Small apologies

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

The first six Van Halen albums were half-baked brilliant amalgams of metal, pop, and punk; they were filled with fuck-'em-and-leave-'em anthems, Kinks rip-offs, Stooges rips, retro covers, a cappella filler, and other assorted nonsense--they took themselves just seriously enough to turn dumb-ass into high art. Like Page and Plant, Roth and Eddie Van Halen found the groove in which blues became rock became metal became punk. "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" (which was later covered by the Minutemen), "Atomic Punk," and "D.O.A." were bottomless wells of muscle and soul, while Van Halen was the firecracker introduction, Diver Down the stop-gap Band-Aid, and 1984 the majestic chart-topper that proved Eddie was turning into Pete Townshend after all, even if his version of The Who was fronted by a lounge lizard.

But theirs was a tenuous friendship that wouldn't last, and when Roth left in 1984, he set in motion the beginning of the end. For the past decade-plus, Van Halen has been known as rock and roll's last mythic soap opera, a catfight staged in public. By now, there exist a dozen different versions of how Roth came to leave the band. There's the sad, familiar tale of how Dave left to pursue his solo career and how he wanted to become an actor instead of just a frontman. According to Eddie, Roth told the band to keep his seat warm, they said no way, and he just up and left; according to Roth, he was pink-slipped out of jealousy (especially Ed's) and arrogance.

"I'll guarantee you," Eddie says, "to this day, Roth still thinks he fired his backup band."

To hear Eddie tell it now, though, he and Roth "were never friends" to begin with. Theirs was a shaky partnership "by default," like a monkey and an organ-grinder who realized they could make a living only with each other. They would snipe at each other for years, then reconcile for a moment in 1996, when Van Halen brought Roth back to record two tracks for a greatest-hits record. Eddie says he told Dave it was merely a temporary gig, a wait-and-see prospect at best, while Roth insisted to the press and the public during one of those biweekly MTV award shows that it was a permanent reunion. It, of course, was not.

Why Roth would even want back in the band is unfathomable. He recently explained to Popsmear Magazine the difference between his VH and the more recent incarnations: "Classic Van Halen made you want to drink, dance, and fuck," he said. "Current Van Halen encourages you to drink milk, drive a Nissan, and have relationships." The guy always was a genius.

And he never looked smarter in comparison to the former Montrose lead "singer" who took his place, Sammy Hagar. Roth always seemed like the kind of guy who'd sneak you and your underage buddies a few beers and take you to a topless joint with a fistful of ones; Hagar was more like a dude who'd come to your house, drink your beer, hit on your old lady, and then pass out on the couch. Roth took the joke seriously; Hagar was a serious joke. When the band finally started singing those songs about "big money" and selling them to Crystal Pepsi (and how's that for a metaphor?), you knew the party was long over.

Sammy claims he was booted from the band during the recording of songs Van Halen contributed to the Twister soundtrack in 1996, while Eddie says that he just told Sammy to get his shit together and that Hagar refused, telling the guitarist he had become frustrated with the band situation and wanted to return to his solo career. Sammy also didn't want Roth to perform on the best-of album--why the hell should they dig up that corpse?

But to hear Eddie tell it, the situation with Hagar had been strained for some time before the Twister and Best of projects. He explains that Hagar had long refused to perform Van Halen songs that predated 1984, that he wanted to do his songs, as though this were his band and not Eddie and Alex's. He may have claimed he was a better singer than Roth, but Hagar also feared the comparisons--Dave's were some mighty big clown shoes to fill.

"I was very uncomfortable at the time, because somebody else was very uncomfortable singing the songs," Eddie says now. "Being in a band is like being married, and you kind of respect someone else's wishes. We thought that by honoring somebody else's feelings that we were doing the right thing, and all of a sudden he quit. That's the second time that happened to us. I don't know, maybe I should change my deodorant every 10 years. If I'm that difficult to work with, then why do Alex and Mike not have a problem with me? Sammy didn't want to be compared. He didn't respect or acknowledge that the past existed, and Gary is so open to it that the band is complete now."

But consider this: Right after Roth left the band, Eddie considered bringing in a rotating cast of singers to perform songs he had already written, including "Right Now," which predates 1984 but wasn't released till Hagar performed it in 1991. Among the musicians Eddie contacted were Joe Cocker, Phil Collins, Patty Smyth of Scandal, and, most intriguingly of all, Pete Townshend. The idea never came to fruition mostly because of conflicting schedules; Townshend wasn't free to work with Van Halen for several years, he said at the time, but he might be into the idea later on.

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