Thriving -- or Simply Surviving?

After all these years, Alex Van Halen insists his band isn't "D.O.A."

But Eddie has said he is no longer interested in the extravagance of style, that he's content to just play instead of create. The recent Van Halen albums -- beginning with 5150 in 1986 and going through the new Balance -- are by-the-numbers arena-rock, bombastic pop numbers filtered through a guitarist who once redefined the genre and now claims to have had enough of that.

When Van Halen grew up -- with, of all things, a lead singer who once fronted the dyspeptic Montrose and claims "I Can't Drive 55" as his biggest hit -- they seemed to forget that rock and roll is, above all else, a celebration of and ode to the very youth culture from which it sprang. If Van Halen was once "about making big rock" as David Lee Roth said, it was at least never stupid or pointless. Van Hagar is a band that relies on the cliches, the trite love songs or the vacuous messages that never make it out of the shallow end. "Hot for Teacher" and "Beautiful Girls" may have been sexist and vacant, but they were executed by men who celebrated the myth of rock and roll even as they exaggerated it to the point of self-awareness, even as they laughed at its ridiculousness. Hagar's idea of outrage is screwing hookers and smoking Panama Red in Amsterdam.

It's symptomatic of any band that survives for more than 20 years together that, as the musicians get older, as they gorge themselves upon success and adoration, their hunger diminishes and expectations recede. Goals and desires evolve over time. Boys (or girls) mature however slowly into men (or women), and a self-seriousness slowly and perhaps even unconsciously creeps into the work.

Though Alex Van Halen argues the point, with the authority and conviction of a man who should know such things, one can't help but contrast the angry desperation of a song such as Van Halen II's "D.O.A." against the bloated contentment of Balance's "Big Fat Money" and notice that somewhere along the line, Van Halen evolved into a different, laconic beast.

"I think we've gotten better over time because the bottom line is music is about emotions and feelings," Van Halen says, "and you're trying to capture something you have in the essence of your being and get that same feeling back from whoever you're playing it for. Look at the blues. What was that all about? Well, I'll tell you what that was all about. It was about people who had the blues, so you play in a minor key and someone else listens to it and says, 'Oh, yeah, I kinda know how you feel. I get it.'"

And yet Van Halen will concede that there is a certain necessary evolution in the life of someone who chooses to pursue rock and roll as a career. It's the fact that over time, such people are no longer kids shouting to be heard above the clamor, but adults with adult concerns. Rock and roll may still possess that same visceral charge for the musician, but the reasons for making it change.

"Well, yes and no," Van Halen shrugs. "If you're in the studio and you listen to a playback at extremely high volume, if that doesn't change your mindset, if that doesn't change your mood, then there's something wrong with you. Music is very therapeutic. I'll tell you a funny story; well, part of it's funny and part of it's not. There was a 13-year-old boy who was in an accident and he ended up in a coma in the hospital. His parents knew he was a fan of the band's and decided to bring some music into the hospital.

"They knew it was a long shot, but maybe this will do something for him. They played the song 'Dreams' [from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge] for him. Now, after about two minutes he came out of this coma. That's a true story. Now, I'm talking to [F.U.C.K. producer] Andy Johns about this, and I tell him the story. You know what he says to me? He says, 'Maybe he wanted you to turn it off.'" Van Halen breaks into protracted hysterical laughter at the recollection. "I'm not makin' this up, man."

Van Halen performs Sunday, March 26. Collective Soul opens. The Summit, 10 Greenway Plaza, 6293700. $26.25 and $36.25.

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