PART FIVE: REUNIONS, RECONCILIATIONS & THE FUTURE
As the years have passed and the rockers have grown older, Van Halen and its members have reconciled (or tried) in different ways.
In an unlikely, yet totally predictable turn of events, ex-Van Halen singing/howling/screeching rivals David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar agreed to team up for a 2002 summer tour. The two tried to play nice and alternated who opened and closed each show. Technically there was no "headliner", they agreed to be equals (Yeah, sure they did). Thousands of fans gathered to see the two square off, as the tour was a smash. I personally went to the show at The Woodlands just north of Houston and had an absolute blast. Dave opened, Sammy closed … just like I wanted it. In my opinion and my dear friend Taylor Begnaud's (a long time Roth fan, who said Sammy was a wimp) Hagar wiped the floor with Roth. Sammy's voice was still amazingly powerful, his banana yellow t-shirt and Capri pants just as astonishingly bright. He had great energy, phenomenal crowd interaction and still had all of his crazy hair. Just two songs in, Begnaud turned to me and said, "He's better than Roth already."
DLR and Sam would end up fighting the entire tour … about everything ... from the dressing rooms to who was on the guest list. Sammy did try to get Dave to do a duet with him on stage, anything. Kidd Rock was along for the ride and somehow got the two to interact, telling them "they were letting the fans down". Roth wouldn't do it. "Sammy throws a party," DLR snarled, "But I AM the party."
Michael Jordan never would have tried to leap for a free-throw line dunk with the Wizards, yet Roth had no problem attempting to do everything he pulled off in his heyday. He wore blue metallic spandex, something that crossed David Bowie and a fruit roll up (Roth was still amazingly fit, I'll give him that). He blow dried, bleached and grew out what was left of his once legendary locks, but like LSU's offensive line depth it was pretty thin. He threw in a few roundhouse kicks and saved one full split for the grand finale "Jump" (during which he did the sign of the cross before attempting). However, hearing him try to sing was a bit like watching Brett Favre hop and limp to the sideline. The best days were over.
This tour would be like Nick Saban and Les Miles agreeing to become co-head coaches at Penn State or something. Picture it … Nick runs the defense, Les runs the offense. Saban buys Les a watch, Miles buys Saban some sedatives. Not likely to happen any time soon, "aight?".
The tour basically ended up being a Van Halen tryout. Most reviewers agreed Hagar outperformed Roth, and perhaps not by accident Sam and Van Halen reconciled not long after. Hagar was back in VH for a 2004 summer tour. The band tried to complete a new, full-length album, but were moving at the pace of an LSU two-minute drill. VH basically punted, finishing three less than stellar tunes (One called "Up For Breakfast", which included lyrics ‘She puts the cream in my coffee, the butter on my biscuit'. Amazing John Lennon never thought of this.) which were slapped onto ANOTHER greatest hits record and hit the road.
The 2004 Van Hagar reunion was a train wreck. Sure, it grossed $55 million dollars, putting it in the top 10 of tours that summer. However the performances were far from the "5150" magic of 1986, mainly because of Eddie. I really don't want to beat up on EVH for his alcohol issues. It's like criticizing Les Miles for his clock management … it's piling on, everyone has done it. But the guitarist was amazingly smashed every night, and it certainly did not improve his performance. I watched a rock God lay on his back in Houston for what seemed like an eternity for a "guitar solo" that was nothing more than stupid noise. Even the most diehard fan in the building was like "Uh, when is he gonna stand up and play something. This is embarrassing."
Les Miles would have to leave LSU and then return to Baton Rouge for such a parallel. That will never happen. If and when Miles leaves for whatever reason, he won't ever return to coach. When Miles does finish with the Tigers, he'll have a hard time being as successful as Mr Hagar as been outside of VH. While his "Mas Tequila" solo days haven't sold boat loads of albums, his tequila certainly has. Hagar pawned 80% of "Cabo Wabo" for a cool 80 million dollars not long ago, while his new band Chickenfoot (featuring guitar wizard Joe Satriani, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) had a debut gold album. Gold albums these days are pretty big accomplishments … not many people are buying CDs anymore. While some people may bash him, please never feel sorry for Sammy. He swims in his Cabo San Lucas pool … and his money.
