Between Jimi Hendrix and Slash, there was Eddie Van Halen. For rockers who came of age in the late '70s and early '80s, EVH was the ultimate guitar hero. From his showcase piece on the first album's 'Eruption,' as well as FM staples like 'You Really Got Me' and 'Running With the Devil,' he consistently tops the list of most influential guitarists of his generation.
In recent years, though, the guitar god has battled throat cancer, gone through rehab and divorced his wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, positioning him more as tabloid fodder than rock idol. However, sober, healthy and happily engaged to publicist Janie Liszewski, he's back, as evidenced by the chants of "Eddie! Eddie!" that awaited him every night on the recent sold-out Van Halen tour that reunited him with frontman David Lee Roth. With the band that bears his surname currently between projects, Eddie has turned his attention back to his passion of guitars, specifically designing them. With the recent release of the Fender Wolfgang guitar, named for his 18-year-old son, now Van Halen's bass player, Eddie spoke with Spinner. Though his interviews are rare these days, he proved to be very forthcoming, sharing stories about several of Van Halen's signature songs, including 'Jump' and 'Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love,' touring with AC/DC, learning to play sober and how his guitar riffs are literally God-given.
You didn't start off playing guitar, did you?
I never took guitar lessons. I took classical piano lessons from the age of six when we lived in Holland. And when we moved to America, it was just the typical thing except I was really good at it; so was my brother. Long Beach City College had this contest, it was a piano recital, and I won three years in a row. But I stopped playing piano for one reason: I was forced to do it and I wasn't allowed to play what I wanted, so it wasn't fun. So I rebelled and bought myself a drum kit. And my brother quit playing piano, too, and he started playing guitar. Well, Alex started playing my drums and he got better than me, so I said, "OK, f--- you, I'll play your guitar."
Talk about your recording/writing technique now.
It takes me a good hour to loosen up my fingers and I always just leave the DAT tape rolling or something, or a cassette, anything, and after two and a half, three hours, you kind of get into a zone that I'm kind of relearning because I'm not drinking anymore. When I used to drink, it would get me there quicker. It's kind of the zone where you're not thinking, where you're just open to anything and I just believe that when you play long enough you're able to execute with your fingers, whatever God gives you, and God's not gonna give you nothing if you don't practice or play. So after a couple, three hours, God says, "OK, he's ready. I'll throw him a bone." And God's got a sense of humor, too -- sometimes he gives me s---, 'cause not everything I do I like.
I think every writer hits upon moments where you know you've reached something special. What are a couple of those moments for you?
It's like 'Jump': It was our only No. 1 single, and believe it or not I built my studio to put that song on our record 'cause everyone hated it, same with the song 'Right Now.' Alex and I tracked the whole thing, certain people didn't want to be a part of it, then it wins a Grammy and a MTV Award for Video of the Year, and all of a sudden it's like, "Hey, yeah, great!" But it was like pulling teeth to get the person to sing the damn song. And there are certain things that I fight for because I do write all the music so I think I have a little bit of say in how things should go. I'm not a tyrant, as a lot of people think. I just expect other people, if you're in this band, to work as hard as I do.
How did not taking lessons influence you as a guitarist?
I started doing all kinds of weird stuff on the guitar, which became part of my playing. I started doing harmonics and tapping on the guitar and pulling off strings and doing all this weird stuff that no one had ever done before. And if I would have taken lessons I probably wouldn't have done it, and what forced me to do all this weird stuff on the guitar was I couldn't afford effects pedals, I didn't have all this stuff when I was a kid so I just tried to squeeze all the weird noises I could out of the guitar, which brings me to building guitars. Nobody built the guitar that I like or that did what I wanted it to do, so I built my own. And to this day it's still a great guitar.
On this last tour, I had a chance to see a few shows, and especially at the Philly show, there was that moment when you're playing at the end and the crowd is just chanting "Eddie!"
It brought tears to my eyes. It makes me feel kind of weird, but obviously the Man Upstairs gave me something and it touches people, and I'm just so blessed. And now I got my son in the band and it makes it even more ... Alex, Wolfie and I, it's a family thing. And by the end of the tour, Wolfie was just incredible. For a 16-year-old to get up there and play in front of these people, he pulled it off very, very good.
My favorite moment in the Philly show came where you reached over and mussed Wolfie's hair in a fatherly way. You looked like you were having so much fun up there.
It was. Whoever thought that my own son is the one to kick my ass? That kid is so good, you have no idea. When I first heard him sing, it was, like, fifth grade for a science project; he came up with the craziest idea ... I think it was an 'N Sync or New Kids on the Block song. I went out and bought a karaoke track of it, and he and a buddy changed the lyrics and called it 'Dirty Cell.' I still have that recording, and he blew my freaking mind how great his pitch was. I named him after the right guy [Mozart], that's for damn sure. A lot of the stuff on the Van Halen records is very basic and simple; live, midway through the tour, he started noodling around. He got bored just doing the simple stuff that's on the record. His first instrument is drums, he's an amazing drummer; he's got the Van Halen gene, I guess. Nobody thought that he'd be able to pull off Mike Anthony's background vocals, and he did.
So will we ever hear the 'Dirty Cell' song on a Van Halen box set?
