The first time I saw Van Halen perform live, the band was colloquially known as Van Hagar. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony had just reunited with their second frontman Sammy Hagar to promote a greatest-hits package titled Best of Both Worlds; I bought floor seats about ten rows back from the Meadowlands stage and in a direct line of sight of Eddie’s quicksilver fingers from a guy with connections. Having been a Van Hagar fan for quite some time, that night was a thrilling culmination to all those adolescent years spent in my bedroom air guitaring, air drumming, and (yes) air bassing. I commemorated the evening by buying a bootleg t-shirt in the parking lot.
Eight years later, I stood in Madison Square Garden for yet another Van Halen live performance, except this time, the once even-more-estranged frontman David Lee Roth was handling vocal duties. The foursome, experts on the art of Reunion, were back together in support of an album of new (well, sort of) material titled A Different Kind of Truth. As anyone who is still paying attention to the band will admit, it’s a return to form, bluesy and bombastic, debauched and lecherous, vintage sounding and also hopelessly dated. New songs like “She’s The Woman” and “Tattoo” fit seamlessly into the set list, which featured staples like “You Really Got Me,” “Jump,” and “Dance the Night Away.” Rock and roll, mission accomplished.
But while I had a drunkenly exceptional time, thanks in part to the Garden’s newly instituted 1:1 bartender-to-ticketholder ratio, during Roth’s improvised “Panama” banter, I realized something that I had always suspected, but never felt truly comfortable saying aloud.
I’m just more of a Van Hagar guy.
As far as most people are concerned—and by most, I mean, America—Van Hagar does not hold up to Van Halen, both in terms of awesomeness and in terms of more awesomeness. I can understand this preference. I’ve read Roth’s autobiography; he’s undoubtedly a Rock Star, and at 56 years old he is very much the formidable frontman. Still running with the devil, albeit a little more out of breath. At Thursday’s show he did his little shimmy, channeled MJ for a signature take on the Moonwalk, and came out during “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love” with a baton that even got a couple of twirls.
It was hard to tell the exact condition of Roth’s voice with Alex’s thunderous drums, and Eddie’s Zeusian guitar also competing for the soundboard, but he thrived throughout the two-hour set. He smiled maniacally, did some disjointed meandering, and took Madison Square Garden back to 1985 like it was a hot arena time machine. Still despite all of his charisma, Roth’s persona can occasionally translate as a touch “showbiz,” almost Vegas-like, and at times, he reminded me of the Catskills, one “ha-cha-cha-cha” away from being Jimmy Durante.
At the Meadowlands in 2004, though, Sammy Hagar was anything but Vegas. He was more Cabo, his curly blonde hair in a perpetual state of bounce. He ran back and forth, and from side to side, even charging into the crowd via a plank overhead and showing the crowd his sneaker soles. (They were red and black, just like Eddie’s signature guitar.)
Hagar is also seven years older than Roth, which means in 2004, when Hagar was giving 110% to the audience, he was the same age as Roth, who is giving it about 87%, is now. But unbridled effort is not reason enough for this personal preference. There has to be more justification for being in this closeted minority.
My experience with Van Halen started with “When It’s Love” from OU812, and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was the first cassette (cassette!) I bought with my own money. But there’s more to it than this iteration just being first: As a teenaged boy struggling with his identity and how to interact with girls, Roth was not relatable. Sleazy, leering, and almost, on rare occasion, a touch too pedophilic (“Ice Cream Man”?), his bombastic energy felt like an over-compensation and thus, embarrassing. Like your drunk uncle at a Bar Mitzvah. Hagar, on the other hand, resonated with me in a way that translated into the language of emotion. Sure, there were your black and blues, your poundcakes, even your, um, ins and outs, but while Roth spent his career with Van Halen proclaiming that he wasn’t talkin’ about love, Hagar was asking why something couldn’t be love and when it is love, or to offer it a seat when love came walking in. The former encouraged the lothario; the latter inspired the Romeo.
Hagar also sang about dreams. I wish I could tell you that this was hyperbole, but that night at the Meadowlands, when he sang “we belong in a world that must be strong,” I wanted to live in that world with him; maybe not in the same house, but at least as his next-door neighbor. My older and more cynical self was chipped away, and the underneath revealed a moment of pure homesickness for that bedroom I once plastered with Rush posters.
And right before that July night’s encore, the band performed “Right Now,” a dramatic anthem with just the right amount of self-important seriousness. In retrospect, that may have been a highlight of my year. I felt possessed by my barely pubescent self and heard “Right Now” as a profoundly motivational song. If I had played varsity sports—which I couldn’t, because I was what my parents called “artistic”—this was the song I would have cranked out of my Walkman before every game; instead, I played “Right Now” on my stereo before calling a girl I liked on the phone, to muster the courage for making small talk. (“Catch a magic moment, do it right here and now!”) Sammy Hagar was a singer, party guy, and maker of tequila to most, but to me, he was a motivational speaker.
At the Garden last week, I sat next to an overtly enthusiastic fan that sang along to every word; at one point, he even sang along to a guitar solo, which was impressive in an America’s Got Talent kind of way. Midway through the set, when Van Halen broke out into a hard-driving song I wasn’t so familiar with, I turned to him and presumed aloud that it must have been new.
I was wrong, and he made sure that I understood just how wrong I was with a look that he probably calls his drinking orange juice after brushing his teeth-face. The performance, he told me, was actually of “The Full Bug,” from 1982’s uneven Diver Down. It hadn’t been played live since a 1983 tour (so while I was wrong, I wasn’t, like, too wrong). And after talking to him in between songs, he revealed to me that he had seen Van Halen twenty times.
I asked him if he had even seen them play live when Gary Cherone, the frontman of the funk-pop-metal outfit Extreme, took over duties as the lead singer for the Van Halen III period?
He said that he had. And according to him, it was cool all the same.
And then I realized during “Everybody Wants Some!!!” that someone out there had probably never heard of Van Halen before picking up the album that featured Cherone on vocals, and it’s possible that, as far as they were concerned, Van Cherone was also the best reiteration of the ban. Because this was their induction into the Van Halen legacy, and thus a personal connection.
And no matter how wrong that is to me—and it’s very, very, very wrong to me—it’s still it’s right to them. Because who am I to judge? After all, I’m the guy who just told you he preferred Van Hagar.