Van Halen take a bold step in a new direction with Gary Cherone

Last summer, Van Halen said sayonara first to Sammy Hagar, then (again) to David Lee Roth, both of whom slammed the door on the way out. Sam and Dave loyalists were at each other’s throats, as usual, in the wake of these contentious exits, but one thing many partisans could agree on was that they really hated the idea of ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone as the band’s third wailer. At the moment, with alternative rock seen as being on the wane, Van Halen should be claiming the hungry superstar pop-metal market as their own; instead, the band finds its immense fan base carved up like Bosnia and Herzegovina on a bad day.

If it’s any consolation, Eddie Van Halen felt roughly the same suspicion when manager Ray Danniels floated Cherone’s name. ”From the bit of Extreme I’d heard,” the guitarist admits, ”it just didn’t strike me as ‘Yeah, he’s the guy.’ But when Gary walked through that door and picked up that mike, it was mind-blowing. People have a preconceived idea of what it’s gonna be, but they don’t have a clue.”

The primary challenge with the new album (scheduled to wrap by the time Eddie undergoes long-delayed hip replacement surgery in February) is to convince fans that VH Mach 3 carries the cojones of the first two editions. Says Cherone’s former Extreme cohort Nuno Bettencourt: ”I feel bad for Gary that he’s been underrated as a performer. People hear ‘More Than Words’ and think Extreme was this one-dimensional thing, but that was 5 percent of what the band was. I was at Eddie’s and heard what they’re doing with Gary. Oh, my God, are they back — the fans are going to get a blast of some real heavy rock & roll.”

But Eddie promises some Peter Gabrielesque textures, plus lyrics ”deeper on an emotional level” than anything the band’s ever done. You got a problem with that? ”We have to please ourselves first. And if nobody likes it, don’t buy it!” he says. ”Listen to the Roth and Sammy records if that’s what you prefer. Nobody’s twisting your arm.” Fans can cry uncle, or bunk, come late spring.