Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Runnin' With the Devil (Van Halen)


From 1978 to 1985, Van Halen was probably the biggest and most popular rock band in America. Fronted by incomparable front man/showman David Lee Roth and guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen, their brand of hard rock coupled with catchy hooks and strong melodies sold millions of records while the high-energy party atmosphere of their live shows won them legions of devoted fans all around the world. Their story is a tale as old as time, one of high school buddies slogging over years until they made it big, enjoying huge successes, and then blowing completely apart. If you look up "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" in the dictionary there very well could be a photo of Van Halen next to it. For many (if not most) fans of the band, the original iteration of brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, and David Lee Roth was the best version of Van Halen, maybe even the only real version of Van Halen. (I subscribe to the latter). During the years when this band was at its peak, Noel Monk was their road manager-turned-band-manager and his book Runnin' With the Devil is the story of his time guiding the band during this defining and legendary period of their career.

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Having recently read and review Greg Renoff's excellent pre-history of the band, Van Halen Rising, Runnin' With the Devil made a fitting segue picking up just about where Rennof's book left off. Noel Monk was a rock industry veteran, having stage managed Woodstock, worked for Bill Graham at the Fillmore East, and was the road manager for the Sex Pistols on their one and only tour. In early 1978 he got the opportunity to road manage a hot up and coming band called Van Halen on their first national tour as a support act for Montrose and Journey. Immediately taken with their personality and live shows, he developed a close relationship with them and gradually became their de facto manager in the absence of their nominal manager Marshall Berle. By the end of his first year with the band, they fired Berle and hired Monk as their full-fledged manager, but with a catch: he operated on a perpetually renewing thirty-day contract. Monk takes the reader through the entirety of Van Halen's early career, through all of the albums and tours, and gives us the story of what really went on behind the scenes.



The most striking thing about this book is that through it all, Monk doesn't seem like he was particularly a fan of Van Halen as people or musicians. While he does mention enjoying some of their songs, for the most part he's somewhat dismissive of most of their music although he does heap deserved praise on the final album of that run, the massively successful 1984. As far as the band members go, he has nothing but good things to say about Michael Anthony as a person (as most Van Halen fans do) and while he spares no chance to mock Eddie Van Halen's naivety and cluelessness about the world around him, he states multiple times that he had great affection for him and nothing but the utmost respect for his genius musicianship. He saves his ire for the other two members of the band: Alex Van Halen for his alcoholism and backstabbing, and David Lee Roth for his arrogance, sociopathic personality, and mood swings. Monk also didn't have a lot to say about the music other than the few songs he mentioned that he liked ("Jump," "Runnin' With the Devil"). He surprisingly said that Fair Warning, which most Van Halen fans consider to be their best album, was poor and while most fans would agree that Diver Down was their weakest release, he pulled no punches in savaging it. It was a strange thing to read about a manager who was so focused on the business side of the band and had little to no interest in them as people or musicians. Most famous managers didn't meddle with the music but at least were fans of it (think Brian Epstein or Peter Grant to name but two). The thing to keep in mind, though, is that most managers were with their bands from the beginning and endured the struggle to the top alongside them; in many cases they became friends. In the case of Monk and Van Halen, they were basically shoehorned together out of necessity, so it would follow that it wasn't really a match made out of a shared vision or affection.


Runnin' With the Devil was a fun read but it was definitely a tell-all and settled more than a few scores. It was also a chance for Monk to toot his own horn and while it's clear he worked hard and accomplished a lot in the service of Van Halen, there was a bit of a Walter Mitty-like feel to it. There didn't seem to be a single problem he didn't solve or a single innovation he wasn't 100% responsible for (as an example. the band's merchandising). He always seemed to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time doing exactly the right thing; after a while it seemed more than just a little unbelievable. I'm not saying he wasn't telling the truth as I wasn't there, but if everything he claimed happened the way he said it did then he lived a charmed life indeed. There were also a couple of instances where it seemed like he was mixing up events that either happened before his tenure (such as Kiss manager Bill Aucoin turning the band down, which was chronicled in Van Halen Rising) or Michael Anthony signing away all of his rights to the band's publishing (which happened in the early 2000s as far as I know). Still, overall Runnin' With the Devil was an enjoyable and eye-opening look at the machinations of the classic Van Halen lineup behind the scenes. One thing I will warn potential readers is to make sure you're able to separate the artist from the art. Most of what is known about the guys in the band is not flattering regardless of the source; it's all pretty much true and this book only adds to that. As long as one is able to keep that separate from the enjoyment of their music, Van Halen fans should enjoy this book.

MY RATING: 8/10


2 comments:

  1. Separating the art from the artist can be tricky, but I think it's doable. Generally, if the artist is a horrible person, that makes it easier than if they openly insult and detest everything about me in their art and in their public utterances.

    In other words--I can still enjoy a Michael Jackson song, but I'm never spending a cent to see George Clooney or Matt Damon or Alec Baldwin in a movie.

    This all also makes me realize I need to do a deeper listen to Van Halen. I've always found them catchy as hell, especially more the older I get, but other than the hits, which I fully admit to belting out when they come on over the car radio, I don't know much else.

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    1. Agreed. Especially having read and reviewed so many musician biographies over the last 5+ years (130+ books and counting) and even interacting with some of the people in the books, I've gotten good at separating the person from the music. I'd say most musicians I've read about seem like decent enough people, but there are some (John Fogerty, for example who seem truly miserable. I've been able to compartmentalize that away from the great music, though.

      You definitely need to get into VH! The six original Roth albums are the only ones to listen to (as well as the one they made with Roth in 2012, A Different Kind of Truth, which is actually REALLY good. It's made up mostly of unused demos from the 70s that the original band didn't finish which is probably why it's so good). The Van Hagar stuff is pure crap IMO.

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