It’s almost show time in East Troy, Wis., and 21,000 people are primed for 2½ hours of earsplitting power rock from the genre’s undisputed champions, Van Halen. This is the group’s first tour without its longtime mane man, the flamboyant David Lee Roth, but few fans seem to care. Some have brought banners to give to Roth’s replacement, Sammy Hagar. One says, “Happy trails, David Lee Who?” Another, with a photo of Roth X-ed out, reads, “NO BOZOS!”
Sentiments backstage on the Van Halen tour are similarly lacking in nostalgia. Actress Valerie Bertinelli, the wife of heavy guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, remembers feeling decidedly unwelcome on past tours when Roth spent a lot of time trashing—among other things—the notion of marriage. “We put up with five years of hell,” she says. “Eddie and I used to hang out by ourselves in the tuning room. The mood was absolutely miserable.”
Now things seem very amiable indeed. At East Troy’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre, as his mates dance around the dressing room to warm up, Eddie stands, guitar slung at his hip, a flaming orange bandana tied at his bicep. When he muses that he may start calling himself “Rambo, First Guitar,” Valerie says dryly, “Rambo, honey, your underwear is showing through your pants. Go put on a lighter color.”
After the briefs delay, rock’s top gun leads the band onstage, where any doubts about the new Van Halen—Eddie calls it “the real Van Halen”—are quickly blown away. Eddie, 31, drumming brother Alex, 33, bassist Michael Anthony, 31, and lead singer/second guitarist Hagar, 38, work Van Halen’s old formula to rousing effect, mixing melodic surprise with all that raunchy power. Classically trained Eddie even spices his solos with samplings of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Debussy. “Valerie likes that stuff,” he says.
Van Halen sold out every stop in its 38-city tour, and its current album, 5150, shot to No. 1 three weeks after release. There is some vindication in the fact that the group’s first LP with Hagar is also its first chart topper, despite a long string of platinum best-sellers including 1984, which sold 8.5 million copies. Some people felt Van Halen, which began 15 years ago as a Pasadena party band, could not survive Roth’s departure. As Anthony acknowledges, the band was perceived to be just “one guy and his helpers.”
There is not even any pretense that the split with Roth was over that pop-speak euphemism, artistic differences. “We thought it was a band and it wasn’t,” Alex says. “I guess people obviously pay attention to the biggest mouth.” The surviving Van Halenites are certainly not reluctant to cite Roth’s annoying habits. Among them were a series of edicts: no wives backstage, for instance, and no blonds onstage among the crew or hangers-around, since Roth didn’t want any competition for his own flowing locks. Then there was the bickering between Roth and Eddie. Things got so bad that Eddie threatened to take off on his own. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “I wanted to quit. One thing about Roth, he’s not half the singer Sammy is, but he is creative. I’m not slagging him about the music. Onstage he was fine. It was offstage that he made having a human relationship impossible.”
Roth was buoyed by the success of his best-selling solo EP, Crazy From the Heat, and a movie contract that later went sour. (He’s suing the defunct CBS Productions for $25 million.) He also began to complain that his band-mates were too mired in married life—he was the only bachelor—to keep up the Van Halen partying tradition.
These days Roth, whose first full-length solo album is due out next month, sounds philosophical about the breakup. “I’ve known those guys for the last 10 years,” he says. “But like a relationship with a woman, some things just don’t work out. People feel smothered and impotent.” For their part, his partners recall feeling “exasperated waiting for Monsieur Roth to decide whether he wanted to be a movie star or a rocker,” Alex says. “Then we confronted him, and he said goodbye.”
And Van Halen said hello to Hagar, who released 10 albums during a nine-year solo career. Hagar says he had mixed feelings when Eddie invited him to join the band. “I didn’t want to join a bunch of jerks,” Hagar says. “But the image of them as cold-blooded party boys must’ve been contrived by Roth. They’re great guys. And they really kick some ass as musicians.
“People may look at this and think, ‘Wow, now Hagar’s big time.’ I did fine on my own. Where is Sammy Hagar going to go after four or five more albums? Vegas? Most people leave a band to go solo. I went the other way.”
Not everything is peaceful for Van Halen. Former manager Noel Monk is suing the band for $10.1 million, alleging that he has been shortchanged on merchandising profits. But for the most part things are harmonious, musically and otherwise. For the first time, Van Halen wives are welcome on the road. Anthony and Hagar, who’s been married 17 years, are traveling with wives and kids on a tour vehicle they’ve dubbed “Toys R Bus.” (Anthony has a daughter, 1; Hagar has two sons, one 16 and at school in California, the other 18 months.)
All the domestic tranquility hasn’t dulled crowd enthusiasm. Fans still want Eddie to autograph their backs. Kids still stalk Anthony in hotel bars. Van Halen remains a favorite band of overtime-seeking security guards everywhere. And if you listen, from time to time you can hear one or the other of the band members quietly singing the parody of Roth’s solo single hit, Just a Gigolo, written by Boston deejays Bob Rivers and Zip Zipfel: “I’m just a big ego/ Everywhere I go/ I wanna make a lot of money.” That’s usually capped with a paraphrase of the real song’s last line, “Life goes on without him.”