Mas Van Hagar: Why Sammy Hagar's Motivation Is More Powerful Than David Lee Roth's Bravado

The first time I saw Van Halen perform live, the band was colloquially known as Van Hagar. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Michael Anthony had just reunited with their second frontman Sammy Hagar to promote a greatest-hits package titled Best of Both Worlds; I bought floor seats about ten rows back from the Meadowlands stage and in a direct line of sight of Eddie's quicksilver fingers from a guy with connections. Having been a Van Hagar fan for quite some time, that night was a thrilling culmination to all those adolescent years spent in my bedroom air guitaring, air drumming, and (yes) air bassing. I commemorated the evening by buying a bootleg t-shirt in the parking lot.

Eight years later, I stood in Madison Square Garden for yet another Van Halen live performance, except this time, the once even-more-estranged frontman David Lee Roth was handling vocal duties. The foursome, experts on the art of Reunion, were back together in support of an album of new (well, sort of) material titled A Different Kind of Truth. As anyone who is still paying attention to the band will admit, it's a return to form, bluesy and bombastic, debauched and lecherous, vintage sounding and also hopelessly dated. New songs like "She's The Woman" and "Tattoo" fit seamlessly into the set list, which featured staples like "You Really Got Me," "Jump," and "Dance the Night Away." Rock and roll, mission accomplished.

But while I had a drunkenly exceptional time, thanks in part to the Garden's newly instituted 1:1 bartender-to-ticketholder ratio, during Roth's improvised "Panama" banter, I realized something that I had always suspected, but never felt truly comfortable saying aloud.

I'm just more of a Van Hagar guy.

As far as most people are concerned—and by most, I mean, America—Van Hagar does not hold up to Van Halen, both in terms of awesomeness and in terms of more awesomeness. I can understand this preference. I've read Roth's autobiography; he's undoubtedly a Rock Star, and at 56 years old he is very much the formidable frontman. Still running with the devil, albeit a little more out of breath. At Thursday's show he did his little shimmy, channeled MJ for a signature take on the Moonwalk, and came out during "Ain't Talkin' About Love" with a baton that even got a couple of twirls.

It was hard to tell the exact condition of Roth's voice with Alex's thunderous drums, and Eddie's Zeusian guitar also competing for the soundboard, but he thrived throughout the two-hour set. He smiled maniacally, did some disjointed meandering, and took Madison Square Garden back to 1985 like it was a hot arena time machine. Still despite all of his charisma, Roth's persona can occasionally translate as a touch "showbiz," almost Vegas-like, and at times, he reminded me of the Catskills, one "ha-cha-cha-cha" away from being Jimmy Durante.

At the Meadowlands in 2004, though, Sammy Hagar was anything but Vegas. He was more Cabo, his curly blonde hair in a perpetual state of bounce. He ran back and forth, and from side to side, even charging into the crowd via a plank overhead and showing the crowd his sneaker soles. (They were red and black, just like Eddie's signature guitar.)

Hagar is also seven years older than Roth, which means in 2004, when Hagar was giving 110% to the audience, he was the same age as Roth, who is giving it about 87%, is now. But unbridled effort is not reason enough for this personal preference. There has to be more justification for being in this closeted minority.

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