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Rock 'n' Roll: the guys who made Van Halen look smart

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Among the Herculean tasks in the realm of popular culture, there may be none more daunting than this: making Van Halen look smart. The ponderous heavy-metal-lite band, perennially popular with millions of credulous teens, has not only always acted dumb, but rarely evinced any interest in acting otherwise.

Enter a pair of novice video makers, Scott Burns and Mark Fenske. Burns is the Chicago ad man whose ongoing series of ultrahip commercials for WXRT efficiently remade the station's image from a slightly dowdy, posthippie outlet into a respectable 90s contender. Fenske, who directs their work, is a former Chicagoan who now lives in LA. Together they grabbed a chance to make the fourth video from Van Halen's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album, and turned it into a model of the form. Using dizzying stylistic changes, in-jokes, postmodern dissociation, and decidedly unpreachy message mongering, Burns and Fenske effectively out-MTV'd MTV, by turning out a video that conforms to the form even as it efficiently exploits it for its own concerns.

The video, for the song "Right Now," is built around a conceit of 50 or so mini-videos, each with its own gnomic message in superimposed text. The resulting word stream manages to undercut Van Halen's very nonliterate style and that of most videos in general. The video only happened through a number of fortuitous circumstances. "In the first place, it was the fourth single from a very successful album," notes the 29-year-old Burns, back in Chicago between shoots for a new video. "Second, the others had been performance videos. For this one, they figured they could take some chances."

Besides that, Burns says, Sammy Hagar--the rather loutish lead singer who replaced David Lee Roth--"felt that the song had some import: the lyrics were about life and what's going on. He had an attachment to it."

The treatment that Burns and Fenske came up with--accepted almost unconditionally by both Warner Brothers and the band--was a series of five- to ten-second vignettes, each including a phrase beginning with the words "Right now . . . " and using footage to underscore--or in some cases undercut--the text. Some are serious: "Right now, people are having unprotected sex" (over a black-and-white clip of energetically wriggling spermatozoa), or "Right now, someone is working too hard for minimum wage" (over slow-motion footage of Hispanics climbing into the back of a pickup). Some are goofy: "Right now, it's business as usual in the woods" (over a full-color stock shot of a bear munching contentedly on a fish), or "Right now you are sitting too close" (over a blur). Some are a little touching--"Right now she is going on with her life" (over the image of a burning photograph of a man)--and others are little fillips for the fans: "Right now, Mike is thinking about a solo project" (as bassist Michael Anthony grins noncommittally).

The mini-videos are swimmingly assembled, tailored nicely to the song's cadences. Over a distinctive piano part in the intro, the video's first phrase--"Right now, Ed is playing the piano"--slowly flickers into focus; later in the song, just as the piano part reprises, the lettering of the legend "Right now oysters are being robbed of their sole possession" flickers out in the same way. And as the music and images taper toward the end, the text speeds up urgently, dispensing a half-dozen last-minute messages in the clip's closing seconds.

Chicagoans know Burns for his glitzy rock 'n' roll ad campaigns, notably the Old Style Dry commercial of a few years back with its riveting use of Ministry's scarifying "Everyday (Is Halloween)." He got the WXRT campaign while working at Young & Rubicam; after the account hit big he went solo. Fenske founded the Bomb Factory in 1990, and sent out the usual reels to record companies. A Warner exec liked them and asked Fenske to come up with a treatment for "Right Now."

The director quickly recruited his friend Burns and they got to work. "We just wrote down what we thought the song was about, things that were going on 'right now,'" says Burns. "We wrote a whole bunch of lines, and the band was really agreeable: 85 percent of what we wrote they accepted without any problem.

"We knew we were doing something a little different," he concedes. "MTV's audience is not renowned for reading prowess. We worried a bit that this was just going to overwhelm people."

Fenske assembled the custom and stock footage in LA. "Sometimes we had really good lines with no piece of footage," says Burns. "Sometimes we had footage that produced good lines." The video's few band scenes were filmed on a Chicago soundstage between dates on Van Halen's current tour. The resulting stylistic olio was part of the intent. "Right now a lot of different things are going down, right?" notes Burns. His favorite images are of the bear eating the fish and the elegantly understated stick-figure animation (created by some students of Fenske's) for the line "Right now, our government is doing things we think only other countries do."

The clip's multitude of in-jokes are just as much fun. The image of a blackboard covered with equations accompanies the words "Right now there's a bomb factory hard at work," cleverly remedying the lack of direction credits on videos. The most complex line of the piece--"Right now a tired man with a wounded heart is sitting in a coach seat on an eastbound transatlantic flight looking out the window wondering how to say 'dog,' 'howl,' and 'moon' in French just in case it comes up" came out of a game Fenske and Burns play by sending each other bits of prose over the fax machine.

And the work even manages to get in a quick bathroom joke, just to remind everyone that this is a Van Halen video after all.

The result is Van Halen's finest moment since the fabulous "Jump" of 1984. Burns gives the band credit where it's due. "Anybody who spends much time in that business has to be suspicious and paranoid," he says. "And videos aren't exactly an art form surrounded by integrity. You show up in peoples' lives. They've made an album and you're supposed to make a commercial for it. They don't know about cameras: they just don't want to be fucked."

Van Halen took the chance, and ended up looking smart--at least while the video is in rotation at MTV. "People have asked me, are they really like that? I say they must be like that, a little bit, or they wouldn't have let us do it."

Sun-Times watch: After more than a year without a rock critic, the Sun-Times has hired Jim DeRogatis, who's spent the last few years in Minneapolis helping edit Request, the not-bad music magazine owned by the Musicland record-store chain. DeRogatis is from New Jersey; trivia fans will remember that he was the drummer in the Ex Lion Tamers, a joke band that toured with Wire in 1987 and performed the whole of Wire's Pink Flag as an opening act.

What the newspaper will do with Jae-Ha Kim, whose less than ideal work has made up the paper's primary music coverage lately, is not clear. DeRogatis's new title is staff music writer; Don McLeese, who left the paper a year and a half ago, was called "pop music critic." Entertainment editor P.J. Bednarski says that Kim and DeRogatis will be "divvying up what they'll do."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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