September 1, 2010
By David Huff
Reconciliation of David Lee Roth and the Van Halen Brothers The Van Halen Saga
From Van Halen to Van Hagar: Part 1
All Photos by MIP
This is the first in a two-part series examining the make up, the break up, and all the soap opera stuff in-between surrounding the just announced reconciliation of David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers. Oh yeah, it only took a little over a quarter of a century to happen.
The news was totally unexpected. Van Halen was going to record its first studio album in 12 years. And to make it more interesting, they were going to reunite with original singer David Lee Roth. The last time these two parties hooked up was 27 years ago for the band’s breakout album, 1984. Van Halen’s break-out would eventually become an infamous break up a year later, opening the door for Sammy Hagar to rescue the day.
When the first issue of Jam Magazine hit the streets of Oklahoma City in September 1979, Van Halen’s flamboyant front man graced the cover. Inside was an exclusive interview conducted not only with Roth, but the Van Halen’s and Michael Anthony. Band members were riding high during the group’s sold-out tour to support Van Halen II with the interview reflecting that confidence. Indeed all the world was their stage, and the four musicians knew it. Five years and four albums later, Van Halen was over – at least the original version. The past three decades have seen the brothers and David Lee Roth go on a very long and winding road that rarely intersected. When the infrequent meetings took place, it usually ended in disaster. With that said, it’s time to take a stroll through the Jam archives and look at the very estranged trip of David Lee Roth and Van Halen and how, after all this time, it has finally come full circle. Van Halen’s synthesizer-laced 1984 album had reaffirmed the band’s position as the leading purveyor of pop-style, hard rock music. Powered by the singles "Panama", "I'll Wait", "Hot for Teacher" and the band’s first No. 1 single, "Jump," the group had finally attained superstar status. The resulting six-month tour, which played a number of multiple dates in cities throughout the country, was the band’s most successful ever. In the process, Eddie Van Halen had become a bonafide guitar hero and David Lee Roth, well – he was the ultimate leader of the pack.
Over the years, the words obnoxious, loud, flashy and arrogant were just a few of the terms used to describe the high flying antics of Van Halen's lead singer. The colorful front man had built quite a reputation for himself with his pompous behavior. Eddie had finally coming into his own as a guitarist, but he still toiled in the shadows of Roth’s enormous persona. The singer’s self-serving ego reached its apex December 31, 1984 with the release of his four-song LP, Crazy from the Heat.
Roth masterfully used the hot new medium of the day – music videos – to further enhance his image. The mini-disc featured a remake of the Beach Boys' classic, "California Girls" and the front man’s Al Jolson interpretation of the medley, "Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody”. The record and accompanying videos created a platinum monster.
Buoyed by this unprecedented double success, Roth decided it was time to end his ten-year association with Van Halen. After an emotional encounter with Eddie at his L.A. home in the spring of '85, the singer bid the band adieu to go California dreaming. The singer signed a development deal with Columbia Pictures to make Crazy from the Heat a movie, and Warner Bros. promptly inked the star to an exclusive recording contract.
Without the life of the party at the helm, the remnants of Van Halen were literally cast aside by their record company and, oddly enough, their fans as well. Roth had so successfully created the group in his own image, that when he left to pursue a solo career, many observers felt Van Halen was over. The void created by the front man's departure was such a concern, Warner executives even went so far as to strongly advise the brothers not to use the Van Halen name if they planned to go forward with another singer. Though the company quickly reversed its position, the message they sent was a clear one – finding a replacement for David Lee Roth was not going to be easy. The label would be watching their every move.
As the three surviving members pondered their next move, Sammy Hagar was having the time of his life. About the time Capt. Roth was marooning his shipmates on a desert island, the Red Rocker was piloting his vessel through smooth sailing waters. V.O.A. was certified platinum in the spring of ‘84, making it his third straight million-selling album for Geffen. Strong demand for tickets had already stretched the tour to eight months. Hagar was at the top of his game, and it looked like he might remain on the road for a full year. Japanese and European tours were looming on the horizon. An unfortunate accident during a May performance in Portland, Maine put an end to Hagar’s wild ride. The singer severely twisted his ankle while jumping off a trestle in the middle of his set. Though he was able to finish the remainder of the show sitting down, the injury officially ended the tour. Sammy limped home to Mill Valley emotionally and physically drained
"You know," reflected Hagar, "it seemed like every time I came home from touring, I was either injured or sick. When I got back to Mill Valley this time, I was physically washed up. Believe me, I needed a break. To be honest with you, I was growing really tired of touring and the music business as a whole. The V.O.A. tour was exceedingly long. I had pushed myself to the limit every night, and it had gotten so big, we were selling out arenas across the country. I was doing two or three nights in a city everywhere. We could have kept going for a year, if the combination of an ankle injury and physical exhaustion hadn't taken its toll on me."
