the biz intends. Such a trend can’t show up clearly on the Pazz & Jop charts because it’s not about peaks of top 25 magnitude; it requires an array of essentially arbitrary stimuli kicking off the desired consumer responses in a much vaster array of individual record-buyers. For me the taste treats were John Waite’s “Missing You” (the most unequivocal such commodity to chart, though the loathsome “Like a Virgin” came damn close) and the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and especially the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” while for Greil Marcus they were .38 Special’s “If I’d Been the One” and Barry Gibb’s “Boys Do Fall in Love” and the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and for James Hunter (long a proud addict of this particular media-fuck) Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and Elton John’s “Sad Songs Say So Much” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie.” Once again I don’t mean to be reductive; it’s not as if the manipulation I’m describing doesn’t interact with meaning, in critics and normal people both. In fact, such meaning-mongers as Bruce and Prince and Tina and Cyndi (and Van Halen and ZZ Top and Huey Lewis?) engage in musical practices much like those of “Missing You” and its soul siblings. It’s just that at their best they put the same surefire elements — which these days boil down to multiplex hookcraft, resonant production, and a sense of caged energy and/or weathered emotion — to richer epistemological uses.

Manipulative pop is always around, but in 1984 it was more plentiful and more meaningful — better — than at any time since the early ’70s, or maybe even the halcyon mid-’60s, whose pre-prog radio most critics started pining for back when punk reminded them about fast three-minute songs. Because the accumulated craft of Generation ’77 and its pop-rock allies finally had somewhere to go, you could hear a winning professional elation in artists as diverse and ultimately insignificant as Billy Ocean and Bananarama and the Pointer Sisters and Duran Duran and Talk Talk and John Cougar Mellencamp. Say what you will about CHR, you have to admit it plays pop hits even diehard rock and rollers can love. So we got what we wanted, more or less: stations that both registered on the Arbitron scale and didn’t make us barf. And now, since we’re rock and rollers, we’re wondering whether we lost what we had. For some critics, of course, this isn’t a question; the guys and gals who use rock and roll first and foremost to one-up all their stupid co-humans are in no way assuaged by the blandishments of CHR. But even hidebound populists who love CHR remember one big advantage of their recent marginality: music whose formal-expressive potential isn’t limited or leveled by marketing considerations, including the perfectly honorable need to communicate. All the Born in the U.S.A. in the world isn’t going to make us give up United States Live or “World Destruction,” as long as they’re still out there. Which we want to make sure they are. Keep your fingers crossed.

It would be unfair to brand the CHR-oriented multiplatinum blockbuster a conservative force — not even Bruce and Prince, and certainly not Tina and Cyndi, were established singles artists before this year. But the new dispensation sure does have its downside. So far, at least, though programmers may get more cautions about burnout potential, it’s created a singles logjam, because once an album yields a couple of smashes radio demands more of the same, pushing the current star in preference to some lesser-known corporate knight-errant with an equally obscene independent promotion budget. And while it may be an accident of timing — I do remember the Beatles, really — I note with dismay that blockbuster artists tend to be marketed as individuals. While Purple Rain makes one of its Biggest Statements by (gasp!) billing Prince’s band, I dare you to tell me who’s in it, and while you’re scratching your head swear you don’t picture David Lee Roth when you try to remember what Eddie Van Halen looks like; if it isn’t quite enough to make you send letter bombs to MTV and People, you still have to wonder whether Susanna Hoffs (she’s a Bangle) or Paul Westerberg (the irreplaceable Replacement) will prove suitable for framing. Finally, CHR induces artists and especially producers to forget the album as a whole and concentrate on three or four (we hope) singles. That’s why I first figured Private Dancer for a B plus and kept She’s So Unusual out of my top 10 — wonderful though the best parts of both records may be, their filler sounds more like filler than need be.

