#415: Van Halen, "Van Halen" (1978)

He could imagine committing the crime, any number of them—arson, blackmail, drunk in charge of a motor vehicle—that wasn’t the problem. It was the being proud of it in the aftermath that he couldn't conceive of, those smiles, all that smug mugging for the mugshots. No, Petey thought, he'd be tear-streaked and mortified in his.

Unless it had been a delinquency of joy, like crowd-surfing (or the aiding and abetting thereof) after the behemoth with the braided beard had asked everyone not to, something victimless and reeking of youth like that. Petey used to mosh, used to elbow the pretty girls near him and mime a helping boost, a questioning shrug. He'd make a basket out of his hands for them, a ladder to rebellion. He'd never touch the butts of their jeans unless it was to bestow an absolutely innocent and necessary momentum. They'd wink their thanks as they sailed away into the sea of drunken, groping revelers.

What you lost, as you got older, were the things like that, the gumption to go against people, even in little ways that made the world better for yourself without making it all that worse for anybody else.

“Goddamnit, Petey, are you even seeing this shit?” his friend asked, sharp elbow in his ribs, breaking the spell.

The Israeli punk band was tearing up the stage at Chilgrimage, the summer festival they'd attended every year since graduating college a decade ago. The bassist wore a trashcan, the guitar player some fan's underwear on his head. There appeared to be no lead singer, though frenzied yelps still blared out of the enormous speakers. Petey was looking the wrong way, the predictable idiot, staring at the stage and hundreds of upturned faces when the real action was behind him: the rock star, middle-aged and bare-chested, nearly finished ascending the metal tower that housed the audio booth.

Petey turned around. Was the guy going to jump? The crowd wouldn't be satisfied otherwise. Was that going to make it worth it?

The singer climbed down the same way he'd gone up, a little carefully. He marched around and around the pit, stole his drummer's sticks and played his skull as the crowd pressed inward, crushing, crushing toward the center to get near the crazy guys, the guys with all the fun dumb energy left, the plenty of idiot energy.

Petey got smooshed, spilled his five-dollar Dasani on a topless woman, got his big toe stomped on hard by a child, was introduced to a fat man's armpit, pressed up against a lovely teenager's back, smelled her cliché rosewater shampoo, lost his favorite corporate-logoed sun hat into the mess of feet and mud. His friends were nowhere to be seen. He stripped off his shirt and mopped the sweat from his head and noticed that the music had stopped. It was just the ear-ringing now and the notion that he had survived. It had been thrilling in the hollow center of his terror and now he had just enough time to make his way to the main stage. When the day-glo children pushed him out of the way, he didn't even mind.

“Nice war paint,” Petey said to a shirtless, hairless teen boy as he passed him by.

“Yeah, thanks,” the kid said, kinda smiled. “Nice, um, nice hiking sandals.”


Petey always kept an eagle eye out for his favorite stars at these kinds of things. Because sometimes they’d stroll around among the common folk for an hour, just to get a bite-sized taste of it. They needed elephant ears and people-watching through pot clouds as much as everybody else did. He both feared and relished the fact that he might miss something, might not know who it was at the time. He thought he saw the woman from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He thought he saw Dave Grohl. An ugly old son of a bitch walked by, looking like a motorcycle mechanic who got fired for hitting the whiskey. Pierced septum, stringy thin hair, half-assed dragon tattoo gone wrinkly. Profile like a Portrait of Someone Who Once Coulda Been Someone, With Ear Hair. Petey thought the old boy could almost pass for Eddie Van Halen. But then, practically anybody could be Eddie these days, if you squinted.

Maybe getting older was the exact opposite of becoming a celebrity, Petey thought as he walked. He'd sometimes imagined the crushing depression of making your first blockbuster, realizing some pipe dream, finding out it wasn't what you'd always needed in order to begin, to be. Maybe reaching oldness would be the process of arriving somewhere dreaded, achieving the anti-fantasy in order to find it was a place that you didn't so much mind being once you arrived accidentally.

