The most telling sign throughout the 90-minute conversation was laughter. Lots of it. While laughter may or may not be the best medicine, there's no denying a steady dose of it has helped heal at least one rift in Van Halen. "Somebody (for)get me a Doctor"! The levity was shared between drummer Alex Van Halen and lead singer Sammy Hagar during a teleconference with a national panel of journalists just prior to the beginning of the band's much-hyped summer reunion tour -- which rocks Utah with a Tuesday-night date at the Delta Center.
"That's all we've been doing," said Hagar, of the riotous cackling between the two. During the course of the interview the two shared inside jokes, finished each other's sentences and expressed genuine warmth for the other -- all things you would expect from the best of friends. "It's almost embarrassing. We've been like chilling all over ..."
"We're trying to be serious ..." interjected Alex.
"Yeah, keep it cool, Al. Keep it cool," interrupted Hagar with a laugh.
Get the pointfi
Following a nasty split in 1996, Hagar had not spoken with the brothers Van Halen -- Alex and guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen -- unless one counts trading barbs in the media as proper communication.
After parting ways with Hagar, Van Halen, which forever altered the hard rock landscape in the late 1970s and early '80s with original frontman David Lee Roth, moved forward -- or backward depending on your view -- with a third incarnation featuring one-time Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone. That odd union spawned one album (1998's Van Halen III), one tour and mixed reviews from fans before quietly going away.
Since then, the band embarked on a six-year mostly silent sabbatical while Eddie battled enough personal problems (tongue cancer, hip-replacement surgery, alcoholism, the breakup of his longtime marriage to actress Valerie Bertinelli) to last a lifetime.
Hagar, meanwhile, went on to release five new albums (four studio and one live) with his solo band, The Waboritas, and maintained a steady following through constant touring. He went on the road last summer with Roth, of all people, in a co-headlining tour that drew Van Halen fans of both eras into arenas and amphitheaters across the country.
While Hagar had previously rekindled his friendship with Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, there had still been no contact with the band's main power brokers -- Eddie and Alex. That all changed about seven months ago when Hagar got a wild hair and called Alex out of the blue.
"I've been saying this for 100 years: 'I'm going to give Alex a call one of these days,' and then I finally did," said Hagar, who was vacationing at a Southern California beach resort with his family at the time. That first call went so well, Hagar immediately invited his former bandmate and his family to drive down to the beach and hang out.
"There was no business, it was not that at all," Hagar said. "It was about, 'Gee, I wonder what it would be like running into Ed or Alfi' Like if I ran into them in the street, there's two things that are going to happen ... you're either going to hug and kiss and say, 'It's so great to see you again,' or you're going to get in a big fight, you knowfi So you don't know until you go head on, and we went head on. It was like a complete love fest. It was just, 'Wow, I really miss this friendship.' "
'Finish What Ya Started'
With the initial ice broken, Hagar then patched things up with Eddie and the next thing anybody knew, there was an old, albeit re-energized, band happening inside 5150 -- Eddie's home studio, where every Van Halen studio album since "1984" has been recorded.
"You know, we picked up right where we left off," said Alex, "and the moment we hit the studio and started making music, which for us is where it always began, then that kind of solidified that that was it. Making music is the center of this band. That and the friendship, so it was a no-brainer."
While getting together for a lucrative tour is one thing, keeping the four egos in check for the long term is quite another. With so much backwater under the bridge, Van Halen followers are left to wonder if this reunion -- to quote the band's 1986 hit "Why Can't This Be Love" -- will "stand the test of time" or simply flame out after cashing in at the box office.
Band members claim to be too caught up in the moment to give it much thought at this point, but their renewed friendship and the success of their just-released, two-disc greatest hits compilation, "The Best of Both Worlds" -- which features three new songs and debuted this week on the Billboard charts at No. 3 -- bode well for the future.
"If it doesn't last, we're all going to kick each other's ass," Alex laughed. "We deal with one thing at a time."
"I think it can last, I really think it can. It's certainly great enough. With four personalities, anything can happen. I might come in with the wrong color shirt on one day and the whole thing could blow out," Hagar said as he and Alex laughed uproariously at the inside joke.
'Best of Both Worlds'
While Van Halen sparkles in the studio, the band has achieved its legendary status in large part due to its over-the-top live performances. Whether showcasing Roth's flamboyant outrageousness or Hagar's knack for throwing a party onstage, it is the extraordinary musicianship of the four members that truly drives the live experience.
"Being in Van Halen, I'll tell everybody right now, is a really, really strenuous show," Hagar said. "... We don't go out there on some little, tiny stage and stand there and look at our shoes in fright. Not only do we perform physically, but the music itself is extremely difficult to play. The musicianship in this band is on the highest level, and I think any musicians out there will tell you that, and it's challenging the way we push each other and inspire each other."
The band is filming shows and documenting behind-the-scenes activities for a DVD release following the tour. Still, the full experience can only truly be appreciated in person -- where Van Halen is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
"(With) Van Halen, the only way you're going to get fulfilled is to sit right there in the front row at that concert and just get your face bashed in with music," Hagar said. "I think that's probably the ultimate experience for a fan."
