Sammy Hagar, Sammy Davis Jr., Sammy Cahn--heck, Van Halen, the world's most popular hard-rock band, could have picked just about anybody as its new lead singer and still have sold out three nights at the Forum in a matter of hours.
That's because the fans don't care nearly as much as the media about the controversy over the departure of flamboyant frontman David Lee Roth and the subsequent arrival of the equally outgoing Sammy Hagar.
Yes, Roth is missed by many, and yes, just as many think Sammy is dandy as a replacement, but the most rapt attention was and still is given to a smirking cherub who never says a word all night, an almost shy-seeming guitarist whose name is . . .
"Ed- die ! Ed- die ! . . . "
The local debut of the new Van Halen (or "the real Van Halen," as bassist Michael Anthony insisted on reiterating) Wednesday at the Forum found lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen soaking up the most rapt attention and applause.
And why not? He has single-handedly (well, double-handedly) redefined the standard for hard-rock guitar playing, for better or worse--the worse part being that he's spawned hordes of awful imitators, after which the real thing can only sound better. Yes, they're the fingers that launched a hundred-thousand air-guitar solos.
As long as Eddie is on hand with the pyrotechnics--culminating in that predictable but sometimes astonishing 15-minute solo he always does--the fans will probably buy just about any reasonable direction the band wants to explore. Right now, that direction is backward, toward a less distinctive brand of arena-rock: You might call it the genericizing of Van Halen.
That shift toward the slightly more mundane was inevitable--and probably even wise--given the mammoth, bigger-than-life personality of the presence recently replaced.
After Roth, rock's foremost clown, even Hagar, rock's second -foremost clown, can't help but seem a little less outlandishly charismatic--or want to. Hagar sounds more comfortable when leading the band in a more light and melodic direction (as in the tasty single "Why Can't This Be Love") than when doing an outright Roth imitation (as in "Good Enough," an asinine extended metaphor on women-as-meat).
The uneven new album "5150" provided the bulk of the songs Wednesday, though Hagar did a creditable job of crooning the few Van Halen oldies that were commanded of him ("Jump" not among them) and a few added choices from his solo catalogue (he got to do "I Can't Drive 55" but missed the perfect chance to dedicate it to the state of Nevada). Hyper Hagar was animated and agitated, but not particularly outrageous.
Anyone who's seen any of Hagar's solo shows in the same arena would have found him remarkably toned down here--no pointed epithets, and only every fifth word or so a profanity. He could still stand to have his mouth washed out with soap several dozen times over, but his between-song raps were blessedly free of the mean-spiritedness he's been afflicted with in solo shows past.
He even found time during the set to compliment a recent Rolling Stone magazine article on the band, instead of going into his usual journalists-as-Commie-nemeses routine. What's the matter, Sammy, have the boys been slipping Nice Pills into your Jack Daniels? Keep up the pleasantness at this rate and it'll be Sammy Maudlin Hagar before you know it.
Van Halen's three-night-stand at the Forum concludes Saturday.