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The Boston Phoenix Jesus Jones

Gary Cherone gets serious with Van Halen.

By Matt Ashare

MARCH 16, 1998:  Perhaps the best post-Extreme role singer Gary Cherone has ever played was the lead in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The dark, brooding quality of Cherone's '80s-metal-screamer voice, and his humorless emotional delivery, which comes across as a severe kind of naïveté, are a perfect match for the pretensions of rock opera in general, and well suited to the character of Jesus of Nazareth. Plus, in the Boston Rock Opera production of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, you got the bonus of watching various members of the local underground music scene crucify a bona fide mainstream-rock star, which added a special resonance and immediacy to Cherone's playacting. That Cherone was able to appear deaf to the humorous implications of the role only heightened the message of the musical. You were, you know, sort of psyched when they nailed him to the cross, and you also felt a little guilty about it.

Cherone, as anyone who saw MTV's Week in Review news show last weekend now knows, lives. In fact, he's taken the lead in another musical tragicomedy -- the Van Halen saga. Only the ending has yet to be written for this one. It's a story that began a little over 20 years ago, when an ambitious frontguy named David Lee Roth saved Edward and Alex Van Halen from settling into the LA hard-rock cover-band rut and, having persuaded the virtuoso brothers to change the band's name from Mammoth to Van Halen rather than the Black Sabbath-inspired Rat Salade, helped them conquer the rock world. Roth was, as Mick Jagger would say, a man of wealth and taste, but, really, it was his keen sense of humor that set Van Halen apart. Miraculously, the band survived his departure and, with the exception of that one European tour where they actually opened for Bon Jovi, kept their dignity largely intact for a decade with false idol Sammy Hagar in Roth's place.

Which brings us to Van Halen III (Warner Bros.), also known as the act in which Gary could very well be made to suffer for Sammy's sins. You see, Hagar brought to Van Halen two things the band simply didn't need -- run-of-the-mill rhythm-guitar playing and his meat-and-potatoes appeal to heavy-metal kids, a demographic Van Halen don't need any help with. Hagar's a hack whose brand of macho has been out of style since they raised the speed limit to '65 -- a lump of coal to Roth's Diamond Dave, whose wicked wit attracted a crowd looking for more than just a wicked fast guitar solo. And though Edward and Alex Van Halen may be guilty of possessing bad taste and poor judgment, they're not hacks. (Bassist Michael Anthony is the hack, but he's always stayed out of the way.)

Enter Cherone, who's about as cheery as the mythical sandman, if somewhat better-looking. He's no Diamond Dave either, but he's got substance and a kind of vulnerable innocence that's not so far from the earnest gravity of an Eddie Vedder or a Chris Cornell. The Van Halens tried the alterna-grunge thing with Sammy, on "Humans Being" from the soundtrack to Twister, but who's gonna take angst seriously from the mouth of a guy who gets all worked up about the fact that he can't drive 55? Grave Gary's much more believable with his somber expressions and dark, brooding good looks. And he's got a powerfully pained voice to boot. When he's talkin' 'bout love, as he does on Van Halen III's first single, "Without You," it's a spiritual thing, not a carnal desire. Cherone's lyrics, as Eddie accurately told MTV, aren't all about female body parts. Hell, not even "Fire in the Hole," a hard-rocking riff-heavy metal screamer on the new disc with a title that both Dave and Sammy would have had some fun with, has a lewd double entendre.

It's too late for Van Halen to throw in with the alternative nation, but Cherone has arrived just in time to give the band a way to greet middle age with a modicum of dignity. And inasmuch as he's both Eddie's and Alex's junior (Cherone's 36, Alex and Eddie are in their 40s), his impact on the band has been far greater than anyone might have predicted. For starters, it's the first time Eddie's written music to words (instead of the other way around), and he was so moved by Cherone's lyric writing that he actually takes a turn at lead vocals (on the disc-closing piano ballad "How Many Say I").

The overall tone of the album is darker, more ponderous, and, well, less frothy than Van Halen have been in the past, though Eddie's pyrotechnics are still in full effect. In fact, in a lot of ways the band seem to be picking up where Extreme left off with the high-concept art rock of their second-to-last release, 1992's III Sides to Every Story. Or where Cherone himself was last seen, indulging unblinkingly in the rock-operatics of Jesus Christ Superstar. It's not as much fun as the old Van Halen, though there are some awfully funny lines -- "Fat man, he's ordering seconds/Pizza man, he wants a slice" is one of the gems in "One I Want." But it's a lot less painful than listening to Eddie and Alex waste their talents on a hack like Sammy, and that's enough to be thankful for right now.

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