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Which leaves the indies precisely who-knows-where. Five years ago their chief use was singles and EPs, but now they may have inherited the album (and group?) aesthetic the way the Labour Party inherited the British railways after World War II. Since they’re largely populated by artists who are in it for love, all that keeps them from coming up with good albums-as-albums is budget (the dire strait of Zen Arcade) and talent (their most songful bands do show a taste for upward mobility). Ignoring imports and disqualifying Warners-supported Los Lobos, the seven indie albums the voters selected are way up from 1983’s three and 1981’s two but not as impressive as 1982’s nine, so we shall see; on my personal list, much shorter than it’s been for the past few years, the 24 indies constitute an all-time high. In any case, I believe the indies will continue to get by economically on scuffling distribution, u-drive-it tours, alternative disc jockeys, and let us not forget press support (bet there are more Pazz & Joppers on SST’s list than on CBS’s). Plus, certainly, the occasional bonanza of a major-label buyout or coop deal.

For the most part, though, majors and indies seem destined to function almost as parallel industries. The blockbuster system has shown a welcome appetite for salable oddities, but also a deplorable readiness to spit out the unsalable ones real fast. A recent casualty is 30th-ranked King Sunny Ade, who after failing to break beyond a U.S. audience of 50,000 or so (nice bucks for an indie, red ink for a major) has split with Island; assuming he has nothing multinational up his capacious sleeve, he will no doubt be encouraged to put out his Nigerian records on Shanachie or Rounder or some such, but who knows when he’ll invest time and money in a powerful Afro-American fusion like Aura again. Nor are oddities who sing in English exempt. In a worst-case scenario, the likes of R.E.M. and X could quickly be forced to reveal just how much love they’re in it for as the once-fashionable Ms. Lauper burns out in the general direction of the floundering Culture Club, the underemployed Men at Work, or even the disbanded Stray Cats. That would leave the indies free to earn ever more decent returns from off the unblockbusting markets they serve, though the artists’ crimped dreams and audiences’ crimped demands would eventually leach excitement (and after that profits) from their music. In a best-case scenario, the Replacements or Los Lobos or X or R.E.M. or the Bangles (or even — ick — Let’s Active or the Del Fuegos) could turn into the next megaplatinum oddity. Whereupon indies would start farming out potential bonanzas — I can see it now, Hüsker Dü in the studio with Liam Sternberg for Geffen — and tending new ones, who might or might not grow both sturdy and odd. Certainly the EP list, which ended up showcasing a San Francisco comedienne, a Nashville mother-and-daughter act, and a callow Captain Beefheart (two of whom I voted for myself), bodes poorly. In past years Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Bangles, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Let’s Active, and the Lyres have all made their Pazz & Jop debuts on EP, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü barely missing. This year only Jason evinces major potential, though Tommy Keene might turn into a less gooey Let’s Active and the Butthole Surfers could conceivably bubble up from below.

New blood might also come from abroad, of course. But as a matter of local loyalty and revealed truth Pazz & Joppers have favored American artists throughout the ’80s, and I don’t see that changing in the short term. Anglophilia did make a comeback with the voters in the wake of the widely rumored British Invasion of 1983. Yet though every winning act except for the Police and Malcolm McLaren (whose 23rd-ranked single didn’t spin off an album until mid-December) was back on the racks in 1984, only U2 (who aren’t English and fell from sixth to 29th) repeated, joined by romantic tyros the Smiths and artists of colour Special AKA and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (If the Pretenders are British, Tina Turner’s white.) Of the others, the Eurythmics (tied for 43rd), Elvis Costello (70th! — lowest previous finish 11), and Big Country (also not English and down from 15 to 92) made top 100. Richard Thompson and Culture Club were lower, Aztec Camera was much lower, and David Bowie justified my steadfast faith in rock criticism by garnering not a single mention. Other Brit bands were heard from, of course — watch out for Bronski Beat, the Waterboys, perhaps Sade, perhaps the The — and a few young Americans also got their comeuppance (Violent Femmes 85th heh heh, Dream Syndicate 94th). But on the (American) trade charts and the (American) critical charts both, this was an American year.

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I’ll try not to prattle on too much about how rock and roll nationalism connects up with the easy-going monster who sits atop the American hegemony to end all American hegemonies. But I will surmise that the affection of the American record-buyer for Bruce and Prince (and Madonna and Motley Crüe) has something in common with the affection of the American voter for Ronald Reagan, that the common element may not be all bad, and that as always those who crave progressive change might well pay closer attention. If Americans are to change, they’ll do so as Americans, not universal humans, and their music is an encouraging index of what Americans might become if not how they might become it. Read what you will into the burlesque escapism of “Ghostbusters” or the pathological deceit of “Like a Virgin” (or the pulp-fascist sadism of Shout at the Devil), I trust that most Voice readers, if not most New Republic readers, still prefer rock and roll’s hegemony to the president’s. And if you want to believe that critics sense trends first, as they often do, then maybe rock and roll portends something better than world destruction.