For years, Hagar had managed to avoid answering a nagging question in the back of his mind. Was all the wear and tear on his body and psyche worth it? One day, Hagar while pondering the thought, he decided it was time to rebuild his foundation from scratch. The first thing to go was his long curly hair which he had a stylist lop off.
"In the past," said the 39-year old, "whatever funk I was in would usually go away after a few days of rest and relaxation. For some reason, I was really down on the music business, and it bothered me that I felt that strongly about it. I had plenty of money and was coming off the biggest record of my career, but none of that was satisfying to me. I was going through an identity crisis, and I couldn't figure out why.
"For the first time in my life, I wasn't excited about doing another record or tour. I was seriously thinking I had maybe one more album and tour in me, and that was it. Musically, I didn't know which direction to go in. At one point, 'I Can't Drive 55' became such a novelty song I wished I had never written. When it finally came time to think about another record, I was going, 'Wow, do I go in this direction, or do I try to find another clever gimmick? Shit, what am I going to do?' "
Late one afternoon in mid-June 1985, producer Ted Templeman phoned Hagar at his Mill Valley home to discuss Sammy’s options on his next record. The renowned executive, who ironically helmed the first two Van Halen albums, was putting the finishing touches on a reunited Aerosmith comeback, Done With Mirrors. The producer wanted to know when the two could begin pre-production work on the follow-up to V.O.A.
"Ted and I were talking about which engineers to use on the next record," recalled Hagar. "He wanted to know if I wanted to use the same cat as before. I told him it was fine with me and I had a couple of demos ready to send. All of a sudden Ted goes, 'I just got a call from David Lee Roth. He quit Van Halen and he's going to do an album.' His news took me by surprise. I told him that was wild and he goes, 'Yeah, man, it is over.' I asked him what he thought Van Halen might do now, but he didn't know. Ted said most of the crew and management had walked out on Eddie, Al and Mike to go with Roth. We both agreed they were screwed big time.
"After we hung up the phone, I couldn't get his comments about the Van Halen situation out of my head. Sitting in the basement alone, I kept thinking to myself, 'Hey, I am the guy for them. I am the only one that can fill Roth's shoes. He's such a heavy person with his outgoing personality and stage presence – it will be hard to replace him. Van Halen is going to have to get somebody that is known. If they don't, and they end up getting some new young chump, the band is going to die. I don't care how great a guitar player Eddie is, it just won't work. There's me, Ozzy Osbourne, and Ronnie James Dio that could do the job. But if they are smart, they're going to hit up on me.'
“Later that evening, around seven o'clock, my wife Betsy and I were sitting down to have dinner. While we were eating, I said, 'Roth has left Van Halen. Those guys are going to call me. They are going to fucking call me!' Betsy was a woman of few words, and it scared her to hear me talk like that. Again, I don't know how, and I don't know why, but my gut instincts told me those guys were going to contact me. All I could think about that evening was, 'Hey, I'm the guy for them.'"
Hagar’s instincts would prove to be dead on faster than he could imagine. Days after cutting his hair, Sammy had one of his cars, a Porsche Boxer, shipped to a Ferrari dealership in Los Angeles that did all the work on his exotic automobile collection. One day, Eddie Van Halen drove his Lamborghini to the same dealership for a routine maintenance check-up. The mechanic working on Hagar’s Porsche, Claudio Zampolli, had placed Hagar’s Porsche in a showroom until he could work on it. While the guitarist was waiting around for his car to be serviced, he wandered into the showroom and spotted Hagar’s Boxer. He asked Zampolli who the car belonged to, and the mechanic replied Sammy Hagar. As the two talked, Claudio mentioned how nice a person Hagar was and suggested he call the singer. Eddie agreed. He followed the mechanic into his office to make the now infamous phone call.
