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Welcome back, Dave

(ran TP edition)

For the first half of our childhood, my older brother and I shared a bedroom.

We didn't see eye-to-eye on music.

And so the turntable was Ground Zero in a long-raging war: my Led Zeppelin versus his Van Halen.

We debated endlessly about which band was better, but I always felt that I had the last laugh. Zeppelin never went through personnel or chart-pandering stylistic changes. And the band-ending 1980 death of its drummer John Bonham sealed its great musical legacy forever. But Van Halen kicked its legendary frontman David Lee Roth out at the height of the band's popularity in 1985, making way for an imminent decline.

They replaced him with Sammy Hagar, a second-tier guitar hero and solo artist who survived the early '80s metal wars that the old Van Halen dominated.

Though the new "Van Hagar" sold more records than ever before, its music became increasingly soppy and many disaffected fans insisted that the band lost its identifying spirit. Meanwhile, throughout the '80s and '90s Led Zeppelin's stature in rock culture became more vaulted than ever. I laughed to myself over the years. "Told ya! Told ya!," I thought of telling my brother.

Van Halen recently kicked Hagar out and all but officially re-admitted Roth. I stopped laughing.

The response to the news will help make this event one of the biggest, if not the biggest, rock stories this year. Up to 700 e-mail log-ons a day lit up the Internet with verbal volleys fired from both Roth and Hagar supporters. Another Internet poll tallied 66 percent in favor of Roth rejoining. MTV immediately started running 30-second video montages featuring Roth, set to the theme of Welcome Back, Kotter. Ace's Records in North Tampa reported a 50 percent increase in sales of Roth-era Van Halen merchandise.

Even I, a lifelong non-fan of Van Halen, had to gawk with the rest of the rock world.

Band reunions are nothing new in this era of retro rock profiteering. So what's so special about this one?

First of all, Van Halen never deactivated. They were in something of a slump (the band's latest album Balance stalled at a relatively disappointing 2-million copies, and its tour only drew 7,400 to St. Petersburg's ThunderDome last summer) before guitarist Eddie Van Halen fired Hagar. But Van Halen is still very much alive with a fan base that most bands can only dream of.

And of course, Van Halen isn't just any rock band. It redefined hard rock with its 1978 debut and Eddie's monumental guitar approach. With its unique sound, the band galloped through the early '80s like a brash young colt and made its peers _ sluggish British goth metal veterans and smirking Southern California posers _ look like a stumbling herd.

And straddling the thunder was rock's main bad boy, the platinum-maned, acrobatic showman Roth, who couldn't sing for nuts but nonetheless re-epitomized the ultimate rock frontman. Except for his bloated showbiz streak that eventually blotted out his rocker sensibility and earned him the pink slip.

Roth's subsequent solo career started strong but eventually deteriorated with his fatal attraction for showbiz schmaltz. He abandoned arena rock altogether and literally went Vegas last year with a revue show that played joints like Bally's and the MGM Grand. Few rock stars have plunged so far after flying so high.

Hagar, a capable singer and songwriter and noteworthy guitarist, gave Van Halen new musical credibility, even if his ham-fisted, cliched swagger diminished Van Halen's charisma quotient.

Hagar recently reported that he and Eddie were beginning to disagree about the band's musical direction in the wake of the lackluster Balance tour. Then the ax fell three weeks ago.

The official line from Van Halen's record company, Warner Bros., is that Roth is recording a new song with the band for an upcoming greatest hits release. He's yet to officially re-join Van Halen, but fans old and new see this as a done deal.

"I was happy. I was pretty shocked, too," said Heather McKinnon, owner of Ace's. "There's a lot more people coming in here excited about Van Halen than I've ever seen."

"I guess I was surprised, hopeful more than anything," said John Minor, a manager at Music Revolution in South Tampa and longtime fan. "I'd like to see it be a good project, I'd like to see it be like the old Van Halen."

But with every rock reunion comes a healthy airing of cynicism. "You have to wonder if it's just a way to make money," Minor said. "The KISS reunion is doing well."

Greg Mull, program director and operations manager for 98 Rock, is in the minority of Hagar supporters. "I was disappointed (by the news). I see it as purely for financial gain. I truly believe that the guys in Van Halen, whose last tour didn't do spectacularly, saw the kind of reaction that KISS was getting in re-forming, and they drew a conclusion of "One and one equals let's bring Dave back, and we'll go tour and make that same kind of money.' "

Even though he's been a fan since he played Van Halen's first single as a 17-year-old deejay in Lenoir, N.C., he has grim outlook now. "From my personal perspective and from a musical perspective, the band is about to cease to exist."

Clearwater jazz fusion bassist Jeff Berlin has a less cynical view. The highly regarded session player is a longtime friend of Eddie Van Halen, and said "I don't think that the guy is so utterly dedicated _ not when he's got 30-million in the bank right now _ to be overly concerned about the fact that his tours may or may not sell what they used to. David Lee Roth and Eddie were not getting along (in 1985), and in a big-time way. And I don't think Ed would put up with that again, simply on the merit of selling more tickets."

Berlin says he was approached by Eddie to join the band in 1983, but Roth vetoed on the grounds that the jazz bassist couldn't look or act the part of the rocker. Still, Berlin's in favor of the new development. "I'm happy about it, because I think David is organically necessary to that band. I always knew Sammy Hagar was technically a better singer than Dave Roth, but technical vocalizing isn't important in rock 'n roll anyway. I mean Roth is the consummate, absolute consummate frontman."

What happens in the short term is pretty much a no-brainer, if other recent mega-reunions serve as indicators. Van Halen will re-ignite its fans and make scads of money.

Long-term predictions are always tougher. Whether we see a new Van Halen or an attempt at their early glory days remains to be seen. But as for my old debate with my older brother, some things are better left in the past. I'm not the Zep freak I used to be, and Van Halen vs. Superchunk just doesn't have much of a ring.