Eddie Van Halen on Surviving Addiction, Why He's Still Making Music and What He Really Thinks of David Lee Roth
He conquered drugs, booze and cancer, but heavy metal's Hendrix now faces his greatest challenge — a summer tour with David Lee Roth: "He doesn't want to be my friend."
Eddie Van Halen doesn't listen to music.
This is not a fake-out or a misdirection, nor is it a seemingly straightforward statement that actually means its opposite. Eddie Van Halen does not listen to music. “I don’t listen to anything,” he tells me from a greenish couch inside 5150, the expansive home recording studio built on his seven-acre residence in Studio City, Calif. I’d just asked if he ever revisits old Van Halen albums, but his disinterest in those records is merely the tip of a very weird iceberg: Unlike every other musician I’ve ever met, he does not listen to any music he isn’t actively making. The guitarist maintains that the last album he purchased was Peter Gabriel’s So, when it came out in 1986. He’s not familiar with the work of Radiohead, Metallica or Guns N’ Roses. He appears to know only one Ozzy Osbourne song Randy Rhoads played on, and it’s “Crazy Train.” He scarcely listened to Pantera, even though he spoke at the funeral of the group’s guitarist and placed the axe from Van Halen II inside the man’s casket. He doesn’t listen to the radio in his car, much to the annoyance of his wife (“I prefer the sound of the motor,” he says). He sheepishly admits he never even listened to most of the bands that opened for Van Halen and worries, “Does that make me an asshole?” Sometimes he listens to Yo-Yo Ma, because he loves the sound of the cello. But even that is rare.
“It’s an odd thing, but I’ve been this way my whole life,” he continues. “I couldn’t make a contemporary record if I wanted to, because I don’t know what contemporary music sounds like.”
As a high school student, he was obsessed with Eric Clapton and mildly interested in Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. That’s pretty much the extent of his investment as a consumer. He can intuitively learn almost any song he hears and works on his own music every day -- the 5150 archive is filled to the rafters with unreleased recordings -- but he simply isn’t intrigued by the music of other people (the last “new” guitarist he liked is 68-year-old jazz artist Allan Holdsworth, who’s eight years older than he is). And if that seems strange, here’s something stranger: A few minutes after explaining this, I casually mention Taylor Swift as an example of modern songwriting; before I finish my thought, Van Halen rhetorically speculates on the role Max Martin might play within her songwriting process. So how is it possible to not listen to music for three decades, yet still know the reputation of a faceless Swedish songwriter who specializes in high-gloss pop?
“I have a lot of Google alerts set up,” says Van Halen. “I think I read something where somebody said, ‘If Max Martin played guitar like Eddie Van Halen, he’d be dangerous.’ I know he’s like the modern Desmond Child. He makes all the hits. But that’s all I know about him.”
It’s a contradiction -- but not the first one, or the last.
Merging from the backyard party scene of mid-’70s Pasadena, Van Halen radically modernized the trajectory of American metal by simultaneously making it less heavy, more melodic, less gothic and more inclusive. The band’s first six albums sold 34 million copies in the United States, according to the RIAA, punctuated by the mammoth No. 1 single “Jump” in 1984. But that volcanic success melted into a never-ending carousel of high-profile reinvention: Vocalist David Lee Roth went solo, prompting the group to relaunch its identity with Sammy Hagar. During the next 10 years, this more refined, less bombastic version of Van Halen sold another 14.7 million records -- but that lineup was similarly doomed, leading to Hagar’s acrimonious departure and an ultra-brief, ill-fated reconciliation with Roth at the 1996 MTV Music Awards. That debacle spiraled into an awkward three-year union with ex-Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, the only singer Van Halen officially terminated. “It was a strange thing with Cherone,” recalls Van Halen. “We were getting ready to go on tour, and all of a sudden I see this John Travolta outfit -- these big lapels and a crazy jacket. He’s like, ‘This is my stage outfit.’ That’s when I realized it wasn’t going to work. But I don’t dislike Gary at all.”
Hagar rejoined in 2003 (mostly for touring purposes) but exited again after two years, this time followed by bassist Michael Anthony (eventually replaced in Van Halen by Eddie’s son Wolfgang). Rumors that Roth would return once more progressively bubbled to the surface; in 2007, it finally happened. Which leaves us where we are today, at least for the moment. The current lineup released A Different Kind of Truth in 2012, trailed by a 2015 live album cut in Japan. Interestingly, A Different Kind of Truth included a handful of old songs abandoned from the band’s earliest demos, selected by Wolfgang and lyrically updated by Roth.
Eddie Van Halen looks back on these transactions the way a Vietnam vet recalls Cambodia -- certain details are vivid while others blend together, but he has no nostalgia for any of it. The most hyperkinetic guitarist of the past 40 years has become, for lack of a better term, exceedingly normcore. “I’m a T-shirt and jeans guy,” he says while compulsively vaping. He no longer smokes cigarettes, having surgically lost one-third of his tongue to a cancer that eventually drifted into his esophagus. Still, he’s not certain if the cigarettes were totally to blame.
