Van Halen "Jump" Original Picture Sleeve from 1984.

The trials and tribulations of aging singers, part 2.

It’s been eons since I last posted anything and thanks to the encouragement of my friend Willie, have decided to just shake off the rust and get back to it.

For quite a while now, I’ve been thinking about singers and how often, their voices change through the years to the point of not sounding much like what I liked about their voices earlier in their careers. In a previous post, I mentioned how Elton John’s voice today isn’t even remotely in the same ballpark as his voice was back in the 1970’s which is quite sad as it was truly one of the best of that generation’s. Paul McCartney is another whose voice seems to be on the downward slope as witnessed by his less than stellar vocals on “Maybe I’m Amazed” from Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary Special in February. Paul, admirably, is still aiming high as “Maybe I’m Amazed” is, after all, not an easy song to sing. But it just didn’t sound good hearing all that vocal straining throughout the whole song. Paul’s once syrupy smooth mid to upper mid-range is almost gone now.

This leads me to another singer of a group I loved as a teenager and still kind of dig, particularly the output of their classic period from 1978-1984. That would be Van Halen of the David Lee Roth years. Van Halen hit my radar sometime around 1981 mainly due at first to the unbelievable guitar virtuosity of one Eddie Van Halen. I then grew to appreciate the whole group’s musicality and while I never really thought of DLR as much of a singer, his voice, attitude, personality and lyrics fit right in with the Van Halen gestalt. In spite of a bad breakup with Roth in 1985, their separation, to paraphrase John Lennon, didn’t work out and in 2007 hit the road as a reunited entity (minus the bass player Michael Anthony) and have stayed reformed ever since. Good for them I say, as I never cared for any of the VH incarnations after Roth’s departure.

So last week, for the first time ever, Van Halen with David Lee Roth made live U.S. TV appearances on both the Jimmy Kimmel show and the Ellen show and social media has been buzzing away at how awful Mr. Roth sounded. Here’s a couple of clips from the Kimmel show for those who haven’t yet seen it.

Dave is wearing a bandage on his nose from an accident with a prop during the beginning of the set but like a pro, carried on with the show after getting medical attention. But, there’s really no sugar coating it. It ain’t sounding good. And while at 60, he can’t be expected to sound like he did at 25 but what he’s doing now sounds professionally way off. It’s like watching a a former pro athlete pitcher, twenty years after retirement, try to strike out current major leaguer hitters. It’s just kind of sad.

It always seemed like David Lee Roth was never one to really care a wit about duplicating his studio vocals for live performances. And through reviewing loads of clips from the band’s early years, it’s apparent that he was there to be center stage ringleader and put on a endurance show . And if he remembered the melody and lyrics, it was a bonus. What he’s doing now is still based on the same concept, except he’s long past being able to do any serious physical gymnastics and so, one would imagine, his vocal performance would, and probably should, take a more prominent role. Except, that his vocals are outright weird, at times off-key and unlistenable at times.

So why is that?

I’ve heard a lot comments on social media that Roth lost his high range. This is a particularly specious comment as Roth never actually had much of a high vocal range when he originally performed with Van Halen until 1985. Oh yeah, he did have high banshee-like wail to go alongside high pitched squeals he used often enough back in the day, and he still has some of that left, to an extent, but that’s not really it. What he’s doing now is changing melodies and phrases and incorporating what I think is a significantly higher upper register “head” voice that he developed some time after departing Van Halen. So while he’s reaching for and “hitting” much higher notes than he did 30 years ago, he’s doing it in a way that just flat out sounds bad, and it just doesn’t work. Classic songs like “Dance The Night Away” sung while overreaching and straining above the melodic range of the vocal melody just literally takes the life out of the song, not to mention leaves the impression in the uniformed that he’s lost the high vocal range he once had. Again, not true. He’s singing, or trying to sing way above and beyond his old range.

If you listen carefully, you can also hear that when he does sing the original melodies in the original register, he sounds more or less like his old self. Not exactly but relatively close. And it doesn’t sound bad at all, maybe not as powerful as way back when, but reasonably decent. This leads to me to some possible theories. It is possible that Roth is having some vocal issues singing the certain parts of the original melodies and is trying to overcompensate by using a higher register which doesn’t tax his vocal chords as much. If this is the case, one would hope he’s getting some help both medically and with a good vocal coach to sort out. Or maybe with advancing age, his hearing is deteriorating and he’s overcompensating by using a higher register that allows him to hear himself better onstage while performing with an extremely loud band behind him? Again, this is something that medical professionals and good vocal coaches can sort out. Or he still thinks of himself as a much younger man, still views himself as a physical showman and master of ceremonies and doesn’t acknowledge that his vocals have any great impact on how he and his band are being perceived. And could care less how they sound or what anyone else thinks of them. Whatever the case may be, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

While I’m glad Dave is fronting Van Halen again, like he always should have, and has earned his place as a legendary rock and roll frontman, I’m not shelling $100 a ticket and up to dwell on a his vocal deficiencies in person. But good luck to the band and I hope DLR straightens it all out.

4 thoughts on “The trials and tribulations of aging singers, part 2.”

  1. Hello Michael,
    This is a great subject and a lot of discussion can be had on this one I saw Ringo Starr last summer I’m not a big Ringo fan but hey he is a Beatle well his singing was not the best it sounded like it was a struggle for him to hit some of the notes he also had a memory block when he tried to play the keyboards to his song Don’t Pass Me By he forgot a lot of the notes and couldn’t finish, one singer I’ve been thinking about that seems to have faded away and whose voice was on a down slope is Rod Stewert, listen to Bob Dylan now he wasn’t the best singer before but it seems he gets out of breath easily, age catches up to all of us even our favorite Rock Stars!!! Keep on Rockin!!!

    1. Ringo and Dylan were never known for their singing but Dylan’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard for some people. With Ringo, the band lowers the keys of some of the songs to make it easier for him to sing. I saw Dylan live almost 20 years ago and he was good but his voice was pretty gravely.
      Another singer whose voice is gone is John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.

      Interestingly, I saw Roger Hodgson of Supertramp on PBS the other night and his voice sounded exactly the same. No change whatsoever.

      The sad reality is that rock stars of the 60’s and 70’s are getting up there in age and considering the lifestyles of a lot of them in their younger years, voice deterioration is inevitable.

  2. Hello Michael,
    The rockers from the 60’s and 70’s are are still out there selling concert tickets but their voices are not holding up like they did when they were younger as you said but there are a few who still sound as youthful as they did when they were young Rockers two that come to my mind is Robert Plant and Mick Jagger look at Mick Jagger still jumping and running on stage he is full of energy full charge and Robert Plant still belting out some pretty good Zepplin tunes but the truth as you said maybe for many it’s time to turn in the microphone and call it a day!!!!

  3. Jagger and Plant can still sound quite good though Plant has lost a lot off the top end of the voice he once had when he was in his early 20’s. The first two or three Zep albums had Plant in full voice with a high, wailing, moaning growl that rapidly deteriorated, though he was always great at reinventing melodies and reorienting his style to accommodate his changing voice. I believe he did some permanent damage to his vocal chords while on the road with Zeppelin in Japan in 1972.

    My only issue with Jagger is that he doesn’t real “sing” anymore. To me, it sounds like he shouts out his vocals and sometimes over-enunciates words. But he’s still quite listenable, even now.

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