A few pollyannas may discern smashed sexism in the record-breaking six top 20 albums by women. But especially since there are only two or three more in the next 30, I’ll just applaud the return to “normal” 1979-1982 levels, hope Private Dancer proves less flukish than 1979’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, pray Cyndi and the Bangles don’t go the way of the underrated 53rd-place Go-Go’s, and give thanks that neither Madonna album snuck into the top 100. I’m more encouraged by the 10 black albums in the top 40 (three on the staying power of 1983 product by one Clinton and two Womacks) in a bad year for funk and traditional black pop. Whatever it portends, there is a renewed integrationist mood in the music marketplace, and with major misgivings about who does and doesn’t share the wealth I have to call it healthy. Even Ron Wynn, whose late ballot included his annual anti-crossover sermon, has half-succumbed: surrounding 97th-ranked Solomon Burke among his 15-point albums were Private Dancer, which utilizes white musicians almost exclusively, Purple Rain, which flaunts a flamboyantly integrated band, and Run-D.M.C., by a group with every intention and some chance of cracking the heavy metal market (and don’t be sure you’ll like it — or hate it — when it happens). We also had our first salsa finisher, Rubén Blades, who’s reportedly preparing an all-synth followup. Given the wide (and even) age spread, generational consciousness seemed at once more acute and less hostile — not many kids blaming their pain on their elders or elders condescending back (though Chrissie Hynde’s nasty “I’ve got a kid I’m 33” was one of the year’s great moments). Which may be because rock and rollers are figuring out who their enemies are — our easygoing monster definitely has them thinking. The usual cultural subversion and pleas for peace were augmented this year by lots of music that’s explicitly political rather than just objectively progressive or socially conscious: from the relative subtlety of Laurie Anderson and Clinton and Springsteen and Hüsker Dü and the Del-Lords and the born-again Ramones, all of whom make the agitpop of the movement ’60s seem pretty tame, to the militance of the Minutemen and the Special AKA and Rubén Blades and Linton Kwesi Johnson, possibly the greatest artist in the history of Trotskyism.

On the whole, then, I find myself cheered by Pazz & Jop ’84, and surprised. Although congenitally unpessimistic except when rattled, I’ve spent the past six months grousing about the worst year for albums since 1975, and now I realize I was wrong. With my Dean’s List at 50 and climbing — which seemed impossible even as RJ and I tallied in late January — I’ve looked back and discovered that not until 1978 did I get above 49 without best-ofs; in 1980, I didn’t get above 49 with them. Counting only compilations drawn from recent history, I can add five guaranteed A’s to my list (John Anderson, George Jones, Marley, Parliament, Scott-Heron), with half a dozen more looking good. Of course, my 1982 and 1983 lists did go up to 70 without best-ofs, and the slippage still makes me nervous — in the absence of cultural upheaval there was some satisfaction in settling for broad-based energy and skill. But as I might have figured in the year of the major-label single — a year when the quaint notion of the album as “artistic unit” lost its last vestiges of bizwise usefulness — most of the decline was in major-label albums, down from 42 to 26. So what else is new? I’ll take anything I can get from the big corporations, but I consider it correct to expect as little as possible, and my dismay at the dip in first-rate LPs was more than offset by an unexpected bonus of consensus: although as always I smell some ringers in this year’s poll, from the Smiths and Let’s Active to the eternal Rickie Lee Jones, every album in the voters’ top 20 was at least an A minus by me. They’ve — we’ve — arrived at a balance of shared pleasure and informed rage that I think fits the real limits and possibilities of the music we all love.

