“Damn, these things are killing me!” Sammy Hagar pulls off some stiff-looking boots and repairs to the sidelines with his new girlfriend and her tiny rat terrier, who is serving as the butt of several jokes from the crew of Van Halen’s new album, “Balance,” due today on Warner Bros.
It’s just another day at the office for the family business at a surprisingly businesslike shoot in Hollywood, where the foursome are preparing their first new studio effort since ‘91’s chart-topping, multiplatinum “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.”
A lot has gone down over the past four years for the group, which hasn’t really had to struggle since being signed by Warner Bros. almost two decades ago. With the exception of their controversial replacement of flamboyant lead singer David Lee Roth by journeyman Hagar in 1985 after their most successful album to that point, “1984,” it’s all been smooth sailing. In a tribute to the way the band has outlasted all manners of pop trends to create a niche of their own, the Hagar vs. Roth questions have finally died down after four straight two-million-plus sellers in ‘86’s “5150,” ‘88’s “OU812,” “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” and ‘93’s two-disc live set, “Right Here Right Now.”
In October 1993, though, Van Halen’s fiercely protective and loyal manager, Ed Leffler, passed away from thyroid cancer. It threw the band into a serious state of selfexamination, forcing them to take responsibility for many of the business dealings Leffler took care of behind the scenes.
“He was like a father to us, a fifth member,” says an uncharacteristically somber Hager in an empty dressing room. “When he died, the thing that went through my mind was how vulnerable we really were because we trusted this man so much. And he made it so we didn’t have to think about certain things. He kept the vultures, the wolves and the thieves away so we were free to just have fun, fun, fun. The only responsibility we had was to make a good record.”
That all changed with Leffler’s death and the band’s subsequent hiring of longtime Rush manager Ray Danniels, who just happened to be Alex Van Halen’s brother-in-law.
“Everybody just withdrew into their own worlds,” acknowledges bassist Michael Anthony. “It took some time to deal with our own feelings. When the four of us finally got back together to hang out and start playing together, it just seemed like it was going to be a lot more special.”
“We had to tighten our belts and rise to the occasion,” nods Hagar. “We didn’t hire another manager for close to a year. We has some pretty strict rules. We weren’t going to take a manager with seven other acts. We needed someone with a pretty clean track record, too. Until we found the right person, we did everything by ourselves. Which made us more serious, in a funny way.”
That maturity is apparent all over “Balance.” Musically, it comes through on the Big Country/U2 anthemic guitar fury of “Seventh Seal,” the keyboard parts and Queen-like harmonies of “Not Enough,” the acoustic country blues of “Take Me Back,” and the Zepic scope of “Feelin’.”
Lyrically, one hears the yearning for a transcendent spiritual power in “Don’t Tell Me,” in which Hagar sings of being “saved by a higher voice,” and a fascination with the “mystery of creation … something you can feel/but can’t explain,” in “Take Me Back.”
And while their reputation as the ultimate party band is maintained with tunes like “Big Fat Money,” their raucous speed-punk homage to the Berry Gordy original, “Money,” Van Halen has grown up.
“There was a real reason to get together this time,” says Hagar. “You don’t go back to being a perpetual adolescent until the tour starts anyway.
“In some ways, this is just another record for us, but a new Van Halen album is like an extension of what we’ve been going through. If we’re more mature now, it’s because a lot of heavy things came down on us over the last few years.”
Of course, in the wake of new hard rock goliaths like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden, and the emergence of grunge, it’s reasonable to ask if Van Halen will profit from this new interest in the hard stuff … or go the way of such fading contemporaries as Motley Crue, Poison and Whitesnake.
“A good song is a good song,” says drummer Alex Van Halen, who started the band with his brother Eddie, and Anthony and Roth back in 1974, paying their dues on the mid’70s Los Angeles rock circuit.
“We just do our thing and that’s it,” insists Eddie. “I don’t think there was ever a climate for anything.
“We got signed during punk and disco. Now it’s rap and grunge. What’s the difference? We’re not part of any trend. We make music.”
That’s one thing you have to say about Van Halen’s longevity: It hasn’t come as a result of hopping on any musical bandwagon. The only concession to current styles in the band are Eddie Van Halen’s new short-cropped, moussed ‘do and slacker goatee.
“Balance” is a good description of what Van Halen has achieved as a band over the past two decades. While both Van Halens are family men and currently on the wagon, Hagar and Anthony are fun-loving outdoor types who enjoy flying down to their Cabo Wabo Cantina in Mexico at a moment’s notice for some impromptu rockin’ and rollin’.
On the new album, the band members are coming out from behind their often tongue-in-cheek guises to confront their own mortality and what’s really important to them.
“The balance in this band is that Ed and I are influenced by the music itself … without any words on it,” explains Alex. “For the last 18 years, I didn’t even know the words to the songs until the tour was over. Just kidding.”
“If the music doesn’t move us first,” echoes Eddie, “then we don’t do anything.”
The band will kick off another mammoth world tour starting March 11 in Pensacola, Fla., and will go straight through to the end of the year.
With growing family responsibilities, the Van Halen brothers admit sometimes they are torn, but the road keeps calling.
“My wife knew what she was getting into when we got married,” explains Alex. “Because Ed and I grew up in an environment where our father was a musician who was always on tour, that’s how we lived.
“It’s normal to us. Of course, when you’re staring at the same four walls and getting tired of seeing CNN Headline News for the 55th straight time, you kinda go, ‘Y’know … I could be somewhere else.’ But that’s part of the give-and-take. It’s work.”
“There are a lot of kicks in life, but the two-and-a-half hours on stage … that’s where it all starts,” says Eddie. “That’s more fun than making a record, shooting a video - anything.”
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