That would be funny. It'd be up to him [laughs]. Believe it or not, it holds up. If we ever did put out everything in the kitchen sink, I have footage of me playing guitar when the guitar is actually bigger than me in the sixth grade talent show, all kinds of crazy stuff like that.
It would be a different approach to a box set, like a family album.
There's all kinds of stuff. So much stuff, I have so much music, so many CDs, DATs and cassettes in boxes, and just recently I'm starting to kind of listen to stuff because I never label stuff very well. I'll pop something in, world music type of stuff and all kinds of stuff. But I was always up against certain people saying [about 'Jump'], "That doesn't sound like Van Halen." [I was told] verbatim, "You're a guitar hero; nobody wants to see you playing keyboards." Well, I didn't mean to ram it up their poop chute, so to speak, but it's our only No. 1 single.
And that closed the last tour.
Yeah, because it's our only No. 1 single ever, right now. It's a keyboard-based song. "That's not Van Halen." Well, what is Van Halen? Van Halen is whatever I write because I write all the music [laughs]. But I get outvoted because we are a democracy, so to speak: Dave, Wolfie, Alex and I are a band. I hope that after Janie and I get married in June and Wolfie graduates that we sit down and discuss recording new music, which I have tons of, if Dave's up for singing ... and then do another tour and just see where it takes us. But it is true that people expect a certain thing from Van Halen. But the stuff that Janie's talking about I wrote years ago. I've always been this way. That's why when people ask me, "Who's your favorite band?" I don't have one; I like songs by people. The only band I was really over-into was Cream. And the only thing I really liked about them was their live stuff 'cause they played two verses, then go off and jam for 20 minutes, come back and do a chorus and end. And I love the live jam stuff, the improvisation. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce pushed Eric Clapton; I almost feel bad for Eric because these guys were jazz players playing Marshall amps and loud as s---. Listen to 'I'm so Glad' on 'Goodbye Cream'; if that doesn't blow your f---ing mind, I don't know what will.
If you're writing different styles of music, are there chances for you to collaborate with different people?
I think as long as we're a band I've always pretty much felt I could get my ideas out in the form or the unit of a band 'cause I do write all the music, except I write a lot of different types of music that doesn't necessarily fit the mold. So yeah, if Van Halen as the world knows it right now is over, then ... Put it this way: Originally, when Dave quit in '85, I'd already spoken to Phil Collins, Joe Cocker, Pete Townshend, all kinds of people to have different singers on every song. But my brother talked me out of it. He goes, "Let's just take Van Halen to what the world knows." But it's never too late. And now with my son in the band, he brings a whole new aspect to it 'cause he's into a whole different trip; even though he loves Van Halen, he listens to all kinds of the current stuff, which I'm really not that up to date 'cause I really don't have the time to listen to anything.
If you look at the rock bands who have longevity, they are the ones who are honest, as opposed to those who are writing songs for a commercial.
It's funny, when bands or younger musicians ask me, "So, what does it take to make it?" Well, first explain to me what you mean by "making it": Do you want to be a rock star or do you want music to be your livelihood? If you want to be a rock star or just be famous, then run down the street naked, you'll make the news or something. But if you want music to be your livelihood, then play, play, play and play! And eventually you'll get to where you want to be. What's the old cliché? "It takes 10 years for an overnight success." If it's your passion and it's from the heart, you just keep playing, playing and playing, and eventually somebody's gonna notice. That's how we got signed; we just played, played and played and Warner Bros. came to us; we never shopped a tape. Gene Simmons tried to help us, but that went nowhere. It was kind of a brief, fabricated idea that he had and it just wasn't us; wonderful guy, don't get me wrong. He tried to help, but I guess he and their manager at the time had a different vision of what are and what we could be and it just didn't work out.
Has your approach changed as you've gotten older?
I don't feel a day older when it comes to my approach to music or what gets me off than when I was a teenager. I've always been into different kinds of stuff and when I play I like to play loud. I like my arm hairs to move and I like my body to vibrate 'cause I like the feel of it; I'm still a teenager at heart. My favorite record by AC/DC is 'Powerage.' And 'Down Payment Blues' off that record is my favorite song by them. They never play it live. We did a co-headlining tour with them back in '83 or '84 and we had a gas. I kept asking, "Angus, you plan on paying 'Down Payment Blues'?" And 'Riff Raff,' all that stuff is great on that record. To me, it's not to take anything away from Brian, 'cause when I saw him he actually sang better live than he does on record, he does a great job, but 'Powerage' and 'Highway to Hell' are probably my two favorite records by them -- 'Powerage' even more so than 'Highway to Hell.' There's something about that record.
Having gone through everything you've undergone with the illness and the rehab, do you have a different appreciation for we're you're at in life and music?
Yeah, I thank God on my knees that I'm alive and obviously to be sober and to be working with my son. I'm so damn blessed it's beyond words. And sometimes the reason I get emotional when people chant my name is because it's like it's really not me, I'm not a rock star, I'm just a musician. I make music for a living, I wouldn't know how to act like a rock star. What is a rock star anyway? I think people pick up on the vibe that I'm not bulls---ting, that what I play comes from the heart. Of course, sometimes I have off nights, but when I'm on people do feel the message that I was given, and I think that they feel that and that it's not just some prefabricated moneymaking thing. I would be doing this still in the clubs if we never made it, 'cause that's just what I do.