Jeb Wright, who runs the well-known Classic Rock Revisited Web site (www.classicrockrevisited.com), said Van Halen is one of the most revered rock bands of all time because the individual members encompass the musical yin and yang.
"Eddie changed the way lead guitar was played and Dave was the best front man in hard rock," Wright said. "They have the pop-sense danceability the girls like and they rock hard for the guys. They have both virtuoso ability on their instruments and craft songs with a great hook.
"They are different with Sam, they are more mature and more showbiz. With Dave it was total blood and guts. Dave-era VH was the most magical. I think they are great live for the same reason they will be remembered as a great band -- it boils down to the songs and the talent level of the musicians."
Darby, the evening personality and metal director at Salt Lake radio station KBER 101, also lauded the individual talents of each band member.
"Any band is only as good as its players," said Darby, noting that Van Halen is the most played band on KBER. "No one in any other band in the world is better at what they do than the guys in VH are."
'Why Can't This Be Love'
In addition to its great musicianship, however, Van Halen will also be remembered for its infamous frequent frontmen feuds.
Hagar replaced Roth in 1985, after the original vocalist quit the band in search of a solo career and potential movie deal. There was some debate on who initiated Hagar's ouster in 1996 -- he said he was fired, the band said he quit -- but the brothers Van Halen immediately turned to Roth once again, collaborating with Diamond Dave on two new tunes for Van Halen's initial greatest hits collection ("Best Of, Volume 1").
Old problems quickly resurfaced, though, and the Roth reunion fizzled as the band turned to Cherone.
During the past six years in limbo, the band tried yet again to work with Roth. Nothing came to fruition from those sessions, however, and apparently nothing ever will.
"There was an attempt to put something together (with Roth), but it was ill-fated," Alex said. "It never materialized, and it just went away. I don't mean to trivialize it, but there's a little expression ... it's like an idiot is somebody who does the same thing over and over and expects a different outcome."
Translation: Right now, it's Hagar's tomorrow.
Darby has some advice for Van Halen fans still holding out for a Roth sequel.
"Get a life ... and a girlfriend," he said.
Besides, he said, the band is better off these days with Hagar.
"Dave was a great frontman," Darby said. "Every singer in a hair band in the '80s wanted to be him. I love the stuff they did with Dave."
"Dave is now a joke," he said. "He's a parody of himself. How many boze-de-boze-de-bops do we need to hearfi Sammy is still a great frontman, and on top of that is an excellent musician. He can play more than a mic stand. He can pull it off live, too. Even in his prime, Dave was questionable live. I prefer Sammy ... did that come acrossfi"
Loud and clear -- which is exactly how fans prefer their Van Halen. Even the band members themselves can see some humor in the situation.
Hagar, phoning in from a different location than Alex, excused himself a tad early before the end of the teleconference, explaining that he had a longer commute to make it to rehearsal than did his partner in time.
"I don't want to be late," deadpanned Hagar. "I could get fired."
Doug Fox can be reached at 344-2546 or email@example.com.
Van Halen in concert
When: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Delta Center
Why: What is understood need not be discussed.
Support act: Shinedown
Tickets: $40-$75, at the Delta Center box office or Ticketmaster outlets (801-325-SEAT, www.ticketmaster.com)
Jukebox: "Dreams," "Jump," "Right Now," "Panama," "Runaround," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "When It's Love," "Unchained," "Top of the World," "You Really Got Me," "Poundcake"
"Hear About It ..." now
Sammy on touring with David Lee Roth:
"It wasn't an enjoyable thing because he wasn't an enjoyable guy. But that's it. I'm not sorry I did it, but I certainly wouldn't do it again. Dang, that's a hard one. You know, I ain't here to bash him or nothing, but he's just not a friendly guy and we didn't get along too good, it was pretty obvious. Two different people, two different planets."
Alex on his brother, Eddie, being ranked behind Joni Mitchell on Rolling Stone's list of all-time top guitarists:
"I said, yes, do the right thing, man. Send her a bottle of champagne."
Sammy on the timing of his reunion with Van Halen:
"If we had tried it maybe two years ago, it could have blown up or anything or maybe two years from now it might be too late, who knows, it just feels right. Sometimes by accident you do things at the right time and it works out for you and I think we've all been pretty lucky in our whole careers in that respect."
Alex on if there is a possibility of opening the vaults on David Lee Roth material that has never yet been released:
"No there isn't. I think your initial answer is probably the stuff isn't the best, and that if there was stuff that was worth listening to, it would have been released at the time, you knowfi"
Sammy on playing the David Lee Roth-era songs in concert:
"The show we're doing, the live show, this set we're playing right now, is better than any set we ever played before because I used to be a little sensitive to the old material, everyone knows that, and we only did two or three (songs). And I'm not now, it's like we have a whole different outlook on everything. It's like, 'Let's make this the greatest songs the Van Halen fans have ever heard.' ... It's so right. The setlist will kill you."
