Van Halen Feel the Burn – Rolling Stone
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Van Halen Feel the Burn

Hard rock’s finest prepare for a monstrous summer

Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony

Van Halen perform in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on July 13th, 1988.

Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

First of all, Van Halen doesn’t care for that name, Monsters of Rock, or for that Godzilla-with-a-guitar logo. Listen to the band’s lead singer, Sammy Hagar: “I don’t like the handle. I don’t like the cartoon-Godzilla thing that’s been tied in to it. That isn’t what Monsters of Rock means. It means bands of stature, which is a little bit more flattering than the Godzillas and the Mummies and the Frankensteins of rock, the ugliest fuckers in rock.”

So let it be said here and now that the members of Van Halen are not the ugliest fuckers in rock. But this summer they might well be the most monstrous. They’ll be leading Van Halen’s Monsters of Rock Tour, a hard-rock juggernaut that sounds a little terrifying to all but die-hard head bangers. Five bands: Van Halen, the Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, Kingdom Come. Ten hours of bone-crunching hard-rock music. Up to 100,000 teenage metalheads standing in the hot sun for an entire day, staring at a 10,000-square-foot stage and listening to 250,000 watts of sound.

Think of the atmosphere. Think of the insurance premiums. Think of the drum solos. Think of the parents’ groups condemning the whole thing. Or think of the box office: seen by an estimated 2 million people in 22 stadiums across the U.S., the most expensive tour in rock history will almost unquestionably become the biggest-grossing tour of the summer by the time it bashes to a close.

And the star attraction is the biggest hard-rock band of our time; the band that includes the genre’s most envied and emulated guitarist but sometimes sounds more like a Top Forty pop-rock band; the band that replaced a flamboyant, seemingly irreplaceable lead singer with a journeyman singer-songwriter and kept right on rocking; the Ultimate Party Band, riding on years of stories about backstage excesses and hotel-room bacchanalias.

If the members of Van Halen are at all worried about going onstage after four younger, often harder-sounding and maybe hungrier bands, they don’t show it.

“The way I look at it, those other guys are all gonna make it hard on each other,” says Sammy Hagar with a laugh. “It’s not a competition. Even if it were, I still wouldn’t fear it, but it’s not. It’s an event. I hope the other bands try so hard they do a great show and every person who walks out of that coliseum goes, ‘That was the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my life.’

“I’m sure there’s a hardcore Metallica fan out there who’s gonna go, ‘Oh, Van Halen stunk. They did a ballad.’ But we’re such an individual band it would be like looking at a fruit bowl and saying the apple’s gonna make that orange taste bad.”

Alex Van Halen has a food metaphor of his own. “The way I look at it,” he says, “this tour is kinda like one big sandwich, you know? Which is the best, the first bite or the last?” He laughs hoarsely. “Who really cares, as long as you eat the whole thing?”

***

“Van Halen wanted to make rock & roll history, basically,” says Louis Messina, the head of the Texas-based PACE Concerts, who is the promoter of the Monsters of Rock Tour. But Van Halen didn’t want to sweat the details, so it’s Messina who has to ensure that the tour makes the right kind of history. He is booking the stadiums, arranging for security, serving as a liaison between Van Halen and local promoters and spending plenty of time calming parents’ groups, community leaders and anybody else frightened by the idea of having five hard-rock bands come to town.

It hasn’t always been easy. “In Cleveland,” says Messina, “they gave us Cleveland Stadium, but then they decided we couldn’t have the stadium because they didn’t want anybody on the field where the Indians play. So we’re doing two days in Akron instead.”

But most areas have been receptive, says Messina, who has promoted the Texxas Jam, an annual open-air hard-rock concert, for a decade (and who wants to make the Monsters of Rock an annual event). “From ten years of doing the Texxas Jam,” he says, “we know how it works. We require more security than normal stadium shows, and we take the precautions that have to be taken.” He doesn’t expect this tour to be especially rowdy. “None of the bands are problem bands,” he says. “They aren’t the bad boys of rock — we’re just selling eight or ten hours of straight-ahead rock & roll, and we’re very good at producing these shows.”

But as Van Halen gathers in a small North Hollywood soundstage, it isn’t worrying about logistics. The first date on the Monsters of Rock Tour is a month away, and the band is getting ready. The room is crowded with the usual instruments and equipment cases, with a few distinctive Van Halen touches: Eddie Van Halen’s striped guitars, the two huge bass drums in Alex Van Halen’s elaborate setup and the posted flyer for THE WORLD’S LARGEST WET T-SHIRT CONTEST.

