While the VMAs have been host to countless memorable occurrences over the years, it’s fair to say that instances of dramatic spectacle tend to outweigh anything positive in the public memory. Kanye West shutting down Taylor Swift might have gotten more ink in the gossip rags this side of the new millennium, but worlds of hard rock, heavy metal and alternative music had their fair share of scrapes at the awards show during the 1990s.
One such incident took place at the 1996 ceremony, when the classic early lineup of Van Halen stood on stage together for the first time in over a decade. It was the reunion that many fans had dreamed of for ages, and it didn’t last long.
The last time David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony performed in public was when the 1984 tour wrapped up in Turin, Italy on September 7th, 1984. While they might not have played a concert, that formation did appear in public for a brief, glorious and horrible moment at the 1996 VMAs. Having recently parted ways with longtime frontman Sammy Hagar after a dispute over the Twister soundtrack, Diamond Dave was brought back into the fold to record a few songs for a new compilation album. Van Halen astonished the Radio City Music Hall audience on September 4th, 1996 when they took the stage to present the Best Male Video Award.
“We have to make an announcement,” Roth proclaimed. “We have to address a subject here. This is the first time we’ve actually stood onstage together in over a decade.”
As to be expected from Roth, he was going off script, and Eddie Van Halen was visibly upset. The band shared an awkward hug that won a standing ovation, but the mood continued to sour as Roth usurped the mic from bassist Michael Anthony.
“Have you noticed how things have changed a lot since the last time we were up here?” the frontman asked the audience. “It used to be, ‘I Want My MTV!’ and now it’s like, ‘Gimme your fucking MTV or I’ll blow your head off man.” An irate Eddie removed Roth from the podium, but it wasn’t enough. Diamond Dave continued to make a scene even without a mic.
It might be customary for award presenters to stand back while the winner of the award speaks, but Roth would not be deterred from his renewed moment in the spotlight. He stood directly behind Beck, who had just been granted the Moon Man for his single “Where It’s At,” and gyrated like a lunatic. When Van Halen walked offstage together, the public presumed that a reunion tour was imminent. The announcement never came.
The band might have recorded two new songs (“Me Wise Magic” and “Can’t Get This Stuff No More”), but that’s as far as it went for this particular lineup. Several months later, Eddie and Alex clarified their feelings on the VMAs and Van Halen’s tentative future with Roth in an interview with MTV. “I felt his onstage antics were embarrassing and disrespectful to Beck,” said Eddie. “Backstage he basically spit in my face. We get shuffled off to the first mob press conference and everyone was yelling and screaming questions and Dave wasn’t answering any of them.
“I just kinda walked up to him and say, ‘Look, here’s what is happening. Two songs for Best Of Volume One. Warner Bros. would like us to do two videos and that is it,'” he explained. “If you think we’re going on tour in the summer, forget it. We’re not going to go out there and take your money. If we ever do a tour with Roth in the future we’ll have to write and record a new album. Also, I’m getting a new hip on December 6th, so that’s going to throw a wrench in the works.”
From Eddie’s account, Roth didn’t respond well to having the wind taken out of his sails. “All of sudden his vibe changed,” said Van Halen. “He goes, ‘Tonight’s about me man and not your fucking hip.’ I just bit my tongue and say, ‘OK, Dave, you, Alex and Michael do it. Answer the questions and I will not address my hip.’” According to Eddie, Roth’s response was: “You better not.” Their tour manager had to intervene in order to keep the encounter from coming to blows.
Roth issued an apology in short order, saying in part: “I was an unwitting participant in this deception. It sickens me that the ‘reunion’ as seen on MTV was nothing more than a publicity stunt. If I am guilty of anything, I’m guilty of denial. I wanted to believe it just as much as anyone else. Those who know me know that trickery was never my style.”
Extreme singer Gary Cherone briefly stepped into the Van Halen orbit as frontman for a new album and tour before being quietly let go in 1999. The band reunited with Sammy Hagar for a tour five years later, but Eddie’s drinking problem had progressed to the point of instability by that time. Roth did finally return in 2007, but Michael Anthony had been replaced with Eddie’s teenage son Wolfgang by that point. With Eddie Van Halen’s death in 2020, a full-scale reunion will only happen in our collective dreams.