A Tale of Two Singers
On the ferry platform at Penn’s Landing on the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River, where most Tweeter Center concert goers migrate from, the good natured Dave or Sammy dispute raged.
“Sammy is just old,” began a man in his early forties wearing a teal polo shirt.
“Old?!” came the incredulous response from a tank top wearing Sammy fan who was swigging a can of Coors Light. “David Lee Roth doesn’t even have any hair left—or a voice!”
And so it went. Though not quite a topic for a philosophy lecture, there is something about the debate over who was the better of the two former Van Halen singers that just won’t recede. Most agree that while Roth had the attitude, the drive and the smarts to make Van Halen the biggest rock band on the Southern California scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it’s only realistic to note that Hagar had the better pipes, reaching notes that the Diamond One would never even bother trying to hit.
When it was announced in April that the two would join forces on a summer tour, it wasn’t so much shocking as much as a sense of “What the hell took so long?” Eddie Van Halen was battling both cancer and marriage woes, and a rumored reunion attempt with Roth fell through numerous times since the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards debacle. Sammy continued to plug away at a pitiful solo career, turning most of his energy into becoming a successful tequila salesman.
These are two men who crave the spotlight, and playing small venue tours or the occasional festival just wasn’t doing it for either of them, leaving no choice but the wise ploy to cajole whatever was left out of the Van Halen name without actually enlisting the Van Halen brothers (Hagar even brought Van Halen bass player and resident mime Michael Anthony out for a few dates).
Billed as “The Tour You Waited For: Song for Song, the Heavyweight Champs of Rock and Roll,” Hagar and Roth would switch as headliner each show, with no opening act, the premise being to let the fans decide who was the winner. Though back and forth throughout much of the summer, Roth looked to be on the ropes coming to the Camden waterfront, as it was mere days before that Hagar slammed him publicly, calling him uncooperative, saying that he was living in the past, and likening him to Liberace.
Camden was Roth’s night to open, and he proved that just when you think he’s down for the count, that’s when he is the most dangerous. Wearing a skintight pink lamé vest over a polka dot shirt and pants dotted with black triangles, Roth brought the crowd back to 1984, opening with “Hot For Teacher”, leading the cry of “I heard you missed us we’re baaaaack!” Roth relied almost solely on Van Halen tunes, which in all fairness, only made sense. Did anyone really want to hear “Just Like Paradise” from his blip of a solo career?
Bringing out the time tested hits “Panama”, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, and “Ice Cream Man”, Roth also dug deep into the Van Halen catalog for the chestnuts “D.O.A.” and “So This Is Love?” His band was tight, and, for the most part, stayed in the background. Roth’s voice, which has been up and down over the past few years, was primed for the evening, and there weren’t many notes in his limited range that he missed. Looking freakishly fit for his age, well tanned and muscular, the hair thinning but still intact, Roth threw high kicks and did the toe touching “Air-Roth” off of the drum riser with ease. Even playing the part of sexy rock god doesn’t seem staged, it seems like the man many consider to be rock’s greatest frontman truly believes he is 18 again.
“It’s hot tonight, and I don’t know whether it’s the heat or the humidity,” Roth said as he began one of his many rants, focusing on a pretty girl in the front row. “But you are hot baby! What’s your name, baby? You’re the kind of girl I’d give my name to not my real name.”
The cheesy one-liners are what make Dave Dave. He constantly has that huge, mouth agape grin going, or is stuffing the microphone down his pants while doing a little hip shake for the girls with his tongue wagging. On this night, he lost none of his edge and gave the audience exactly what they wanted.
Hagar, on the other hand, looks like he has forgotten what it means to rock and roll, and has surprisingly become more of a parody of his former self than Roth. Once the scrappy boxing glove clad singer for Montrose and later Van Halen, Hagar is now the goofy and affable Cabo Wabo guy. Bringing onstage two sets of bleachers filled with the most drunken fans available from Philadelphia, a makeshift bar, and waitresses delivering drinks in skimpy outfits, it was Hagar, and not Roth, who went for the cheap cheers by getting the titty-cam started. Hagar ambled across the stage in a display of shameless self-promotion with his “Cabo Wabo” T-shirt on, intent on playing the role of “the working man’s rocker.”
Opening with the horrendous “Shaka Doobie” from his latest album, Ten 13, Hagar weaved in and out of too many numbers from his less than prolific solo outings along with his standard fare of Van Halen songs that his backing band seemed intent on butchering. Telling stories before many of them about how he and Eddie originally came up with the compositions, Hagar seemed like a man pining for an ex-wife, playing with more or less resignation than emotion. By the time he closed his set with “Dreams” from the Van Halen landmark 5150, much of the crowd had already begun to walk out. Perhaps it was for the best, as they missed his multiple failures to reach the high notes of the track.
“Song for a song,” the evening clearly belonged to Roth. The quality of music, the stage presence and the selection of hits played all pointed to a win. Hagar was spent and didn’t care about the sound of the band or his appearance. Going through the motions was painfully Sammy’s show, while Dave was out to prove himself.
In truth, either of these guys would kill to be back in Van Halen, trying to recapture the magic of yesteryear. Signs point to Sammy reentering the fold if the Van Halen brothers ever come out of their self-imposed exile, but it would be in their best interest to at least give both of their former singers the shot. They made it through this tour without murdering each other, and as good as one or the other may be solo on any given night, they don’t come close what they had as part of the Van Halen unit. It’s high time for the band to do something drastic, instead of sitting back and watching what is left of their legacy rapidly fade away.