UPDATED: Re: The unbelievably, unfathomably awesome lyrics to Van Halen’s new single “Tattoo”

(Those of you who've read this already and wish to read the very important UPDATE, please scan to the bottom of this piece.)

Heard/seen it yet? Here:
Your lip synch may vary

We could discuss several subjects relative to this exhibition. We could talk about the topic du jour: that “Tattoo” is merely an old VH outtake from the ‘70s with new words. (I don’t care; it’s a good riff, and if you’re going to steal from someone, it might as well be yourself.) We could talk about how nice it is to see one of the greatest electric guitarists of all time back in the saddle. We could marvel at how cheap the video is and wonder if David Lee Roth’s lip-synch miscues are going to tarnish his legacy. (Ha, ha.) We could talk about how much Michael Anthony’s backing vocals are missed. We could watch David dance. We could do all of that, but we won’t, because there’s only one aspect of “Tattoo” that I’m interested in --

The life-altering, consciousness-raising, Shakespeare-rivaling, abbagolutely fricking fantastic lyrics, which may be the greatest lyrics for any pop song since Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, meine Freude,” or “Venus In Furs.”

Take my hand, we’re going on a lyrical journey.

To put things in perspective: Out of all the bands of their ilk and generation, meaning masculine-flavored party boys with lethal instrumental chops, Roth-era Van Halen were actually good lyricists. They did not throw their lyrics away, and were never as simple or dopey as the generic beer teenage boys used to drink while listening to ‘em.

I’m not joking about this. “Runnin’ With The Devil” made everyone pump their fists, but listen closely and you’ll hear melancholy, a genuine Betrübnis*, about the fast life on the margin the singer has chosen. That same wistfulness shows up again in “Jump” (“I ain’t the worst that you seen…” he says, or asks?). And for all the hoo-hah “Hot For Teacher” caused amongst parental-advisory proponents of the ‘80s, it was actually funny, and contained some non-sequiturs that, in and of themselves, made you question your placement in this great expanse. Why else in the middle of a sex metaphor would Roth surreptitiously ask “How did you know that golden rule?” I was all gettin’ ready to dance in my skivvies in front of the floor-length – now I gotta ponder theology? Mister D.L. Roth, I accuse you of blowin’ my mind!

Then Roth disappears, Hagar joins, then he disappears, then Cherrone stops by for a cup of Folgers and a weak one at that, and I don’t really pay any attention to VH again until earlier this week, when Van Halen with Roth rejoined releases their first new recording in 16 years, and their first meaningful recording in almost 28. So you have to ask: How will they reboot themselves?

When I heard that 2012’s Van Halen’s first song was “Tattoo,” I thought – wait, they’re covering the song by The Who? That wasn’t immediately surprising, seeing as how they’ve gone to the well of ‘60s rock before in their career with “You Really Got Me” and “Oh! Pretty Woman.” But then I learn that it’s an original. Ah, okay. Well, then, they’re going to do something slinky. I’ll bet it’s a metaphor for sex, or something. They’ll talk about, say, a woman with tattoos, like that Swedish chick from the movies. And during The Act, her tattoos will interact with The Singer in such a way that each of them reveal the sticky vagaries of lustful abandon. You know, the bird of paradise will start cursing, the skull and crossbones will say something in French, the snake will rattle in time to the thrusts and throes. Yeah, that’s it – “Tattoo” will be the latest in a line of devious, eye-winking metaphors VH are so known and (mis)understood for.

Turns out the song’s about tattoos.

I mean, that’s it. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not some clever double entendre. It is literally about the art of tattoos. The several options you have if you, as a consumer with some modest amount of disposable income, decide that you would, in fact, like to procure the services of a tattoo artist. It offers you several designs to choose from, and a palette of potential colors and shadings. If you’re stuck on exactly what type of tattoo you would like to purchase, it then encourages you to consider your motives for getting a tattoo, and suggests that perhaps some philosophical investigation might be in order before committing a parcel of your flesh to tell-tale permanence. But in the end, it comes out in favor of the tattoo. It is tattoo-positive.

Let’s take this line-by-line. The intro starts. Thudding, plodding guitar riff. Great anticipation, swagger. And then the words. After 16 years of silence, the first decipherable words that come from David Lee’s mouth, the words that break the dirty spell of VH’s familial strife and cold-shoulder treatments, that mark the new dawn of a new day of a new era of brand new Van Halen:
I got Elvis on my elbow
When I flex, Elvis talks
Well, all righty then.

Kind of an off way to start a song. Not really the invocation of Elvis; bringing up The King isn’t weird in and of itself. But he’s on your elbow. The King Of Rock And Roll is, alliteratively, draped across your ulna. I imagine he’s on your forearm and not on your humerus, your upper arm, because I’m guessing that his mouth is actually on your elbow joint, because that’s the only moving part on which his mouth could effectively “talk.” Given Elvis’ mouth at the fulcrum which operates it, the elbow, then the rest of his body must be on your forearm, because if he was on your upper arm, he’d have to be upside down. I am guessing you do not have an upside-down Elvis on your upper arm, because that would make him look like a sleeping bat.

