‘Soul mates” and “long-lost brothers.” That’s how Eddie Van Halen describes himself and Gary Cherone, the new singer in the hard-rock band Van Halen. Cherone follows Sammy Hagar and David Lee Roth in that coveted role and Eddie says this will be the last, and hopefully the best, incarnation of the 20-year-old group.
“With Gary, it’s a whole new thing. It’s wide open and there’s no attitude,” says Eddie. “If Gary ever develops LSD - lead singer disease - then I’m going to dive into the cello, pick up the tuba, and the heck with rock ‘n’ roll.”
For Cherone, who last fronted the Boston band Extreme, it’s a dream come true. “I think it was the second day that Eddie and I were together, we were at the piano and he goes, ‘I haven’t talked to the guys yet, but do you want to be in the band?’ Obviously, I didn’t have to think about it. I was blown away.”
The chemistry was immediate between Eddie, the guitar-hero leader of the group, and Cherone, known for his ability to craft lyrics, dating back to Extreme’s Top 20 hits, “More than Words” and “Hole-Hearted,” in the early ‘90s.
Within 45 minutes of meeting each other at the urging of Van Halen manager Ray Daniels, Cherone and Eddie started writing “Without You.” It’s the new Van Halen single (which is about brotherhood) and is on the band’s new CD, “Van Halen III,” due March 17.
“It was memorable,” Cherone says of that first meeting in Los Angeles. “Eddie was in the can, he heard Alex play a beat, and then he came up with the first verse. I went back and finished some of it, then Eddie wrote the chorus. Then we really started to settle in. I would hand him lyrics before he would hand me music. That’s the first time that’s ever happened with him.”
Says Eddie: “I’m 43 now and have been making music since I was 6, when I started playing piano. Never, ever have lyrics inspired me to write music, until now. It was a wonderful collaboration - and so different from my old philosophy, which was to have a melody and then try to fit a lyric over it, then figure out how to edit it for radio.”
The new “Van Halen III” album will surprise many fans who view the group as “America’s premier party band,” to quote Eddie. The familiar guitar flash is still there, and so is the unsurpassed rhythm pyrotechnics of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony. But there’s now more meaning to the songs, courtesy of Cherone.
Cherone adds a deft theatrical touch in the love song “From Afar,” showing the effects of starring in a Boston Rock Opera production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1996, as well as his childhood love of Alice Cooper. Cherone later displays a stream-of-consciousness flair in “One I Want” and even adapts a Malcolm X protest speech in “Ballot or the Bullet,” though without any soapbox intent. “I got some CDs and tape recordings of his speeches and really enjoyed the history of it,” he says.
“Gary’s lyrics tell a story,” Eddie notes from his Los Angeles home, where Cherone now lives in a guesthouse on the property. “His lyrics are not all about female body parts. And there’s a sense of humor, like the song ‘Dirty Water Dog.’ Everything’s not blatantly in your face, so there’s room for your imagination.
“A lot of people, because of our past, will think some of these lyrics are pretentious,” adds Eddie. “But they’re not. Every damn thing on this record is for real and from the heart. There’s not a contrived note or lyric on it. It’s based on personal experiences, or other people’s experiences.”
Eddie’s fondness for Cherone doesn’t stop there - and is light-years away from the bogus reports that there is any kind of rift between the two men.
“I think Gary is a brilliant singer, a great guy, and a hell of a performer,” says Eddie. “We got a hint of that when we did the video for ‘Without You.’ He and I were like an atom bomb exploding. It was so much fun. I can’t wait to get it out for real onstage.”
The two new “soul mates” will get a chance to do that when Van Halen opens a tour in New Zealand in mid-April, followed by U.S. dates in May. And don’t expect to hear only new songs on the set list. Cherone says that one-third of the show will be Roth-era tunes, one-third from the Hagar period, and one-third new.
“I told the band from the get-go that I didn’t have any problem doing the older stuff,” says Cherone, who, unlike Hagar, is not at odds with Roth. “It just seemed that if I was going to be part of the band, I was certainly not going to ignore the past. And they said, ‘Well, we haven’t done some of these songs in years, so you pick ‘em.’ So I pretty much got a group of songs from all the records. And I picked some odd songs and some die-hard Van Halen fan songs, and not necessarily the obvious ones.” (Among his choices: “I’m the One” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.”)
“But I stayed away from the real Dave stamp songs, like ‘Hot for Teacher,’ and Sammy stamp songs, like ‘Finish What I Started.’ I wouldn’t know how to approach ‘Hot for Teacher,’ because that’s Dave doing his shtick, his talk stuff. And to me, most of the Sammy stuff was obscure, so I’m just picking what I know and what I can sing, because he has a … higher voice than me.”
Cherone, however, realizes he’s in a tough situation, regardless. “Being the new guy, if I sound like old Van Halen, there will be people who will hate me because I sound like old Van Halen. And if I don’t sound like old Van Halen, there will be people who hate me because I don’t sound like that.”
The solution is simply to proceed with nerves of steel. “I’m not nervous at all,” says Cherone, a chameleon who can adapt to just about any hard-rock genre, yet also bring an emotional freshness to it. “And I don’t pay any attention to the ambiguous remarks from Howard Stern, who called me Sammy Cherone, which I thought was kind of funny.”
Less funny are some recent quotes by Roth, who says he pities Cherone for having to sing songs made famous by his predecessors. “Roth knows who I am” is all Cherone will say. “Extreme toured with Roth, and we got along well and were fans of his. Maybe he’s just trying to sell his book.”
Actually, it’s somewhat miraculous that Cherone is even in a position to get the last laugh. He was burned out and needed throat surgery for a nodule after Extreme’s tour in 1995. A Boston doctor, Steven Zeitel, from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, did the surgery and “restored me,” says Cherone. Another help was voice teacher Mark Baxter, who has also worked with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and ex-J. Geils singer Peter Wolf.
“I feel my voice is stronger than ever,” says Cherone.
He’ll get no argument from Eddie, who has embarked on his own self-improvement campaign in the past few years by giving up drinking and by applying himself even more diligently in the studio.