One final note on these two that may blow your mind. Sammy Haga (63) is 6 years old than Les Miles (almost 57). That just doesn't seem to add up, does it?
The only likely future parallel, is still a bit absurd. But if you ask me, it's the most likely of the absurd. Little Nicky comes home.
During the 2007 college football season, I spent an entire week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama preparing for and then covering one very significant event. It was only one the most anticipated regular season games in LSU football history. The time had come. The Tigers were taking on their former coach. Not just any former coach, but the man that built them into a powerhouse and was so loved by fans during his stay in Baton Rouge. Nick Saban was now the enemy.
At one of his press conferences that week, Saban got pretty reflective. Not tremendously emotional … but relatively deep. He basically admitted leaving LSU for the Miami Dolphins was a big mistake. Saban referenced not Van Halen, but instead The Eagles. Well, one of The Eagles anyway.
"You know that Joe Walsh song ‘Life's Been Good'" Saban said, "Maybe I should've listened to that a little, instead of always looking for the next big thing. You know, be happy with what you got."
I wanted to joke, "Well coach, maybe LSU fans should take another Eagles cue and just "Get Over It."
Knowing my history with the man, that was probably not a good idea. After all, I'm the guy who mistakenly parked in Saban's spot years before during LSU spring football practice. Once I realized this mistake, I hustled outside to the parking lot in an attempt to move my car before he arrived. Too late. I heard the slam of the Mercedes door, as Saban had parked somewhere other than his parking spot. He began his militant march, with Sports Information Director Michael Bonnette alongside, shaking his head with one of those "You're in big trouble now" looks on his face.
"Sorry coach," I begged, "I didn't know that was your spot."
"It's alright," Saban grumbled, "We'll just tow it next time."
The coach wasn't done with his witty/grumpy banter. It was now time to address the media who had gathered, to cover the exhilarating rush of football in March.
"I tell you what. If we coach the way you guys park, we may not win a game this year."
Rim shot! Nick is on a roll! I often said that asking a question at a Nick Saban press conference was like playing Russian Roulette. This was before LSU began utilizing microphones for reporters to ask questions, so everybody would blurt things out all at once. Once it was clear YOUR question had risen above the others and he would address it, then came the agonizing wait on HOW he would address it. In this very young reporter's case, more times than not he would make an attempt to embarrass ... and succeed. The other reporters would often laugh, but they would get theirs too. What goes around, certainly goes around. Everybody got their fair share of Saban Salt, believe me. No one was immune.
With that said, will I ever cover another Nick Saban press conference at LSU? Will he ever return to wearing the purple and gold? Could he return to Baton Rouge? Impossible. You're dreaming! It'll never happen. Those days are over, that ship has sailed. That's what people say, anyway.
Well, let me say this. If David Lee Roth can return to Van Halen, Nick Saban can return to LSU.
In 2007, with all apologies to Jim Henderson and his epic Saints-to-the-Super Bowl-call, hell had frozen over and pigs had flown. After years of bad blood, venom, and hard feelings … David Lee Roth indeed returned to front Van Halen. At a huge press conference to officially make the announcement, he hugged Eddie and fired off the one liners that had made him a true rock-n-roll icon.
"These are songs that are as familiar to the public as the roof of your mouth is to you," DLR cracked, "This is not an old band, it's a new band. Meet us in the future, not the pasture. Next question!"
This was the day classic VH fans had waited nearly 25 years for … and it finally had become a reality. However, in typical Van Halen fashion, they simply couldn't get everything right. Like a football team electrifying the home crowd with a touchdown, only to blow the extra point, Eddie Van Halen fired popular bassist Michael Anthony (Responsible for all those killer VH background harmonies and their trademark sound) because he was too tight with Sammy, in favor of his teenage son Wolfgang. Really, Eddie? Are you serious? Indeed he was. Taking a kid on tour who had never been part of one single Van Halen studio recording. I did tell you Van Halen doesn't really seem to care about their fans, didn't I?
