Just like starting over

Publication Date: Friday Jul 3, 1998

Just like starting over

After 20 years and millions of albums sold, Van Halen visits Shoreline Amphitheatre on July 5 with a new vocalist to prove the band can still rock 'n' roll

by Jim Harrington

Van Halen's place in the rock 'n' roll history books is secure. They've sold millions of albums, influenced countless new bands, and helped redefine the sound of hard rock for many generations. Still, with a solid-gold resume that runs from their 1978 multi-platinum debut to an eventual date with the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Van Halen has come to a point where they are, in effect, starting over.

"It's almost like we have to prove ourselves again--especially at this point in our career," explained original VH bassist Michael Anthony during a recent telephone interview promoting the band's July 5 show at Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View.

By "this point in our career," Anthony means "Van Halen 3," which is the name of the multi-platinum band's latest album and also a not-so-subtle reminder that this is, indeed, the third incarnation of the band. Anthony has been around since the beginning. So has guitar great Edward Van Halen and his drummer brother Alex. But that's where the foundation begins to crumble. Fair or not, Van Halen is getting the reputation as the George Steinbrenner of rock bands, going through lead singers the way the Yankees boss goes through team managers.

First there was "Diamond" David Lee Roth, the ultimate party guy, who thrived on the new medium of music television (MTV) and eventually split the band to try it as a solo act. He flopped. The band replaced the wild "ice cream man" with a real pro, Sammy Hager, and still scored big time with the "5150" release in 1986. The band lost a bit of its fire in the transition, but compensated by learning how to compete very successfully in the mid-tempo, power ballad category with the likes of "Why Can't This be Love."

Now, Hager has split to pursue his own career. The breakup was amicable at first, although there has since been a good deal of trash talking. One way or another, the band has since welcomed Gary Cherone (the former lead singer of pop rock group Extreme) into the fold.

This third lineup change has been greeted with much skepticism, cynicism and criticism by the music press. That's to be expected, the worrisome aspect is that the longtime fans are also wondering if, perhaps, VH has lived beyond its expiration date. Anthony has seen these fans already on this tour. As the band takes the stage, there they stand, arms folded, feet firmly planted, with one eyebrow raised in challenge. Luckily, it's a challenge that the bandmates were ready for.

"By the third song, (these fans) were just rocking and looking at me and giving the thumbs up," Anthony said.

One bonus is that Cherone isn't afraid to visit the signature, Diamond Dave material. That means we get to hear classics like "Jamie's Cryin,'" "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," and "Running With the Devil," which were ignored during the bland Sammy Hager reign. Hager, who is known for his ego, wouldn't play the songs that made the band big in the first place, simply because he didn't write them. But these are the songs that the fans undoubtedly want to hear, and the new VH is fan friendly, if nothing else.

"You really can't deny the fans," Anthony exclaimed. "And, no matter who wrote it, a song is a song."

Yeah, but some people definitely do some songs better than others. It's easy to imagine Cherone's light-weight rasp on Hager-penned numbers (in fact, he sounds a bit like a Sammy Hager, Jr.). But the thought of him taking on the free-wheeling Dave tunes is a bit hard on the imagination. One line of thinking is that people will turn out to the VH shows just to see Cherone fall on his face trying to sing "Dancing In the Streets."

"The real question here is, how many people are going to this (Van Halen) show to hurl crap at new frontman Gary Cherone like a bunch of monkeys at the zoo?" Aidin Vaziri wrote in BAM magazine's guide to summer concerts. "May we suggest waiting until Mr. More Than Words attempts to bound into Diamond Dave country ('Hot For Teacher,' 'Panama,' etc.)? His hair's crap too."

Ouch.

That's pretty tough stuff, but it's to be expected when you change lead singers for the second time.

"Let's face it, we never planned on having three singers when we started," Anthony rationalized. "But when Sammy quit, we had two options, either to turn it in or keep going."

So far, the fans have stuck by the band. Cherone is more than adequately handling the Dave songs, the Sammy songs, and the ones he originated on the "Van Halen 3" album. Plus, Van Halen has an ace in the hole that other groups can only dream about: Eddie Van Halen. This is one band where whoever is singing will always take back seat to the great guitarist. Eddie Van Halen is a true innovator, in the same company as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. And, debatably, Eddie Van Halen has done more to influence recent hard rock than any of those legends.

"Unlike virtually every rock guitarist before, he simply didn't build upon the electric-blues vocabulary of Clapton, Beck, (Jimmy) Page and Hendrix--he created a whole new language that replaced the bluesy string bends and stinging sustain of old with screeching hammer-ons and pull-offs," wrote J.D. Considine in the "Rolling Stone Album Guide." "As far as guitarists were concerned, it was as if the wheel had been reinvented, and set-pieces like 'Eruption' (from 'Van Halen') assumed the status of holy writ among the fretboard set. Without his example, it would be hard to imagine the sounds of Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai or Adrian Vandenberg."

But it's hard to imagine Eddie Van Halen thriving without the solid rhythm section provided by brother Alex and Anthony. Still, one wonders if it gets old continually being "the other guy," playing next to one of the legends of rock 'n' roll. Anthony knows he will always be in Eddie Van Halen's substantial shadow and he's cool with that. He's not the type who believes it necessary to compete for the spotlight. He's happy just creating that "subsonic bond" that keeps the ball rolling.

"I know what kind of instrument the bass is," Anthony reasoned. "Hell, I'm in Van Halen, and the last thing anybody needs is two Eddie Van Halens in the band."

But one is sure nice, since it basically assures that people will turn out to see the band in concert and buy the albums, no matter who is behind the microphone. If Cherone doesn't work out, perhaps there will be a "Van Halen 4." Or, perhaps not.

"Ed says that if this doesn't work out, he's taking up the tuba," Anthony informs. In that case, somebody please chain Cherone to the tour bus.

What: Van Halen in concert; Monster Magnet opens

When: Music starts at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 5

Where: Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View

How much: Tickets are $25-$45.

Information: Call (408) 998-BASS. 

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