What else you got?
I got hula girls on the back of my leg
And she hulas when I walk
“Hula girls.” Not just any hula girls, but multiple hula girls that mysteriously morph into one in the second line. And on a body part that, on most men, you really don’t want to conjure up pictures of in your mind: the back of his leg. I’m sorry, but that part of the male physique is reserved for one sacred act and one only: the neighbor’s overly affectionate dog humping you in the front yard on an aimless summer afternoon.

Furthermore, the singer’s revealed that he probably wears shorts a lot. Otherwise you wouldn’t see the hula girls doing anything. The effect would be lost. Tree falling in the forest with nobody around. In that case, you pray that the hula girls are in fact on the back of his calves and that his choice of shorts is cargo pants, or Bermudas. Because if they’re on the back of his thighs, then he’s gotta be wearing some Richard Simmons type trunks, or bikini briefs, as a default.

Roth portrays himself as the puppet-master, controlling the movement of Elvis’ (presumably) mute lips and traditional Hawai’ian dancers with his own physical whims. The ebb and flow of his musculature is the guiding life force of his painted subordinates. What does this represent? Power, silly. He may make awful choices about what tats he’s going to sport, but by God, he will make those suckers dance.

Then there’s this couplet of utmost, cosmic gorgeousness:
Speak in cherry red, screaming electric green
Purple mountains majesty really talk to me
Talk to me babe!
Ladies and gentlemen: CONSIDER BAR RAISED. Roth could have thrown away that last line and just come up with more color combinations, like “baby blue” or “lipstick pink” or “doctor’s waiting room beige.” But by quoting “America The Beautiful” with the purple mountains bit, he invokes nationalism. It’s not just a good idea to get a tattoo – it’s your patriotic duty. A brilliant, compelling sub-reference. Well played, Sir Rothschild. Well played.

The chorus is next – the song’s central theme, as all good choruses must be (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Old Oak Tree,” “Autobahn”):
Swap-meet Sally, tramp-stamp cat
Mousewife to momshell in the time it took to get that new tattoo
Tattoo, Tattoo
I do not know what a swap-meet Sally is. My research indicates that the phrase’s origins date back to a song entitled “Tattoo” by Van Halen.**

A “tramp stamp” refers to a tattoo situated on a woman’s lower back. The term is sometimes used in a derogatory manner. A “cat” is a word describing a feline, most commonly the domesticated Felis silvestris catus. In this case it may refer to a more aggressive feline, say the cougar (Puma concolor) or the many wild animals classified under the genus Panthera.*** A “tramp stamp cat” therefore refers to a woman who pursues a lower-back tattoo the way a carnivorous feline would pursue its prey: either by stalking, attacking and devouring its object, or by waiting for the asshat of the house to just open a fuckin’ can already.

“Mousewife” is slang for a stay-at-home homemaker with a penchant for the Internet. A “momshell” is related to a colloquialism of recent vintage, “M.I.L.F.” “Momshell” cites the earlier, classier term “bombshell,” indicating the singer has more of a Jayne Mansfield or Jane Russell type in mind.

“Tattoo” is the name of the song. It was also the name of a beloved supporting character from the ABC television series Fantasy Island, played by the late Herve Villachaize. You may safely assume Van Halen is referring to the former.

Now, then, everything’s established. So far it sounds like we have a simple song, extolling the virtues of tattoos. Everything’s pretty straightforward, no real deviance from the realm of the material into the philosophical. But then two things happen which turn this song, and ergo the axis of the earth, on its ear. In a brief coda to the chorus, with backup vocals in parentheses, Roth drops this exhortation:
(Tattoo, tattoo)
Show me your dragon magic
(Tattoo, tattoo)
So autobiographic!
“Show me your dragon magic” – that’s nothing, anybody can do that. But “So autobiographic!”? In a voice that resembles a rallying cry? Now that’s another level. It’s sung in the same way someone would relate a feeling of a more guttural, base nature: “So sexy!” “So hot!” “So excited!” But Roth (or whoever wrote the lyrics, I don’t know) takes that mini-orgasmic phrasing structure and says – “So autobiographic!” Indicating that the pure thrill, the rush, the adrenalizing factor of this whole tat-getting routine is that you can write your own equivalent to The Autobiography Of Mark Twain without the hassle of writing.

Say it to yourself: “So autobiographic!” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? But there’s no time to dwell, because next, Roth drops into a brief spoken-word couplet – in the video he gets down on a knee – and delivers, in a low, intense timbre, the hidden center of the song – the weltanschauung****, if you will – that informs the whole piece:
Best believe that needle will hurt you
Best deceive these true colors that follow one of your false virtues

What does that second line even mean? Hey, man, I just wanted a battleship on my arm, this tattoo parlor don’t look like no confessional to me!

