Back to the future with the other Van Halen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So you're Alex Van Halen, you're lounging around the house and the phone rings. It's Sammy Hagar.

You know, the Sammy Hagar, the one who fronted your band for 11 years before leaving in 1996 when tensions with your brother, guitar god Eddie, became unbearable? The one who toured two years ago with David Lee Roth, the flamboyant first singer for Van Halen? The one with his own brand of tequila? Now he's on the phone, calling to chat for the first time in eight years. What do you say?

"It was like I had talked to him yesterday," Alex Van Halen says from Boston, on a tour that stops tonight at the MCI Center in Washington. "It was like we never missed a beat."

The phone conversation led to Sammy and Alex hanging out. Before long, they were jamming with Eddie, and then bassist Michael Anthony, in Van Halen's 5150 studio.

"It was a long time, not even one conversation But [then] it was good," Hagar says of seeing Eddie Van Halen face-to-face. "It was kinda like a little uncomfortable, like, 'How are you, man?' 'I'm good. A little bout with cancer.' It actually got heavy fast, got deep fast, to the point where you realize quickly that you really care about this person."

"Ed went through a very difficult time," Alex says of Eddie's treatment and recovery from tongue cancer. "It was a health scare and, believe me, as his brother who didn't know if he was going to make it through the next week, it was a very strange experience."

Well, next thing you know, they announce a summer tour with Hagar back on lead vocals - singing not only his own songs, but Roth's tunes, too, which Hagar had always been reluctant to perform.

Let's recap: Sammy Hagar, back in Van Halen, singing David Lee Roth songs.

What happened here?

"It was a mistake that we broke up," Alex Van Halen says. "We're very tight as buddies, we're good friends. It's one step away from being brothers, and you know what brothers are like. Brothers can sit there and beat the [stuffing] out of each other, and the next day, it's like it never happened."

On July 20, the band's catalog will be mined on The Best of Both Worlds, a two-disc album with 36 tracks culled from the band's different chapters - well, most of them: Van Halen III with Gary Cherone on board is not represented. The album also features Hagar singing some of the Roth-era hits live in concert, which no doubt will rankle Diamond Dave. Roth has made no secret of his thoughts on the revived "Van Hagar." Van Halen with Hagar on vocals, Roth has said, is like "a beautiful chick with bad teeth."

Hagar admits he didn't think a reunion with Van Halen was possible until he phoned their camp last fall. He had just been part of the tension-filled "Sam and Dave" tour with Roth, where both had played their versions of Van Halen hits as well as solo material. The controversial tour (which didn't have Van Halen's blessing) taught Hagar a lesson the other members of Van Halen learned years before: "I realized that you can't work with [Roth]. He's unworkable. I tried. God knows I tried."

Van Halen the band is moving ahead as though the estrangement with Hagar never happened. Not only is the singer back for this tour, the drummer says he's back for good.

"We're in this for the long haul, you know," Alex Van Halen says. "Words can't describe what it's like to make music together, and there's a special chemistry that happens between the four of us."

"This tour is like one giant celebration with all the fans that've been there forever," Hagar says. "People are really excited about this, and it makes me want to give everything that I've got."

That must come as a relief to fans who never understood why the band hired former Extreme singer Cherone to replace Hagar in the first place. And for many, the real Van Halen is the band that included Roth on vocals.

"I can't change that, and that's all right. For me, the Beatles really were with Pete Best," Alex Van Halen says, laughing. "For us, Van Halen is Sammy, Mike, Ed and me."

As for Eddie Van Halen, he's been avoiding the media, perhaps because he doesn't want to be asked about his health.

"There's a story about that, but now is not the time to talk about it," Alex Van Halen says. "We're looking forward. We're not looking back. We went through some hard times with Ed and with some other things, but we're through that. We came out the other end stronger - and let's do what we do, which is to make music."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Los Angeles Times, Allentown Morning Call and Boston Globe contributed to this article.

Van Halen

Where: MCI Center, 601 F St. N.W., Washington

When: Tonight at 7:30

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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