By: HP Newquist (National Guitar Museum) – March 1995
Edward Van Halen is the prototypical American guitar icon. No stateside guitar player since Jimi Hendrix has managed to capture the collective imagination and awe of the world’s electric guitarists like Van Halen – no one. We are proud to have Eddie as the subject of our first Guitar Interview. Over the course of two days, we spent time with him as he filmed the video to “Don’t Tell Me,” a part of the corporate music process he particularly dislikes. We also observed the frenzy at his home studio, 5150, as the band prepared for the release of its 10th studio album, Balance. Despite the madhouse atmosphere at 5150, it was clear that EVH would be an extremely happy guy if he could spend all his time there. Given this fact of life, and Eddie’s very specific ideas on the difference between what is work and what is play, we have divided these two days – and two different aspects of making music – into separate profiles of Edward Van Halen: At Work and At Play.
It is six o’ clock on a Monday night in Hollywood, but it’s already cold outside. And inside the soundstage where Van Halen is shooting the video to “Don’t Tell Me,” the first single from Balance, it feels fifteen degrees colder than it does out on the street.
Check Out the Van HalenCollection at Amazon.com
There are 40 people running around the immense and darkened set, including Sammy Hagar’s girlfriend, who is busy feeding bagels to her rat terrier. Alex Van Halen is approving final credits for the cover to Balance, and Michael Anthony is comparing notes on hot sauces with members of the crew. Sammy is lip-synching his vocals in front of a rear projection screen showing close-ups of mug shots, crime scenes, and fingerprints. The music is playing at freight-train-in-your-bed volume, and Ed has to scream to be heard. “I know everybody says it, but it really is ‘hurry up and wait.’ To me this is work. It’s not fun like playing the guitar, because to me, playing guitar isn’t work. Filming a video is work.” He blows smoke into the air and, and looks at the whir of activity around him. “I also don’t like spending the money, to tell you the truth. Who in their right mind would spend a million dollars of their own money on a video? For what? To sell your record? I think it’s lame. I’d rather just play live.” The Camel gets dropped to the floor, and another Camel gets lit.
Eddie is sporting a new haircut and a beard that looks like it’s from a turn-of-the-century sepia print. He smiles a lot, and laughs even more. He is brutally honest, almost to a fault, and he has no pretensions or ego to speak of. As he is quick to point out, “I just do what I do, and I don’t think too much about it.” His voice is slightly gritty, which makes him sound like the actor Jack Lemmon. It’s hard to imagine that he takes anything too seriously, like the hair or the beard. “I chop my hair from time to time; I did it back in 1986. This time, I just got drunk and took a Norelco sideburn trimmer and cut it all off one night. Of course, I’ve had it done professionally since [Laughs]. But, hey, it’s just hair. It grows back.” He had thought about shaving the beard for the video, but decided against it – he doesn’t care what he looks like in music television.
MTV, in its infantile wisdom, has made Van Halen trim the near six-minute length of “Don’t Tell Me,” which means that Ed’s main solo has been yanked out of the mix.
Instead, the rideout solo has been stuck in the middle to keep the tune under five minutes. The roar of the song from the house speakers suddenly stops, only to be rewound again. During a rare moment of silence, Alex Van Halen claims that we’ll hear the song about 1,500 times tonight, which seems about right. Michael Anthony adds his own lament about videos. “You know, videos have gotten to be such big productions that you get all nervous. It’s not like when we did songs like ‘Jump’ where you could throw back a couple shots of Jack and then just goof off. Now we’re all sober, spending a lot of money, and it’s nerve-wracking. It’s a pain.”
“But even our old videos were a pain,” Eddie chimes in. “‘Panama’ we did way too quickly because we were on the road. ‘Hot for Teacher’ was done in this school that had no A/C, and it was hot. Really hot. I guess ‘Jump’ was fun because it was wham-bam and we were done, like we were doing a live performance.” Suddenly the song starts again, rattling the chairs. Sammy steps back onto the stage to mime his parts.
There is a slowly building mound of half-smoked cigarettes under Eddie’s chair, and a growing cadre of empty Sharp’s non-alcoholic beer bottles on the table next to him. He’s stopped drinking, and the Sharp’s is picking up the slack. “It tastes enough like beer that you don’t mind that it isn’t,” he shrugs, eyeing the label. He freely admits to not having had a drink in five weeks, ostensibly because he has nothing to hide by admitting it. His life is part of the public domain, and almost everything he’s done has been written up somewhere, from People to The National Enquirer. Everybody seems to know about Eddie Van Halen. Even your parents know who Van Halen is, what he does, and who’s he’s married to.