To make a long story short, Hagar met with Eddie, Alex and Michael Anthony and discovered musical magic. The Red Rocker and his manager, Ed Leffler, would come in and rebuild the Van Halen organization from the ground up. Interestingly enough, in 1986, both Van Halen and David Lee Roth would release multi-platinum albums – and begin a war of words. The subsequent tours by both acts would often find the two bands playing the same city several weeks apart.
One such incident prompted an intense showdown between David Lee Roth and yours truly after his 1986 performance in Dallas the weekend before Thanksgiving. A couple of months before Roth’s Eat ‘em and Smile tour hit the Big D, the Sammy Hagar-led Van Halen had triumphantly returned to the DFW area for a two-night, sold-out stand at the Ft. Worth Convention Center. During the show, Jam Magazine photographer and Van Halen enthusiast Mike Insuaste, threw some 4 x 6 photos of David Lee Roth on stage. The photographs had been taken a month earlier at a Roth show in Norman, Oklahoma.
Hagar looked down and saw the pictures lying in front of him. He promptly picked a couple of them up, borrowed Eddie’s ever present lighter, and burned the pictures on stage to the delight of the crowd roaring its approval. At the time, most the people in the audience, myself included, had always assumed Roth had just walked out on Van Halen to pursue a movie career. Hagar’s actions, and crowd’s response, was a subtle way of telling the singer, “Hey, Van Halen is still here despite you and your ego.”
Oddly enough, no one in the media had ever thought to ask David Lee Roth exactly what prompted his departure from Van Halen. They had assumed, Hagar included, that Roth had considered his self too big for Van Halen, and moved on. After Roth’s show at Reunion Arena, I approached him backstage as he mingled with the crowd. As Roth was signing the first issue of Jam Magazine I had with me, I told him of the picture burning incident in Ft. Worth. I also mentioned my interview and close association with Sammy Hagar, who had already told me his side of the story. Did David want the same opportunity? Without hesitation, Roth pulled me aside into a hallway, bodyguards included, and spoke – six inches from my face.
“Listen,” said Roth staring intently underneath the bill of his baseball cap, “I want to get something straight with you right here and right now. For months I kept my mouth shut about what happened between my self and Van Halen. I’m speaking to you now because I’m tired of all the crap Hagar and the brothers are saying about me in interviews and on concert stages around the country.
“First off, I’ve never said one negative thing about Van Halen in any of my shows on this tour. In fact, I have my security people go out into the arena before every one of our shows to take down any sign that has any reference to Van Halen like ‘Eddie Gives Sammy Head’, bullshit like that. I don’t want those negatives at my shows, and you will not see them there ever. Why they feel a need to say anything about me in their shows is borderline ridiculous.”
Roth says he never intended to leave Van Halen after the band completed the 1984 tour. However, some unexplained incidents occurred afterwards that created doubts in the singer’s mind he was still a member of the band.
“When I recorded that four-song EP,” asserted Roth, “everyone thought, ‘I bet Dave is going to go solo now.’ Hell, I had done that album for fun – that’s it! Sure it was nice to have two Top Ten hits, and yeah, everyone liked the videos, but that little solo project meant nothing to me. My music was always Van Halen.” The singer insists he told the band in advance of his plans to take some time off to walk across New Guinea and release a mini LP of four songs. Roth says he also told the brothers and Michael Anthony he would be at the 5150 studio on Jan. 2, 1985 to discuss the music for the band’s follow-up to 1984. Roth showed up as promised, no one else did. The final chapter to this edition of Van Halen was written at David Lee Roth’s house in an emotional meeting with Eddie.
“Eddie drove over to my house,” said Roth matter-of-factly, “and we both knew it wasn’t going to work between us anymore. It was a very emotional scene. We hugged each other and cried. We were both going our separate ways and knew it was something we just had to do. There was no fighting or bickering. It was a case where musically, we had reached an impasse with one another after ten years. We wished each other luck and that was the last time I ever heard from Eddie Van Halen.”
Roth put the word out he was putting together a band, and found the right combination of musicians to equal his formidable personality. Eat ‘em and Smile, featuring the Top Ten hit “Yankee Rose”, became another platinum success for the artist.
