Small apologies

Eddie Van Halen doesn't really care if you like the "new" Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen knows that each time he releases a record, he competes not with other bands on the radio or in the racks, but with himself, with history. He knows there's a die-hard audience out there, one growing smaller with each album, that wonders why he didn't ditch Van Halen years ago and embark on a solo career. Surely, the cynics believe, there's nothing left to be gained by shadowboxing with yesterday's better, brighter glories. They scoff at the notion that 20 years later, Eddie, brother Alex, and luckiest-man-alive Michael Anthony still persist on carrying on as though it's 1978 and Van Halen is on top of the world. They wonder just who the hell Eddie thinks he's fooling by hiring yet one more generic frontman--who, by the way, sounds like the last guy to work the counter.

Eddie Van Halen reads the reviews, hears the snickers, and offers in response a dozen empty apologies to those who still pine for David Lee Roth, those fans who wait for another record with leather-clad anthems and long-hair punk: "If people don't get it, or they don't want to get it, because they are hung up in the past, well, then buy the old records, but I cannot stop evolution." There's no hostility in his voice, just the inevitable shrug of a guy who has read way too many reviews and actually cared about what they said.

He has endured the harangues since 1986, when Van Hagar debuted with 5150, an album so shockingly sterile, it might as well have been made in a lab. In the course of that one album, America's answer to Led Zeppelin--"master guitarist, signature vocalist, underrated rhythm section," critic Robert Christgau once wrote in The Village Voice--became a backup band for a clod whose idea of rock and roll is driving 56 miles per hour. Eddie listened to the criticism then and dismissed it, just as he does now, as he places the keys in the hands of one Gary Cherone and lets him drive into the fog.

He promises this will be the final incarnation of Van Halen, that Cherone--the former vocalist for Extreme, the wimpiest rock band this side of Christian metal--is the last lead singer in Van Halen. If this doesn't work out, fine; time to call it a day, good riddance. But Eddie has done too many interviews in recent weeks proclaiming Cherone his musical twin, separated at birth. On the phone from Australia, where it is well past one in the morning and the band is fresh from performing just the 10th show of its world tour, he repeats the party line he has uttered myriad times before: "It's like Gary's a musical soulmate or long-lost brother, and, in a funny way, he looks more like Alex than I do," he says, as though reading off a script, getting every word right. "My father was a traveling musician, so who knows? The circle is complete, and we're all reading the same book, same page, same paragraph, same sentence. It's truly a band now."

But the just-released Van Halen 3--so named because it's the, heh-heh, third incarnation--barely resembles a Van Halen album at all; where once the band provided the soundtrack to an all-night Pasadena orgy, now it's background music in a thirtysomething Nancy-has-cancer episode. At best, it's new-age music made for the arena, Eddie's synthesis of art rock and hard pop--or, at worst, the sound of men who grew up listening to metal and discovered they can no longer take the hard stuff.

It's rife with songs better suited to Windham Hill compilations: The opening instrumental "Neworld," the whiny moan of "Once" (with its reference to "the power of deity...inside of me"), the simpy balladry of "Josephina" and "How Many Say I" (the latter of which proves that as a piano player and vocalist, Eddie's one hell of a guitarist...or just John Tesh). Once "Without You" has had its run on radio, the album will be left to the cutout bins; already, it has plummeted down the charts, going from the top of the pops to the 70s in a matter of weeks, and Eddie complains openly of not getting radio play in his hometown of Los Angeles. He chalks it up to the lack of an album-rock format, but the fact is, 3 ain't no rock album, and Van Halen hasn't been a rock band for a very long time.

"I think Van Halen 3 is an epic record," Eddie insists. "I can't do what some bands do, which is make the same record over and over, because I don't know the formula. I don't know what a hit is. If I knew what a hit was, every tune would be a hit. I don't have a damn clue."

Perhaps, in the end, that's as it should be: Eddie is 43 now, has sobered up, and still has a bad hip, and there's nothing more pathetic than watching a former rock-and-roll hero mimic his young-man moves as he crawls toward middle-age. Only Neil Young has survived with grace, while Mick Jagger and Steve Tyler and the rest of the sorry lot have chosen to decay without dignity. For Eddie to turn it down--experiment, as he calls it--is a more noble gesture than rewriting "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" for the rest of his life.

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