Van Halen Jumps Into Era III

Jerry Crowe is a Times staff writer

It would be understandable if Gary Cherone, Van Halen's new lead singer, were a little nervous about job security.

This is not exactly a career position. David Lee Roth was dumped after 11 years in front of the microphone, and his successor, Sammy Hagar, was either fired (he says) or quit (the band says) 11 years later in 1996.

But Cherone, who fronted the Boston band Extreme for 11 years before that group's demise in 1996, is in a joking mood as Van Halen prepares to launch its third incarnation with a new album and world tour.

"It seems like every 10 years they kick out the singer," says Cherone, 36, "so I've got eight or nine more years to misbehave before I have to worry about being on my best behavior."

Until then, he plans to enjoy his good fortune in joining a band that in more than 20 years together has sold 70 million albums worldwide and has yet to release a single collection that sold fewer than 2 million copies.

Though many skeptics predicted the worst for Van Halen when Roth was dismissed, each of the group's four albums with Hagar reached No. 1.

"It feels great," says Cherone. "This last year has been pretty amazing. I've been made to feel very welcome here."

The L.A.-based band--also including guitarist Eddie Van Halen, his drummer brother Alex and bassist Michael Anthony--just released "Without You," the first single from "Van Halen III," which is due Tuesday on Warner Bros. Records (see review, Page 66). A world tour, with Cherone singing songs from all three Van Halen eras, kicks off April 10 in New Zealand.

Whether the group's fans will embrace Cherone as warmly as his new bandmates have is still to be determined, but he isn't staying awake nights fretting about it.

"There will always be a percentage of people who will hate me because I'm not those other guys," he says of his predecessors. "And then there will be a percentage who will hate me because I'm too much like those other guys. . . .

"But I'm not that concerned. The Van Halen audience loves Eddie and the band, and I think the majority is going to welcome me singing these new songs."

Cherone was brought on board after being recommended by Van Halen's manager, Ray Danniels, who was also Extreme's manager. Extreme, a Van Halen sound-alike that reached the Top 10 with two of its four albums and also recorded the chart-topping 1991 hit "More Than Words," was breaking up. And Hagar was on his way out of Van Halen.

Cherone was flown to Los Angeles to write some songs with the band, "and we really hit if off," he says. "On the second or third day I was here, Eddie and I went outside and he said, 'I want you to join the band.' And of course I said 'yes.' "

It was during those first few days that Cherone and Van Halen wrote "Without You."

"It really rocks," Jeff Pollack, owner of the nation's largest radio programming consulting firm, says of the first Cherone-era Van Halen single. "It's a different singer, but a very familiar guitar. . . .

"The bottom line is it should do very well at radio because there's a great affection for the band, and I think people are very open to hearing the new lineup."

One group of supporters Cherone knows he can count on are his friends back home.

"Whenever I go to Boston," he says, "they freak out and say, 'Do you know you're in Van Halen?' But when I'm here it doesn't feel like anything abnormal. It feels so smooth. I'm in a rock 'n' roll band, and these guys I play with are pretty normal guys."

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