Small apologies

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."

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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.

"What we're doing now is, excuse my French, really fuckin' rewarding," he says. "It's like to me, this is the shit, this is for real, it's from the heart. There's no contrived anything, there's no sitting around saying, 'Hey, I think the fans will like this.' The way I've always been musically is very selfish--I could only do what I like. I can't sit there and go, 'Oh, I think people will like this,' because you're kind of double-fucked. You don't like what you're doing, and people don't like it, then you got nothing. At least if we please ourselves and the audience doesn't like it, well, at least I still like it, so at least I'm halfway there.

"I think people get very comfortable and set in their ways, whereas music, it's just a natural evolution. I'll never forget reading a review of our second album years ago, back in '79. A guy slammed it for being different from the first one. If it had been the same as the first one, he would have slammed it for the same reason, because it's too much like the first one. It's like, no shit, Sherlock. It's a different record."

Van Halen is stuck between rock and a hard place, left in the unenviable position of trying to satisfy old customers while also fulfilling their own, well, creative needs. The band exists both as a permanent fixture on classic-rock radio, where "Jump" and "Jamie's Cryin'" and "Dance the Night Away" are in 24-7 rotation, and as an evolving entity that still releases brand-new records every few years. They are constantly trying to reconcile their platinum past and a more tenuous future with its third lead singer in 12 years; they perform more old songs in concert than ever before, including "I'm the One" off the first album and other Roth-era hits Hagar long ignored, even as they try to extricate themselves from the cutout bins of history on their way to making an album that Eddie likes to think will one day rival Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And perhaps Eddie's capable of making such a disc one day, capable of using his genius for good instead of evil. He is, after all, the last, best arena-rock guitar god to come down the pike, the accidental guitarist (at first, he wanted to play drums) who turned solos into symphonies. But he will always have to combat those who will forever want Van Halen to, plain and simple, rock.

"Van Halen 3 is just another page in a long, long book that's way from being finished written," he says. "We still have our Dark Side of the Moon to make, but it's coming. We just go with the flow, and people just do not understand that we do sit around and think cerebrally. We don't sit there and plan what we're going to do. People try and pick my brain and find out what makes me tick, and I don't know what makes me tick. I swear. I was chosen to do this. I love doing it. It's my life. It's the only damn thing I know how to do, and I love doing it. I truly believe everyone is born with a gift, and I was lucky enough to find mine. It's more than you can ask for."

From the beginning, Van Halen seemed to have no greater aspiration than being America's premier party-rock band. Their set lists back in those days included an odd amalgam of AOR schlock ("Tush," "Rock Steady," and "Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo") and top-of-the-pops fodder ("Get Down Tonight" by KC and the Sunshine Band comes quickly to Eddie's mind now). "We did all kinds of silly shit," he says. "We had to."

From the get-go, when they were playing the Pasadena Hilton in 1976 or places with names like The Garage a year later, Roth always acted as though he were working a room of thousands; old bootlegs from that period reveal him as the ultimate used-car salesman long before he actually landed defeated in Las Vegas years later. Perhaps, in the end, that's what makes those early records so fascinating: They were at once utterly stupid and coolly brilliant, a loudmouth buffoon competing for the spotlight with a guitarist who deconstructed his instrument like no one since Hendrix. Roth made his racket, spouting his lamebrain lyrics as though they meant something, while Eddie provided his own brand of calculated chaos--he never let his technique get in the way, but you never forgot how good he was every second of every song.  

"Eric Clapton was my main influence, but the more I think about it, Pete Townshend was very much an influence, especially on Live at Leeds," Eddie says now. "I'm a very rhythmic player. People think I'm just a soloist, but I'm actually more of a rhythmic guitar player than a solo guitar player. I mean, we're probably the only rock and roll group that the guitar and drums are the rhythm section, and if you listen to Live at Leeds, it's the same--it's Townshend and Keith Moon as the rhythm section, and so are we. Mike just lays down the cement, the glue that keeps it all together, and Alex and I get to do our thing together."

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.

Roth's departure kicked Eddie in the teeth; he didn't understand how he could leave after the band's most commercially successful album, how one man's ego could come before the band. They never saw it coming, and for a while, Eddie figured the ride was over.

"But Alex convinced me, 'Hey, We are Van Halen, so let's continue on,' and I realized, 'You're right,'" Eddie recalls. "It is our name; we are the trunk of the tree, so to speak. Sammy and us, we had a great time. Dave and us, we had a great time. But this is 1998, and this is Van Halen 3, and this is where we are. Take it, or leave it." Spoken like a man who offers no apologies at all.

Van Halen performs May 14 at the Starplex Amphitheatre. Kenny Wayne Shepherd opens.

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