Van Halen's Split Personality: Rolling Stone's 1984 Feature

How a geek and a physique created thud rock's most successful oddsemble

June 21, 1984 1:10 PM ET
Van Halen
Van Halen perform on stage in 1984.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

It's a cold March day in Cincinnati. Snow is drifting up against the back door, wind is seeping through the windows, and David Lee Roth is on a picnic. This is his outfit: a hooded sweat shirt with polar bears all over it, a red down vest, a pair of jungle-animal-skin leotards under baggy green pants, the kind of hat Sergeant Preston of the Yukon used to wear and a trio of Day-Glo wooden bracelets. The food arrives in a white limousine, and with his breath coming out in puffs of steam, Dave brushes the snow off a block of cement and arranges little containers of Chinese takeout food in the driveway of the Museum of Natural History.

His face nicely roasted from a recent jaunt to Haiti, Dave's about to have a perfect little lunch. After all, his motto is It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how good you look. The restaurant forgot to send any forks or spoons, but Dave is unperturbed. He just pushes his fingers into a box of hot fried rice. A couple of handfuls of pea pods and he's beaming, sucking in the arctic air and passing the egg rolls. His Panasonic box sits nearby in the snow, blaring out oldies by the O'Kaysions, Major Lance, all the great soul singers.

"After you get to the top of the heap, it's very easy to kick back and say, 'Oh, I'd like a sandwich with a little less mustard tomorrow, Edmund,'" he says, tossing back his messy blond hair. A grown man with a walkie-talkie stands nearby, just in case anyone attacks.

Dave may say that all he wants out of life is a bathing suit, but he has a curious mind. A dull moment came last year, and he enrolled in Beginner Bagpipe. He's taking Portuguese classes and kick-boxing lessons. But this studious Dave is nothing like the guy onstage, a rock star Fred Flintstone could understand. "People want the most primal rhythms and ambiances," he says, explaining why teenage boys idolize Van Halen, the heavy-metal band he's fronted for some eleven years. "I feel that for the remainder of our career, people will be involved in it

"It doesn't mean you have to fly around," he goes on. "Bruce Springsteen hasn't left the ground in ten years, and he still has that magnetism."

"Do you admire Springsteen?"

"I saw one of his shows," he says, lighting a joint. "I was very happy."

"But was it transcendent?"

"What do you mean, transcendent?"

"Well, was it the most awesome thing you'd ever seen?"

"Honey," Dave says, "I can go to White Castle and look in the bag and say, 'This is the most awesome thing I've ever seen.'"

Eddie Van Halen has turned his room in Cincinnati's Clarion Hotel into a little recording studio. A Sony cassette recorder dangles from a cord taped to the bedside table, and wires shoot all over the carpet: to miniature speakers, a small equalizer, a boxy black bass, his red Kramer guitar. Spread out in the center of the floor is a pile of tapes he's recorded – the sound of bathtub farts made on a synthesizer, the insides of Marvin Hamlisch's piano played with a fork. When Eddie comes through the door, in a red suit and a T-shirt with a red X across a picture of Bozo the Clown, he heads straight for the guitar.

He would rather play than talk. He asks you to name any old Cream song, and then he recreates the Eric Clapton solo, note for note. If you run out of ideas, he offers suggestions: "'Spoonful'? 'Crossroads'?" When he was a teenager, he used to slow the turntable to sixteen so he could figure out the guitar part. Clapton is his only hero in the world, and when he finally got to meet him last year, he was so nervous that he got drunk and blew the whole thing.

Eddie's been screwing up ever since he was a kid. He was a bad student and got thrown out of high school. He still thinks he's dumb and goofy looking. "I hope you have good questions. I'm not a good talker," he says, opening a bottle of Blue Nun by pushing in the cork. Eddie actually looks a lot like his wife, TV star Valerie Bertinelli. He says she's as geeky as he is. When you ask him about the kids who dream about being Eddie Van Halen, of picking up a guitar and playing it with two agile hands as if it were a piano, he says, "Oh, I am so much geekier than any of those kids dreaming about being me."

Eddie has a smile so sweet it ought to be on a rubber doll. Pete Townshend says, "That incredible virtuosity combined with that beautiful grin allows me to forgive him for letting David Lee Roth stand in front of him."

You get the feeling that the smile and the guitar are the two things he's developed to fight off the world. But it still heaves in at him. He cries if you talk about the disastrous, two-month-long marriage of his brother, Alex, the band's drummer. "If I could suck the pain out of him, I would," he says, wringing a horrible note out of his guitar as tears well up in his eyes.

"There are too many people on this basketball that's floating around the sun who are too afraid to allow themselves to feel," Eddie says, "I mean, twenty years ago, men were looked at as pussies if they cried. Hey, goddamnit, I'll cry if I want to. I'll get horny if I want to, I'll laugh, whatever. I'm incapable of holding things in."

As it turns out, he doesn't hide anything and expresses himself just fine. So why does he think he's not a good talker?

"I guess it's been too many goddamn years I've been told that I'm stupid," he says.

"But you're really articulate."

"You see?" he says. "I don't even know what that means."

Most heavy-metal bands have so little personality they have to come up with a gimmick to sell the act, but Van Halen has two larger-than-life characters. Dave is the guy MTV zeroes in on because he's charming, a joke machine, a man Eddie thinks ought to replace Johnny Carson someday. "Most people stop at the humor," Dave says. "They get up around 10,000 feet and say, 'We're experiencing some heavy buffeting. We've just run into the haircut, and he's starting to crack a lot of jokes. I think we better come back down.'" He reads books, admires, among others, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. His father's a doctor from the Midwest. His idea of a good time is to go off with his adventure club, the Jungle Studs, on a trip to the Himalayas. He's moody and indulges his temperament; one person in their entourage says, "We're all childish, but Dave hasn't been born yet." To which Dave says, "People tell me I live in my own little world. I tell them, 'Well, at least they know me there.'"

Eddie, on the other hand, is so shy he can't even dance. He just plays music; many consider him the most innovative guitar player since Jimi Hendrix. His father, a jazz saxophonist and clarinetist, was a Dutch resistance fighter who was captured by the Nazis and forced to tour Germany playing in a band. When Eddie isn't on the road, he's in his backyard studio, called "51–50," police code for "escaped mental patient" He's so obsessed with writing music that when the band toured South America, he'd climb into the closet of his hotel room and hum song ideas into a tape recorder so he wouldn't wake Valerie. But there's obsession, and then there's fruitcakehood, and one Van Halen insider says, "Eddie's on the moon." Still, Eddie is a gentle spirit. Producer Quincy Jones says, "When Eddie calls me, there always is a warm feeling when I hear him on the line."

The way Eddie and Dave play off each other makes Van Halen what it is: a funnier, and more musical, thud-rock dinosaur. Even though there's mutual respect, the two are always taking swipes at each other. Eddie: "I'm a musician, Dave's a rock star." Dave: "What did Edward do with Michael Jackson? He went in and played the same fucking solo he's been playing in this band for ten years. Big deal!" Eddie wants to write music for the movies, and Dave wants to be a movie star, but both insist they never want to leave the band.

When they collaborate – Eddie writes the music, Dave the lyrics – they do it from different planets. The music to "Jump," the Number One song through much of the spring, was written by Eddie about two years ago. Back then, he says, somebody in the band told him, "We don't need that shit." Eddie still has the original tape of the song: He's playing a cheap little synthesizer, sitting on the floor of the living room in his house, and as he's pounding out the notes, there's an awful noise in the background. It is Eddie's wife, Valerie, yelling, "Shut up!"

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