“When I read all those things in the press Van Halen was saying about me” replied Roth, “my mouth dropped. I couldn’t believe they were slamming me. I mean, Eddie and I had left on good terms, or so I thought. I’ve been keeping quiet about all this until finally I have had enough. That picture burning incident you told me about was it for me. I’m not going to sit back and let all this garbage be said without fighting back.” Warner Bros. Records shares part of the blame for the verbal sparring. Company executives knew there would be a battle for the heart of Van Halen pitting Hagar against David Lee Roth. Though neither performer actively sought a confrontation with the other, the press certainly did and Warner Bros. did nothing to discourage it. V.H.'s former singer had already suffered one major setback when the much ballyhooed movie project based upon Crazy from the Heat was shelved by Columbia. He wasn't about to let the same thing happen to his music career. There was too much at stake, in particular, his ego.
While Van Halen was in the studio reinventing it self, Roth went out and recruited three highly regarded musicians to support him. The singer was hell bent to prove critics right that without his flashy persona to lead the way, his former colleagues would be nothing but a shell of their former selves. The pretentious one entered the studio with none other than Ted Templeman, who had produced all of Van Halen's albums and Hagar's V.O.A. Eddie had nixed the idea of using the producer because of his association with Roth (he had produced Crazy From the Heat), in favor of engineer Donn Landee, who remained after the organizational shake-up.
As far as Sammy, Eddie, Alex and Michael were concerned, it really didn't matter who produced the new record. They were on such a natural high working with one another; music was flowing out of the 5150 studio like it never had before. For the first time in years, Van Halen was functioning as a true band with everyone having their assigned roles. Sammy wrote the lyrics and came up with bridges and melodies for the songs. Eddie wrote the music, with Alex and Michael Anthony following his lead. Within no time, Van Halen had literally created a new sound for itself.
"I didn't come into this deal with the intention of fixing it," claimed Hagar. "We became a unit because these guys had the confidence and faith to know I was not going to screw them. When Roth burned Eddie the way he did, he was hurt really bad. Roth had done Van Halen all for himself, and Eddie let it happen. I mean, look what he did. The guy spent tons of Van Halen money on press, did all the interviews, was on the cover of every magazine, and the rest of the band was nowhere to be seen. This wasn't the kind of situation the others wanted, but they were passive guys that didn't want to make waves. The only thing they were focused on was making it in this business. Letting Roth run the show, without interference, was the compromise the three of them made to get there."
Roth saw the situation in a completely different light.
"That's absolutely not true," he cried out from under the bill of his cap. "I wanted Van Halen to happen more than anything else. To say that I was the straw that broke the camel's back is totally unfair and not true. If anything, I held the band together. The brothers knew in advance I was taking some time off to do my E.P. and walk across New Guinea. I told them I'd be in the studio January 2, 1985, to discuss the music for our next album. I showed up as promised, but no one else did. Alex had just gotten married and was driving across the country with his wife. I don't know where Eddie and Michael disappeared to. We didn't get together until three weeks later, and then nothing went right.
“I never wanted to be a movie star like they said. I am an entertainer, and that's what I do. My stage is in front of thousands of people singing music, not on the screen pretending to be something I'm not. A lot of things went on behind the scenes with Van Halen people don't know about, and probably never will. But I know what happened, and so do they."
No matter what version of the truth fans chose to believe, there was one undeniable fact about Sammy Hagar. He brought a pop sensibility to Van Halen's basic heavy metal sound. It was a far cry from their past. Though they had become a widely popular touring act over the years, the band had reached a saturation point with their sound. David Lee Roth's shortfall had always been lyrics. Van Halen albums may have sold in the millions, but until 1984, the only V.H. singles to crack the Top 40 were remakes of the Kinks "You Really Got Me," Roy Orbison’s "Oh, Pretty Woman" and Martha & the Vandells’ "Dancing in the Streets."
Roth’s onstage antics and theatrics were growing tiresome while Eddie Van Halen’s soaring guitar work continued to dazzle. His outstanding playing, characterized by extended solos and his unique technique for hammering on the guitar strings with both hands, influenced a new generation of guitarists. Tunes that rock radio preferred playing, like "Ain't Talkin' ‘bout Love," "Everybody Wants Some," "And the Cradle Will Rock," "Running With the Devil" and "Unchained," were more a showcase of Eddie's enormous guitar talents than Roth's lyrical versatility. It wasn't until the release of "Jump", with its synthesizer enhanced sound, that radio as a whole truly embraced Van Halen. The love affair was due in large part to the much publicized guitar solo Eddie had done on Michael Jackson’s rpic Thriller album. Now that the guitar virtuoso was adding keyboards to his repertoire, the curiosity surrounding Van Halen increased ten-fold.