There is probably no more-interviewed and profiled guitarist in history than EVH. Since the release of the first Van Halen album in 1978, he has been America’s de facto and most popular guitar hero, bar none. And, having turned forty this past January, he is no longer just the kid who tapped his way into six-string history. Not that he’s any more serious than he used to be, but he’s said just about everything he’s ever wanted to say about the guitar. So, instead of grilling him with the traditional “20 Eddie Van Halen Guitar Questions To Which You Already Know The Answers,” we decided to let him talk about those topics that were on his mind, ranging from comments about the state of the music business on to the status of being a rock-star dad. Guitar’s first day of conversation with EVH started at the “Don’t Tell Me” shoot.
Each of the band members has taken his turn on stage, trying to look like they’re really playing the parts that they had to put down on record weeks ago. The crew cheers them on, and director Peter Christopher occasionally stops mid-song to adjust a light or suggest a certain onstage move. Eddie rolls his eyes, watching Alex, then Michael, and then Sammy, knowing his turn in the box is coming up soon. His disdain for the whole video concept is obvious. The word “lame” shows up frequently in his conversation.
“This is such a stupid way to spend money. With bands today, they’ve got to spend, what, a minimum of $250,000 for a video? And that’s already built into their record contract. You have to do one. So the record company gets that money out of the band right away in an effort to sell more records.”
Van Halen takes a long swig of the Sharp’s. “But you know, I don’t think it’s the record companies that are to blame. I think the problem is that most bands have the wrong attitude. They get together, they make a demo, then they expect to get signed. I can’t understand it. How many bands do you know nowadays that get on MTV that have been together for ten years? We were together for seven, eight years before we had a record deal. Bands today want it now. And if it doesn’t happen now, they change members and they try it again. They haven’t paid their dues, so to speak. You know, I got a bunch of guys together that were as serious about it as I was, and it worked. What happened to work? No one’s willing to put in the time and work at it. That’s why you have so many one-hit wonders. You got a band that’s got one good song, and the next album sucks. They haven’t got shit. They haven’t really worked on it together, because they’re not really a band.”
He slouches back in his chair. “And with the record business the way it is, everyone perpetuates the same bullshit. Record companies all go up to Seattle to search out the Seattle sound, and will sign up everybody who sounds the same as what they’re looking for. Bands, in turn, will do the same thing that the record companies want just to get a deal. It becomes almost incestuous.
“On the other hand, Van Halen has always just done our thing, taking it wherever we could, without changing because of what was on the radio. We got signed during punk and disco, and it’s the same thing now, only with rap and grunge. But we’re not changing. I’ve never changed the way I write; I play what I like. I guess a lot bands don’t – they want a deal or they want a hit. Their songs are contrived and they do what they think they need to do just to be successful. We never have, which is why it took us so long to get a record deal – it took us forever. Eventually, though, we developed a following, and people figured we weren’t going away [Laughs]. They signed us basically on the premise. The company saw that we were selling two and three thousand tickets at Pasadena Civic without a record deal and said, ‘If they can do that here, they can do it anywhere,’ which was pretty much true.
“You hear a lot of bands that are affected by rap or whatever, and they try to incorporate those elements into their music. Then a year later, you go, ‘What a bunch of dorks to have even tried that.’ Those bands are thinking more on a pop, hit-single level, instead of being true to their art. I mean, it sounds so heavy, but rock’n'roll is an art form. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. That’s why I built my studio, because I didn’t want to do what I was being asked to do. I was sick and tired of doing cover tunes, so I said, ‘I’ll build my studio and do what I want to do.’ And 1984 proved that what I wanted to do sells.”
On the stage Hagar is dancing through the guitar solo section of the video, and EVH watches him, smiling. “Basically, the way I look at it is if I like something, there’s bound to be someone else who likes it. Put it this way, if the four of us in the band like it, I know someone else is going to like it. So we don’t try to write what we think people will like, we write what we know we like. A lot of people don’t do that, and I don’t think they’re true to themselves.”
Hagar finishes his turn in front of the screen, and then the director calls for Eddie, who clearly does not want to walk up those four step to the stage. Without moving, Eddie yells out, “Hey, Sam, you want to do my part?”
Hagar, still standing on the stage, says, “Yes, sir, I do!” Laughter erupts from the band and crew. “Sure, go for it,” replies Van Halen, as he reluctantly climbs down from his chair. Picking up his guitar, he tucks his cigarette into the strings of the headstock, then nods his head toward Sammy. “He doesn’t play guitar on the albums – never does.” He winks. “Save that for the solo shit.”
Eddie gets up in front of the huge screen, and shuffles around uncomfortably as the song blasts through the room. It is perhaps the 40th airing of “Don’t Tell Me,” and surprisingly it still sounds fresh. “You know how I can tell this is a good song?” Alex Van Halen asks, obviously pleased. “Look around. Everybody has heard this song for the last two hours, and they’re all still tapping their feet to it.”
