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Inside Van Halen's Reunion

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It’s the calm before the storm at 5150, the lavishly cozy studio Eddie Van Halen maintains just up a winding canyon driveway from his San Fernando Valley home. He’s lying low here, trying to avoid the media radar, wondering just how big a juggernaut he’s set in motion. ”When people hear this,” he sighs, carefully fingering the unmarked compact disc that’s about to come blasting through his twin theater-size speakers, ”they’re gonna think I’m nuts.”

Indeed, they shortly will. Three weeks after the original lineup of Van Halen earned a thunderous standing ovation just by showing up for a cameo appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, Eddie — speaking on the record about his band’s much-hyped reunion for the first time since the Sept. 4 broadcast — has in hand a test copy of what so many fans have waited so many years to hear: two new songs, recorded for a greatest-hits package, with long-estranged frontman David Lee Roth. Along with what’s in hand, though, Eddie has in mind what most Van Halen fans assuredly don’t want to hear: the revelation that for him, this reunion with Roth was never designed to be much more than a celebratory lark.

He likens it to going back to your first wife for an old-times’-sake fling after the second marriage dissolves but before consigning yourself to the search for a really mature partner the third time out. Of course, if your not-exactly-demure first wife and most of your rabid friends have spent a decade dreaming of just such a reconciliation, well, that could be a problem.

Oops.

Time to fire up the new tracks from Van Halen: Best of, Volume 1: ”Can’t Get This Stuff No More” and the just-released single ”Me Wise Magic,” which, we’re assured, are ”smokin’.” Eddie fast-forwards to make sure we’re getting the long versions, not the radio edits, then proudly corrals his visitors toward a spot dead center at the mixing board for full-frontal absorption. A familiar guitar fades in. Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony leans over the console, smiles, and offers some words of warning: ”Don’t be thinking 1984, now.”

Of course not. But as soon as Diamond Dave’s whiskey-stained voice infiltrates the ”Me Wise Magic” mix — a sort of underworld growl at first, building up to the patented Roth yelps as the song barrels through a series of rollercoaster harmonic twists — it does seem like a certain year all over again, notwithstanding a dozen years’ worth of technical and personal growth. As superstar reunions go, it’s got what it takes, so, Why…can’t…this…be love?

Well, if you must know, partially because the very night — at the MTV Awards — that set off all this hoopla was the same night a previously unreported blowup backstage made the historic reconciliation history.

”I know people are gonna think, ‘Dave can sing his ass off!”’ Eddie prophesies after the music winds down. ”And he did do a good job. But live would be a whole ‘nother story….They’re gonna think, again, ‘Eddie’s difficult.’ It’s all gonna come down to me. But that’s not what this is about.”

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