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Hagar Lets Van Halen Floor Pedal to the Metal

Van Halen’s decision three years ago to dump lead singer David Lee Roth in favor of Sammy Hagar was sort of like tapping Mario Andretti to replace the Little Old Lady from Pasadena.

No more false starts; no more detours. Ever since, high-velocity rock ‘n’ roll has been where it’s at for Van Halen. Their Saturday night concert at the San Diego Sports Arena will undoubtedly find thousands of local headbangers thinking to themselves something on the order of, “Better late than never.”

Better late than never, indeed. When the Pasadena quartet first approached the starting line in 1978, it was as a heavy metal muscle car, fueled by the electrifying guitar work of Eddie Van Halen and souped up with the thunderous rhythms of drummer Alex Van Halen (Eddie’s brother) and bassist Michael Anthony.

But with the sappy Roth in the driver’s seat, the desired r.p.m. was never achieved. His cloying, pretentious singing style and unctuous, look-at-me-I’m-a-sex-god image soon forced Van Halen out of the heavy metal Grand Prix and into the Top 40 rat race.

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There, the band eventually found its way into the victory circle with a string of cheesy hit singles, culminating with “Jump,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 in early 1984. Roth was happy: He had become the darling of the teeny-bop set. The three other members of Van Halen, however, were not happy: they wanted to rock ‘n’ roll, not rock ‘n’ droll.

So in 1985, Roth got the axe, and Sammy Hagar--who in the early 1970s had sung lead with heavy metal band Montrose before embarking on a moderately successful solo career--was asked to take over.

Take over he did. Unlike Roth, Hagar is a screamer rather than a whiner. His tenacious vocal vitality spurred the rest of the band to play with more fervor, more gutsiness, than ever before.

In no time at all, Van Halen realized their original desire to win the heavy metal Grand Prix. They have consistently beaten such other hard-rock outfits as Ratt, Motley Crue, and Judas Priest, both in album sales and in rock-radio airplay.

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Yet the Top 40 success they experienced with Roth has continued even without Roth: the group’s first single with Hagar, 1986’s “Why Can’t This Be Love,” went all the way to No. 3 on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”

It’s nothing new when ambulance-chasing movie producers feed the public’s morbid fascination with dead rock stars.

It seems that the method of death dictates the type of film. If the Grim Reaper appeared suddenly and unexpectedly, movie makers usually stick to digging up memories of the dearly departed. Buddy Holly, for example, was killed in a 1959 plane crash; nearly 20 years later, “The Buddy Holly Story” both chronicled and lionized the pioneering rocker’s life, songs and legacy.

If the death was presaged by years of substance and body abuse, however, most of what gets dug up is dirt. The result: tasteless cinematic cheap shots like “Der Elvis” and “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” both of which will be screened tonight at the Installation Gallery downtown.

“Der Elvis,” by underground filmmaker Jon Moritsugu, is a degrading recounting of the final days of Elvis Presley, whose notorious pill-popping ultimately led to his death of heart failure in 1977. According to a press release, the flick depicts the King as “just another junkie who died on the toilet.”

Just as bad is Todd Haynes’ “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” about the pop singer’s long, and fatal, bout with anorexia. Using Barbie and Ken dolls to portray Karen, who died in 1983, and her piano-playing brother, Richard, Haynes purports to make “a powerful statement on the causes of anorexia,” the release says, “and a condemnation of the early 1970s ideal of suburban American sitcom families promoted by the Nixon Administration.”

Whatever happened to Rest in Peace?

LINER NOTES: Tom (Cat) Courtney has spent a lifetime singing the blues. Since an Oct. 6 stabbing left him with a stack of medical bills, he’s been living the blues. But, at Friday night’s benefit concert at Rio’s in Loma Portal, Courtney, 59, will be getting some help from the blues--or, rather, a pair of Blues: host band Shades of Blue, and benefit organizer Buddy Blue.

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Another benefit concert, this one for the Nicaraguan Hurricane Relief fund, will take place tonight at La Posta de Acapulco’s Taco Shop in East San Diego. Performing will be Jamaican reggae trio Israel Vibration, along with Peter Broggs and Calabash.

Country songstress Tanya Tucker will be appearing Sunday night at the Bacchanal in Kearny Mesa. . . . The Jacks’ new Christmas single, a remake of 1960s soulman Clarence Carter’s “Backdoor Santa,” will be officially unveiled Dec. 3 at a record-release party at Rio’s. . . . Tickets go on sale Saturday for the Steve Miller Band’s Dec. 14 concert at the California Theatre downtown.


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