Don’t even bother trying to figure out Eddie Van Halen.
This is a guy who locked himself in his room for much of his teen and early adult years, tirelessly devoting thousands of hours to perfecting his fleet-fingered mastery of the guitar, but when he and his brother needed a singer for their band, he chose David Lee Roth simply because Roth owned a PA system. A decade later, when Van Halen was fed up with Roth’s prima-donna antics and decided to find a new singer, he picked Sammy Hagar simply because Eddie and Sammy happened to be getting their Lamborghinis serviced at Claudio’s repair shop at the same time. If Bea Arthur had pulled into Claudio’s a few minutes before Hagar, she probably would’ve ended up singing “Poundcake” for the next 10 years.
To his great credit, Eddie took things a bit more seriously in 1996 when he had to replace Hagar. That year, the guitar hero picked Extreme mewler Gary Cherone for utterly solid aesthetic reasons: Van Halen’s management team also represented Cherone. Sure, Eddie got himself a vapid hack for a frontman, but he saved his manager at least one phone call. Sounds like air-tight reasoning to me.
If you detect a pattern of behavior here, you’re not wrong. For Eddie, a lead singer is just a hammy guy who keeps the front of the stage warm and fills in the choruses with some horn-dog yelps while Eddie prepares his next gravity-defying, two-handed flight across the fretboard of his guitar.
From the beginning, many VH fans felt the same way. They were perfectly content to bathe in the ejaculatory cascade of guitar wankery found on “Eruption” (no double-entendre there, no sir) and “Spanish Fly” (double-entendre there, yes sir). To them, David Lee Roth was the dude with the chest hair who wouldn’t stop doing that annoying cheetah screech at the end of every line. But whatever the Guitar Player-subscribing purists thought, Diamond Dave was the one who put pop-radio fannies in the seats.
Dave brought absurdist, self-mocking/self-aggrandizing tomfoolery to a band that otherwise had no personality. He suggested ridiculous covers like the vaudeville blues of “Ice Cream Man” and the Roy Rogers anthem “Happy Trails.” He also brought a genuine, if hopeless, appreciation for black music to the whitest of bands. Because of Dave, the band attempted Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”
Rock bands are marriages of necessity and co-dependence, not necessarily personal affection. Dave had no musical talent, so he needed Eddie, and Eddie couldn’t string two words together, so he needed Dave. They both resented that need, but they couldn’t deny it. The results were potent enough to help this band ride out the punk revolution of the late ’70s and seamlessly transition into the MTV era with mega-hits such as “Jump” and “Panama.”
From the lame-ass, Big-Bopper-aping “Hello, baby!” leer that opened the Roth-less 1986 album 5150, Hagar made it obvious that he was a mirthless clown. Really, he was no clown at all (except in the existential, fool-who-thinks-he’s-
cool sense), but he knew that the gig required him to fulfill that role.
Despite his obvious disregard for lead singers, you sense that Eddie gradually recognized that Diamond Dave brought something to the equation that the more earnest, dull-witted Hagar and Cherone could never match. For his part, Roth has spent nearly 20 years praying for a VH reunion, and in fact his over-exuberance at appearing with his old bandmates at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards effectively sabotaged that reformation. (Who can forget him shimmying like a toddler with a sugar rush while Beck made his VMA acceptance speech?)
Thirty years after the band’s monumental debut album, Roth and Van Halen are finally touring together again, though Roth insists that the current lineup is “a new band, not a reunion.” True enough, Eddie sacked loyal old bassist Michael Anthony, a fact that Anthony learned through the internet, presumably because Anthony maintains a friendship with the banished Hagar.
Eddie filled the vacant bass slot with his own son, 16-year-old Wolfgang Van Halen (dubbed Teen Wolf by some fans). A chubby shredder with an amiable vibe, Wolfie picked the set list for the tour, proof positive that Eddie considers songs to be nearly as interchangeable as vocalists.
The 53-year-old Roth, with a short-cropped, blond coif in place of his old lion’s mane, can’t reproduce the gymnastic kicks that used to be his trademark, and doesn’t try. He now paces the stage in an open-shirt, black-leather, post-modern-Vegas ensemble. Eddie, fresh out of rehab and apparently sober for the first time in the band’s history, is obviously delighting in his son’s presence on the tour, and his perpetual shit-eating grin recalls the goofy young virtuoso of the Fair Warning era, before career headaches, booze, and marital discord seemed to harden him.
“Van Halen: three-quarters original, one-quarter inevitable,” Roth announced to a Philadelphia audience in October. “It’s kind of like a little old-school meets a little new-school. It’s sort of like watching Dragnet on your iPod.”
As long as Roth is in the band, it’s also a bit like Louis Prima with distortion pedals. •
7:30pm Thu, Jan 24
1 AT&T Center