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Van Halen Has Survived The Years And Does Just What It Wants To Do

Van Halen’s guitar player Eddie Van Halen has at least two stories he uses to explain why he cut his hair.

In one, he’s up drinking all night - one of his last drunks, he says - with Aerosmith’s manager, grieving the death of Ed Leffler, who had managed Van Halen almost since its inception.

In the other, he loses a golf bet to Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who wins the privilege of shaving the famed Van Halen tresses.

Which is true? Either? Neither? Both?

Bottom line, he says, “I just decided to leave it short, ‘cause I was sick of having long hair.”

In the private world of Eddie Van Halen, a story’s veracity doesn’t matter much, for reality is as reality does. With his bandmates, Van Halen has created a self-defined world.

Remember, this is the band that once demanded its dressing rooms be stocked with M&Ms;, but only after the brown ones were removed.

In 1978, when the debut album, “Van Halen,” was released, Van Halen looked like just another tousle-haired Los Angeles hard-rock band. But Van Halen had a secret weapon - Eddie Van Halen’s guitar.

A devotee of Eric Clapton, Van Halen elevated the art of hard-rock guitar at a time when everyone else was into cloning it. The classically trained scion of a musical family, he developed a style that artfully blended subtlety with bombast, and his unique “hammer on” technique was the first real rock-guitar innovation since Hendrix revolutionized everything. Over the past 25 years, Van Halen has been hard-rock’s reigning guitarist and as his style has matured in the past decade, he has become even more interesting.

Van Halen isn’t a one-act play, though. Older brother Alex is a tremendous rock drummer, with a terrific feel and a huge range of textures at his fingertips. A distinguishing feature of Van Halen’s music is the unlikely guitar-drums dialogue of the two brothers, who have played together since grade school. Michael Anthony’s fluid bass is, in fact, the third leg of a powerful rhythm section.

Sammy Hagar is the singer who had the unenviable task of replacing the flamboyant David Lee Roth when Roth departed in 1985. It was a gamble on both sides - Hagar had a successful solo career going when he got the call - but the union was instantly fruitful. The band never lost a beat - in fact, the group’s first record with Hagar, “5150,” was also its first No. 1 album - and while Roth has faded into the hard-rock past, Van Halen continues to build steam.

“Balance,” Van Halen’s 11th release, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts earlier this year, even though hardrock has, by and large, given way to dance and alternative.

But since releasing its debut album in 1978, the group has weathered a flood of pop-music fads. Even its least successful records sell a couple million copies.

“We’ve always just been ourselves when it comes to making music and playing live,” says bass player Michael Anthony. “We don’t hop on any trends or what’s going on, as far as, like, grunge or whatever’s happening now … we’ve always made the kind of music we like.”

Van Halen has survived the loss of its original singer and survived Eddie Van Halen’s alcoholism. It’s survived silly songs and even Eddie Van Halen’s celebrity marriage to actress Valerie Bertinelli.

Now, free to do as it chooses, Van Halen chooses to do the one thing each member insists he loves best - play rock ‘n’ roll.

“We love touring,” Anthony said, “and once you go home, it doesn’t take too long before you want to go out there again.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: VAN HALEN Location and time: The Gorge, Saturday, 7 p.m. Tickets: Sold out

This sidebar appeared with the story: VAN HALEN Location and time: The Gorge, Saturday, 7 p.m. Tickets: Sold out

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