To prophets and fools this will seem not just small comfort but closet (if that) liberalism, a self-informed fellowship of rowdy dissent that can in no way mitigate the present and future political/cultural disaster. And as far as I’m concerned they should yowl all they want about cooptation and War Is Peace and counter-hegemony feeding on hegemony and true oppression caught in the gears, because they’re sure to be telling some of it true. Congenital nonpessimist that I am, though, I just don’t believe they see the whole picture. I’m very aware that there are all kinds of ways for me to be wrong, but I don’t believe the world as we know it is coming to an end. And in my own little sphere I’m delighted to see co-workers closing ranks in response to the unequivocal social crisis that one way or another underlies various ambiguous musical developments. I have even less idea what the future holds than I usually do. But I am pretty sure that insofar as music can help us through — and maybe what distinguishes me from prophets and fools is that I no longer think that’s very far — we still have the stuff.

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Top 10 Albums of 1984

1. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

2. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.)

3. Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash)

4. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

5. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S.)

7. The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (Sire)

8. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (SST)

9. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor)

10. Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (Profile)

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Top 10 Singles of 1984

1. Prince: “When Doves Cry”/”17 Days” (Warner Bros.)

2. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing in the Dark”/”Pink Cadillac” (Columbia)

3. Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Capitol)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Eight Miles High” (SST)

5. Van Halen: “Jump” (Warner Bros.)

6. Prince: “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City” (Warner Bros.)

7. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & The Godfather of Soul James Brown: “Unity” (Tommy Boy)
Run-D.M.C.: “Rock Box” (Profile)

9. Chaka Khan: “I Feel for You” (Warner Bros.)

10. (Tie) Cyndi Lauper: “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (Portrait)
Cyndi Lauper: “Time After Time” (Portrait)

— From the February 19, 1985, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.


Former Van Halen Frontman Sammy Hagar Exits Sammy’s Beach Bum Bar in Atlantic City

In happier days, a garrulous, wild-haired Sammy Hagar chatted with a reporter about an upcoming show with Sammy’s Beach Bum Bar & Grill as backdrop. “Rum’s the best mixer on the planet,” he says, as a casino executive looks on approvingly. Beware of seemingly friendly guys in suits, Sammy!

Operated by Sammy Hagar but owned by Bally’s Casino via Caesar’s Entertainment, Sammy’s Beach Bum Bar & Grill was a fixture on the Atlantic City Boardwalk for the last three summers. In fact, it was the only outdoor bar actually situated on sand, between the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. It was a relatively large place, with about 60 tables, and waitresses dressed in hot pants. A loud rock soundtrack blared from speaker horns overhead. The specialty of the place was tall drinks served in colorful plastic glasses with umbrellas in them, with fried tidbits as the main bar snacks. The place seemed more like it belonged in Florida or California.


Sammy’s Beach Bum Bar & Grill was the only place in AC you could actually sit on the beach.

Now Eater National reports that Hagar has pulled out of the operation, with the implication that he and Bally’s couldn’t come to an agreement in the post-Sandy era about how to repair the badly damage outdoor bar. But don’t worry about where to get that beachside mai tai, Bally’s will be reopening the bar this summer — without Hagar. Chalk it up to the slow downward spiral of the casino city, or maybe it was just Sammy.

Here’s part of Hagar’s statement:

Following months of ongoing discussions, Sammy Hagar has regretfully been unable to come to terms with Caesars Entertainment on the rebuilding of the Sammy Beach Bar & Grill at Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. Since opening in May 2010, the restaurant had been a popular boardwalk destination until it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. While Hagar continues to explore a new partnership in the region, he and his Hagar Family Foundation will remain committed to the Atlantic City community through which he has supported local children’s charities for the last several years.

Sometimes known as the Red Rocker, Hagar served as frontman for the band Van Halen from 1985 to 1996.


David Lee Roth and Kanye West Get Creative in 2012

David Lee Roth’s persona might be that of a particularly lusty vaudevillian, ready to crack a joke, but he held court for more than a few serious moments during Thursday night’s Van Halen show at the improbably small Café Wha?

There was the introduction of his 92-year-old uncle, Manny Roth (the MacDougal Street venue’s original proprietor), during which Roth recalled the first time he descended the stairs to the cave-like space some 50 years ago; then, the part where he outlined the ethnic makeup of Los Angeles’s clubs during a bit about his band’s repertoire of covers made me wonder if there’s some alternate-universe Roth who’s getting great buzz on And then there was the point where he looked back on his days as a paramedic: Back in the ’00s, he traded tour buses for New York City’s ambulances, traveling to the Bronx and Bed-Stuy as he treated people in need.