The tour was huge. Tickets were obscenely overpriced and they still sold like fireworks on the Fourth. I'll never forget the show I attended, mostly because of what happened that day. After working a long stretch of days, I was finally off on this particular Friday. We were going to hit New Orleans, have a blast all day and then enjoy the show. However, when Steve Schneider calls your cell phone before 8 am, you know there's trouble brewing. Indeed there was. John Brady had been fired as LSU's head basketball coach and I was certainly needed. A slow sports day this would not be. After leading off the noon news with the breaking story and then covering an emotional ensuing press conference, I was able to get to NOLA, although much later than expected. This was actually a good thing, since I did not pace myself well on this occasion.
The funny thing is, Brady actually threw a media appreciation party for us that Sunday to thank those who had covered him for so many years. He had us all over and it was a ton of fun. We had great food and told stories and laughed about the past. I joked with the coach that his firing on Friday had held me up getting to New Orleans and the big concert.
"Well who'd go to see, man?" Brady asked, in his very distinguished delivery.
"Van Halen." I answered.
"Oh yeah! I heard about that," he replied with a raised voice, gesturing his hand towards me, "I would've gone, if I knew I wasn't gonna be working!"
Classic John Brady, classic band. Good stuff.
While Brady was being exiled, Roth had truly won the lottery. Within a year he had gone from playing for maybe 1,000 people at a casino in Marksville, to 16,000 or so at the New Orleans Arena. The name Van Halen means a lot, doesn't it? As I mentioned earlier, the reunion tour netted $93 million dollars for Live Nation.
Nick Saban is closing in on 60 years old, but physically he really shows no signs of slowing down. I'm not sure if he'll last as long as Bobby Bowden did or Joe Paterno has … but I can totally see him coaching until 70 or even a bit beyond. So never rule out an LSU return. The Saints won the Super Bowl. It snowed several times in Louisiana last year. David Lee Roth returned to Van Halen. Soundbyte played The Varsity. Never say never.
FINISHING WHAT I STARTED
Make no mistake about it. Somebody, somewhere is arguing over Nick Saban and Les Miles right now. However, as someone who has done his best to objectively cover LSU and sports for a dozen years, it's pretty hard to argue Miles is a better coach than Saban. That's not being nasty, mean or rude, it's just a fact. Saban is the best coach in college football. He took over an LSU program in the tank with a 3-8 record and transformed them into a national champion just three years later. He stepped into an Alabama position that had been a bit mediocre and made them the champions of college football world. And again, just three years later. Those credentials are solid steel. Now look, Miles resume is very strong. If LSU finishes 9-3, he'll own a 60-19 record over 6 years at LSU. That's winning 80% of your games and averaging 10 wins a season at college football's highest level. However the clock mismanagement issues and other perceived coaching blunders have been damaging to his credibility.
If Miles can somehow beat Saban Saturday, it would certainly be very refreshing for a season soaked in negativity. But my gut tells me we're heading towards another Bama Bummer.
And yes, even as we approach the year 2011, somebody, somewhere is arguing over who's better - David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar. Roll your eyes, laugh, call it pathetic, but it is absolutely true. When all of the members of VH are dead and gone (Even you Wolfgang!) there will be two old men rocking on a porch somewhere debating Van Halen and Van Hagar. This battle seems a bit closer. The majority of fans out there will tell you they prefer the classic days of Van Halen over the newer material. Just to prove my point … each year I throw a charity concert for wounded warriors and troops for Louisiana called "Red, Rock & Blue". I can't afford Van Halen, but I can afford something that is probably just as good, if not better at this point … The Atomic Punks. The Atomic Punks have been the ultimate classic VH Tribute band for over 15 years (The only VH tribute to be endorsed by the actual band). They are absolutely incredible, worth much more than the $15-$25 you'll pay to see them play. Last year's show at The Varsity in Baton Rouge was astonishing. These dudes brought their A game and then some. A large, enthusiastic crowd attended, pumped their fists and stayed until the final encore. Guitarist Lance Turner plays Eddie note for note … all the complicated solos, with flawless execution. He's worth the price of admission alone. Brian Geller does a spot-on Roth, Scott Patterson rocks the intro to "Hot For Teacher" just like Al and Joe Lester plays the wild bass just like Mikey. The Punks also have a Van Hagar spin off called 5150 … it's the same members, except Mark Huff (now the new lead singer of Quiet Riot) plays the role of Sammy and steps in for Geller. Huff nails all the towering notes, including "Dreams" with no issue.
