ichael Anthony used to drink Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle.
The fleshy Van Halen bassist — whose body once looked as if it were held together with Bisquick and bourbon — would gulp the stuff down right onstage, happily draining liter bottles of Tennessee’s finest to no end but his own. The guy was the life of the party and the death of short-term memory.
Anthony still sweats whiskey, still flashes a 100-proof smile capable of reducing Breathalyzers to ash. But now he drinks a little slower and walks a little faster. His arms are more defined and perpetually jut out of a sleeveless something or other. His liver no longer requires its own zip code.
During a recent Van Halen gig at Buffalo, New York’s HSBC Arena, Anthony ran around the stage pounding his bass like it owed him money. Four songs into the 2-hour set, he let loose with a rumbling solo that sounded like a heavy-metal whale call, then rammed his head into his amp.
He finished by pulling out the Jack Daniel’s. It was the moment of revelry and release everyone had been waiting for. But instead of the economy-size bottle of Jack that Anthony used to chug, he downed one of those little sissy, single-shot jobs, the kind they charge five bucks for on airplanes, the ones Grandma sneaks into the bingo hall.
Ya better call up a doctor, feelin’ high, Anthony sang as VH launched into “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” I’m overloaded, baby, I say, Bye-bye!
Apparently, Anthony was bidding adieu to the shit-faced shenanigans that once defined his band. Van Halen still parties, but now it parties like parents who get loaded only when their kids are away at camp.
Twentysomethings were rarely visible at the Buffalo concert, though the crowd was still more Budweiser than Ben-Gay. “Let’s pee in the sink!” one dude bellowed in the bathroom when confronted with long urinal lines. He stood next to a guy who had fashioned a cowboy hat out of a Labatt Blue box.
This was hard rock’s first generation all grown up, and it was a strange sight to see. But Van Halen has done its best to mature right along with its fans. The three original members — Anthony and brothers Alex and Eddie Van Halen — have buried old grievances and reunited with blond belter Sammy Hagar for the first time in nine years.
“I made the call to Al, but it was not in any business sense. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s get back together,'” Hagar said during a recent conference call. “I happened to be in Southern California with my family, vacationing at a resort at the beach, and I was talking to somebody else, and they said, ‘Hey, you ever talk to those guys?’ and this and that, and I’m going, ‘You know, no. I’m going to give Alex a call one of these days.’
“And then I finally did,” Hagar continued. “I just called up Michael Anthony, who I had been in connection with a lot, and said, ‘Hey, get me Alex’s phone number. I think I’m going to call him.’ And when I did, we talked for so long. It was just, wow — I really miss this friendship. And then, of course, once you start playing music, it was all over.”
Van Halen’s attempt to start anew was evident in Buffalo. The band began the set with “Jump,” something of a surprise considering Hagar’s past reluctance to play David Lee Roth-era tunes.
“I used to be a little sensitive to the old material — everyone knows that — and you know, we only did two or three [songs],” Hagar admits. “[But] I’m not now. It’s like we have a whole different outlook on everything.”
Yes and no.
While performing the ’80s hit “Panama” in Buffalo, Hagar refused to sing all of Roth’s lyrics. “Not me,” he mouthed, denying responsibility for authorship of the song and letting the audience supply the vocals instead. And though the band played more Roth material than it had in the past (five out of twenty songs), it still seemed lacking.
But, as in Diamond Dave’s days, Van Halen is never short on showmanship. On the current tour, the band members bound about a circular, silver stage that opens into two pits, where around 100 fans can high-five and toast the band throughout the show. At the back of the stage, a towering video screen is embedded in a large, rust-colored metal sphere that looks like a giant depth charge.
In Buffalo, the band was constantly in motion, with Hagar jogging in place, doing the limbo and pouring Corona down Anthony’s throat. Alex Van Halen’s manic drumming sounded as if he were banging away at four kits simultaneously. Eddie Van Halen, who didn’t drink with the rest of the band, played with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his long, black locks pulled into a knot atop his head. “That hairdo makes him look like Zippy the Pinhead,” the lady next to us observed.
Four songs into the set, lighters were in the air. Husbands and wives kissed passionately during Hagar’s acoustic rendition of “When Eagles Fly.” Later, a guy proposed to his date at the side of the stage by holding up a large banner that read “Hey beautiful, will you marry me?” This happened right before the band tore into “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.”
But if Van Halen has always been about romancing the ladies, these days it’s also about romancing the past.
“They sound great,” a middle-aged fella exclaimed as he bought a beer toward the end of the show. “It’s like 1985, man.”
Monday, July 26,
at Kemper Arena