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

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Some seventy people scurry about, getting the stage and show ready, unloading the nine 45-foot trucks that haul the equipment. Finally, it's time for the band to go on, and there's a deafening roar. You get the hits: "Runnin' with the Devil," "Dance the Night Away," their version of "(Oh) Pretty Woman." You get a ring of fire, a phenomenal light show, loud but pristine sound and a solo in which Michael tosses his bass off a twenty-foot drop, then rolls around, wrestling it to the floor. He explains: "The guitar that I throw off, I just do the beginning of the solo with, and then I throw it off and have to jump on it a couple of times, and then I pick up another one and play."

A physical frontman, Dave does a sword dance, jumps and kicks, and rolls over Michael's back. "Think I could roll over Edward's back night after night? I can't even tap him on the shoulder without leaving bruises." Dave talks to the audience, invites everyone to join him across the street for a drink. Though he seems to encourage drinking, he doesn't promote drugs: "The trouble is, you try one thing, it makes you feel like a new person. Then the new person wants a hit." He keeps changing outfits, all inspired by wrestling magazines and comic books. "If I had to go in front of Judge Wapner, I couldn't prove that any of this happened," he said one day. "All I could show him was some very colorful clothing."

The drum solo is amazing. Alex is usually overlooked, but he's a brilliantly musical drummer, almost as responsible as his brother for the heart-stopping power of "Jump." few years ago, after the band was asked to open a date for the Rolling Stones in Florida before some 150,000 people, he broke his hand in four places. He couldn't even hold a drumstick. So he tied the stick to his wrist with a shoelace and went on with the show.

Whenever Eddie steps up to play a solo, the kids go mad. He's had a little shelf built under his guitar so he can prop it up and play it like a piano. He has only one volume knob and one pickup. "I don't like depending on an electronic piece of machinery to get different colors and sounds," he says. That's why he never admired Jimi Hendrix. "It's the only damn thing that I would like people to at least acknowledge and respect me for, because I fuckin' have done things that no one's done before."

At the end of the concert, the band hugs together at the front of the stage to sing "Happy Trails," and the kids light their Bics. And how does it all make Dave feel?

"Like Burt Reynolds."

"I Wish I had more than one dick," Alex Van Halen is saying as he circles the backstage party after the show. Girls dance with each other, trying to catch his eye. The roadies get fifty dollars for delivering the prettiest ones. Al, the band's handsomest member, has the worst reputation for munching on backstage visitors. Since Van Halen's early days, he's been quoted as saying there's a little Van Halen in everybody. Dave explains it this way: "When the people scream so hysterically for such a sustained period of time, they're screaming for themselves. Not for me. Not because Eddie is so great. But because they see themselves reflected in us."

Eddie's idea of making an appearance at these parties is to dart through them slumped over, in a Groucho kind of walk, making a beeline for a closet or anywhere there's privacy. It's not unusual to go off looking for a bathroom and find Eddie. In New York, at a party at Madison Square Garden, Eddie found have in the kitchen with his engineer and best friend, Donn Landee. When Julian Lennon turned up after a show in New Jersey, Eddie pulled him into the bathroom to talk.

All in all, the backstage scene is calmer than it was a few years ago, when girls routinely danced nude on the tables. After all, Ed and Michael are married now. "I don't like one-night stands," Eddie says. "I don't like getting the clap. I wanna have kids. I wanna go through life with somebody."

Dave, of course, is still browsing, having just broken up with a girl who whined that she was an actress trapped in a model's body. "You take what you have in front of you, and you make the most of it," he says of the women he meets on tour. "You either dance with it or you share a beer with it or you just hold its hand for ten minutes."

"I think we treat women with respect," Alex says. "And if they want to come back to the hotel with me after the show, no problem."

Eddie is in a limo, riding back to the hotel. He really doesn't like all this traveling; all the cities seem the same. He just wants to be back in his studio. The car pulls into the parking lot, and the headlamps shine into a crowd. The bodyguards cut a path for Eddie, who takes my hand and starts to steer through all the kids. Near the door, I feel a hand tugging at my arm. It's a pretty blond, maybe seventeen. "Way to go," she says.

Dave, too, is headed back to his room alone. A red baseball cap is pulled down over his Tuesday Weld locks. "After cloud dancing for two hours, what then? You get lonely. The world is not made of New York Cities or Los Angeleses and Dallases. It's made of Tuna Fish, Wyoming, and Lone Ranger, Oklahoma. I always make the joke, 'Yeah, you're lonely. You're lonely in your Learjet.' But it does happen.

"You feel like you're chasing the ice-cream truck through the rain."

Related
Video: Van Halen Debut 'Tattoo'
Reunited Van Halen Play Blazing Show at Tiny NYC Club
Van Halen Announce Album Release, Tour Dates

This story is from the June 21, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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