Panama by Van Halen

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She's runnin', I'm flyin'
Right behind in the rearview mirror now
Got the fearin', power steerin'
Pistons poppin', ain't no stoppin' now Read full Lyrics
You know what's the coolest story in US military history? Manuel Antonio Noriega, former general and military dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1989, fleeing for his life like a mouse after being deposed. He's got a bounty on his head as he scurries through the streets of Panama, and that bounty's a cool million smackeroos. Desperate for an out, he remembers that the church is required to provide asylum to him, so he holes up in the Holy See's embassy, the Apostolic Nunciature.

There he waits, threatening to organize a guerrilla army to fight back and reclaim the country. So here come the US tanks rumbling up, as the nuncio and staff of the Nunciature plead with Noriega to give himself up. There was a possibility that Noriega would try to communicate with outside forces and that some scattered supporters would eavesdrop on negotiations. This would be possible using parabolic microphones. To prevent this potential threat during these delicate negotiations, the Army had an idea to create a noise block. The noise block would also provide psychological pressure on Noriega to give himself up and on the Vatican to order the nuncio to kick him out.

So a huge tank rolls up to the window that Noriega is peeking out of. It has - strange! - huge black woofers on top of the tank! What new weapon is this? The tank's driver parks it, reaches for the switch, flips it, and out of the speakers blasts:

"PANAMA! (dun dunh! dun dunh!) PAN-A-MA-HA!"

A hut on a beach in Panama<br>(thanks, Bette Kestin)A hut on a beach in Panama
(thanks, Bette Kestin)
It took three days of the Top 40 heavy metal hits, but after the ordeal of loud 1980s music (stressful for anyone), ol' pineapple-face came out showing his palms. It stands, to this day, as the only American military operation settled using the power of rock. The Awesome Power of American Rock! Because - Tenacious D, you're on now! - YOU CAN'T KILL THE METAL!

Alright, it would make a nice story. It would even make a good movie - the title, "Operation Just Cause," would do fine. And you could have a line where some Panamanian villager is asking a soldier, "Hey, mister, how come you're playin' that music so loud?" and the soldier would go "Oh, you know, just 'cause." But it ain't necessarily so.

The truth is, Panamanian citizens were just as annoyed at the free rock concert as Noriega was. Noriega had no particular dislike for American rock, though he certainly didn't dance to it. And many, many songs were played, and no playlist is saved; the songs were simply whatever CDs American soldiers would have had on hand. It stands to reason that they'd have Val Halen, though, and if they didn't think of playing "Panama" at least once just for the lolz, that would be too bad.

The other annoying factual detail is that "Panama" isn't about Panama. It's about a car. The car's name is Panama. Well, some say it's a woman, but David Lee Roth said in a radio interview that critics were complaining that all he ever did was write songs about hard partying, hot women, and fast cars. To which King Roth responds, "I take exception to that. I have never written a song about a fast car. But now that you mention it, good idea!" So with a grin he goes home and writes "Panama." Using THE! AWESOME! POWER! OF! ROCK!

And knock it off with this rumor that he wrote the song specifically for Operation Just Cause. "Panama" was released in '84, Just Cause was in '89, couldn't have happened.

Pete Trbovich
January 9, 2010
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