The Dad Rock Renaissance: Van Halen’s “Tattoo”

Getting the old band together is tough enough at the best of times, but when drug and alcohol-fuelled egos and decades of bitterness led your once steady ship of rock astray, you better hope your guitarist and singer’s finances aren’t nearly as solid as that rock they call Gibraltar. Otherwise that dog don’t hunt. And when you’re finally making sweet music again with your fellow compatriots, how do you ensure the resulting product isn’t a total wash? Ask Van Halen. They figured it out.

When Van Halen reunited with original singer David Lee Roth, the resulting album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, offered a surprisingly tasty slice of rock nostalgia, packed with the kind of music that served as the soundtrack to your dad partying irresponsibly and sowing his wild oats (I heard it was quite the bumper crop). But why live in the past? If your dad’s now divorced and back on the market, Van Halen circa 2012 granted him an invigorating opportunity to act out against the people in his life and relive the hallowed ground of his lost youth, perhaps by getting drunk and shitting on a neighbour’s lawn or making out with that teacher he met on Craigslist’s “casual encounters” section.

The high-water mark of A Different Kind of Truth is “Tattoo”, Van Halen’s incredible comeback single, a slow burner that becomes more infectious after each listen. As you probably guessed, “Tattoo” is an homage to “gettin’ ink done,” as the Offspring would say, and the real winner here is our ears, as well as the bulging wallets of tattoo artists around the world. Roth’s lyrics for “Tattoo” are strangely compelling, the manifestation of either his deluded obsessions as an aging rocker or good natured sense of humour. Heck, they’re probably one and the same at this point. “Tattoo” opens with Roth describing his own tattoos in the rich detail that a grizzled veteran might talk about his war wounds. “I’ve got Elvis on my elbow, when I flex Elvis talks,” Roth begins, before shifting his attention to a tattoo of a hula girl on the back of his leg that also behaves obnoxiously when he performs standard bodily movements. Although Roth fetishizes the sort of juvenile show me yours, I’ll show you mine mentality that most people outgrow when they hit puberty, with Van Halen at the helm and talking about sick tattoos, who can really complain? As admittedly mind-blowing as these verses are, the crowning achievement of “Tattoo” is the song’s chorus, where Roth praises the ability of a well-designed “tramp stamp tat” to change “swamp meet Sally,” his everywoman character for our tale, from a “mousewife to momshell in the time it took to get that new tattoo.” It’s truly an amazing story, featuring what is almost certainly the most empowering journey for an imagined female protagonist from a Van Halen track, which isn’t really saying much (don’t believe me, check out “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”). The only baffling part about “Tattoo” is how Roth, who is clearly a connoisseur of all things tattoo, fixates on the supposed “magic” of a basic dragon design. For someone with the unparalleled genius to brand himself with Elvis AND a hula girl, this is some pretty pedestrian shit right here. I guess I’m splitting hairs with the guy, though. The rest of us can only hope to get anywhere near his creative vision during our next trip to the tattoo parlour. Let’s ALL get some ink done!

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