Sharps and Flats: Van Halen

By Andrew Hamlin

Published March 31, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"If people don't dig this, I'll take up tuba," vowed Eddie Van Halen after the band re-disinherited David Lee Roth and picked up erstwhile Extreme crooner Gary Cherone. Well, I thought it made a fetching portrait, this wrinkled elfin figure in coveralls perched on Sunset Strip huffing and fluffing "Eruption" through a dented tuba while patting quadruple-time with one rotten Adidas, inclining his head toward a fruit box where you could throw your dimes. Course he'd radio for the limo back to Brentwood when the sun went down, but maybe putting some tuba where his mouth was would show Mr. E. the insensate apostate stupidity in letting Dave slip the hook a second time. Just for a few weeks. Let him switch off. Odd-numbered days, it's "Everybody Wants Some" on a celesta. Sundays he'll try "Spanish Fly" for musical hands. Let Kurt Loder offer analysis.

Turns out I didn't have much to thrash Eddie over, but telling why requires a journey to the Darkest Heart of Van Halen's second singer. See, Sammy Hagar was always my kind of idiot savant, this guy who'd scarf a cheeseburger and let his fingers, still slick from the grease, fly over the fretboard as he screeched the simplest of vowel/consonant/clichi do-si-does: "Plain Jane" rode a riff as irreducible as its phonetics; "Heavy Metal" stuck razor's edges between overloading power stations and tight-jeaned lipsticks and found ramming speed with Sammy screaming "noooiiiiiiiiiiise!" in a battle cry to scare a black coven back to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Bette Midler covered "Red." The Clash swiped the guitar riff from "I've Done Everything For You" for "Safe European Home" before their producer wiped it out of the final mix. The man was like WD-40 or Cheez Whiz -- he went on everything.

So who does Our Eddie pull out of his magic Rolodex? A new guy who sounds -- Extreme's pining Everly harmonies quite notwithstanding -- like Sammy just gargled a rock-salt truck. God's truth! You'd never know the difference on the new single, "Without You," with a blindfold on -- or even two! And for spankin' retreads on tired verbiage Gary gives nothing away to Sammy; here is, verbatim, the last half of the first verse of the third song, "One I Want": "Fatman, he ordering seconds/Pizzaman, just want a slice/Badman, looking for attention/A good man, he's hard to find." I hope I'm not the only one cowering under the couch, especially after unfolding the damn booklet all the way to verify what I thought I was hearing. Yeah, and he's too cool to cast a vote in "Dirty Water Dog" ("Like a hound dog chasing a bird/Sometimes a certain tom gotta peep"), and he's stumping for revolution or what the hell in "Ballot or the Bullet" ("When a house is divided/It just cannot stand/Once it's decided/A line drawn in the sand"), and Eddie's playing guitar all over the thing except where he isn't, and ooh there's one right at the end, "How Many Say I," where Eddie sings right alongside Gary. They sing, "How many say I" over and over and over with increasingly hagfish-throated harmonies, and Eddie sinks these deep liquid piano-string tones into the beginning and end. Sounds a little bit like a tuba. Guy can dream, can't he?

Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin is a Seattle writer.

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