Thriving -- or Simply Surviving?

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

Longevity is the easy part of rock and roll; it is no great task to survive the music business, even if an artist is driven solely by the illusions of fame -- money, women, the glamorous excesses. One need only look at Steve Tyler or, for that matter, Steve Perry, to understand that in rock and roll, you can ride the gravy train forever. Any idiot can be a survivor, any hack can wheeze out a pitiful existence on the respirator of adoration and nostalgia and old glories.

No, it's what the musician chooses to do with that longevity that's the real estimation of his or her worth in the long run. Each week, bands such as Molly Hatchet and Foghat and .38 Special and Pink Floyd and the Eagles creak through towns, filling clubs and arenas with adoring fans whacked out on dead memories.

And now here comes Van Halen, ten albums into a career that, for purists, stopped dead a decade ago, when Diamond Dave split and was replaced by Hagar the Horrible. They're crankin' out the new material and, every now and then, still throwing in a song such as "Runnin' with the Devil" or "And the Cradle Will Rock..." to satiate old fans who remember when. Survivors? Damn straight.

After all, there isn't a song off Van Halen, the 1978 debut, or 1984 that doesn't still echo in the ears of anyone raised on rock and roll radio; their best songs, from "Eruption" and "You Really Got Me" to "Top Jimmy" and "Panama," provided the soundtrack for a generation that even now distances itself from Van Halen, too embarrassed by what the band has become. And yet Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony aren't mere survivors to a new audience familiar only with such mid-'80s albums as OU812 and 5150 and the just-released Balance. To this crowd, ignorant of its expiration date, Van Halen is as viable as any act around.

"The whole question of being a survivor is all a contradiction," says Alex Van Halen, who, survivor or not, will always rank among rock's best drummers. "I hang out on Sunset Boulevard and watch all the young bands and check out what's going on, and they want to 'make it.' And then the moment they do, they want to isolate themselves from the very thing that motivated them in the first place. It's the Ivory Tower Syndrome. You're not better than anybody, you're not worse than anybody. You just happen to have a talent, you happen to be able to communicate in a different way that can affect people. It doesn't mean your shit don't stink."

And it doesn't mean you music can't stink, either. For purists, there still rages the debate over which VH is better -- the bar-band-punk-rock-blues of the David Lee Roth version, or the MTV-approved-Pepsi-sanctioned-and-sterilized version over which Sammy Hagar presides. The difference between Roth-era Van Halen and Van Hagar is the difference between Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi. Before Roth decided to quit the band, Van Halen was the premier pop-metal band of all time -- the sum of its disparate parts instead of just a showcase for Eddie Van Halen's guitar pyrotricks.

Roth's dumb-ass cock-rock, his schoolboy sneer and fetish for Roy Orbison and Ray Davies, and a growl that knew no subtlety, played perfectly off Eddie's flashy but ultimately cold technique; they were indeed fire and ice held together by one of the most underrated rhythm sections in the history of rock and roll. (Alex Van Halen is one of the few metal drummers who lives in the spaces between the beats, not just for the beats themselves, and bassist Michael Anthony doesn't get in the way.)

David Lee Roth may well have been among the most obnoxious of frontmen in rock history, but his macho swagger and cartoon sexism made him something far greater than mere idiot mortal. Sammy Hagar, though, is the worst sort of rock and roll creation: a joke who takes himself seriously, a singer who can't, a songwriter who shouldn't.

Like Plant and Page, Roth and Van Halen found the groove in which blues became rock became metal became punk. Their sound was enormous, outrageous and, at its best, even timeless. It's not just the nostalgia or kitsch of past adolescence that makes Van Halen and Van Halen II so good: they just are, that's all, as unpretentious and exclamatory and muscular as any rock and roll that was about nothing more than drinking the old man's gin, diddling beautiful girls in the back seat and living life like there's no tomorrow.

And then there was the guitarist, perhaps the greatest technician of the past 20 years. On Van Halen through 1984, Eddie Van Halen was not just the best player since Hendrix; he went Hendrix one better, capturing onto tape a sound most guitarists never even heard inside their heads, playing the stuff of far-out fantasy and making it seem efficient and effortless. His solos were dizzying, tapping and bending strings and notes until they collapsed into each other, and he was even an amazing rhythm player to boot. So much has been made of Eddie's sound that it has long been forgotten that not one player since -- not Steve Vai, not Adrian Legg, not Slash -- has come close to imitating the most influential rock guitarist since Page or Hendrix.

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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