During this particular tangent—which was set off by Roth wondering if anyone in the industry-heavy audience could introduce him to Lady Gaga—the frontman, still flamboyant despite being clad in overalls and a Dutch Boy cap, outlined his inspiration for heading to EMT school instead of traveling the reality-show path trod by too many of his peers. “Artist to artist . . . haven’t you ever wondered about some of these buildings, and some of these projects, and some of these places we drive past every day, and you wonder: ‘What’s behind that door? Man, what’s going on in there? What’s up on the roof over there?'” he asked. “As an artist, everything you see—everybody that you know—winds up in your voice.”

Lofty stuff from a man who once crowed, “I dropped my pen-cil!” as a come-on—in the pummeling-yet-flirty “Hot for Teacher,” one of the chestnuts pulled out during the Café Wha? gig—but not entirely surprising. After all, being an entertainer worthy of one’s box-office receipts involves cultivating a certain amount of empathy for the people paying the cover charges; the audience Thursday night was filled with seen-it-all types who were bowled over not just by the fact that one of the rock era’s biggest bands was shredding through its biggest songs while standing maybe 20 feet tops away from them, but also by the charisma that emanated from the stage.

The night before Van Halen’s gig, one of the few current pop stars whose notoriety matches that of Roth at his MTV-saturating peak, and one who’s ever mindful of his own artistic voice—Kanye West—took to his Twitter account for a series of 140-character salvos over the course of a few hours that, in part, outlined his vision for his post–Watch the Throne future. He confessed that despite the boasts on his collaborative album with Jay-Z, he hadn’t bought any new jewelry or cars because he instead wanted to pursue his artistic dreams, which included the formation of a new company.

DONDA—all-caps, named after West’s mother—will be the company where West and his collaborators “help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel . . . dream of, create, advertise, and produce products driven equally by emotional want and utilitarian need.” It will eventually employ a laundry list of creative and professional types that include “architects, graphic designers, directors, musicians, producers, AnRs, writers, publicists, social media experts, app guys, managers, car designers, clothing designers, DJs, video game designers, publishers, tech guys, lawyers, bankers, nutritionists, doctors, scientists, teachers”—so serious was he about finding members of these professions that he even tweeted an e-mail address where interested parties could sign up.

Much has been made of the demise of the record industry and the attendant shrinking of the stars who populate it. But there are still outsized personalities in the music world, and there’s definitely a hunger to view certain people as stars in a positive light and not just in the point-and-laugh way popularized by TMZ and twilight-of-fame reality shows. Police and barricades cordoned the streets around Café Wha? on Thursday night to handle the crowds angling for a glimpse of Roth and his bandmates. Hours earlier, West had about 5.8 million people following him on Twitter, and his sketched-out business plan was amplified by both the reams of media coverage it received and the people on Twitter who were real-time reacting to its incremental broadcast.

On the flip side, the shrinking of the sphere allows for less room for excess and lost weekends spent overindulging in the spoils of stardom to the detriment of one’s art—because to be frank, they might not be there for long, if at all. West’s disavowal of spending money on the finer things in life might have sounded a bit disingenuous (this is a guy, after all, who tooled around in a deconstructed $350,000 car for a music video with Jay-Z last year), but when coupled with the outlining of his artistic vision, it was striking.

The ferocity with which Van Halen attacked their instruments on Thursday night made me flash back to the taut, three-hour Guns N’ Roses show I saw last year; Axl Rose might have showed up late, but damned if he wasn’t a pro who seemed to be enjoying himself. Van Halen’s show on Thursday night felt the same way, and chalking all of that up adrenaline rush to the small setting is probably incorrect.

“I want to put creatives in a room together with like minds that are all waaaay doper than me,” West tweeted at one point during his DONDA pitch. Perhaps he and Roth should have a chat?



Comedian and actor Matt Oberg (as seen on Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans and 30 Rock, among others) has had an illustrious lineup of musical legends on his show, Hit Parade. There has been George Michael, Phil Collins, Guns N’ Roses, and now Van Halen! OK, OK, not the Van Halen, but the Van Halen tribute band Bottoms Up (who take the job of accurately playing “Panama” very seriously). Helping Oberg take on the high-jumping antics of Diamond Dave are special guests Murderfist (named Village Voice Best Sketch Comedy Group 2010) and the Hit Parade Players Ben Schneider and Liz Bangs. Encore!