He had wanted to be famous once, back before he met James Earl Jones. He'd tried to sell James a souvenir lollipop for his granddaughter at a crappy gift shop, and had been too scared to tell Darth Vader that the charge of $1.79 had been declined; he just surreptitiously swiped his own plastic instead. That booming voice, that face that nine out of ten American humans had seen and seen and seen. It changed people.

Obviously, James would have been good for it. Must have been some mix-up at the bank. Would have been no big deal to ask for a different card. The man must have had a bucketful, all platinum, or black gold, or plutonium, or whatever they make 'em out of for people with money.

Petey knew then that he was part of one of the big little underrated problems of the world, that he was making life worse for James.

The horror, the horror. Every single human either too nice or too terrible to you for the rest of your life. You'd have to spend your days questing for apathetic, mediocre reactions from your fellow man. Other people leaving you well alone because they couldn't care less was an honest-to-God blessing some people couldn't afford to lose. Plus, Petey liked the idea of a whole existence spent thinking about it that way—that he'd chosen not to ever achieve anything more than dulled and moderate successes. He'd weighed his options and chosen not to flip on the light switch in the dark room of his life that would have blinded everyone, left them with sunspots on the insides of their lids, blinking.


Petey hustled toward the spot his friends had staked out with a blanket earlier in the day. He pushed past the dance forest and the Esurance prize wheel. Little things had changed, booths had been switched out, they'd brought in better porta potties, but he felt each time as though he were striding through a mashup of all the previous summers, spun by a shoddy DJ.

  Photograph by Marie Sicola

Photograph by Marie Sicola

Last year, the final act had been Jane’s Addiction. Oh, the youth-reliving glory! It wasn't that they weren't still cool, it was just how much cooler they used to be. Or maybe it was that all the people who thought they were coolest were wrapped in blankets, some Babybjörned, grooving from high up on the grassy hill and watching the twin Jumbotron screens. Down in the pit you had zonked adolescent Canadians on ditch weed and ecstasy who kinda thought every third song was pretty tight and maybe a little familiar.

Petey's crew had reposed on one elbow and said they were thrilled, said it was the show of a lifetime. Doesn't it look intense down there? Hah! From the front row, how could you even hope to see? They'd played almost all of Nothing’s Shocking. How old and how happy this had made Petey!

Petey pushed on, skirting a crowd of people taking video of a young girl kissing and arguing with a tree. It's not that you ever make some big choice, he thought. It's not that you turn your back on staying up all night, on stabbing friends in the back to get lucky. You just fall asleep early and wake up early not liking what's on the radio and wishing you did. You just go dig out your old binder of Sabbath CDs and find that you're 50/50 on whether this is badass and nostalgic or just a bad sign, like how you've been drinking less beer and more wine.

And then you find yourself revolving by on another loop at the same festival, nearly midnight, and you find that you’ve eschewed the luxurious hill for the grimy pit, though you don’t even know who the main act is. Still, you’re down there in the throng and it’s headliner time, around witching hour, when your feet are sore and you have to keep bending your knees, putting weight on the left foot a while, then the right one, and the set changes are interminable, a personal affront, your bladder a beaten middleweight cruiser, and you’ve entered some dreamspace.

Petey rose up on the balls of his feet. The whole gorge went black and when the floodlights snapped Petey surged forward. It was the old boy in makeup and a crimson jumpsuit, the edge of his dragon glistening in the rain. He picked up the mic stand and flung it into the crowd, the metal just missing Petey's ear. It was like the violent-gentle, guttural whisper of a semi-trailer rocking past a sedan on the interstate. A tall dude cut in front of him and Petey gave the guy a hard shove, because screw that guy, and because he had to see, and because what's a little crime, anyway, if it's for a good cause? On stage the odd creature was stuck in the spotlight—struck head-on by the blinding blessing and menace, yet unconcerned, finger-tapping his strings, shredding and saying, It's me, it's still me you're all here to see.

—Eric Thompson