When I was little I used to tag along with my mom quite a bit. During summer break my brother usually had a friend to hang out with or ball practice to be at, so when my mom wanted to go to my grandma’s or clothes shopping or just out of the damn house I was along for the ride. One of the places she’d go was her friend Becky’s house. My dad worked with Becky’s husband and mom and Becky became great friends. Becky had a daughter that was a year older than my older brother and a son that was three years older than me. I wasn’t all that close with their son Matt, but I loved going over there because Matt had the most incredible collection of toys I’d ever seen.
The Kohers lived in a tri-level house on the other side of town that was, to my eyes, like a mansion. It really wasn’t a mansion, but with so many levels and two living rooms it might as well have been. Now about that toy collection; toy guns for any kind of military strike and a half basement filled with so many classic toys from the late 70s that Matt could’ve supplied the Smithsonian and still had plenty for the world’s coolest garage sale. I was particularly interested in his Star Wars collection. We’re talking the giant action figures from the original 1977 release, the Death Star set, Creature Cantina, and every space ship you could think of. I was in awe every time I went over. And every time I left there I was certain that kid didn’t appreciate any of that treasure trove of Kenner and Hasbro he had under the stairs. As we got older Matt got into all the stuff cool, upper middle class kids do; punk rock, skateboarding, playing guitar, smoking pot, and eventually becoming a Dead Head with a degree from a prestigious state university and mowing lawns for a living. And so it goes.
One important thing Matt did do for me was introduce me to the world of Steve Vai. On one particular visit to the Koher resident in 1986 Matt was going on about how David Lee Roth left Van Halen and started his own band with a guitarist that would leave Eddie Van Halen in the dust. Blasphemy! No way, man. Nobody was leaving Eddie Van Halen in the dust. But then I heard the song “Elephant Gun” off of David Lee Roth’s Eat Em and Smile and all bets were off. I didn’t know who this wizard was, but damn if he didn’t just blow my pre-teen mind.
I quickly became obsessed with this guy named Steve Vai. Even more so when I saw Crossroads and saw him shimmying and slithering around The Karate Kid on a stage in Hell playing his guitar in a way I never thought possible. I devoured Eat Em and Smile, then on one of my mom’s shopping trips to the Glennbrook Mall I begged and pleaded for her to go to Musicland and buy me Steve Vai’s Flex-Able cassette. I woke up at midnight to find it sitting on the kitchen counter and was so thrilled I opened it and listened as I lay in my bunk bed not caring how tired I’d be in the morning. It was like listening to music made by an alien(the first song is literally called “Little Green Men”). I didn’t quite get all that I was hearing, but I didn’t care because it felt next level regardless.
For those not in the know, Steve Vai was from Carle Place, New York and took guitar lessons from Joe Satriani when he was a teen. He’d practice 8 hours a day. He became a full-time transcriptionist for Frank Zappa before becoming a member of his band. He was in the pop rock band Alkatrazz, played on Public Image Ltd’s Album(check his playing on “Rise”) then was in Crossroads, then became the guitarist in David Lee Roth’s first solo band. After playing on a Whitesnake album(Slip of the Tongue), Vai pretty much became a solo artist and began making forward-thinking instrumental guitar albums that have blown now generations of minds(at least my generation for sure.) This is a Cliff Notes version of Vai’s history, so yes I know I’m leaving a lot out.
One album that for me was a pivotal guitar album was Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare. A record of breathtaking virtuosity, complicated compositions, and moments of fluid beauty, Passion and Warfare felt like a true passion project for Steve Vai. The album came out in May of 1990, right at the end of my sophomore year of high school. I was right in the thick of guitar lessons and wanna be guitar wankery. Vai’s essential record was the shot in the arm I needed to realize I’d never be that good and I was totally fine with it. 8 hour guitar workouts? Music composition? Lightning fast picking and finger-tapping? Nah. Passion and Warfare was a record I digested on a fan level and was in awe with every single moment. It was like the Sgt. Pepper of guitar records up to that point(with Joe Satriani’s Flying In A Blue Dream being Pet Sounds.)
This album really had it all. It had complicated, alien-sounding tracks that sounded like sounds emanating from spaceships(“Alien Water Kiss”, “Love Secrets”), it had the hyper drive boogies(“Erotic Nightmares”, “The Audience Is Listening”), power pop riffs(“Greasy Kid’s Stuff”, “I Would Love To”), impassioned soul(“For the Love of God”, “Blue Powder”, “Sisters”) and the gutteral growl of “The Animal”. Songs for every mood. I loved catching Vai hitting the late night circuit, and was especially thrilled at a performance of “For the Love of God” on Late Night With David Letterman. He was as impressive live as he was on record. And having bass virtuoso Stuart Hamm on some tracks was a pleasant surprise as I’d just gotten into his Radio Free Albemuth.
As I got older I stopped listening to the guitar albums as often. There were a handful that stayed in rotation, with Surfing With The Alien and Passion and Warfare being two of them. Also, as I got older and started listening to Frank Zappa I could totally hear his influence on Steve Vai’s compositional style, especially with 1984s Flex-Able.
Life is a cyclical thing. From traveling around the sun that gives us our days, weeks, and years, to the resurgence of bell bottom jeans and even Zima. Music is very cyclical, at least for me. A few years ago I started revisiting all those guitar albums I came up on, as well as some of the thrash and hair metal of my misspent youth. Some re-clicked and some didn’t. The music of Steve Vai still resonated with me.
In 2016 my wife and I even got to see him live about an hour from our house. He was performing Passion and Warfare in its entirety and the show was completely mind-blowing. For the course of that two hour show I’d turned into that goofy kid from 1986 listening to “Elephant Gun” for the first time again. That guy that blew my mind was about 20 feet away from me blowing my mind all over again. It was an amazing show and at the end he came out and walked down our aisle playing. Like, he was literally two inches from me playing an amazing solo. That 12-year old version of me was screaming with absolute glee inside, while the 42-year old version of me stood stoically staring straight ahead wondering what I should do with my hands.
Yesterday my wife presented me with an early Valentine’s Day gift, a 2013 MOV pressing of Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare. I was completely taken by surprise. I’d looked into getting a copy on vinyl after we saw Vai in 2016 but I couldn’t really find any pressings that had decent reviews, and I didn’t want to drop $50 on a OG pressing. Well I put this slab of wax on the turntable and it sounds amazing. It’s a little quiet, but turning it up the pressing sounds incredible. Doesn’t distort, and “The Animal” still growls like a wild animal. Everything pops and shimmers like it was May of 1990 all over again.
I still don’t think Matt Koher truly appreciated those Star Wars toys, but I thank him for blaspheming Eddie Van Halen that day. He put me on the Steve Vai track that 34 years later I’m still very much on.