Thu., Dec. 22, 9:30 p.m., 2011


Keren Ann

Maybe it’s the New York aroma that’s soaked steadily into Keren Ann’s leather jacket. After all, Nolita has been one of the borderless singer-songwriter’s many second homes, as well as an album title. Whatever its source, the instrumental and vocal seasoning she’s added since beginning to work principally in English and French (on Nolita and a 2007 self-titled) has brought a sanguine badassness to an already alluring sound. Who knows; maybe it’s just more Van Halen on her car radio. Still, there’s nothing wrong with more steady-eddie strut. Why not add some shout to that whispery stroll ‘long the Canal Saint-Martin?

Sun., Dec. 13, 9 p.m., 2009


Hugleikur Dagsson’s Should You Be Laughing at This?

Works with rhetorical questions for titles too often invite the critical abuse they inspire: “Why Can’t This Be Love?” Van Halen coyly ask in a song that just about justifies domestic violence, if not actual homicide; at the end of the day, only candidates for electroshock might conceivably care where Car 54 and its inhabitants are. But fans of Icelandic artist/playwright Hugleikur Dagsson’s blackhearted, delightfully evil little drawings needn’t fret about the title of his new book, Should You Be Laughing at This?—a sort of “best of” compendium of several earlier, very successful volumes published in his homeland. Eschewing the Boiled Angel pose of art-as-therapy, Dagsson crafts painfully honest, squirm-inducing vignettes of the comic horrors of everyday life, in which his squiggly characters blandly voice their confusion (“Wait a minute . . . This isn’t tennis! This is anal sex!”), body terror (see above), and comprehensive self-loathing (a Christmas scene plays out under a thought balloon that reads: “A sweater. Why do you hate me?”). With the X-rated eloquence of a Dennis Cooper novella and the sly drollery of Max Cannon’s Red Meat cartoons, Dagsson’s visceral whimsy answers his own deadpan query with an emphatic “Já!


Van Halen Reunites—Just in Time for Their Excellent Unauthorized Bio

Eddie Van Halen’s son looks like Peppermint Patty. There’s no getting around it. I wish things could be different. As do, presumably, fans of Van Halen. This week, the long-beleaguered pop-metal behemoth disembalms original singer David Lee Roth for what is surely the Chinese Democracy of reunion tours, a long-threatened and oft-aborted rehash of those early-’80s glory years, before jovial, tequila-hawking asshat Sammy Hagar took over and turned the band into wusstastic chart-toppers. The Rothian diehards are (cautiously) elated. But the thorn on this particular rose lies in the absence of beloved bassist Michael Anthony, the bearlike dude with the Mickey Mouse watch collection and (lasciviously) angelic harmonies, kicked to the curb for I’m sure just totally rational reasons and replaced by . . . Eddie Van Halen’s son. His name is Wolfgang. He is 16 years old. And in fascinating rehearsal pics released last week, choogling merrily behind the pleasantly emaciated Roth and his own terrifyingly emaciated father, Wolfgang looks well-fed, looks content, looks beatific, looks like Peppermint Patty.

This is far from the most ludicrous and offensive bullshit reunion maneuver a rock band has ever foisted on its horrified fans. No iconic, dead frontmen replaced via reality show, etc. Doesn’t even make the Top 20. Yet Wolfgang’s promotion has the distinct, surrealist, forehead- slapping ring of Van Halen and Van Halen alone, a band that for nearly 30 years has mingled thrilling debauchery (the libidinous Roth years), wild success (Hagar’s lucrative but frequently banal string of four straight No. 1 albums), and breathtaking innovation (Eddie’s violent six-string virtuosity throughout). Unfortunately, just as resonant lately are the bitterly acrimonious disasters—the breakups, aborted reunions, and yawning stretches of inactivity, plus a universally ignored one-album dalliance with Extreme bellower Gary Cherone—that now threaten to permanently tar the band as a dinosaur-act punchline.

It’s a sordid and gripping history that Williamsburg critic, author, and radio DJ Ian Christe was surprised to learn hadn’t been told. So he told it himself. Everybody Wants Some, his exhaustive 300-page Van Halen biography, came out two weeks ago. Perfect timing. “They returned exactly on my schedule,” Christe jokes, chatting on the phone. “It was really, really considerate.”