"Let me tell you something," Sammy said emphatically. "Eddie Van Halen is a musical genius. Because of that brilliance, David Lee Roth became who he was. He intentionally made a joke of Eddie's musical ability to keep the emphasis on Van Halen's image. The real problems with the band were this. Roth knew that if he didn't keep Eddie's ability covered up, sooner or later it was going to surface. That put fear into him. When Eddie Van Halen became a media star, because of the thing he did with Michael Jackson, the balance of power changed in the band. The very day he went in to cut that incredible guitar solo for 'Beat It,' his immense talent was put on display for the world to see. The spotlight was no longer on Roth after that. He had to share it with Eddie, who had a beautiful smile and was a monster guitar player capable of playing anything.
"Roth tried to keep a blanket on Eddie because of his huge talent. No one in the band knew he was doing it either. Roth's vocal range was limited. If he wasn't capable of singing something, he'd stifle it. He would say things like, 'Oh that song is shit. I'm not going to sing crap like that. Kids want to rock, bang their heads. Keep the music simple.' Eddie wrote 'Jump' three years before it appeared on their album. Since it had keyboards on it, Dave wouldn't go for it. He said, 'Hey, you're a guitar hero, you shouldn't be playing keyboards.' Finally, Eddie just said, 'Screw you; it's going on the record whether you like it or not.' The song of course, went on to become the band's first No. 1 hit. That gave Eddie the confidence to stand with Roth on equal footing."
Again, Roth begged to differ.
"Let me tell you something about that," he roared. "I wasn't the one who didn't want to do 'Jump' – try his brother Al. Yeah, that’s right bro’! Alex Van Halen swore up and down he would never play in a band that had keyboards in it. Now, will they tell you that? No! As far as domineering goes, there is a difference between suggesting and telling someone what to do. I never told Van Halen what to do. I never told my own band what to do. I suggested a lot of things for Van Halen, and if that's a crime, then I'm guilty.
"Why would I be afraid of Eddie's musical ability? Why would I want to wrap Eddie in a blanket to stifle his creativity? That's ridiculous. Just because I don't sing high like Sammy Hagar doesn't mean Van Halen's music was limited in any way. We were coming off our biggest album that included a No. 1 single. For our next album, people were expecting something a little different. I knew that. But again, what can I say, the proof is in the pudding, bro'. If I had created so much tension and turmoil, why did the Van Halen crew go with me instead of them?
“You know want to know what became a big problem with Van Halen? Everyone knew what I was doing, but nobody else knew what Eddie was up to. When I heard that guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s single, “Beat It”, I thought to myself, “Hmm. That sure does sound like Eddie playing, but no, it can’t be.’ Sure enough it was. He also wrote music for a TV movie starring his wife Valerie, and did some album work with Brian May. I never knew what Eddie Van Halen was doing nor did anyone else until someone told us. Now these guys are trying to tell people they were unaware of my solo album and it was partly responsible for the end of our music together. Unbelievable!”
Both sides would never see eye-to-eye on the subject of the break-up. Roth says the parting was amicable. Eddie saw it as anything but that. The entire matter became a moot point once Hagar entered the picture. His presence in Van Halen gave the gifted musician an instrument he wasn't used to working with – a voice. Sammy's ability to modulate his broad vocal range to compliment the sounds Eddie was creating produced unique writing situations for both artists.
"Eddie was so excited that he could play keyboards," said the Red Rocker, "his playing inspired me to write lyrics and sing around what he was doing. It wasn't my idea for it to happen that way. The thing is, I really dug the sounds he came up with. When he played the licks on his synthesizer for 'Why Can't This Be Love,' I thought to myself, 'That is a bad motherfucker!' When we started writing together, it was one of the first songs we came up with. I liked what he was playing on the synthesizer so much, I'd say, 'You let me sing like this to that.' It gave him vibes for keyboard ideas.
"Eddie liked the fact that I was totally into it. You know, it wasn't like he was going, 'I'm wanting to change.' He'd ask me, 'What do you think about this?' I'd listen to these wonderful notes he was playing and get inspired to write. Eddie and I truly stretched each other as musicians and as songwriters."
That stretch would come to a crashing halt when manager Ed Leffler unexpectedly died in October 1993. It spelled the beginning of the end for Van Hagar, and the brief reemergence of David Lee Roth.
To Be Continued...