The Great Debate

We struggle with that most serious of questions: Roth or Hagar?

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Van Halen

Savvis Center

St. Louis loves Van Halen. This can be proved mathematically: Observe the light speed with which the band sold out the gi-normous Savvis Center for its Wednesday, July 28, show, forcing a second show the following night. Analyze the crowd differences between Sammy Hagar's shows in Duluth and those here in the Lou. Check out how empty Six Flags will be on the concert nights. Give a listen to KSHE. The evidence is right there: This is a Van Halen town.

But there is a schism in the sect. Van Halen fans are split into two definable camps: those who love the antics of original frontman David Lee Roth and those who prefer the tequila-fueled power of the more-recent lead, Sammy Hagar, who is fronting on this tour. (No one seriously defends the merits of third frontman Gary Cherone, the Joe Besser of Van Halen.)

Shortly before leaving on a vacation, I asked a member of each VH camp -- calendar editor and Roth fan Paul Friswold and staff writer and Hagar-hugger Mike Seely -- to settle this argument once and for all. When I returned, they presented me with a book-length debate that ranged from the sexually transmitted diseases of pop stars to the bombing of Starbucks. Here, edited for length, libel and sanity, is that debate. -- Jordan Harper

Mike Seely: Many feel that Hagar did not succeed as Van Halen's lead singer because he could not escape the long shadow cast by Lee Roth. I beg to differ: Van Hagar did not succeed because Sammy was already fucking large on his own merits. He was exceeding 55 onstage long before speed limits were officially on the rise nationwide. Diamond Dave had to wear goofy outfits and suspend himself from wires in concert, whereas the Red Rocker just fucking rocked. Would Diamond Dave have been as popular had he adopted Hagar's non-shtick shtick? Hell no.

Paul Friswold: The fatal flaw here is two-fold: One, Sammy Hagar never rocked. Not even close. Mr. Hagar was a perpetual also-ran from the time he left Montrose, as his paeans to fast driving and boxes with multiple locks will attest.

Second, the idea that Dave would ever try to adopt a persona other than his own is laughable. David Lee Roth is guilty of many indiscretions career-wise, but imitation is not among them. Dave is Dave. Suppose positions were reversed, and Dave did succeed Mr. Hagar in Van Halen. I highly doubt Dave would scratch his chin and think, "Hmm, that straggly, semi-permed hair and multi-belted yellow jumpsuit worked pretty well for Hagar. I guess I should get me one of those and corn-row the wig and learn the lyrics to 'I Can't Drive 55.'" Hardly.

Dave would instead strap on the chaps, mount an enormous inflatable microphone and tell Van Halen, "My name is David Lee Roth, and I've got an idea for a song about a girl named Jamie who gave it up too soon to a guy like me, and now I'm gonna pork every girl in the front row."

But sometimes the universe aligns all the particles in perfect formation, and everything falls into place with magical precision. Such was the case with Van Halen, and so Dave was first (in every sense of the word). And history has shown us that Mr. Hagar, in his role as second (best) Van Halen vocalist, was more than willing to slavishly (and poorly) imitate Dave's perfection. Here's a guy who claimed on The Daily Show that he was a teetotaler for many years, until he had to warm Dave's shoes (which happen to be a fantastic, rhinestone and besequined pair of kicks). Then he began drinking (from the pressure, or the knowledge that he was failing miserably as Dave Jr.) and cultivating his three-rungs-below-Jimmy-Buffet "Cabo-Wabo" persona. Mr. Hagar, fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.

MS: I'm all for androgynous rock stars, but nobody did androgyny like Bowie, and nobody ever will. So Lee Roth's assless-chap tomfoolery amounts to a "can't beat it, join it" attitude. Piss poor. Hagar, however, is a study in contradictions. What we know of the Red Rocker is he enjoys kicking it on the beach in Mexico and drinking in moderation. The guy has his own tequila brand -- surprisingly good, by the way -- and is a staunch advocate of long-haul drinking. Oh sure, he'll drink, but he never loses his shit. This is unique among frontmen of the cock-rock genre. Diamond Dave, meanwhile, loses his shit every time he opens his mouth. Remember, it's Hagar who's been welcomed back with open arms by the Van Halen brothers, who told Lee Roth to go play a game of hide-and-go-fuck-himself when he attempted a hostile takeover of the band a couple years back.

