The First Video That Meant Something To Me: Van Halen's "Panama"

by Stephen Falk

Part of a series for the new Awl Music app.

For a 12-year-old boy, this video had it all: a cool airplane, jumping, kicking, spandex, karate, cops, chest hair, head hair, hot chicks, motorcycles, booze, screaming fans, rhythm gymnastics. It was the perfect music video for the confused sexuality of puberty. My friend Sam and I would watch this video on his VCR and act it out together. If you got to be David Lee Roth, you also had to be Michael Anthony. If you were Eddie Van Halen, you also had to be Alex Van Halen — a measure cooler than Michael Anthony but then again Diamond Dave was a measure cooler than Eddie so the double-casting evened out. To me, Eddie and David were what I hoped an adult male friendship could be: driving around in an awesome car, drinking, acting like goofs, but also leaning on each other tenderly while singing. Aside from epitomizing the androgynous frat boy bonding of the best hair bands, Van Halen spoke to the pure dumb fun of being a guy. No one wanted Van Halen to think. I doubt any pre-teen boys ever acted out the Hagar-era “Right Now” video. (“Right Now Blacks And Whites Don’t Eat Together Very Much.” “Uh, thanks, guys. Party?”) “Panama” could very well be about genocide in Central America, I still don’t know. (Okay, I just looked it up: it’s about a car.) What I do know is that when I got to crawl around the floor acting out that weird spoken bridge about reaching down between your legs and easing the seat back, I felt like I was suddenly let in on what this at-the-time unknown, scary void of impending adulthood and sexuality and being a man was all about. Rewatching the video now, that probably explains a lot.

Stephen Falk is the creator and executive producer of NBC’s upcoming series “Next Caller.”