20 Years Ago: Van Halen Briefly Reunite with David Lee Roth for ‘Best Of Vol. I’
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By 1995, Sammy Hagar had been Van Halen‘s lead singer for a decade — and had fronted the band through four chart-topping studio albums. The idea of Hagar leaving for a solo career seemed about as likely as that of David Lee Roth rejoining the lineup — and yet that’s exactly what happened in 1996.
A year of tumult for Van Halen fans started in June, when it was announced that Hagar had exited the fold. Although the two sides disputed the reasons for the change, with Hagar claiming he’d been fired and Eddie Van Halen insisting he’d quit, the end result was the same: After 10 years of multi-platinum stability, one of rock’s biggest bands had another vacancy at the lead singer position.
At the same time, Van Halen was undergoing other changes — among them another of Eddie’s periodic attempts at sobriety. After years of using substances to open his creative floodgates, he quit drinking in the mid-’90s, and found that despite his fears to the contrary, he was still able to tap into his muse. At the time, he chalked it up to the unorthodox efforts of a therapist who encouraged him to take the leap.
“She had me do some yoga and some meditation and some chanting. And then we went outside and did a bunch of weird exercises for half an hour, to the point where I almost passed out. And then she told me to close my eyes and ‘Imagine the room that you go to after you’ve had a six-pack of beer. Really try and feel that place.’ I sat there for a couple of minutes and said, ‘Yeah, I’m kinda there,'” recalled Van Halen. “I ended up writing five songs that day, including the music for ‘Me Wise Magic.’ It blew my mind. I just didn’t want to believe I could do it without drinking.”
That song, “Me Wise Magic,” would end up being one of the bonus tracks earmarked for a best-of set that started trundling down the pipeline as Hagar exited the band. Armed with a backlog of new material but lacking a lead singer, Van Halen ended up making an unlikely reconnection with Roth.
“Dave happened to call me around the same time Sammy quit because Warner Bros. notified him that Greatest Hits was going to come out, and he had a few questions about the packaging and other details like that. I told him, ‘Dave, I really don’t know yet. I’ll call you mid-week and let you know,'” Van Halen told Guitar World. After spending some time catching up with Roth — and realizing the band didn’t really have anything in the way of bonus tracks for the compilation — he decided to see about working together again.
“I came up with the crazy idea of having Dave sing on a couple of new songs. We thought about it for a couple of days and said, ‘Yeah, why the f— not?’ So I called up Dave and said, ‘Would you be interested?’ And he said, ‘Sure, I’m not doing anything,'” Van Halen continued. “I was very clear that he was not in the band — that it was just a project. What I wanted to do was write five new songs and pick two out of those five.”
Eddie’s assertion that it was “very clear” Roth wasn’t permanently back in the lineup would later be disputed, but in the meantime, the original Van Halen was back together — and pretty much right away, they faced some of the same problems that led to Roth’s departure in 1985. Chief among the issues was the fact that Roth and Eddie weren’t on the same page musically. Although Van Halen had plenty of music to bring to the table, precious few of the songs resonated with Roth — and once they finally narrowed their efforts to “Me Wise Magic” and another track, “Can’t Get This Stuff No More,” Roth realized his lyrical prowess no longer excited Eddie either.
“I start showing up with my lyrics and they’re dismissed out of hand, one right after another. Edward Van Halen would hold the paper in front of his face, stare right into the middle and go, ‘I don’t know,'” Roth alleged in his Crazy From the Heat memoir. “We’re getting ready to record, the producer is just now showing up, and they walk in with Desmond Child, some character who writes lyrics for Bon Jovi. They had written a whole song, lyrically and melodically, over the telephone: the producer, Glen Ballard, Edward Van Halen and Desmond Child. They brought it in, said, ‘Sing this.'”
Ultimately, Roth ended up rewriting the “Me Wise Magic” lyrics to suit his own purposes, and the results were good enough for the rest of the band. That track would go on to become a No. 1 rock hit — but the set’s other new track had its own problems: namely, its origins as a castoff from 1995’s Balance, Hagar’s last album with the group.
“I didn’t think it was worth breaking the band up for, but it wasn’t bad,” Hagar laughed when asked about the new songs. “When I first heard ‘Me Wise Magic,’ I thought it was some badass music. I would have liked to tear that f—er up. The other one was a reject from Balance that I wrote with Eddie called ‘The Backdoor Shuffle.’ They totally stole the melody in the chorus from my original. I just made one phone call and [manager] Ray Danniels overnighted me a check for $35,000, saying he was sorry. These guys don’t have any class anymore.”
All the behind-the-scenes drama aside, there was clearly plenty of pent-up demand for a Roth-led Van Halen. The band stoked fan anticipation with an appearance at the 1996 MTV Music Video Awards, and when Best Of — Volume I arrived on Oct. 22, it shot to the top of the charts, eventually going on to sell more than six million copies. But even as they sated fans’ appetites for (a little) new music, Roth and his bandmates were already on their way to being exes again.
The writing may have been on the wall all along, at least according to Eddie’s insistence that the Best Of sessions were never really meant to lead into a long-term reunion. But between the arduous process of writing and recording the new tracks and the embarrassment of Roth’s spotlight-hogging behavior during the MTV Awards — not to mention a behind-the-scenes battle over treatments for the “Me Wise Magic” video that ultimately ended up leaving the song without a promo clip — whatever honeymoon they’d enjoyed was over pretty quickly. A few weeks after the awards show, Roth was officially out of the band again…and the Gary Cherone era was about to begin.
Listen to “Can’t Get This Stuff No More”
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