“I used metal picks -- they’re brass and copper -- which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer,” he says. “Plus, I basically live in a recording studio that’s filled with electromagnetic energy. So that’s one theory. I mean, I was smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything. But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it’s possible.”
The surgery has slightly affected his speech, in the same way his 1999 hip replacement slightly affected his mobility. But he works out several times a week and appears remarkably spry. As proof, Van Halen is about to embark on a 40-plus-date North American tour. He will be joined by his drummer brother, Alex (whom he loves), his bassist son (whom he loves) and vocalist Roth (with whom he has no relationship whatsoever).
“He does not want to be my friend,” Van Halen says, seemingly bemused. “How can I put this: Roth’s perception of himself is different than who he is in reality. We’re not in our 20s anymore. We’re in our 60s. Act like you’re 60. I stopped coloring my hair, because I know I’m not going to be young again.”
Eddie would love to make another Van Halen album, but that plan has obstructions. “It’s hard, because there are four people in this band, and three of us like rock’n’roll. And one of us likes dance music,” he says. “And that used to kind of work, but now Dave doesn’t want to come to the table.” That said, Van Halen still seems more magnanimous to Roth than he does toward Hagar and Anthony. He swears he has no hatred for anyone, but his grudges run deep (he’s still pissed that longtime producer Ted Templeman forced him to waste an original Minimoog keyboard composition for the single “Dancing in the Streets” in 1982: “The whole reason I built this studio was to shove it up Templeman’s ass”). The fundamental nature of his genius confounds logic: He is an autodidact who can play any instrument he gets his paws on (he owns an oboe, for instance), but he’s also the rare rock artist who studied music at college (both he and Alex attended Pasadena Community College in the early ’70s). He’s a classically trained pianist, but he can’t read music. And he insists that -- had he taken proper guitar lessons -- he would have never developed the innovative techniques that are now regularly taught by proper guitar instructors.
“Eddie has the natural gift of melody, with the deepest right-hand groove,” notes Joe Satriani, a fellow virtuoso who (somewhat ironically) now plays in the band Chickenfoot with two former members of Van Halen. “Eddie put the smile back in rock guitar, at a time when it was all getting a bit brooding. He also scared the hell out of a million guitarists around the world, because he was so damn good. And original.”
Since unleashing the instrumental “Eruption” in 1978, Van Halen has pioneered a career based on astonishment and influence. The first question every rival guitarist asked upon hearing the first Van Halen album was, “How is he making those sounds?” The second tended to be, “And how can I copy it?” As a consequence, the 1980s were saturated with Eddie clones, all of whom tried to prove that they, too, could hammer on the neck of their guitar with maximum dexterity. But it never really worked for anyone else.
“That was a different trip,” Van Halen recalls. “It was like, ‘What the hell did I start here?’ Because [that technique] had been a part of my playing for so long, and then everybody else started doing it. I did not take it as flattery. But it ultimately didn’t matter, because I still play that way and none of those other people stayed with it.” He further notes that all the Big Hair replicants ignored a subtle aspect of his methodology -- he always held the neck of the instrument with both hands while he hammered (as opposed to just popping the strings with the fingers of an open hand). Now, why that detail makes a difference is hard to deduce. But that’s just one of myriad mysteries within Van Halen’s populist catalog. There are many who can instantly recall the first time they heard songs like “Panama” and “Unchained” and “D.O.A.” -- but Eddie Van Halen is not among them.
“I have no memory of coming up with any of those riffs,” he says. “Even the stuff I wrote for the last record, I don’t remember. It just comes to me. I never sit down and decide to write a song. I’ve never done that.”
This sentiment becomes more explicable when you hear the explanation for how Eddie used to work. For most of his career, he wrote on tour. After every show, the other three members of the band would hit the town and carouse (“My brother was the biggest horndog of them all,” he says). But not Eddie. Eddie would remain alone in his hotel room, where he’d spend the entire night drinking vodka, snorting cocaine and noodling into a tape recorder.
“I didn’t drink to party,” he says now, sober since 2008. “Alcohol and cocaine were private things to me. I would use them for work. The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions. I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state. You just play by yourself with a tape running, and after about an hour, your mind goes to a place where you’re not thinking about anything.”
Here again, the contradiction is stark: While directing the ultimate California party band, Eddie Van Halen took little pleasure from partying. Drugs and booze were simply intertwined with a relatively hermetic lifestyle. In fact, most rumors about Van Halen’s drinking adopt an unusually dark tone, most notably a passage from Hagar’s 2011 autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock that portrays Eddie as a violent, booze-addled vampire, living inside a garbage house resembling the mansion from Grey Gardens.
