Gary Cherone Remembers Eddie Van Halen: ‘He Was Truly One With the Guitar’
When Gary Cherone heard the news yesterday that his onetime bandmate, Eddie Van Halen, had died of cancer, he was reeling. “My phone was off the hook and I couldn’t talk,” he says. “I was texting people just hearts. I couldn’t respond to them.” Today, the sadness remains overwhelming, and he’s still working through his emotions.
Cherone joined Van Halen in 1996 after spending a decade fronting Extreme, whose hits “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted” were MTV staples. Sammy Hagar had recently left Van Halen, and the group had a short-lived reunion with original frontman David Lee Roth, but it didn’t stick. So Cherone, who had been a fan of Van Halen’s since high school, knew the task ahead was daunting.
Luckily, he and the Van Halen brothers and bassist Michael Anthony hit it off, and the band released Van Halen III in 1998. The album made it up to Number Four on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold, thanks to hits like “Without You” and “Fire in the Hole.” The group toured heavily in support of the album and started work on a follow-up, but things fell apart behind the scenes and Cherone parted ways amicably with Van Halen.
“I had the privilege of being in the band, but I did see it as well as a fan, even when I was there,” Cherone says during a long conversation reflecting on Eddie Van Halen’s impact. “I never forgot that. It always humbled me to witness that about these guys.”
When did you first meet Eddie?
The times Van Halen was on the road and Extreme were on the road, I never met him. I met Michael Anthony and the other guys in the band, but I didn’t get the chance to meet Eddie until my audition. That was the summer of ’96. I remember there were rumors Dave was coming back [laughs]. Our manager managed Van Halen and Extreme at the same time and he called me up and said, “Do you want to audition?” I thought he was joking.
I will always hold it close to my heart that Eddie and I hit it off on Day One. He made me feel comfortable, and he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. As the years went on, I saw him do that to everyone else. He knew people were meeting Van Halen and Eddie; he knew who he was and how people could get funny around the king. So I remember on my first day how he extended himself to me, and how he was just a regular guy. We ended up being kindred spirits.
I thought I was just gonna spend the weekend with Van Halen and go home to Boston and tell my friends, “I sang ‘Jump’!” and that would be it. Little did I know that I would be there for the next three years.
When did you know you were in the band?
It was the second day he told me I’d be in the band. I was like, “Maybe you should ask the other guys, too.” The first day, we wrote music together and just hit it off. I pretty much lived at his guest house and we became very close.
What did Van Halen mean to you growing up?
First time I heard the name Van Halen, I was in a cover band. I was a sophomore or junior in high school in ’78. We’re doing Aerosmith, Stones, Queen, and my guitar player comes in and he goes, “Hey, man, I want to do ‘You Really Got Me.'” And I’m going, “You want to do a Kinks song?” And he goes, “No, no, no. Van Halen.” He brought the record in, and we ended up doing it. Months later, the song blew up.
I look at it as B.C. and A.D. When Eddie came on the scene, it changed the landscape. There was no one after him that wasn’t affected by him. To this day, I think he was the last watershed moment in guitar. You talk about Hendrix, Page, and Clapton — I’m sure I’m missing a few — but those were moments in time. I think Eddie remained the king. There were great players after the fact, without a doubt, but never was there anybody who changed the game like he did. You can compare it. You think of Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, there are only a handful of guys that changed the game like that, and he was one of them.
What did Van Halen mean to Extreme?
We always considered the best [to be] Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Queen. For Nuno [Bettencourt, guitar] and Pat [Badger, bass], as players, Van Halen was the top. When I had the opportunity to join the band, Pat and Nuno couldn’t believe I was joining their favorite band. With Extreme, Nuno would be the first to say there was no bigger influence. I talked to Nuno yesterday, and the last thing he said was, “He was my guy.” I said, “I know, Nuno.”
Did Eddie ever articulate why he felt you and he clicked?
When I did the audition, I had just gotten off the plane and I hadn’t eaten. I was like, “Fuck, man. I just want to have a good showing.” Not in a million years did I think I would be in the band. I had a good audition. I sang the Dave stuff, and I was a little worried about the Sammy stuff, because his range was higher than mine. I wonder if it was the nerves, but I remember pulling Michael Anthony over and saying, “Man, you’ve got to help me with this song.” But I had a good audition. We broke for lunch, he was working on a song, and I started writing with him immediately. I think it was “Without You,” which was the first song on VHIII. I sang on a SM57 [microphone] with Eddie smoking in my face [laughs] and little did I know some of those tracks would be on the record.
