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Steady Eddie

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

It's after 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, Houston time, when Eddie Van Halen calls for a thrice-scheduled interview. But the guitar virtuoso of the storied band that bears his name isn't phoning from some whiskey-besotted post-gig soiree. He's dialing from a hotel room in Australia, where it's actually late Tuesday afternoon and only a few hours before curtain call.

"Sorry about the mix-up with the time, it's like a twilight zone here," he says in a rapid-fire voice most would associate with too much caffeine, nicotine or nervous energy. "Hey, hold on a second while I sign for this room service."

Yesterday, it was Scotland. Today, Australia. And soon, it will be Houston, where the band opens its American tour in support of the recently released Van Halen III, the first VH outing featuring former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. Cherone's live debut in itself would be enough to stir interest, but the veteran group (which still includes bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen) is also out to prove that Van Halen is still vital, more than 20 years down the line.

"We've only got seven shows under our belt, and everyone, including my wife [actress Valerie Bertinelli], is saying that it seems like we've been together for years. It fits like a glove, and it feels like family," Van Halen spews. "Gary has the same passion for music that I do, and there's no bullshit, no attitude and no ego. I saw a long-lost brother. I mean, he looks more like Alex than I do. And who knows? My father was a traveling musician."

Lest you think this ardent affection is contrived, consider that Cherone's permanent home address is now the guest house on Eddie's property. (Rest assured, though, that Cherone's got a bit more talent than Kato Kaelin.)

As for this round of live shows, expect plenty of material from III. But that doesn't mean Cherone hasn't been willing and eager to tackle older VH material. "We just did 'Dance the Night Away' for the first time the other night, and it went great," says Van Halen. "He wanted to do 'I'm the One,' off the first record, and I had to go back and learn the part, because we hadn't played it in 20 years."

Cherone's addition has worked in the group's favor in other ways, as well. While making III, Eddie says, he found himself writing music in a different fashion than for any other VH release: "Never have lyrics inspired me before, and half this record, I wrote the music just by looking at Gary's words."

The guitarist also makes an unintentional singing debut after 20 years on "How Many Say I," sounding like a fragile Roger Waters on what was originally only a demo for Cherone to rerecord.

"We haven't performed it live yet, because I didn't want to bring my Steinway piano all the way over here, so Houston will be the first night that I sing it," he chuckles. "I hope I don't screw up."

The oft-told Van Halen story begins in Holland, where Eddie and older brother Alex lived before moving to Pasadena, California, in 1968; the first four English words Eddie learned, incidentally, were "yes," "no," "motorcycle" and "accident." Trained in classical music, the siblings VH quickly settled into rock and roll, though with Eddie on drums at first. ("The Dave Clark Five made me want to play drums," he recalls.) When Alex proved more competent behind the set, Eddie got a cheap Marshall amplifier, a Les Paul guitar and all the Cream releases he could get his hands on. He tackled his first Cream tunes at a meticulously slow pace, painfully trying to emulate Clapton's riffs. Anthony and David Lee Roth, meanwhile, were playing in rival bands before the four eventually gravitated toward each other in the mid-'70s.

Initially, their distinctive hard-rock sound -- along with Eddie's hammer-on fret work and Roth's showy stage presence -- led to a series of packed club dates. Gene Simmons of KISS heard about the group and helped finance a demo tape, talking them up to Warner Bros., which released the group's self-titled debut in 1978. Then, in reasonably quick succession, came Van Halen II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning and Diver Down, all of which quickly became required listening for back-of-the-bus stoner bull sessions. Simply put, VH were the ultimate '80s hard-rock party band. Inevitable mainstream success came with 1984, which yielded the number one hit "Jump." While older fans bemoaned the increasing use of synthesizers and inescapable video mugging on MTV, Van Halen was now being piped into suburban living rooms across the country.

Some time after 1984 cooled, in one of the most stunningly bonehead career moves in rock history, Roth quit the band, mistaking the size of his ego and a pair of novelty hits for a measure of his talent. Most acts never recover from the departure of their lead singer, but VH proved the exception, hiring ex-Montrose vocalist/solo artist Sammy Hagar. A more gifted singer than Roth (though far less visually exciting), Hagar also brought an extra pair of guitar hands to the party. Van Halen's successes continued with 5150, OU812 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Somewhat disturbingly, the hits from those releases tilted toward power ballads and less fierce material ("When It's Love," "Right Now," "Dreams," "Why Can't This Be Love?"). Three years ago, Balance found the group at a contemplative crossroads: Hagar -- who was either fired or quit, depending on who you ask -- exited the following year, just before the founding three's unlikely reunion with Roth to record two new tracks for a greatest-hits package. When the foursome appeared together on the MTV Video Awards, it looked as if the original lineup might be back together again. But Roth, newly reacquainted with the spotlight, proved an embarrassment, blabbering out of control before the cameras.

"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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