Steady Eddie

Decades of torn-up road behind him, Van Halen's guitar god keeps chugging ahead

"Who knew he was going to act like that on-stage? He wasn't like that before we went out," says Eddie. "He must have done something really quick when he ran into the bathroom. It was strange. I thought we were actually becoming friends [before the incident]; all the years we were together, we weren't really friends. Sammy had quit, so Dave thought he was back in the band. But we never told him anything remotely like he would have a chance of being the lead singer."

Comments from Hagar and an "open letter" from Roth painted Eddie as a sneaky, controlling, fair-weather jerk. "So we had to do all the damn press defending ourselves against the both of them," he says.

When asked if, in hindsight, it was wrong to do the MTV appearance with Roth in the first place, Van Halen reluctantly admits that it had to do more with promoting the band's upcoming release than anything else: "Well, that's the business end. It's part [of music], too."

Enter Gary Cherone, newly available after Extreme disbanded. Fate arrived in the form of Extreme's manager, Ray Danniels, who also happened to perform managerial duties for Van Halen.

"We were a band without a singer, and he was a singer without a band," says Eddie, who admits he wasn't really that familiar with the vocalist at the time. "I had heard the [Extreme] song 'Get the Funk Out,' but that was it. I don't listen to much of anything. The last record I bought was So by Peter Gabriel. I think he's great."

Apparently, Eddie thinks Cherone is great, too. But, while fans attending the U.S. shows should warm to the latest version of Van Halen, the album-buying faction has, thus far, proved a disappointment. After a strong first week, III has slid rapidly down the charts, its lead single "Without You" -- arguably the release's best track and written 45 minutes after Eddie and Gary first met -- also failed to make any impression. One reason for III's poor showing, Van Halen believes, is that pre-grunge rock bands have little pull on today's airwaves -- and especially in VH's Los Angeles hometown, where, according to Eddie, not a single station is spinning the new single.

"There are a lot of people that don't even know we have a new album out. It's sad. It's the business that's ruining music," he fulminates.

Still, that doesn't disguise the fact that III has garnered mostly lukewarm reviews. "They say it's not a typical Van Halen record -- whatever that is," says Eddie. "There's this preconception of us, but this is a different band. That's why I titled the opening track 'Neworld,' because it's a whole new world for us."

Whatever the course of this third incarnation of Van Halen, Eddie's guitar-hero status is firmly set. But, when asked how much pressure he feels to -- much like Clapton -- compete with gilded memories of his younger, sprier self, Van Halen won't even wait for the question to end: "I don't think about it. I started playing guitar out of default. So it's funny when people go, 'guitar hero.' I'm like, 'What is that? I'm just a musician.' "

And one who is loath to regurgitate the past.
"I look at Van Halen as a big oak tree that was planted back in '74 or '75, when we were playing small clubs, and that has branched out since then," Van Halen says. "When that tree stops growing, it dies. That's not going to happen with us."

Van Halen performs Wednesday, May 13, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Kenny Wayne Shepherd opens. Tickets are $25 to $45. For info, call 629-3700.

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