Where Have All the Good Tunes Gone?

It's not easy being David Lee Roth. Notwithstanding his renewed TV ubiquity (via the canny use of "You Really Got Me" in that GI-Joe-in-a-Nissan ad), life for the former Van Halen frontman has not been kind lately. First, having shed another lead singer, his old band plucked Dave out of his career purgatory for a sudden Van Halen reunion gig, recording a pair of new tunes for a best-of collection, and heartening a generation of fans waiting out the long national nightmare that was Sammy Hagar. Then, just as suddenly, he's out on his ass again. No reunion tour, no new album, no "Dave TV," no nothing.

For those not following this ongoing minidrama, Roth made a single appearance with the band at the MTV Music Awards, ostensibly to drum up publicity for Best of Volume 1, the first Van Halen greatest-hits collection. Apparently, Diamond Dave's gape-mouthed mugging, infuriating backstage antics, and general high spirits were enough to remind guitarist Eddie Van Halen and the rest of the band that yes, this guy is still sort of an asshole. All reunion talk was dropped, and the band started auditioning for Lead Singer #3, leaving Roth fuming to anyone who will listen that he was used and abused by the remorseless Van Halen machine. Meanwhile a fiftyish Sammy Hagar, ousted after ten years on the job, readies a solo album and plots his own vengeance.

As the folks at Warner Bros. say, Van Halen is "in the midst of a major transitional phase." Whatever the spin, it's an ugly if unremarkable little dustup, not dissimilar to the brouhaha that surrounded Roth's ill-advised departure a decade ago. What is remarkable is that, eighteen years after their 1978 debut, the band and its fate remain important enough to warrant public concern. The metal bands they spawned may be long gone, but Van Halen still matters, in some obscure way that goes beyond a historical interest in Eddie's epochal guitar or a high school nostalgia for their top-down anthems. Best of Volume 1 doesn't really answer the question of why they still matter, but it does provide a few clues.

Best of divides its time somewhat evenly between the two poles of Van Halen's existence, the Dave Years ('78 to '85) and the Sammy Years ('86 to '96). Critics and fans with too much time on their hands will forever debate the relative merits of Dave vs. Sammy, but the sudden shift of singer at track nine should, if nothing else, settle the issue at last. Listen: The Dave half rocks; the Sammy half doesn't. The reasons for that may well go beyond Dave and Sammy, but there it is.

Certainly the fact that the band was cranking on all cylinders in its hungry youth helps Dave's odds here; while Roth was onboard, Van Halen cut six albums in six years. Post-Dave, a statelier Van Hagar could manage only four in a decade, plus a live album. (Lack of a proper Van Halen-esque work ethic, in fact, has been cited as a factor in Sammy's dismissal.)

But the numbers don't reveal everything. Something happened when Diamond Dave took off for palookaville. Van Halen lost the swagger in its step, that teenage beer buzz that bubbled underneath the drop-dead cool guitar solos and the keening dive-bomber choruses. The instrumental virtuosity was still there, of course, and Eddie's growing musicality gave the band a lucrative second life pumping out the sort of skilled pop rock that sounded perfect in Air Force commercials and movie soundtracks. The party, however, was over.

Maybe that's what makes Best of such a frustrating listen. Beginning with the obligatory "Eruption," a minute and a half of pick slides, hammer-ons, and high-velocity guitar tomfoolery that literally changed the way the instrument would be played, the retrospective makes its way briskly though the first six albums. No surprises here, except by omission -- you got your "Runnin' With the Devil," "Unchained," et al., crisply remastered and ready for the next beer blast in your parents' rec room. This stuff has aged well, in part because of its almost punkish concision. Van Halen may be charged with having changed heavy metal forever, but they didn't really play it. A savage riff or two, a couple of chords, a galloping rhythm section, and then off to the races. No power ballads, few overdubs, and it's all over in three minutes. From the lean two-chord snap of "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" to the near-perfect pop craft of "Dance the Night Away," Van Halen was a rare mix of virtuosity and restraint; Eddie could play rings around his band -- and did -- but the tunes were rarely just platforms for his guitar fireworks.

Restraint was never a part of the David Lee Roth persona, and his good-natured gooniness has a certain charm now. It's hard not to crack a grin when he does the "have you seen Junior's grades?" bit during "And the Cradle Will Rock." Before his descent into vaudeville, the guy was a scream. As a giddy foil for silent guitar wonk Eddie, moreover, Dave was a vital element in the whole Van Halen aesthetic. This was a fourteen-year-old in a man's body, basically, getting by on nothing but hormones and enthusiasm.

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