On the stage, the four guys in Van Halen, wearing shorts and T-shirts, run through the songs they plan to do on the tour: mostly songs from their new album, OU812, and its predecessor, 5150. These are the kind of songs that helped turn these flamboyant Southern California hard rockers into something bigger and more universal: their crunching heavy metal roots show in the whomp of their rhythm section and the mile-a-minute fury of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, but for every power-chorded pile driver there’s a melodic, keyboard-spiked, radio-ready pop rocker like “Why Can’t This Be Love” and the new “When It’s Love.” The raunchy hard rock often has a melodic flair; the swaggering sometimes shows a self-parodying sense of humor; and the heavy-metal thunder is almost always delivered with real instrumental virtuosity.

Along with the newer songs, they rehearse two roaring chestnuts from the band’s formative days with lead singer David Lee Roth, “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love,” plus one tune (“Panama”) from the album 1984, with which Roth and the band first reached that broader audience. In addition, they throw in three tunes from Sammy Hagar’s solo career. “Whether or not you like the song ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’ ” says Eddie with a grin, “I think Sammy’s fans would be disappointed if we didn’t do it.”

A few Van Halen fans, on the other hand, may be disappointed to find that the set won’t include the band’s 1984 hit “Jump.” Hagar, though, is dead set against it. “That song, lyrically, has got Roth all over it,” he says during a break, “and it’s hard for me to do. And if I do too many of the old songs, I feel like I’m in a fuckin’ cover band.”

The set has its rough spots, especially around Sammy’s solo numbers, but there’s time to tinker with it, and for these guys, it’s business as usual. Behind his drums, Alex Van Halen — who just turned 33, though his days as the band’s heartiest partier have added a few years to his looks — goes all out, constantly attended by a roadie. Younger brother Eddie stands off to the side of the stage, looking alternately bored and irritated at the sound as he fiddles with his keyboards or rips out the kind of guitar lines that have made him a seminal hard-rock guitar hero. On the other side, stocky, bearded bassist Michael Anthony placidly accompanies the others. And center stage is Hagar, the band’s perpetual jokester: he’s the one who plays with rubber dog shit, the one who spontaneously decides to jump off the stage and surf across the floor on an equipment case, the one who’s always bouncing around on the move even though he’s the oldest band member by several years. (He’s somewhere around 40.)

Sammy is also the one whose entry into Van Halen in 1985 was supposed to be the kiss of death for a band whose most visible member had always been David Lee Roth. But not long after Warner Bros. told the band it shouldn’t continue to use the name Van Halen (“Fuck you — it’s my name,” said Eddie), 5150 hit Number One. Now OU812 appears headed for similar success, and once again Van Halen is smiling.

“Toward the breakup of the other band, I don’t think anybody really hung out much at all,” says Anthony. “But Sammy is just, like, really down-to-earth. He’s another typical asshole, like us.”

The new lead singer has long since settled into place. Between jokes and songs, Sammy sips from a bottle of Evian water, and he grimaces every time he gets near the cigarette that’s stuck in the end of Eddie’s guitar. That’s another tip-off that this is a different Van Halen: the Ultimate Party Band, it seems, drinks mineral water and eats potato chips and leaves the boozing and partying to legend.

“With Sammy in the band, everybody’s a little bit more conscious of being in shape than they were,” says Anthony. “He’s always saying we should get on the program and run and feel good. And Sammy doesn’t look too bad for his age. Besides, you don’t want to go out there and be a deadhead, especially as long as we’ve been out there. Think about it: a lot of these guys, like Bon Jovi and all, are eight years younger than I am. It doesn’t really make me feel old . . . but it kinda does.”

Can Van Halen actually be getting old or even, mature? “Sure, they’ve matured,” says engineer Donn Landee, who’s worked with the band since its first demo, in 1976, and who says the band “absolutely” deserved its old hedonistic image. “It will be very interesting to see how they’re going to pull off that old image on this tour,” he says. “With everybody so straight, it’s quite a challenge, because now they’re all married, and they really have calmed down.” He stops himself and chuckles. “I don’t know if that’s good press or not, but it’s true.”

When the rehearsal ends, Alex comes out from behind his drum kit and shows off his hands: they’re turning black. “I finally found some drumsticks I like,” he says, “but they’re black, and when I play, the color comes off.”

