Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Van Halen's "Me Wise Magic" Turns 22

First was the Roth era; then Van Hagar. Their still ongoing third era is not as easy to quickly define, and it started with VH's reunion apperance at the 1996 VMAs. Since this moment, the story of Van Halen felt no longer fun or cool, but full of anger and complexity. If "Humans Being" was the swan song of the Hagar era, it might be as fair to call "Me Wise Magic" the long overdue swan song of the '77-'84 Roth era. But we hear it as the song that musically launched the frustrating current era, released to radio 22 years ago today on October 22, 1996.

Apparently both of the Roth-reunion songs from late '96 were pushed to active rock radio, but we only remember "Me Wise Magic." It charted at #1 for 6 weeks. We had all but forgotten about it until around Fall 2014. We're not even sure what jogged our memory, but we haven't stopped coming back to it ever since.

"Me Wise Magic" is the sound of Eddie, Alex and Michael distancing themselves from the initial Roth era and planning to kick off an all new, more mature, more musically complex "'90s Roth" era. Eddie is proceeding with caution. "How much longer will it take until he annoys the shit out of me again?" They wanted to tame him, but Diamond Dave cannot be contained.

Infinite timelines. They had already called off any reunion prospects by the time this song was released. "Me Wise Magic" definitely feels like it shouldn't exist, or that we just happen to live in the version of Earth where this really happened.

Despite the circumstances, they sound oddly unified with not a lot of push and pull. A very musically dense and expensive-sounding rock single with genuine hooks, it approaches "labored" without actually sounding that way. Are they having fun? Probably not. But two decades later, it became fun to listen to anyway.

Dave opts to really "go for it" with the classic "Roth screams," but his "low" vocals in the verses are the true Roth highlight. Plus, the first lyric "I know what you're thiknin'" feels lifted from Fred Gwynne in Pet Semetary.

Much of the appeal is definitely contextual, but also largely accidental. "Me Wise Magic" grows bigger than they were able to control and gloriously implodes before our eyes. It wouldn't be right to call it "outsider," but Van Halen built a huge, alluringly unnatural mini-monster.

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