This is true. At bone-shattering volume, the song is the classic Van Halen, punching along with piston-like grace. Eddie is trying to make the appropriate stage moves to the change-ups in the tune, but all he manages are some little side-to-side swings. The director halts the film to move a light that is reflecting badly off the guitar’s polished finish. The minute the sound is off, Van Halen is bolting off the stage back to the side of the room.
“This is some silly shit,” he says as he yanks the top off another Sharp’s. “I hate this stuff with a fucking vengeance. In a video, all that counts is if you look good. It’s not even really playing. Besides, I can’t play exactly what I played on the record because I don’t fucking remember. It’s hard because I don’t even play every day. Before I got a life – so to speak – years before we got a record deal, all I ever did was sit on the edge of my bed and play guitar. But then I got married, had a career, a kid.,..you know how it goes.” Asked if being a dad and a high-profile rocker has forced him to reevaluate his notions of rock’n'roll, he shakes his head. “Having a kid hasn’t affected me in the least. Nothing has changed in my professional life except that now I have a little buddy. Wolf is going to be four in March and he probably keeps me a little more grounded, but I still do what I’m doing so I can make music. If I wanted to play rock star and chase pussy, that’s a different thing. But that’s not what I’m about. You gotta realize, I’ve been married for 14 years now, and I’ll be doing this until I die, which won’t be anytime soon.” He puts the Sharp’s bottle down and pauses a moment. “When Townshend and Mick say things like, ‘I hope I die before I get old’ or ‘I won’t be doing this after I’m 30,’ I think they really believed it. But you know, the longer the Stones go, the easier it is for the rest of us [Laughs].
But what if Edward Van Halen weren’t able to play guitar for a living? After all, playing guitar is all he’s ever done professionally. Has he ever thought of anything else that he might do? He takes a protracted drag on his cigarette, biding his time before answering. “If I couldn’t be a guitarist, I’d want to have a career as a pianist. If I couldn’t be in music, I’d try to do something in sports. I’m small for football, although I was great in junior high. I liked track and gymnastics, too. I can’t play basketball, because I’m the typical white guy who can’t jump. I don’t hate the game, but I hate playing it. I think I’d like race-car driving, that would be cool.” Another long drag. “If it were just a question of what else I’d like to do instead of just play guitar, it would be to spend more time playing with my kid.” He laughs, and begins to noodle around on his Music Man. With both hands occupied, and a Camel in his mouth, Eddie has to talk around the cigarette.
“You know, I was playing golf the other day with these old-timers in Pasadena. And I’m not very good at golf, so I’m getting all pissed off. And this one guy, a little old man who must have been about 80, says, ‘Shit, man, a bad day on the course is better than any good at work.’ And I started thinking, ‘Poor guy. I love my work.’ I could never say what he said. I’m so lucky. I’m probably one of the luckiest, most blessed guys on the planet to be able to do what I do, and enjoy it, and have other people like it. It’s like a home run, or beyond. And to have inspired other people to play an instrument, of course that makes me feel good. You’d have to be fucking numb and dead not to let it affect you somehow. Kids have to grow up on somebody. Just like I grew up on Clapton, and he grew up on somebody, there’s a whole new generation of guitar fans. Sure I like the idea that people are listening to me. I hope that they’ve learned something from me, and if I inspired anybody to pick up a musical instrument, great. That’s what it’s all about.”
So after all the benefits are counted, what’s the downside to being the guy who makes his living as America’s favorite living guitar icon?
“I don’t really think about it,” he replies, shrugging. It’s an honest answer, but the question begs for something more concrete. There has to be a downside. Eddie thinks, strokes his beard, and looks up toward the ceiling. He grins, then winks.
“Breaking strings,” he laughs. Edward Van Halen lights up another Camel. The music comes back up, the lights go down, and then he’s back on stage. Working.
About HP Newquist: HP Newquist is the founder of The National Guitar Museum, the first museum dedicated to the evolution and cultural impact of the guitar. He has authored books that have explored a wide range of subjects and include: Legends of Rock Guitar (with Peter Prown); The Way They Play series (including Blues Masters, Hard Rock Masters, Metal Masters, Acoustic Masters), with Rich Maloof and the award winning The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look At The Inside Of Your Head. Newquist is the past Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Magazine. He wrote Going Home, a Disney Channel documentary featuring Robbie Robertson, as well as directed the film documentary, John Denver – A Portrait.
Note: This interview is reprinted from an article by HP Newquist, originally published in GUITAR Magazine (March 1995). It appears here courtesy of Newquist and The National GUITAR Museum.