For Van Halen, the stars seemed aligned for a triumphant 2007. Next month, the group will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the plan was to follow that with a summer reunion tour that would feature David Lee Roth back at the mike for the first time since the Reagan years.
But, once again, the backstage soap opera of Van Halen is the story of the day.
The Van Halen tour has been "shut down," according to a top official at Live Nation, the huge concert promoter that finally surrendered in the face of the chaos surrounding guitar hero Eddie Van Halen. Roth, meanwhile, says he is unsure whether the mercurial guitarist will even travel to New York for the Hall of Fame induction on March 12.
"We have fragile politics in Van Halen; please accept that as a partial answer," Roth said. "But I don't know if the Van Halens are going to go....I hope they do, but right now, I just don't know. Hope springs eternal."
Eddie Van Halen declined interviews through his publicist and girlfriend, Janie Liszewski. Conversations with the business team behind the tour paint a picture of a rock star who is somewhere between Axl Rose and Michael Jackson on the music industry scale of eccentric recluses. The result is that the Van Halen venture imploded before takeoff, even as the Police, the Eagles and Genesis have efficiently geared up for lucrative reunion tours.
"I cannot tell you how frustrating and completely nuts this has been," one key business figure in the reunion effort said while asking not to be identified on the outside chance that the reunion might be salvaged. "Right now, I have to say, I don't see that happening."
It's a disheartening situation for the fans who pine for a Roth-led lineup of the iconic metal band. Among those devoted is Wolfgang Van Halen, the 15-year-old son of Eddie and, according to Roth, a key force behind the reunion.
Wolfgang, a precocious musician, was "the maestro" at the reconstituted band's lone rehearsal, picking the set list and using his iPod to remind his father of the nuances of his solos on the old albums. Wolfgang was tapped by his father to play bass on the tour too, replacing founding member Michael Anthony, a jolting choice considering the child's age and Anthony's status as one of rock's best backup singers and most relentlessly cheerful presences.
Eddie Van Halen remains, by all accounts, a gifted guitarist and rock auteur, but the decision to jettison Anthony in favor of a teenager may have been the first sign that the new enterprise was guided by creaky logic. Now all eyes will be on the Hall of Fame banquet to see who shows up, who performs and how Roth interacts with old rival Sammy Hagar, the man who replaced him as lead singer in 1985 and who will be inducted as an equal.
On Valentine's Day, when the tour still looked viable, Roth was all smiles as he sat down for an interview in a bungalow at Chateau Marmont. The 52-year-old was wearing a snappy black suit and the short haircut that has recently replaced his old pro-wrestler cut. He still flashes a karate smile, but the singer seems calmer and more focused than in years past. The reason, he said, is that he's fresh from working as an emergency medical technician in New York. It's a longtime dream of his to be a paramedic, and the unglamorous gurney and rubber-glove duty humbled him, he said.
"I was working in neighborhoods that were almost exclusively black and Spanish-speaking, so only maybe twice out of 200 clients was I recognized.... I was joking about this in the truck on New Year's Eve, which was my last shift -- I was working in Brooklyn, down in Coney Island -- I said that I've been in more project apartments than Jay-Z and Diddy combined."
Roth was the rock frontman on top of the world when he went solo, but -- as Mick Jagger and Robert Plant also learned -- fans treasured him more when he was side-by-side with an equal on guitar. Roth seemed like a vainglorious sex panther in Van Halen, but on his own he often came off as a relentless jive salesman whose only product was his own past. Roth is still "on" all the time -- he calls it his "incandescent personality" -- but lately he comes off as the voice of reason, a pretty stunning change.
That, and the financial prospects, made him jump at the chance to work with Eddie Van Halen again. Of the old days, he says: "There was a lot of sparks and a lot of tension, like your favorite movies, especially those underground ones.... There was a lot of anxiety too, but it was about ambition, not ego."
Roth was optimistic that the band would follow up the tour with new music; he also pointed to the cache of 1996 recordings that he did with Van Halen during an earlier reunion flirtation. Now it appears the entire output of this new reunion was a single rehearsal in January and a photo shoot with Roth and Eddie, Wolfgang and Alex Van Halen. Alex is Eddie's older brother and the band's drummer.
"Hearing it again, that's an elixir.... What we sell is that we make all the guys feel young and invincible and all the girls feel young and desirable," Roth said. "I watched it happen to everybody that was listening in the studio."
Van Halen was a monster of rock and, for a time, arguably the biggest band in the world. According to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, Van Halen albums have shipped more than 56.5 million copies, which is more than the career totals of U2, Celine Dion, Shania Twain or Prince.
Roth said that he and Anthony will be in New York for the Hall of Fame, as will Hagar, the affable "red rocker."
Last month, Hagar publicly chided Eddie Van Halen for taking his son on tour. He also added that "the guy is a genius, but he's just out there and it's hard for people around him."
In 2004 and 2005, Van Halen toured with Hagar and, according to Pollstar, grossed $55 million playing arenas. But Hagar said that Eddie Van Halen was drinking heavily and, on some nights, it showed. In Chicago, Eddie stumbled throughout the set and, at one point, quit playing and sacked out, telling the crowd: "I done run outta gas."
There were tender scenes too. With the tour winding down in Los Angeles, for instance, Wolfgang came on stage at the Staples Center to play. The body language of father and son made it clear that they reveled in the shared spotlight. Roth said that that affection led to the hopes for the Van Halen reunion.
"I'm going to put some words in Ed's mouth," Roth said. "Whatever explanation he may give about having his son in the band, I'm going to superimpose: He wants to play with his kid while he's still at the top of his game and able to ... and that's also the same reason I'm in the band in its current configuration. No questions asked. He said, 'Hey, c'mon up the hill and make some music.' I said, 'Great. I'd love to play with you while you're still on the top of your game.' "
Roth smiled, but a moment later, when he was asked about what he feared most about the reunion, he didn't hesitate with his answer: "The two worst words in the English lexicon are 'band meeting.' "