That can’t be good for him, can it?

He shrugs and says, “I’ve put worse stuff than this in my system.”

***

“Yo, honey! Turn that shit down!”

Heavy-metal music is blasting from a room somewhere inside the Eddie Van Halen-Valerie Bertinelli residence, but it’s not coming from the guy who makes his living creating that kind of noise. In fact, Eddie Van Halen is the one who is screaming for his wife to turn the music down — though no sooner has he let out the typical parent’s scream than he catches himself, grins sheepishly and shrugs.

It’s an overcast spring afternoon at the beach just north of Malibu, where Valerie has a house at which she and Eddie spend much of their time. (The rest is spent at his place in the Hollywood Hills, where Eddie has the backyard studio at which Van Halen has recorded its last two albums.) Just past the picture windows is the Pacific Ocean. Over the bar are several of Eddie’s gold and platinum records and a row of framed magazine cover photos of Valerie. And on the floor four small black kittens scamper back and forth, overturning a trash can and tussling with one another.

“There are four of ’em, and they’re all crazy — sorta like Van Halen,” says Valerie as she walks into the room with fresh glasses of iced tea; she stays to play with the kittens. On the couch, meanwhile, Eddie, flushed from the workout he’s just completed with his trainer, nurses his tea, smokes a cigarette and speaks slowly, in a low, gruff voice. Everyone says he’s a nice guy, and that’s exactly how he comes across: friendly, polite, soft-spoken and ill at ease only when the conversation turns to his musical skills. Unlike most musicians, he’s more comfortable discussing his personal life than discussing his music.

In fact, no sooner does Eddie sit down than he starts talking about another way in which this is a new Van Halen. “I started working out about a month ago,” he says. “I’ve been trying to clean up my act, you know, stop drinkin’ and everything. I went to Betty Ford and the whole bullshit, because it worked for my brother. He’s been sober a year in April.

“The thing is, you can’t do it for other people. You know, my dad died a year ago December, from drinking, and he asked if we’d stop drinking and shit, and partying, and I tried to do it for him. I tried to do it for my wife. I tried to do it for my brother. And I didn’t do any good for me. After I got out of Betty Ford, I went on a drinking binge, and I got a fucking drunk-driving ticket on my motorcycle.”

The turning point, he says, came earlier this year, when he and Valerie celebrated their seventh anniversary with a vacation on Turtle Island, off Australia. There a mosquito bite gave him a rare tropical fever, and when his temperature hit 105 after they got back home, he was sent to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. “For some reason,” he says, “that kinda made me look at things a little different, imagining being in there for an OD or alcohol, like my dad died from. It kinda wised me up. So I’ve been sober for 20 days. And I’m starting to feel the light at the end of the tunnel, starting to feel good.”

The Monsters of Rock Tour, he says, will be a new experience. “It’s going to be interesting for me to play sober, ’cause I never really have. The last ten years of my life I don’t think I’ve been truly sober. I probably had half a heat going round the clock, all the time. I’d wake up, crack open a beer before I’d eat anything. It takes a little getting used to, because now it feels like something’s missing. But if my brother can do it, I should be able to do it.”

As Alex will say later, “I didn’t want to end up like Keith Moon or John Bonham or a number of other people I know. I’m certainly not going to preach to anybody about it, to tell them you should or shouldn’t do this, ’cause that ain’t my gig. But I kinda think of it as me driving down the freeway at breakneck speed and luckily I saw the sign that said, END OF FREEWAY.”

Eddie says that Alex changed significantly when he kicked booze. “God, he’s a great guy now,” says Eddie. “He used to be so hard to deal with.”

Valerie Bertinelli, who says that she used the typical lines to get Eddie to quit — “Stop drinking! I’m going to divorce you!” — reports that Eddie has changed a lot in his one alcohol-free month. “I think he looks better, obviously,” she says. “And he’s … He was never a mean person, but he’s gotten nicer, and I don’t know how to say that so it makes sense. But that’s what it seems like.”

Eddie grins and says, “Well, thank you, honey.”