The first time I called the band's manager (Patterson), I suggested we do the bands in chronological order. You know, do the Roth stuff first and then lead into the Hagar era.
"So what do you think about that idea?" I asked over the phone.
There was dead silence for a moment. Then finally he answered.
"It's your show dude," Patterson answered in his Carolina drawl, yet laid back California delivery, "We can do it that way if you want. But that place is likely to clear out."
I laughed and listened some more.
"Look man, I've done this forever," he added, "I've played all over this country. Most of the people are coming to see The Atomic Punks. It's probably gonna be at least 60-40, maybe 70-30. Hell, it might be 80-20!"
So there you go. I would say it leans more towards 60-40. Most people prefer classic VH, but I don't have to feel that way, and I don't. While I respect that Van Halen probably delivered it's hardest-hitting, most timeless music with Roth, doesn't mean I have to like it more. And I don't. I'm a Van Hagar guy and started loving the band because of Sammy. I loved to hear the guy sing and deliver all the tunes that gave you goose bumps. If Sammy comes anywhere within four hours or so … I'm likely going to be there. Not because I love to hear solo songs like "Shocka Doobie", but because I want to hear those four or five tunes that hit me so hard when I was younger. I want to hear "Dreams", "Why Can't This Be Love" and "Top of the World". And I don't mind a little "One Way to Rock", "Three Lock Box" and "Heavy Metal". I enjoy that and I won't apologize for it. Roth himself might be playing at The Varsity, and I'm not sure how fired up I'd be to go. I may acknowledge that David was a bigger star than Sammy, and most people think he was better. But it doesn't mean I have to like him more. And I certainly don't.
They say you're more impressionable when you're a kid. I agree with this 100%. Those initial experiences with LSU football and Van Halen nearly 25 years ago are still a major part of who I am today. Listening to "5150" brings back all those old feelings and memories of having absolutely nothing to worry about during my days in Milton, Louisiana. Sure, it's a bit dated with all the keyboards and stuff, but so what. It was the album that got me started with my favorite band and nearly 25 years later that band is still pretty important to me. Contrary to what you may think, I don't listen to Van Halen all day, I know all the songs backwards and forwards. They're more like a sports team that I cover and keep up with. I'm always on top of their latest news. And like a true fan, some of my favorite VH songs are the ones many casual fans have never heard of, like "The Dream is Over". I doubt there are many Pink Floyd fans that will tell you their favorite tune is "The Wall" and certainly not many Radiohead worshippers who say "Creep" is their fave either. Likewise, I don't listen to "Jump" much.
In that same vein … Todd Kinchen's zig-zag catch and run to beat Texas A&M in 1990 is one of my favorite LSU moments ever. Many national guys would look at me and say "Huh?". My initial rushes with LSU football not only led to a passion, but something I could pave into a career. All those games and stats I knew as a kid no longer made me nerdy … they made me knowledgeable about my profession. And had people asking, "How did you remember that? How old were you?".
So in the end…
If you like Les Miles more than Nick Saban, or vice versa … awesome. Heck, if Gary Cherone is your favorite Van Halen singer, good for you. Just remember this … LSU Football and Van Halen ARE the Best of Both Worlds and you don't have to pick sides. Regardless of who's coaching and singing … you can respect and do your best to enjoy them the same.
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