Eddie Van Halen's son looks like Peppermint Patty. There's no getting around it. I wish things could be different. As do, presumably, fans of Van Halen. In late September, the long-beleaguered pop-metal behemoth disembalmed original singer David Lee Roth for what is surely the Chinese Democracy of reunion tours, a long-threatened and oft-aborted rehash of those early-'80s glory years, before jovial, tequila-hawking asshat Sammy Hagar took over and turned the band into wusstastic chart-toppers. The Rothian diehards are (cautiously) elated. But the thorn on this particular rose lies in the absence of beloved bassist Michael Anthony, the bearlike dude with the Mickey Mouse watch collection and (lasciviously) angelic harmonies, kicked to the curb for I'm sure just totally rational reasons and replaced by . . . Eddie Van Halen's son. His name is Wolfgang. He is 16 years old. And in fascinating rehearsal pics released last week, choogling merrily behind the pleasantly emaciated Roth and his own terrifyingly emaciated father, Wolfgang looks well-fed, content, beatific—and like Peppermint Patty.
This is far from the most ludicrous and offensive bullshit reunion maneuver a rock band has ever foisted on its horrified fans. No iconic, dead front men replaced via reality show, etc. Doesn't even make the Top 20. Yet Wolfgang's promotion has the distinct, surrealist, forehead-slapping ring of Van Halen and Van Halen alone, a band that for nearly 30 years has mingled thrilling debauchery (the libidinous Roth years), wild success (Hagar's lucrative but frequently banal string of four straight No. 1 albums) and breathtaking innovation (Eddie's violent six-string virtuosity throughout). Unfortunately, just as resonant lately are the bitterly acrimonious disasters—the breakups, aborted reunions and yawning stretches of inactivity, plus a universally ignored one-album dalliance with Extreme bellower Gary Cherone—that now threaten to permanently tar the band as a dinosaur-act punch line.
It's a sordid and gripping history that Brooklyn critic, author and radio DJ Ian Christe was surprised to learn hadn't been told. So he told it himself. Everybody Wants Some, his exhaustive 300-page Van Halen biography, came out in mid-September. Perfect timing. "They returned exactly on my schedule," Christe jokes, chatting on the phone. "It was really, really considerate."
Christe found the fact that Van Halen's full story hadn't been told both surprising and deeply troubling. It suggests that people no longer care. "The memory of Van Halen, I think, is starting to fade," he notes. So Everybody Wants Some is as much a heartfelt plea as a straight historical account: Do not forget them. However sad and volatile and hapless they may appear now, they were great once—truly monolithic and influential. They've returned just in time to preserve a legacy they almost entirely wasted.
Not that they'd discuss this with Christe personally. The biographer's requests for access to all three musicians (Michael, Eddie, and Eddie's drummer brother, Alex) and all three singers (Roth, Hagar, Cherone) were either suspiciously regarded or ignored entirely. "I didn't want to spend seven years waiting for the stars to align," Christe says. "That's when I dug out the pre-existing 10,000 Van Halen interviews in the world. Pretty much, I've got a tiny Van Halen library—spindles of DVDs, just hours and hours and hours of entertainment. And I culled it from that and treated it as if I were writing a book about Thomas Jefferson, based on historical evidence." Comparing the band to Thomas Jefferson is, of course, another clue as to their current cultural standing. But Everybody Wants Some will likely raise Van Halen's profile, highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly.
Christe is especially skilled at detailing the ugly. He displays a sure hand in sketching out the band's genesis—Alex and Eddie, fresh off the boat from Holland and set loose in California, start a beer-soaked party-rock band as Eddie morphs into a mesmerizing guitar god—and delightfully recounts the sordid "three-panty operas" that typified Roth's loopy lewdness. But Christe's prose truly takes flight when Roth flames out after career apex 1984 (the one with "Jump" and "Hot for Teacher," ah) and Hagar shows up. Hagar vs. Roth is, of course, the defining, polarizing rock & roll argument; the author's allegiance is not hard to discern. It's great fun watching him barely conceal what seems to be a remarkably profound distaste for Sammy, with his propensity for corny power ballads and inelegant Cabo Wabo tequila tie-ins. "If it wasn't for my deep professionalism in all ways . . ." Christe slyly notes. "It would be really funny to come out with a book called I Hate Sammy Hagar."
You feel bad for Sammy sometimes, both in terms of this book and general public opinion, though it's hard to defend the guy when Christe can level a brutal insult merely by writing a bias-free, 100 percent factually accurate declarative sentence. ("'Up for Breakfast' was a raunchy dirt-road rocker with sexual metaphors by Sammy based around breakfast food.")
But Everybody Wants Some's final third is harsher and darker still. With the usualcaveats involved in this sort of thing—the perils of openly empathizing with multimillionaire, knucklehead rock stars who strike even their most devout fans as profoundly unpleasant people and rose to cultural infamy largely by, to quote the Dude, treating objects like women, man—it's easy to feel sorry for all these poor bastards. When Van Hagar goes irretrievably sour and the band enters a tailspin of botched reunions and rehab misadventures, Christe abandons his historical distance and turns the book into a lament, a plea: Stop fucking up and play music.
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The book's highlight is the band's nadir: a blow-by-blow account of the atrocious debacle that was Van Halen's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction back in March. The boys couldn't get it together enough to appear onstage together: Eddie wound up in rehab again, and only Sammy and Michael showed up to accept the award, jamming onstage with Paul fucking Schaffer and leaving the Roth-era tribute to the helpless, atonal Velvet Revolver. It was devastating. "Yeah, that was a disaster," Christe concurs. "It was so sad. I kept expecting Roth to come jumping out of the wings. That's a perfect example of how the absence has just hurt them so much."
Who's the ray of hope here? Wolfgang. Christe sees a poignancy in Van Halen's resurrection involving a teenager, someone to represent both the childlike glee of original fans and the new generation that has yet to discover the band's majesty, but he needs to learn. When the tour hits, Christe will be there. Michael will not, but it could've been worse. It often has been. Let's hope this won't totally suck.
"A lot of people feel thwarted, I think, because you want it to be this 'Spirit of '84' event," Christe says. "It's gonna be its own thing. We'll know [soon] if Father knows best."
VAN HALEN PERFORM AT HONDA CENTER, 2695 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 704-2500; WWW.HONDACENTER.COM. DEC. 18 & 20, 7:30 P.M. $49.50-$149.50; IAN CHRISTE BLOGS ABOUT HEAVY METAL AT WWW.BANGBANGBLOG.INFO.