We just clicked as writers. It was a process over a week or two where we just hit it off as collaborators. And as people, I think we were both maybe socially awkward. When we were alone writing, we could be fine.
How was it writing songs with him?
There are a couple of things that were new for both of us. We come from different camps and he had another way of writing with different guys in the band, whether it was Sammy or Dave. One of the things that I did with Extreme that he never did with Van Halen, is I’d have a lyric written. So when I handed Eddie a lyric, that was the first time he wrote to the lyric. With the other guys, he’d generally write the music. I didn’t give the lyrics to him, but he’d go, “What’s that?” And take it from me and sit at the piano and work on it.
Maybe to a fault, there was a freedom that we had on Van Halen III that was maybe too eclectic for the Van Halen fans. When he sat down at the piano and played, I would sit there in awe. I encouraged that. I think he enjoyed that freedom. Some people critique it as an Eddie Van Halen solo record. I don’t think that’s fair. I think Eddie found a new freedom in his writing.
How do you see Van Halen III’s eclecticism?
There was some rock stuff but then there was stuff that was maybe a little outside the spectrum of Van Halen. If anything, it was pure. There was no record-company pressure. We just wrote. In a way, I was a tool for him and whatever he wanted.
At the beginning of that process, I was just trying to hang on. I was thinking, “Why would they listen to me? They’re the Mighty Van Halen.” So I had my own insecurities. I was probably very quiet in the beginning, and as I got more comfortable, I started expressing myself.
He sang “How Many Say I” on the album. Did you encourage him to do that?
Yeah. It was at the end of the night, and that was just a lyric I was writing, and he was looking for something and he grabbed it and took it back. The next day, he told me he was in bed with Valerie [Bertinelli, Eddie’s wife at the time] and he had to ask permission to go downstairs to the piano. But he’s a night owl. I’m sure Valerie was like, “It’s time to go to bed.” He went downstairs and made a real shitty recording of it — the quality of the recording. It was probably made on a cassette. And he goes, “Hey, man, I wrote something to ‘How Many Say I.'” And he plays it for me, and I go, “That’s beautiful, Ed. Your voice reminds me of Roger Waters and Leonard Cohen.” He didn’t necessarily want to sing it — he just wrote to it — and I encouraged him, “No, that’s beautiful.”
Maybe we were being too artsy-fartsy, but I thought it was great. And of course it got ripped apart by the fans. But I was proud of the fact that it was the only record where Eddie sang on it. I’m sure people appreciate that now. I’m proud of that. I’ve always loved the song; the middle of it was like a soundtrack.
What do you remember about how he would come up with sounds?
I remember one day walking into the studio and he had duct tape and fabric in between the keys of the piano and he would rip them out and it would make this ungodly sound. And he had guitars all over the floor. And I’m like, “What are you doing?” And he was the eccentric genius here, trying to find what he heard in his head and trying to get it out. And it all sounded to me like noise. Again, I was just witness to this genius who had chosen guitar as his tool.
But even if he was working on piano, he’d take a cello bow and use it on the piano. We were working on demos for the second record that never came out, and he was making these unworldly sounds for an intro. And I go, “Just another day in paradise.” Sometimes I didn’t understand his method, but being a mere mortal like the rest of us, I would just go, “OK.”
Did he ask you for input on his guitar playing?
When we were working on “A Year to the Day,” he was doing his solos, and he was working on his third or fourth solo. He was playing them all back. And he was like, “Which one do you like?” And Mike Post and I were at a loss. “I don’t know, the first one you played was great and nothing I’d never heard in my life before.” And then he played the second one, and I said, “Eddie, you can’t ask that. This is above our paygrade.” But he was that way. He would ask, “What do you think? Do you like it?” And if we did say the second one, he’d go, “OK,” and he would trust you. But nobody wanted that responsibility. I didn’t want that, not that you could go wrong.
It sounds like you were working with a lot of music.
When I was there, let alone the years I wasn’t, all he and Alex did was record. They had enough two-inch tapes that would fill a garage of riffs I don’t think he’d even remember. Some of the engineers would dig up something for me to write to, and Eddie would go, “What the hell is that? That’s cool.” He would forget. And then we’d work it out.
There are so many different styles of music on Van Halen III. “Without You” is kind of funky. “Dirty Water Dog” has some jazzy guitar stuff. “Once” has trip-hop elements. “Fire in the Hole” is a meaty hard rocker. It sounds like you guys had a ball figuring it out.
There really was no restrictions. The chorus to “From Afar” had almost a bizarre, Beatle-esque thing going on. We were just having fun. I think “Once,” “Year to the Day,” “One I Want” — those are some of my favorites on the record.