The tour—Ian describes it as less a reunion than a “reconciliation”—doesn’t hit NYC until November. This is not soon enough for Ian. He has, after all, a great deal of emotional investment in this. “I’d like to go as soon as possible, to catch it while it’s kind of chaotic and unpredictable, and also to put my mind at rest,” he says with a nervous laugh. “It’s kind of a cliffhanger, you know? For me, I’m looking for personal closure, one way or the other. How does it end?

His voice is laced with concern. In truth, Ian found the fact that Van Halen’s full story hadn’t been told both surprising and deeply troubling. It suggests that people no longer care. “The memory of Van Halen, I think, is starting to fade,” he notes. So Everybody is as much a heartfelt plea as a straight historical account: Do not forget them. However sad and volatile and hapless they may appear now, they were great once—truly monolithic, truly influential. Now they’ve returned just in time to preserve a legacy they almost entirely wasted.

Not that they’d discuss this with Ian personally. The biographer’s requests for access to all three musicians (Michael, Eddie, and Eddie’s drummer brother Alex) and all three singers (Roth, Hagar, Cherone) were either suspiciously regarded or ignored entirely. “I didn’t want to spend seven years waiting for the stars to align,” Ian says. “That’s when I dug out the pre-existing 10,000 Van Halen interviews in the world. Pretty much I’ve got a tiny Van Halen library— spindles of DVDs, just hours and hours and hours of entertainment. And I culled it from that, and treated it as if I was writing a book about Thomas Jefferson, based on historical evidence.”

Comparing the band to Thomas Jefferson is, of course, another clue as to their current cultural standing. But Everybody will hopefully raise their profile, highlighting the good, the bad, the ugly. Ian is especially skilled at detailing the ugly. He displays a sure hand in sketching out the band’s genesis—Alex and Eddie, fresh off the boat from Holland and set loose in California, start a beer-soaked party-rock band as Eddie morphs into a mesmerizing guitar god—and delightfully recounts the sordid “three-panty operas” that typified Roth’s loopy lewdness. But Ian’s prose truly takes flight when Roth flames out after career apex 1984 (the one with “Jump” and “Hot for Teacher,” ah) and Hagar shows up. Hagar vs. Roth is of course the defining, polarizing rock ‘n’ roll argument; Ian’s allegiance is not hard to discern. It’s great fun watching him barely conceal what seems to be a remarkably profound distaste for Sammy, with his propensity for corny power-ballads and inelegant Cabo Wabo tequila tie-ins. “If it wasn’t for my deep professionalism in all ways . . . ” Ian slyly notes. “It would be really funny to come out with a book called I Hate Sammy Hagar.”

You feel bad for Sammy sometimes, both in terms of this book and general public opinion, though it’s hard to defend the guy when Ian can level a brutal insult merely by writing a bias-free, 100-percent factually accurate declarative sentence. (” ‘Up for Breakfast’ was a raunchy dirt-road rocker with sexual metaphors by Sammy based around breakfast food.”) But Everybody‘s final third is harsher and darker still. With the usual caveats involved in this sort of thing—the perils of openly empathizing with multimillionaire, knucklehead rock stars who strike even their most devout fans as profoundly unpleasant people and rose to cultural infamy largely by, to quote the Dude, treating objects like women, man—it’s easy to feel sorry for all these poor bastards. When Van Hagar goes irretrievably sour and the band enters a tailspin of botched reunions and rehab misadventures, Ian abandons his historical distance and turns the book into a lament, a plea: Stop fucking up and play music.

The book’s highlight is the band’s nadir: a blow-by-blow account of the atrocious debacle that was Van Halen’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction back in March. The boys couldn’t get it together enough to appear onstage together: Eddie wound up in rehab again, and only Sammy and Michael Anthony showed up to accept the award, jamming onstage with Paul fucking Schaffer and leaving the Roth-era tribute to the helpless, atonal Velvet Revolver. It was devastating. “Yeah, that was a disaster,” Ian concurs. “It was so sad. I kept expecting Roth to come jumping out of the wings. That’s a perfect example of how the absence has just hurt them so much.”

