Runnin’ with the Devil: A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen, by Noel Monk

I have no real liking for 95% of Van Halen’s music and never have. So why did I read this book?

Because it’s a case study of the 20th century music industry. Noel Monk was Van Halen’s manager in their prime, between 1978 and 1985. His story delivers the nitty-gritty work of management: keeping the band going, keeping the support staff going, dealing with chaos, making sure the merchandising comes through, and, most importantly, keeping a hawk’s eye on the money. It’s all anecdotal, but it’s vibrant, funny, and involving.

Unfortunately, it’s also a case study of how Celebrity destroys character. When Monk first meets Van Halen, they’re four decadently naive L.A. party teens, eager to please. By the end, three of them are cutting the fourth, their old friend Michael Anthony, out of the band proceeds, surgery without anesthesia. We watch Eddie Van Halen, a shy guitar genius, devolve into a slurry of cocaine and vodka. Roth’s ego sprouts wings and carries him off. Alex Van Halen gets mean, honing his paranoia like a razor in a sock. Finally Monk himself is shitcanned after years of faithful service. It makes for depressing reading, and reminds one of Robert Hunter’s tenth commandment of Rock ‘N Roll: “Destroy yourself physically and morally, and insist that all true brothers do likewise as an expression of unity.” If this is what success means, no one should want it.

Though there were some proto-forms, celebrity as we know it began with the careful cultivation of image by the cinema studio system during the 1930s. From there, the idea of celebrity spread to music and a new technology, television. The increase in the amount of media produced led to a proportional increase in the number of celebrities; the new medium of the internet led to a vast surge in known celebrities. In short, the number of celebrities has been increasing rapidly for almost a century now. The rate of increase shows no signs of slowing.

What all this is leading to, eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, is a state where every day some celebrity will die. Whatever the current media are, they will broadcast some version of “Today’s Dead Celebrities,” and the general populace will drop in for their daily dose of melancholy nostalgia. There will be dedicated, constant forums for eulogy. Celebrity death will be expected and anticipated.

I’ve been making this prediction for almost two decades now, and I have to say I think we’re on the verge of seeing it realized. After David Bowie and Alan Rickman passed on, there were a lot of people looking for “the third,” and sure enough Glenn Frey went. But celebrity deaths don’t come in threes, they come in an ever-constant and increasing drip. So I urge some web site (perhaps the Onion AV Club) to jump the gun and start this feature immediately. There is no surer form of clickbait. Today’s Dead Celebrities beckon from beyond the Great Wall.




The Onion AV Club interviewed Jennifer Beals, star of Flashdance et al, and she very succinctly stated an important aspect of the problem of celebrity:

Because as I’m watching the film and people are reacting to the character on the screen, I’m realizing that more people are engaging with her than know me, and she is in some ways more real than I am to those people by virtue of this focus. I knew intuitively that people were going to confuse her for me and me for her, and that that wasn’t true, and that that wasn’t real. So in a moment of existential crisis, I found myself in the bathroom. I locked myself in the bathroom of the theater. Because they had, like, one little room where you could lock yourself in. My brothers had to come get me. [Laughs.] Of course, the surest way to free yourself from an existential crisis is through comedy, so they made me laugh, and I got over it and went and celebrated the film. But it was hard. It’s hard to be in the center of anybody’s gaze, you know? It’s hard to be the center of attention.

It’s like having a evil twin. The problem’s worst for actors–because the twin has your same face and voice–but it applies to all celebrities to some degree. There’s another of you, wandering about, and what they do defines you.

I watched some of the Tracy Morgan interview. After pretty much every question the interviewer posed I muttered

“That’s none of your fucking business.”

Except of course it was his business because that’s why Morgan was there. If you’re a celebrity, you don’t get to say things aren’t the world’s business. If you want to establish that curious relationship with millions of total strangers necessary to have a pop culture career in our age, then it’s up on the Today Show to allow yourself to be emotionally vivisected.

Morgan knows that. Morgan signed on for it.

And I’m part of the psycho-econ-ecology talking about it.