PF: All chaps are assless; if they have a back, they're called "pants." And Diamond Dave in chaps is about as androgynous as Ron Jeremy on Viagra; he's pure hetero-smarm.

"Welcomed back with open arms?" Look, just because Mr. Hagar is more than willing to be the rebound-hump, sloppy-seconds kinda guy that he is and return to the employ of Alex and Eddie doesn't mean that Alex and Eddie are happy about it. After the abysmal failure of the Cherone experiment, who did the Van Halens invite back to the band? Dave, as seen on the MTV Music Awards. I'm sure Sammy was sitting by the phone down in Cabo, with a little suitcase packed and a thesaurus with all the synonyms for "thank you" underlined, but the call didn't come. Not for, what, four or five years? Dave is invited back as a full-time employee of Van Halen Enterprises, and he submarines it. Van Halen the band remains dormant for the next few years, rather than call Hagar. When you would rather put your band on hiatus for half a decade than call the one guy in the world who you know will crawl through a doggy-door to get back in the band, you're not exactly welcoming anyone back with open arms. Grudgingly accepting the burden of a second banana many moons after your first choice snubs you is not a ringing endorsement of anyone.

And the argument that what rock & roll needs is a frontman who knows how to party in moderation is ridiculous. When was the last time you left a show and said, "Man, that guy put on a middle-of-the-road-caliber performance. Not too wild, not too boring"? Yeah. If you want moderation in your rock, the line forms behind John Mayer and Jimmy Buffet.

MS: Comparing Hagar to Mayer or Buffet is ludicrous. Sure, Hagar is mediocre. Very mediocre. So, for that matter, is St. Louis and the vast majority of middle America. Why do you think he's so popular here? And while we're at it, Van Halen is extremely mediocre, too. Don't matter who's on the mic. What all parties symbolize is the sheer mediocrity of American tastes in art and culture. And if you're going to enjoy this sort of mediocrity live, the key is to have as many hoosiers packed into one venue as possible. I think Van Hagar will accomplish this objective, whereas a Diamond Dave-fronted band might attract a cavalcade of ironic hipsters.

PF: I hold Jimmy Buffet in slightly more contempt than I do Mr. Hagar. My comparison of Mr. Hagar to Mr. Buffet was an analogy along the lines of, "In one hand I have wet feces; in the other, I hold wet feces with partially digested candy corn in it." Nobody wants a handshake from either.

And America as a whole is mediocre; singling out St. Louis or even the Midwest as being the headland for mediocrity is misguided.

Claiming Van Halen is mediocre is ridiculous. Have you actually ever listened to Van Halen or Van Halen II or Women and Children First? I doubt it. There's nothing mediocre about those albums. It's rock & roll. Self-conscious, insecure fashion droids will gravitate toward it every now and again, but the inherent greatness of rock & roll can never be diminished by the proximity of hangers-on. Superior rock & roll (see: the first six Van Halen albums) will remain unassailable. Ironic hipsters congregate in all sorts of places (coffee shops, alt-weekly newspapers, Seattle), but that doesn't diminish the quality of the work.

MS: I have heard all Van Halen, Van Hagar and Van Cherone albums at least once, and none of them do anything for me. But in concert, I loves me some Hagar. And dude, look no further than the popularity of Imo's, White Castle, Budweiser, Hardee's and the St. Louis Blues as living proof that St. Louis is America's capital of mediocrity, with the Midwest region being its breadbasket.

But I'd be lying to say I didn't thoroughly enjoy hamming it up at stage left during last summer's Hagar show at the UMB Bank Pavilion. Amazing the things seven master cylinders of Busch can cause one to appreciate. And by my count, I was the only ironic hipster there. I'm nothing if not original when it comes to settings upon which to play that card. I'm a hustler, homey. You a customer, crony. Got some dirt on my shoulder. Could you brush it off for me?

PF: The truth rears its head at last: You don't even care for rock & roll, preferring instead the crass commercialism of "gangsta rap." How very MTV of you. Of course you'd settle for Mr. Hagar and his carefully orchestrated routine; you're so accustomed to being spoon-fed your music by the steady rotation of TRL's charts that something as genuine and powerful as the original Van Halen must have frightened you terribly.

In addition to the products (must be the gangsta in you) you mentioned that come from the Midwest, we can also lay claim to William Burroughs, Yogi Berra and the music of Dazzling Killmen. Mediocrity abounds, but the wise man seeks out excellence wherever he is -- and finds it (see: the first six Van Halen albums).

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