25 Years Ago: Van Halen Release ‘Me Wise Magic’ Amid Reunion Fail
When Van Halen's 1996 reunion with David Lee Roth went off the rails, fans were left with a small amount of solace in the form of two original songs on the Best of – Volume I compilation. It was the first new material from the classic lineup in a dozen years. One of those tracks, “Me Wise Magic,” hit the top spot on the Mainstream Rock chart on Oct. 26, 1996.
Born out of an unlikely reconnection between Roth and Eddie Van Halen in July 1996 after the ousting of Sammy Hagar the previous month, “Me Wise Magic” was one of approximately 20 songs the guitarist presented to the singer as potential bonus tracks on the band's first compilation. (Spanning both the Roth and Hagar eras, the collection included the newish Hagar-led track “Humans Being,” which was released earlier in the year on the Twister soundtrack.)
“Alex [Van Halen] and I had already written a verse melody, and Dave wanted to do something where he sang more,” Eddie told Guitar World. “But after playing 15 other pieces of music for him, we still couldn't find anything that inspired him. After thinking about it, he decided he wanted to go back to ‘Me Wise Magic.’ And I went, ‘Okay, cool.’”
Back then, the song had the working title "The Three Faces of Shamus." At first, the guitarist said, Roth was uncomfortable with the opening line "I know what you're thinking," ruminating that it – along with the melody – sounded too angry. Van Halen convinced him to think of it as “some kind of strange creature” instead of being fueled by anger.
“And the chorus was undeniably majestic and powerful,” Van Halen told Guitar World. “That song has major imagery for me. There are so many vibes to it: The verse is one thing, the chorus is another, and then there's the breakdown before the solo, the solo and the whole fadeout. It's a ride!”
Listen to Van Halen's 'Me Wise Magic'
The guitarist was less enthusiastic about the initial set of lyrics Roth showed him. As was the case with Hagar a few months earlier, it seemed like everything the singer proposed was waved off dismissively. Then things took another turn.
“Now both Edward and Alex are demanding rewrites, a brand-new addition to the process,” Roth recalled in his 1997 memoir Crazy From the Heat. “We’re getting ready to record, the producer is just now showing up, and they walk in with Desmond Childs [sic], some character who writes lyrics for Bon Jovi. They had written a whole song, lyrically and melodically, over the telephone: the producer, Glenn Ballard [sic], Edward Van Halen and Desmond Childs. They brought it in, said, ‘Sing this.’
“Well, I’m sorry, Desmond Childs for Bon Jovi may be the exact right thing. For Van Halen it’s syphilis. Any amount kills the entire organism. Okay? These sanguine, sissified, grew-up-way-too-close-to-mommy lyrics. It sounded awful, but even then, I tried to sing some of it.”
Roth's voice wasn’t exactly in the best shape at the time. His last live performance up to that point was a 1995 New Year’s Eve gig in Las Vegas during an ill-fated lounge-act run with the Blues-Bustin' Mambo Slammers as his backing band. According to the Van Halen brothers, the music for “Me Wise Magic” was completed in just a few takes; the vocals, on the other hand, needed a number of weeks. The song was finally ready to be mixed in early August.
“Me Wise Magic” is a wildly inventive and interesting part of the Van Halen catalog. Clocking in at a little more than six minutes, it’s the longest piece of music the band ever recorded with Roth. The singer’s signature wail had been tempered by age, seven months of rust and occasionally reduced to spoken-word portions, but Eddie Van Halen rips off chunky riffs between high-note squeals, often within mere seconds of one another, as Alex Van Halen provides a monstrous drumming bedrock.
Fans got their first taste of the song when Howard Stern played a sample of it on his Sept. 17, 1996, radio show. Even after a tension-filled MTV Video Music Awards appearance in early September, the option to make a video for “Me Wise Magic” was still on the table. The clip reportedly featured Roth on a screen while the rest of the band played in front of him - a concept that outraged the singer.
"It was going to be Alex Van Halen's way of putting the thumb on the classic Van Halen legend,” Roth said in Crazy From the Heat. “It's just the way he scraped the [Best of – Volume I artwork] clean of anything interesting or colorful. He was going to do that with the video. And at that point I said no, just no.”
A few days later, on Oct. 2, Roth released a statement to the press that the Van Halen reunion wouldn’t be taking place, and it was all Eddie Van Halen’s fault. Less than 24 hours later, the band delivered a vitriol-filled missive of its own; later that same day, radio stations began to play “Me Wise Magic” before receiving a cease-and-desist order from Warner Bros. Records, making them hold off until the official airdate of Oct. 7.
The song debuted at No. 4 on the Mainstream Rock chart, before going No. 1 and staying there for six weeks. The video was never made, a physical single was never released and the song is one of just a handful by the classic Van Halen lineup that was never performed live.