Being a fan is sometimes like being in a relationship. There are bands who are like the person you'll be married to for 50 years; they just stick with you no matter what. Other artists are like one-night stands, with one good record or song and nothing else to offer. Then there are those affairs that burn bright and intense, and may last quite awhile, but are ultimately doomed to fail.
So it went with Van Halen and I. In 1996 I bought Best Of Volume 1, and fell in love. Not only did the music appeal to me, but this was probably the most interesting time in the band's already interesting history.
In brief: The group started in 1978, with David Lee Roth on lead vocals. That lineup made 6 albums together, including the classic self-titled debut and the commercial blockbuster 1984 (which featured Jump, Hot For Teacher, etc.). Then in 1985, Roth bailed on the band, and they decided to soldier on with a new vocalist, the Red Rocker, Sammy Hagar.
Improbably they got even more popular, scoring hits like Why Can't This Be Love, When It's Love, Right Now, Can't Stop Lovin' You in the course of four more albums (from 1986 to 1995). Then, they decided to put out the aforementioned hits album. There were two very different sides to the story, but apparently Sammy thought that putting out a greatest hits is a sure sign an artist is past his or her prime (nevermind that he'd put out one of his solo hits).
The band said, screw you, we're getting David Lee Roth to come back. They did, recorded two new songs, and then appeared on MTV as a "reunited" band. But wait, in classic fashion, things soon fell apart again! The Van Halens began saying that they never intended the classic line-up to be permanently back together, and Roth said they were full of shit.
Having burned both of their bridges, the band decided it'd have to just find itself a third singer. In came ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone, and Van Halen, Mach III was born.
I followed this whole saga very closely around the time ('96 - '98), pouring over Guitar World magazine articles, visiting the band's website daily, and getting very hyped for the new record they would put out. Yes, in a relationship you do foolish things. Though I bore no ill will toward Sammy (and I still love his first post-VH album, Marching To Mars), I fully believed that since the band had survived losing one singer, it could surely survive two!
Now I cannot own up to total blindness. The fact that it was Cherone on the vocals gave reason for hope, afterall aren't More Than Words and Hole-Hearted great songs? And all these articles featured Eddie Van Halen touting Gary's lyrical prowess and calling him a second brother.
The week before the album came out, I got wind that the first single "Without You" was going to debut on radio. I taped it and listened to it obsessively. It sounded a little weird, but I blamed frequency problems, and my hopes were not diminished. I bought the album the day it came out and sat down with the lyrics sheet and just did nothing but listen.
I listened to the album a lot that first couple of months, and even went to Chicago to see the band in concert. With hindsight, it's obvious that I was in denial, but the record was simply not up to par with other Van Halen efforts, nor efforts by any other band you can name.
The problem begins and ends with Gary Cherone. Where, I ask, did the sweet vocalist of More Than Words go? In his place is a guy who sounds at every second like he's going to go out of key, and that his vocal cords are ripping in the process. Dave, of course, had a great high register, and Sammy had a rasp, but he could be smooth too (like on Never Enough from Balance). And those lyrics that Eddie thought were so deep? Try "fatman, he ordering seconds / pizzaman, just wanna slice / badman, looking for attention / a goodman, he's hard to find" from One I Want. And that's actually one of the better ones.
It doesn't help that Eddie, Michael and Alex turn in some of the least pop-oriented music since their fourth album, Fair Warning. From Afar sounds downright experimental at times. But it's interesting to sit and listen to the music and attempt to ignore the vocals. There's some really good musical backbone here, and one can't help but wonder what pop sweetness Sammy might have added, or what crazy screams and esoteric lyrics Dave might have come up with.
I'll admit, all is not lost on this album. Dirty Water Dog is actually a really cool tune, Once could be a Police outtake, and Josephina is a kind ode to a grandmother.
But in the end it's all just overserious, overearnest, and overstuffed (no song is shorter than 5 minutes). The band's stunning album-long lack of judgment comes to a stupefying climax on How Many Say I. This is a piano ballad with completely banal lyrics, and features Eddie singing (croaking is a more accurate description). When they did this live, I actually heard some laughs.
Once the world tour was over, the band knew it had made a mistake. Cherone exited the group, leaving this album (and the tour) a complete curiosity in their history.
What one desperately hopes is that it doesn't represent the end. Since '99 there have been about two-thousand rumors that either Sammy or Dave is back recording with the group. They have confirmed that they attempted it with Roth, but the latest has the Hagar back in the fold.
That would be really cool. I don't listen to Van Halen much at all anymore. In fact, I probably wear my concert T-Shirt more often than I take their CDs off the shelf. But like an old girlfriend, I still think of them fondly, and like to daydream about them making a dramatic return. Caution be damned, I'll be there when they do.
Fave Song: Dirty Water Dog