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Play it again, Sammy

Sammy Hagar is back as lead singer, and Van Halen is rocking as hard as ever.

Published September 9, 2004

[AP photo]
Sammy Hagar, left, and Eddie Van Halen perform last month in Phoenix.

It's not exactly like old times for Sammy Hagar. In some ways it's even better.

After about eight years away, Hagar is back as lead singer for Van Halen, which comes to the St. Pete Times Forum tonight. Since its late 1970s debut, the hard rockers have been almost as famous for changing lead singers as for Eddie Van Halen's blistering guitar riffs; Hagar is replacing former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, who had replaced Hagar, who had replaced David Lee Roth.

Hagar and the boys had spent 10 successful years together, marked with hits such as Why Can't This Be Love, Dreams and Love Walks In, followed by a final contentious year before they went their separate ways. But when they started speaking to each other again, they found it was easier to remember the 10 good years than the single bad one, Hagar said in a recent phone interview.

"It was a little strange because we had grown eight years farther apart in a way," Hagar said. "But there was a whole other meaning, which was the music. It's like after eight years of not seeing Alex and Ed (Van Halen), I realized I really loved these people, and this is like somebody I spent a lot of time and did some great things with. And I preferred to put all differences aside - we all did - and say, "Let's make music together again, let's go out and do this, you know, and let's see how it feels."'

And now that they've been playing together on the road for a while, Hagar said, they're finding out it feels great.

They're older and they've got a quarter century of rock stardom on their resumes. In some ways, that makes the experience better.

"When you first make it and there's that intensity and you're playing out your dream - anyone who experiences that once in their life is a very lucky human being," Hagar said. "But then to have to still be around, 20 years, 25 years later, and having it still be intense, I feel like one of the most blessed, fortunate people on this planet. And in a way, for me, it's better than it was in the very beginning because there's more soul."

Van Halen doesn't have a record deal at the moment, and the band's most recent release is a greatest hits album. So instead of hyping new songs, the band can pick the best songs from its career.

That includes a lot of tunes from the Roth years. Not a problem, says Hagar, who's happy to sing any of the Roth songs he likes and can perform well. After all, Hagar says, he was a Van Halen fan long before he ever thought he'd join the band.

"I mean," he said, "anyone that can't stand out there and sing a song like Panama and have fun singing it, you're not a rock 'n' roll singer, as far as I'm concerned."

Hagar's return (he prefers to call it a "continuation" rather than a "reunion") gives the current tour a special meaning for fans. But at some shows, one of the most emotional moments has nothing to do with Hagar.

Wolfgang Van Halen, the 13-year-old son of Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli, has been joining the band onstage. (There was no word at press time on whether he'll play tonight in Tampa.) Wolfgang plays guitar on 316, a song his father wrote for him before he was born. The title comes from his birth date.

"When Valerie was pregnant with Wolfie, Ed used to play that guitar riff against Valerie's stomach," Hagar said. "And so to have Wolfie being born into that, and come out and play his birthday song, it's a very, very deep moment. And it doesn't happen every night. That's kind of a special thing when Wolfie is allowed to come out and hang with the boys for a few days."

PREVIEW: Van Halen performs at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa at 8 tonight. Tickets are $66.75 and $86.75. Call (813) 301-2500.

[Last modified September 8, 2004, 08:44:27]

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