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WHEN HE HEADED TO L.A. IN 1996 TO audition for a job as Van Halen's lead singer, Gary Cherone wasn't planning a long stay. Cherone, a former member of the Boston-based group Extreme, had never been a fanatic fan of Van Halen, despite their millions of album sales, didn't know the words to their songs and envisioned a quick tryout followed by a quick turnaround flight. Things changed after his first meeting with leader Eddie Van Halen. "I could tell he didn't suffer from LSD—Lead Singer Disease," says Van Halen, 43, alluding to the band's previous vocalists, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. "When he was still standing there with his bag in his hand, I knew he lived and breathed music just like I do." Within half an hour, Cherone had written words and Van Halen music for their first song. Almost immediately, I "bonded on a deeper level than I ever have" with a fellow musician, says Van Halen.
The band's new album took longer to put together. Cherone, now 36, moved into a guest house at the home Van Halen shares with actress-wife Valerie Bertinelli ("I'm the rock and roll Kato Kaelin," he jokes) and during the next year of work even vacationed with them.
With Van Halen III now in stores, the band—including Eddie's brother Alex on drums and Michael Anthony on bass—will soon tour. And thanks to their new singer and wordsmith, says Van Halen, there will be more than music for fans to appreciate. "No lyrics ever inspired me until I heard what Gary was writing," admits Van Halen. "It had always been music first for me. And 9 times out of 10, the lyrics were about female body parts."