Alex on what he and Eddie did during their six-year hiatus:
"Well first of all there never really was any hiatus. We're very fortunate of having the luxury of Ed having his own studio, so we're in there every day making some kind of music. Some of it's useable, some of it's not. The idea with creativity is it doesn't stop. I think it really was a test for Ed and I to see when we were out of the loop, so to speak, because of Ed's health situation, whether or not we really were the creative types or whether it was all of the bells and whistles or explosions that drew us to what we do. But being in the studio and having no other purpose than creativity itself was actually kind of a profound experience. It was great."
Sammy on his first phone call to Eddie:
"Well, it had been a long time, about seven years, six-and-a-half years, something like that. I mean not even one conversation, and the first one was, it was, you know, I was a little nervous. And I'm sure, you know, he was kind of surprised, too, when he picks up the phone and it's me. But it was good. It was kind of like a little -- a little uncomfortable, like, 'Well, how are you, manfi' 'Well, I'm pretty good. Man, I had a little bout with cancer, you knowfi' I mean it actually got heavy fast, and it got deep fast to the point where it was like, 'Oh, wow.'
Alex on Van Halen fans:
"The Van Halen audience is very special. You know, for one thing, thank God they stuck with us all this time, and we're just going to take them and drag them all into the new millennium."
Sammy on playing live again with Van Halen:
"I mean you're lucky if you get this once in your life, but to be able to get that every night is not only motivating, it's addicting, and hey, it's a miracle that we can still have that every night, and I'm honored and humbled by it, and that's what motivates me is that feeling and the idea you can actually still do this, and it's a great, great thing. I would never, ever take it for granted."
Alex on the Van Halen III album made with Gary Cherone on vocals:
"You know, I think creativity's about taking chances, and it's allowing yourself to make mistakes and without passing judgment on any of it. ... Sometimes you make a mistake, and it's nobody's fault. It just is. It just wasn't right. You can't undo it. You know, we're human. We make mistakes. That's all I can say."
Alex, after realizing that he had more to say on the subject after all:
"If I just may add one last thing in respect to that last question of the record that we made in 1998 ... I didn't want to prejudge it, because you've got to remember Ed's got to read this, too, and he'll hammer me over the head if I don't say something of how he saw the picture. And that is when you make music, you know, you try to be true to what comes from your heart. And once it leaves, once it's been recorded and it leaves your hands, it's anybody's guess what happens to it, and I think that's probably the best way to answer that question."
Sammy on why his voice has held up over the years:
"I'll tell you what, I am probably the luckiest singer on the planet. You know, I know a lot of singers in other bands and stuff and their voice hasn't held up. My only secret I can say is I've never really smoked cigarettes, and I'm not trying to make a cigarette commercial out of this, but most of the singers I know that do smoke cigarettes they can't sing anymore, or as good. Maybe that's it. I've always drank and I've always smoked a few other things once in a while ... I've done about everything, you know I've had about as much fun as anybody can have and I'm still having plenty of it and for some reason I can still sing. But I think my heart is still really into being what I am. It would crush me if I woke up one morning and somebody said, hey you can't do this anymore. So I think I just have that blind faith."
Alex on Van Halen not being selected last year to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the band's first year of eligibility:
"It certainly would be an honor to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ... I think getting together first and making music was ultimately the most important thing. I think the band has made its mark historically, if you will, and having people come to listen to what we're doing now is the proof in the pudding, so to speak. It's a very complicated question in terms of how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fits into the larger picture ... because for a band to help also have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gain notoriety and acceptance, and actually be something of value that's going to last for the years, it certainly would be great to be part of that. And who knows what next year will bringfi You never know."
Alex on the choice to release a new greatest hits album when they also released one in 1996:
"Not to point the finger in a different direction, but the reality was this time it was our choice; the last time it was not our choice, it was done by outside forces."
Sammy on his thoughts about the band's new greatest hits album, "The Best of Both Worlds":
"I think it's kind of cool that if you're going to do a 'Greatest Hits II' package that we're in a unique situation where there were a couple singers in this band and one of them did a couple of new songs for the last one and one of them is doing three new songs for this one. I think that's pretty cool. That's almost like karmically very good, because if you just did the same thing again it's not as exciting. Like I said, I'm not down on doing a greatest hits record at all this time. Last time I was, that's why I wasn't on it, you know, I didn't do new songs. I didn't want to do it at that time in my life, for whatever reasons. And this time in my life, it's the only way we could have gotten the tour out this year and I think the fans need it. And we need it. We want it and it just has to happen."
Alex on his thoughts about Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony playing select dates with Sammy Hagar's band over the past couple years:
"You know, I think at the time when Sam and Mike went out on tours, it's, you know, musicians go out and play, and that's what they do, and my brother and I were doing something different. So you know, as adults, you make your own choices, and it was neither here nor there, as far as we're concerned. I mean that sounds like a simple answer to something that from the outside may look like a complicated question, but it really isn't, you knowfi Sammy likes -- he likes music. He likes to go out and play, and (Mike) wanted to join him."
Alex on how he stays in touring shape:
"Nails. I eat nails."
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B1.