Ah, but discard it at your peril, son. ‘Cause now we’re playing hardball. This is not video poker. Whatever that second line is supposed to mean, I’m too afraid to touch it. It will take years for me to devour its connotations. It is the most cosmic thing that’s ever come out of David Lee Roth’s mouth, the most cranium-blowing knowledge that ever got pumped out of his stomach. I’ll type it again:
Best deceive these true colors that follow one of your false virtues
That phrase would look great as a tattoo, with a little picture of Yoda saying it. (Important: See UPDATE at bottom of this article in regards to this lyric.) (Well, "Important" is relative, I guess, isn't it?)

Geez, we’ve been through a whirlwind already. I know this has been a rollercoaster of emotion for you, so let’s just handle the problem of the last two verses. Here’s the first:
Here’s a secret to make you think
Why is the crazy stuff we never said poetry in ink?
Speak in day-glo red, Explodo paint
Purple mountains’ majesty -- show me you, I’ll show you me
Here Roth is tackling the issue of the strangulation of our language. Our limitations, our interrupted clarity. We cannot articulate the symbolism of our tattoos, because if we tried to put it into words, we’d sound pretty stupid. We’d sound like Rick Perry trying to sound out the letters in Hop On Pop. It would all be so much dreck; we’d be committed for sure.

You know who had it right? The Egyptians with their hieroglyphics. They told stories, and they didn’t have William Strunk Jr. hanging over them minding their apostrophes and over-usage of semicolons. They drew shit on a wall. They’d say stuff like, “This afternoon I went out into the desert for to increase our water supply, and on the way I ran into Osiris, who’s still miffed at me for that time he reconstituted his soul into material form and I accidentally tripped him. I told him to buzz off and find some other hapless twit who’s sucker enough to go down to the underworld with him thinking he’ll get time-sharing in some condo.”

That was pretty crazy, right? And it took me a lot of words to say it. Egyptians would just draw a drop of water, a scythe, a stone and an affordable split-level, and everyone would get it. None of this “language” crap. Same thing with tattoos. If you get a tattoo with words on it people are going to want to stop you and read the whole thing, and that would adversely impact your schedule. That’s why pictures typically make the best tattoos. Also, if your tattoo artist misspells a word, you’re a laughingstock for life.

The second two lines of that verse restate the whole deal with the colors. If you don’t get it by now you never will. But the third verse changes everything. So far you’ve been given a compelling list of selling points on getting a tattoo. They’re colorful, they’re evocative, lest we forget they’re so autobiographic, and if you get it done right you can make Mickey Rooney fold his hands to pray every time you crack open a PBR. All good. Then this:
Uncle Danny had a gold tattoo
He fought for the unions -- some of us still do
On my shoulder is a number of the chapter he was in
That number is forever, like the struggle here to win
Wait, wait, wait a sec – who’s this Uncle Danny guy? Where the hell did he come from?

And is that a political statement Roth’s making there? Whoa! Whooooa! When was the last time Roth sang a political statement? Never, that’s when! I suppose you could counter that “Panama” was about the fragile trade relations with Central America that Roth might have experienced, but I think you’d be wrong!

It’s at this point that I realize there is no possible way to determine what “Tattoo” is about. Because it’s gone all over the map. And it’s at that point I realize, okay, Van Halen was just dropping shit in. They were just jamming on the idea of tattoos, and any potential fleeting thought that came through their heads was fair game. And now I don’t know what to think. There is no central point to this song. You wander around it.

And what does wandering mean? It means you go hither and thither with no fixed destination. And if you wander around with no destination, that means you seek a reward you cannot name. And if you cannot name your reward, then your soul is permanently aligned with the infinite. And what else is infinite? That’s it, you guessed it: God.


A God who tattoos.

And it’s pro-labor.

There, I said it. This isn’t rock and roll – it’s freakin’ gospel, Pasadena style, with some Guthrie thrown in for… it’s just thrown in.

You may not experience “Tattoo” the same way I do. You may just consider it another solid VH jam where the words don’t matter. That’s fine. I’m not going to stop you from experiencing this song at face value.

But we know. We who’ve been ordained. We who have been spiritually constructed to receive such cryptology and turn it into myth. If you’re one of these people, you know who you are. And I’ll see you at the potluck this weekend.

“Tattoo” also contains a guitar solo.


UPDATE: In re: The spoken-word couplet that I couldn't begin to disseminate -- True Believer Ian Jensen directed me to Blabbermouth.net's posting of David Lee Roth's handwritten lyrics to "Tattoo."
Besides displaying Roth's curiously elegant but well-disciplined penmanship, it also shows that I got that spoken-word couplet wrong. According to this post, the proper lyrics are:
Best believe that needle hurts you
Best to see these true colors than follow some false virtue
...which makes a lot more sense than what we heard it as: "Best deceive these true colors that follow one of your false virtues."

Also, I notice on the original lyric sheet that the actual lyric is "tramp-stamp tat," rather than the assumed "tramp-stamp cat." This would negate and sap all the considerable literary power from the cat-focused passages above. I feel terrible about all this, really, I do.

* German for the word “sadness.” This piece required the usage of at least one German word.
** Actually, this painting probably has something to do with it.
*** Wikipedia, without you I’m nothing.
**** By this point the article had gotten so long a second German word was required.

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