What music would you agree on?
Eddie didn’t listen to a lot of outside music because he was always creating it. The one record that he did listen to was Peter Gabriel’s Us. I think “Once” was an indirect influence of that. It just felt like something different than his usual stuff. That’s the only thing I can connect it to — something Gabriel did, or Bowie would do. I think “Once” holds up well.
On VHIII, I thought Eddie was playing with a lot of passion. And he was dangerous. There was always one wheel off the track. The “Year to the Day” solo is just beautiful. I think it’s one of the best things he ever did. Not because it was on VHIII but just as a listener of him playing. It’s just beautiful. It just rocks. He’d done bluesy stuff before, but that was a nice moment on the record.
He also played a sitar solo on “Primary.”
He came in with this silver thing, and the sound that came out and the tone — it didn’t matter. Whatever he played, it would be so fluid. It would flow right out of him.
How was it touring with Eddie?
He was great, and the band was great. If I were to do it all over again, I wish we toured with them before we did the record. Doing the record was a learning experience, but you bond when you’re on a bus or a plane and you’re seeing each other every day. That’s when the band really bonded. Eddie was happy. He and Alex had a dressing room; I had one with Michael. Eddie would always run in and bring his guitar and warm up. The shows were great.
I thought the tour was great because it was a combination of the Dave and Sammy era that they had never done. I thought that was special. I remember being in rehearsal and them asking me what I wanted to do, and at the time they were doing just a handful of old tunes with Sammy. Trust me when I say, I didn’t care if we did any of the new record. One or two songs is fine by me — “Without You” or something. So when Alex asked me, I said, “I’ll do anything.” “Well, pick.” So I went into the catalogue and I wanted to do stuff that they hadn’t played. The fans have heard “Jump” and “Panama” forever, so to pull out “Romeo’s Delight,” “I’m the One,” “Mean Street,” “Unchained,” for the first time in a decade, this was gonna be fun. And they loved it. We opened up with “Unchained” and you could see it on the crowd’s faces, they loved it. It didn’t matter who was singing. The fans were blown away by those guys.
What was it like watching Eddie play his extended solo every night?
He’d go through some of his old stuff, but it would expand. It was almost like watching a jazz musician, his head and his fingers. That was the brilliance of Eddie. He would always surprise you.
I’ve got an image in my head: When you see the “Jump” video and you see that smile, that was Eddie. He was one with the guitar, and it was pure joy for him. It just came out of him. I feel blessed to have been there.
How did you end up reconnecting with Eddie in recent years? Did you just reach out and say hi?
Yeah, I did. We left as friends, and we kept in touch for a couple years, and then we drifted apart, I guess. Not anything intentional. About five years ago, I just reached out and he immediately responded. We reconnected and kept in touch ever since.
We kind of picked up where we left off, as far as being friends. I would keep in touch with him over the years. I think the last time we were in contact was maybe a couple months ago. In the back of my head, I knew he was fighting cancer for quite a few years. Everyone knew something was going on. But it’s a very tight camp, a very small circle. Everybody who knew him respected that. Some knew more than others, but regardless, yesterday was a freight train for everybody. I include myself as a fan. It was devastating. And my heart went out to the guitar players that followed in his footsteps. The music world alone is bigger than life. It’s a tough loss.
How did he handle being sick?
He was tough, man. He was always upbeat. He never let it get him down. He always said to me he was kicking cancer’s ass. And he did for a while.
The way you describe him, he sounds like a really bright, welcoming, humble person.
Yeah, that was Eddie to the end. It’s one thing to be kind and gracious and humble when you’re a mere mortal, but being Eddie Van Halen, the guy was being pulled from all different directions all day. For him to get a moment of silence was tough. But he knew. He knew the impact he had on people. Almost to a fault, he overcompensated. I thought there was almost a childlike sweetness to him. Like anybody, we all had our moments — of course I saw him get mad and frustrated and all that stuff — but that didn’t define him.
Seeing that kindness had to be significant to you, too, since you were a fan first.
I still felt like I was witness to it. So when those fans came up during meet-and-greets and say, “You know how lucky you are?” I’d go, “Yeah, I know how lucky I am.” Every day on tour, I’d hear fans say, “You’re the reason I picked up guitar.” “I lost my virginity to your music.” “That was my prom song.” “I was in a bad place and your music got me through.” I heard it all, and the guys in the band were all gracious. I never lost the thrill of witnessing that. I would look at them and go, “Wow, these guys affected generations.”
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