With the Van Halen brothers on the wagon, life backstage on the Monsters of Rock Tour will be considerably different from previous Van Halen tours. Legendary for demanding a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed (a stipulation Van Halen put in its contracts simply to make sure the promoters read the things), the band now has a new dressing-room rule. “I just asked the guys the other day if we could not have any alcohol backstage,” says Eddie. “And you know, since my brother’s sober and Sammy and Mike don’t drink, really … I mean, they’re not alcoholics, let’s put it that way. Alex and I are. We come from an alcoholic background and everything. We’ve got that X factor.”

Still, some things just don’t change — not completely, anyway. Van Halen is still a guitar-based hard-rock band, even though Eddie says he didn’t play guitar for a year before making OU812. “I never really sit down and play guitar anymore, unless I’ve got to write,” he says. “I’m not saying I’ve mastered the guitar, and I’m not saying guitar isn’t fun. But keyboards are more fun to dick around with, because I make more mistakes on them and making mistakes is fun. And then our manager or somebody will say, ‘Not too many keyboard songs on the record, okay? Come on, Ed. You’re a guitarist.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, okay, I forgot.’ “

And just as Eddie won’t relinquish his guitar-hero mantle, the Ultimate Party Rockers aren’t ready to shed that image completely. “In the early days,” says Anthony, “we used to kinda go out of our way sometimes to party, you know. There was a time when there was no dressing room that we would leave that would not be totally trashed. And then we found out that we had to pay for our own damages, and it kinda calmed down a little bit. But I guess you could say as far as Van Halen calming down goes, we’ve calmed down to almost everybody else’s party level now.”

“We used to use the term ‘party’ when what we really meant was getting high,” says Alex. “But when we say ‘party’ now, it doesn’t mean getting fucked up.”

Nothing’s really changed, says Eddie, except that there’s no booze. “We talk about the same things we always have, you know,” he says with a shrug.

“You just party different now,” says Valerie, who is still playing with the four kittens on the floor behind the couch.

“Yeah,” Eddie says with a deliberately sappy grin. “We’re high on life now.”

He breaks into a booming, hoarse laugh. “We sing about the same stuff we always have. You know, boy meets girl; boy inserts penis….”

Valerie’s head immediately pops up from behind the couch. “Edward!” The world’s greatest guitarist grins and tells his wife, “I’m sorry.”

***

The curtains are lacy, the sofas and chairs are upholstered with a flowered pattern, and the floor and tabletops are neatly strewn with Beatrix Potter games and other refined children’s toys. This is Sammy Hagar’s living room, and if it’s a far cry from what you’d expect from the lead singer of Van Halen, Hagar quickly explains why. “This is my wife’s living room,” he says. “I live in her house, to be honest with you.”

The other three members of Van Halen grew up around Los Angeles and spent the early Seventies in struggling Southern California cover bands; Hagar, on the other hand, grew up in Mill Valley, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, and in 1973 he was already the lead singer in the hard-rock band Montrose. The Van Halen brothers and Anthony came from musical families — both fathers were former big-band musicians — but Hagar’s father was a boxer, and for a time Sammy himself considered that profession.

But that was before Montrose, before his solo career, which started in 1975 (three years before the first Van Halen album), and before Van Halen came calling. Now Sammy and his wife and their young son have a beachfront house two doors down from Eddie and Valerie’s, and even though Hagar insists that he’s “not an L.A. person,” he rarely gets back to northern California.

“Eddie and I yell out each other’s windows, drive the guy in the middle here crazy,” he says. “This band really does have a lot of fun hanging out together, you know. Maybe it’s because we haven’t been around each other enough, and in ten years we’ll hate each other like every other band. But I don’t think so.”

Like David Lee Roth before him, Hagar is in charge of writing Van Halen’s lyrics. Eddie usually brings in an idea or a riff or a song structure; the whole band shapes the idea into a song; and then Sammy, who has been singing along and trying out lyric ideas during the early stages, sits down and writes a lyric. This means that like Roth, he’s the guy responsible for much of the band’s image; for instance, he’s the one who decided that the new album’s songs should be about sex (the single “Black and Blue,” the speed-metal raveup “Source of Infection”), lust (“Sucker in a 3 Piece”), sex and sand and tequila (“Cabo Wabo,” which describes one of Sammy’s favorite vacation spots) or more philosophical issues (“Mine All Mine”).

Sammy says that last song took him longer to write than any other. He wrote and discarded seven complete lyrics. “I had the title,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Fuck, man, what’s mine all mine?’ I could make it about a chick that’s mine all mine, but we had enough of that on the record.