“I was an alcoholic, and I needed alcohol to function,” he says now. For years, he awoke every morning with dry heaves. “I started drinking and smoking when I was 12. I got drunk before I’d show up to high school. My ninth grade science teacher, he could smell the alcohol, and he told me, ‘Don’t drink anything you can’t see through.’ And I was like, ‘So, vodka?’ And he said yeah. Which was great, because that was my drink...I’m not blaming my father at all, but he was an alcoholic, too. So in our household, it was normal. But it never affected his work, although I guess it didn’t affect my work, either. Around 2004, I suppose I became a very angry drunk. But [the stuff in Hagar’s book] was definitely embellished. That’s him painting a picture of something that never happened.”
Not surprisingly, Hagar stands behind his book’s depiction. “There is what Eddie says and there is the truth,” he says. “I’m happy to see that he’s healthy, sober and playing music again.”
Part of what makes Van Halen’s persona difficult to interpret is his tendency to swing between unyielding perfectionism and mild apathy. When making the early VH albums, he would often sneak back into the studio at four in the morning to fix mistakes only he could hear. Yet he can also be confoundingly laissez-faire about significant career accomplishments. For example, it’s widely known that he received no compensation for playing the solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” What’s less known is that he (probably) deserves a chunk of the track’s songwriting credit, too. But he doesn’t care about this at all. It’s almost like he doesn’t comprehend the magnitude of the song, the fame of the person who sang it or the singularity of his own contribution.
“I think it’s funny the way people talk about that,” he says. “It was 20 minutes of my life. I didn’t want anything for doing that...I literally thought to myself, ‘Who is possibly going to know if I play on this kid’s record?’ So I went to the studio and listened to the song twice, and I didn’t like the section they wanted me to solo over. They wanted me to solo over the breakdown. I asked [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones to edit the chords underneath the solo. Then I could play the solo in the key of E, but it was the chords underneath that made the solo interesting. So I guess I did rearrange it.”
Right now, the only new music Eddie seems excited about is a forthcoming solo project from Wolfgang, 24, who’s also crafting the set list for the upcoming tour (they’re including a handful of songs they’ve never played live -- “Dirty Movies,” “Drop Dead Legs, “Top Jimmy”). To classify Eddie as the consummate family man might be a tad overstated, but he takes familial ties seriously: Alex is his indefatigable best friend, their relationship forged by their childhood emigration from Amsterdam in 1962 (when they arrived in the United States, the brothers could speak only four English words -- “yes,” “no,” “motorcycle” and “accident”). He still has a good relationship with his first wife (and Wolfgang’s mother), actress Valerie Bertinelli (when Eddie married his current wife, stuntwoman-turned-publicist Janie Liszewski, in 2009, Bertinelli was one of the 100 guests in attendance). Eddie dislikes Van Halen’s ’82 cover version of “Big Bad Bill,” but he’s overjoyed his musician father was able to play clarinet on it. And he’s adamant that his son is a better bass player than the exiled Anthony, almost to the point of overkill.
“Every note Mike ever played, I had to show him how to play,” Van Halen claims. “Before we’d go on tour, he’d come over with a video camera and I’d have to show him how to play all the parts.” He doesn’t even credit Anthony for his harmonic backing vocals, which fans classify as an integral part of the group’s signature. “Mike’s voice is like a piccolo trumpet. But he’s not a singer. He just has a range from hell,” he says. “Mike was just born with a very high voice. I have more soul as a singer than he does. And you know, people always talk about Mike’s voice on Van Halen songs, but that’s a blend of Mike’s voice and my voice. It’s not just him.” (Anthony’s rebuttal to these accusations is diplomatic: “I am proud to say that my bass playing and vocals helped create our sound. I’ve always chosen to take the high road and stay out of the never-ending mudslinging, because I believe that it ultimately ends up hurting the Van Halen fans.”)
The reasons Van Halen split with Anthony in 2006 are predictably complex -- it involves Anthony’s relationship with Hagar, his lack of contribution to the songwriting process and the fact that he did not phone when Eddie developed cancer (or when Eddie and Alex’s mother died). But that conflict feeds into a larger question that’s more complicated: Why does Eddie Van Halen so often work with people he doesn’t seem to like? It does not appear that he needs the money or enjoys the fame. He concedes that he barely knows the words to most Van Halen tracks, which means he doesn’t care about the lyrics to songs he doesn’t recall inventing. He could spend the rest of his days making music by himself, in his own isolated studio, and no one would question the decision. So why, at the age of 60, does he continue to tour with a singer who drives him insane? Because he feels obligated to do so.
“I think it’s now built into people’s DNA, that it just won’t be Van Halen if it’s not Roth’s voice,” he says. “This conversation brings me back to being in Pasadena Community College with Alex, where all these strict jazz guys would call us musical prostitutes, because we would be gigging at rock clubs every night and then stumbling into class the next day. But there is an element of music that is for the people. You make music for people. Otherwise, just play in your closet. And how do you reach the most people? By giving them the band that they know. To do it any other way would be selfish.” Van Halen is hitting the road. And they’re hitting the road for you.
This article first appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard magazine.