"Runnin' With the Devil" Brilliantly and Hilariously Chronicles Van Halen's Glory Years

 


Runnin’ With the Devil is the first successful in-depth look into this important American rock band, and Monk writes a wholly engaging story depicting the good, the bad, and the harrowingly ugly in the late 1970s music industry.

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August 12, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau

 


Runnin' With the Devil

By Noel E. Monk with Joel Layden

Harper-Collins, 2017 

 

The idea for Runnin’ With the Devil has been simmering since the mid-1980s, when the author, Noel E. Monk, was fired from his managerial position for a well-known rock ‘n’ roll band. The reason for his termination was officially stated as the band needing a change in direction; the unofficial reason was that the band was falling apart at the seams and in full panic mode.

 

A lawsuit involving money-owed followed, with the two parties settling out of court, and as one of the terms of the agreement stipulated, the former manager was kept from profiting off the band’s name or image (including anything book-related) for a set amount of years. That particular statute of limitation finally ran out.  

It was an ugly end to a great partnership. Yet it’s, sadly, a rather typical story when there’s a lot of money involved. What isn’t typical is neither the band in question nor their former manager. Between 1977 and 1985, Pasadena’s finest party band, Van Halen, became a worldwide sensation and set a standard so high in rock ‘n’ roll, no one, not even the bandmembers themselves, have ever been able to surpass. Veteran industry handyman, Noel E. Monk, was put in charge as their road manager the moment the band signed to Warner Brothers. With his quick thinking, hard work, and good nature, Monk was quickly promoted to manager within a year’s time. Runnin’ With the Devil chronicles his eight-year stint working for Van Halen during what many  consider their peak creative years.  

 

Runnin’ With the Devil is the first successful in-depth look into this important American rock band, and Monk writes a wholly engaging story depicting the good, the bad, and the harrowingly ugly in the late 1970s music industry. That said, this is not the final word on the group, as Monk’s role did not require him to be in the studio with the band. Therefore, the full story has yet to be told. Writer Ian Christie made an attempt with his 2007 biography, Everybody Wants Some, but fell frustratingly short, perhaps because he lacked vital inside knowledge of the band. Runnin’ With the Devil is the best account available and will probably remain so for years to come, as it honors Monk’s love for the band, the job, and the absurd glory of rock ‘n’ roll.

 

Monk hilariously chronicles the high-stakes world of late-’70s/early-’80s music business with fantastic stories of payola offers, chart fixing, bootlegging, and corporate sponsorships. The band’s label, Warner Brothers, is viewed in considerable low-regard: This book may be the biggest swipe at the company and its dodgy practices since Frank Zappa went on a one-man campaign in the mid-’70s. For Zappa, the company not only blocked him from releasing his own material but stored his master tapes with such disregard some were too damaged to use when remastering his back catalog. That wasn’t quite the case with Van Halen, but Monk makes no bones regarding the almost criminal way in which the company handled their original contract. When informed of how the company held a stranglehold on not just their royalty rate but options for any further contracts, a still naïve Alex Van Halen cries: “How could they do this to us?” Monk’s plan to free them from Big Company clutches underscores his industrious sense of loyalty for the band.

 

Warner artists were pretty much all thrown onto the same treadmill (make a record, hit the road, make another record, hit the road again, repeat), and if they were lucky, the turnaround could average two years before any substantial returns in the form of critical and/or financial success. In Van Halen’s case, that turnaround time was about two weeks. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s indisputable talent and the band’s ability to put on a high-energy, good-time show every night — no matter what was happening behind the scenes — was an unbeatable combination.

 

Their first year had the band on a grueling nine-month tour opening for established (and, in some cases, tired) bands. With every show, Van Halen took the stage as if they were the headliners, a justified stance as years of playing backyard parties and bars around southern California instilled in them a special brand of confidence. Take a look at any live footage from their early years and their charisma is self-evident: all four often smiled on stage, not just in a bemused drunk or stoned way but in a way which radiated absolute joy of playing music, the joy of communal gatherings, and the joy of rock ‘n’ roll. This wasn’t your typical tough-guy rock band. Van Halen was FUN and being anywhere near them was a justifiable party. On top of that, they wrote amazingly catchy songs, which were thrown at audiences night after night, town after town. It wasn’t by accident they set out to destroy all other bands.

 

Word of mouth about these young up-starts with the brilliant guitarist spread quickly, thus making it a problem for whichever band they were opening for; Journey, Ronnie Montrose, Rick Derringer, and Black Sabbath all rapidly became victims to their undisputed on-stage charm. “The only band with which I’ve traveled that compared to Van Halen in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was the Rolling Stones,” Monk writes at one point. “I’m not saying Van Halen was a ‘better’ band than the Rolling Stones. I’m talking about the power of a live performance, the ability to captivate an audience. [They] were the best I’ve ever seen.”  

 

The band enters the story as hapless stoners, hell-bent on partying and dishing out their signature brand of rock music. In typical clichéd style, they exit as spoiled millionaire brats hell-bent on stabbing each other in the back, snorting and drinking as much as possible. Each member’s personality quirks were greatly exaggerated to a point of repulsion: Roth the mirror-loving, fast-talking showman, Edward the shy but brilliant musician, Alex the madman drummer. And then there’s bassist Michael Anthony, who is apparently the nicest person on the planet, raising no fuss and feeling lucky to be along with the ride. Did that deter the other three from taking advantage of him? Of course not. The abusive treatment he received from his bandmates is one of the more shocking aspects of the book, and in an interesting turn of events, is really no different from how the band as a whole was treated by their record label. Unfortunately, such irony was lost on Roth and the Van Halen brothers. Money often stalls creativity, kills bands, and divides friendships, but money is essential for advancement, so a balance is needed for longevity. Some groups can survive years without having to achieve that balance, but it oftentimes becomes the catalyst for their eventual break-up.

 

The only drawback to Monk’s book is his undersell of the group’s musical characteristics. Aside from their self-titled debut and masterpiece, 1984, he all but dismisses the band’s recorded output. Then there’s his faint view of Michael and Alex’s contribution to their overall sound; sure, Monk isn’t a musician and never claimed to be an expert at judging individual talent, but all it takes is one listen to the off-kilter drumming on “House of Pain” or Michael’s work on “Mean Streets” to realize the amount of collective talent here. For good or ill, Eddie’s talents are severe enough to overshadow everyone else — only someone possessing the exaggerated, on-stage presence and good-time schtick of David Lee Roth could compete on a nightly basis with Eddie's level of musical wizardry. Truth be told, with such combustible personalities and talent, we’re lucky to be left with the six Roth-era Van Halen records.  

 

This isn’t his first book; Monk’s equally brilliant (though considerably shorter) Twelve Days on the Road — about his stint as road manager for the chaotic and legendary Sex Pistols American tour — is the bizarro version of Van Halen’s story. It pertains to a rougher, more hand-to-mouth way of existing on the road and should be sought-out by any disconcerting fan of such frenzied lifestyles.  

Runnin’ With the Devil is vastly entertaining, and if there was a class taught for such occupations, this could serve as its manual. Yet, as the book ends, there’s a shared sense of disappointment. For the author, it’s in regards to his tenure with the band ending on an ugly note. For us readers, the disappointment is in the fact that such a great story has come to an end… but, really, that’s just a compliment to a well-written piece of history.

 

 

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