Who’s the ray of hope here? Wolfgang. Ian sees a poignancy in Van Halen’s resurrection involving a teenager, someone to represent both the childlike glee of original fans and the new generation that has yet to discover the band’s majesty but needs to learn. The tour hits Philly next week. Ian will be there. Michael Anthony will not, but it could’ve been worse. It often has been. Hopefully, this won’t totally suck. “A lot of people feel thwarted, I think, because you want it to be this ‘Spirit of ’84’ event,” Ian says. “It’s gonna be its own thing. We’ll know in a week if Father knows best.”

Van Halen play Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center October 1 and 3 (, and Madison Square Garden November 13


Fully Stacked

Marshall Stack, with its earsplitting name, classic-rock jukebox, and giant photo of Pete Townshend behind the bar, is a sort of homage to the world’s boy-men still talking about having once played Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” perfectly in the 12th grade. But that’s OK, because this spot’s wholehearted vibe provides a refreshing low-key break from the nearby Ludlow Street zoo. Staying true to the city’s restriction on fun, the New York State Liquor Authority limits the bar’s drink list to beer and wine, due to the establishment’s proximity to a church. That works fine for penny-pinchers, with their blue-collar brews like Carling Black Label ($2) and Schaefer ($2). Drafts get a little more exotic with the Italian pilsner Peroni ($6) and Belgium’s famously potent Delirium Tremens ($8), charmingly named after the medical term for alcohol-withdrawal tremors. The food menu is also part grown-up and part broke-college-student, with items like English-muffin pizzas ($5) and grilled asparagus, goat cheese, and truffle oil sandwiches ($9). And for the dork in all of us, there’s the smirkishly named blue balls—grapes covered with blue cheese and candied nuts. Or for maximum dorkitude, stop by Thursday nights for the comic-book swap sponsored by St. Mark’s Comics at 7 p.m.


Might as Well Jump

“Think of me as a camp counselor,” David Lee Roth announced, by way of introduction. “My parents used to send me up here every summer; now, I’m in charge of windsurfing.” Proud in black, skintight, snake-leather pants with purple tuxedo stripes up the side—plus more than a few octaves short on his high notes—the loser was almost likable, just for being human, aging if not gracefully, then at least sympathetically. This year alone Roth got fired from his high-profile morning-radio show; begged publicly (and unsuccessfully) to be let back into Van Halen, a band he’s already been kicked out of twice; worked as both a helicopter pilot and an EMT; become a YouTube legend for the Leno outtake of his bluegrass version of “Jump”; and helped produce a whole album, Strummin’ With the Devil, of straight-faced covers of Van Halen songs.

Outside Nokia Theatre, two balding men with gray ponytails speculated as to whether the night’s star attraction still had his own glorious mane (nope). Later those same dudes would point without irony toward their girlfriends during “Beautiful Girls” and applaud wildly when Diamond Dave got a quarter of the way around on his roundhouse kicks. When he took the stage for “Hot for Teacher,” he reminded his crowd—construction workers and fraternity alumni, mostly—”You never did no fucking homework,” as if these people were even young enough to remember whether they had or not.

Mid–guitar solo, Roth would walk over to his axman and act like the solo was actually setting his microphone on fire. “Sweet,” he moaned, then, “Double Sweet.” By the time he hit “Triple,” you realized: This man was fired from Howard Stern’s old job because he was incapable of not laughing at his own jokes.

I was just about ready to not punch the guy who’d cornered my girlfriend to tell her “how many memories this brings back” when Diamond Dave addressed his target audience: “You sexy little sluts—not you, your mother!” Then he started rubbing his dick.

Is this the price of admission to see a four-fifths cover band play “Jump” live? Not the $65 ticket, the clouds of Washington Square Park weed, or the surreal pat-down, where security was momentarily sure that my pen was in fact a knife, but the experience of watching a balding, 51-year-old man try to get a hard-on in front of 2,000 people?

“David Lee, you’re just another horny, semi-intoxicated white boy,” Roth said to himself, about halfway through a mind-blowing pre-“Panama” talk-like-black-folks monologue set seemingly, inexplicably, in South America. “It was humid, suffocating. Like my last two relationships.” As he emerged, clad in his third outfit of the night—what he was calling a “pimp suit,” with panama hat and suit jacket—somebody in the crowd shouted, “Go back to Atlantic City!” Instead, he played “Jump”—twice.