Van Halen: Spanish Fly
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Inhale… [and so it began: dissatisfaction with the core curriculum and a general hatred towards “transcendental idealism” prodded life’s station into nomadic careerism. Neo-gypsy indifference and wind rippling freak flag flown, one year off multiplied itself by five; school was out for summer and then some. Like-minded rivet heads congregated with one another at an in-town eatery working for fair wages, abysmal tips and a boss who’d secured his workman’s gauge green from stage-handing at Graham’s Winterland sonic emporium. Schedules waxed and waned with lunar calendar frequency; cliques formed and splintered; kitchen tandems were forged in the fires of August; dog-day Atlanta heat cooking calves, boiling brains, raising rashes in the most unfortunate places.
Suddenly Brad and I found ourselves cemented into prized A.M. weekend shifts; we’d only have to churn out hundreds of pounds of food to sustain the night rush and then we’d be home free. Two longhairs united by a common adoration for early Van Halen, Rush, Iron Maiden, Venom, Celtic Frost. Violent heat, malfunctioning kitchen equipment and the dreaded lunch rush were all saddle burrs, pestering notions of malign reality that sought to deflate hot air intakes; kind, mid-grade, schwag smoke slurped from smoking glassware orifices.
Ice cold Budweisers, Heinekens, Guinnesses were pilfered from the front of the house, pounded within the impossibly tight confines of the walk-in cooler—the locus for the wake & bake, bat & bong hit, dugout dredging, shotgunning sneak-a-toke nostril blah. Paraphernalia, however, was commonly forgotten, left still smoking on a coffee table littered with Terrorizer magazines, which is where “The Craft” careened into necessity, and with a walk-in littered with tubers, a paring knife and some frantic imagination was all that was needed.
Brad took to the Kingstons, Russets, the Yukon Golds. The sculptural yield was always different: there were several submarines, a Flying-V, the Starship Enterprise. Once the periscope was pulled in, the dive coincided with a deep toke in the cold room. Time went soft; minutes, seconds surfed into elasticity; melting clocks merged with steam kettle tantrums, blowhole blasts of white-hot water spaying the face, arms and legs. Red-eyed loose tongued converse was dispersed amidst cassette tape switch-outs, impromptu DJing with a beat-up boombox, its front flaked with Jerk spice, the speaker grills dented and pocked with garlic salt, cumin, salt and pepper.
Like a fritzing CD carousel given over to not-so-random function, picking a single song again and again with definite aim, we maintained our allegiance to Van Halen’s 1979 offering Van Halen II. One track in particular was rewound and left to play ad infinitum: “Spanish Fly.”
Van Halen II was one of those whirlwind records, nailed down in ten days, tracked nearly 48 hours after coming off the torture trail of the first tour, with overdubs limited to a mere three songs; the near whole of the recording having been preformed in the sweaty throes of club-wrangled dates, sets peppered with choice covers, salted with Diamond Dave’s non sequitur Cock Rock banter, Edward’s tremolo shrieks and divebomb Om framing a technicolor take that forever threatened to tear free of its frame.
While not as great as its predecessor, “Outta Love,” “D.O.A.” and “Bottoms Up!” stood in the face of prep progress, demanding air guitar recourse, allowing for the errant Diamond Dave orangutan shriek. And then there was “Spanish Fly:” 58 seconds of whitewater runs, frantic finger tap, capsized pick-hand blows hammering heavily into fret-hand frisk; tidal pools of five-note groupings, dark blue undertow fleshed out in fractured flamenco.
In the haze of Producer Ted Templeman’s New Year’s Eve party, Edward had latched onto an acoustic, plundering more than plucking its strings, leaving jaws at foot level. Ted urged the West Coast prodigy to record an acoustic piece for the follow-up and Edward obliged, cutting and pasting bits of “Eruption” into a seemingly unsupported format, causing pickers near and far to rethink their wood’s six strings, and possibly their need to ever grope the guitar again.
Putting cause before effect, Edward transliterated the guitargasm of “Eruption” to its latent loin awakening, rearing its head from the preparation of dried beetles as aphrodisiac: the loins lulled into somnambulant excitation via speed, articulation, preternatural plicks and plucks on a nylon-stringed Ovation guitar.
The break-room held a no-name nylon-strung acoustic in its well, a persistently out-of-tune crank with a cracked headstock. It found its way into Brad’s hands by midday, when the eyelids Magoo’d and smiles spread like Fluffer Nutters across stoner pieholes. He could always make it past the initial finger-taps, even through the minefield of tonal clusters that followed, eventually falling into sonic belligerence—hands slowed by synapses stoned into the Bone Age.
There’s a reason why the fucking thing is less than a minute long: “Spanish Fly” is a cliff diver’s take on guitar acrobatics, a deep drop into technique’s black hole. Bends aside, blowing to the surface is disallowed until the deed is done. We would rewind again and again: What has that troll dicta preceding the tonal majesty? “Humphf,” it expelled. Another rewind. Another play. “Humphf,” again it expelled. Confusion allowed the piece to run its course and then another enigma: From “Humphf” through to 56 seconds later, the explanation waves in the wind, the lungs loosing their breath after the deep dive, impossible to execute those cuts with Eastern like devotion to the breath; the only way to make the music happen was to stop breathing.
“Spanish Fly” wasn’t just another reason to jaw about Edward’s prowess over multiple big-mouthed malt liquor, it was an investigation into technique’s quiet work behind the curtain, the two-second exhalation an affirmation of Edward’s flesh-‘n’-blood, something easily forgotten in the midst of volcanic “Eruption.” Two seconds short of a minute in toto; two seconds at fore and aft to render an acoustic “solo” something of the sublime, something fetishized and fought over, something to keep the mind occupied and off of the ovens.] Exhale…