“I came home one night, and I opened up a bottle of mescal, which is the only hard liquor I like to drink. I sat there sipping it, writing, writing, writing, and about five o’clock in the morning I thought, ‘Man, I got it.’ And I stood up and almost passed out, I was so drunk. I couldn’t come in the studio the next day, the first time in my life I ever missed anything for that reason. But sure enough, that was the lyric.

“It’s not because I was drunk,” he adds quickly. “It’s just that I happened to have kept drinking as I was doing it.”

Like Hagar’s “Mine All Mine” story, some songs on OU812 walk a line between glamorizing the kind of excesses Van Halen’s members now shun and being harmlessly playful and humorous. At times, though, it seems as if Hagar trots out the old party image because it’s expected, whether or not it’s appropriate or responsible.

“I would never in my entire life do something because it’s expected,” he says. “But when you’re stuck with rhyme, rhythm and all these things, you can’t say it completely plain as day. The best I nailed anything in my life was ‘I Can’t Drive 55.’ To me, that’s the only reason why I think it’s a great song, because lyrically it’s so goddamn to the point. And that’s very hard to do.

“I’m not very mental at all, believe me. My vocabulary’s pretty bad, so I’m pretty stuck with being about as honest as I can. And if something doesn’t come to me that’s inspired, then I resort back to the same old thing: you know, I’m a horny son of a bitch like anybody else, and it’s easy to write about that stuff, love and sex and stuff like that.”

And doesn’t he feel awkward living his life, taking his wife and son on the road with him, sitting in his wife’s living room surrounded by toys and yet writing songs about what he describes as “fucking and sucking and having a good time on the road”?

“No,” he says, “because I do my share of partying, and I do my share of wild and crazy things. I don’t like to hurt myself. That’s my saving grace — I care about myself, my body and so forth. I’ve seen people be real sick, and I don’t wanna be sick. I just wanna die suddenly or something; I don’t want to ruin my body… But in all honesty, you know, I am a maniac.

“And hey, I don’t care if you’ve only partied once in your entire life, if you did it hard and did it right and went through it all, you remember it for the rest of your life. You can write about it forever. You can write 50 songs from that one night, you know.”

***

Two days later, Van Halen is straggling into the North Hollywood rehearsal hall for another day of preparation for the tour. The motorcycle parked out front means Billy Idol is also here; from an adjoining studio you can hear drummers auditioning for Idol’s new band.

In their studio, meanwhile, the members of Van Halen have broken out the Evian and the potato chips, and in the corner of the stage, Eddie is trying out a few new sounds. In two weeks it’ll be time to head for East Troy, Wisconsin, for the first Monsters show; in the meantime they’ve still got some fine-tuning to do.

Michael Anthony, sitting off in a side room, says that he’s looking forward to the stadium tour but wouldn’t mind hitting some smaller venues. “In fact, if the chance ever arose,” he says, “it’d be great to play some clubs. ‘Cause a lotta times we reminisce about the clubs we used to play, you know. Those were good days: it’s kinda neat playing in a little room where you got, like, one cabinet, one amp, Al’s got his double set happening, you’re crammed in on a small stage, you can’t really move around, the room is all smoky, the kids are packed in a little fuller than the capacity, and you get up there and just blow.”

Michael remembers the days when Van Halen did play clubs: ’76, ’77, when the band would do the Southern California circuit, mixing original songs with cover versions, when the band members were beginning to drop out of school to pursue musical careers, when they’d wear garage-style coveralls to set up their equipment so that the fans wouldn’t recognize them later. Alex and Eddie, he remembers, wore those same coveralls in their day job, painting house numbers on curbs. Michael himself had to earn extra bucks by playing polka music in his father’s band.

Both Michael and Alex fondly remember one club in particular, Walter Mitty’s Rocking Emporium, in Pomona. “To me, that was the epitome of a rock & roll club,” says Alex. “The floor had about half an inch of beer on it, and sweat, and God knows what else. And every night that we played there, I had this vision that we were playing some sort of large arena.”

And now the new Van Halen, the calmer and more successful Van Halen, is playing nothing but those large arenas Alex once imagined. So when he gets onstage for the Monsters of Rock Tour, when he sits behind his drums in the biggest stadiums in the country, will he think back to those days in small clubs?

“Oddly enough,” Alex says, grinning, “it will bring back memories. I mean, we’re still doing the same thing we always did. These days, we’re just doing it bigger.” 

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