When Eddie Van Halen, Michael Anthony, and Alex Van Halen stepped onstage with their estranged singer David Lee Roth for the first time in 12 years at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, no one was more shocked than Mitch Malloy. Malloy, a North Dakota native with central-casting Nordic-rock-god looks and a big, radio-ready voice, says he was under every impression that Van Halen had chosen him as their new singer in the wake of Sammy Hagar’s departure from the band. Instead, within a few weeks, Extreme frontman Gary Cherone was announced as Van Halen’s new frontman.
Malloy, now the lead singer for Great White and a brand-new band called Malloy, stayed silent about his experience until he revealed some of it in a mini-documentary several years back. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, he shared his most detailed account yet of his Van Halen adventure, following our memorial coverage for Eddie Van Halen, who died last October. Here’s his story, in his own words, which he backed up with recordings and other documentation.
My first solo record [including the single “Anything at All”] came out in 1992; my second record came out in 1994 and I moved to Nashville. I had been there to write songs for the second album. And it was just an easier, more chilled-out vibe. It kind of reminded me more of where I grew up. I got off of RCA Records, and I was writing and producing. I got a big, nice songwriting deal and was doing really well and had a lot of success in Nashville doing that. But I wasn’t really a country-leaning artist ever. I was producing country artists and there was some consideration for me to do country. I kind of stuck my toe in it a bit, but I don’t know, I’m just not country.
So I was in Nashville. I was really liking being there; I’d never been in a musical community like that. Then to get that call to go into the rock world in such a huge way was a little bit like, “Huh?”
It was all very secret phone calls and all that stuff, that cloak-and-dagger stuff that goes on behind the scenes in major corporations or major bands, or whatever. The first guy that called me was Steve Hoffman, Van Halen’s manager’s assistant, who used to be my day-to-day guy. That’s a big part of how that happened, because Steve went to Toronto to work for [longtime Rush manager] Ray Danniels, and shortly after that, Ray started managing Van Halen. So Steve mentioned to him, “Hey, there’s this guy I used to work with named Mitch Malloy who just moved to Nashville — he’s the perfect guy for Van Halen.” They played some of my music and my “Anything at All” video, and apparently they were like, “Holy crap. He’s like a combination of Hagar and Roth. It’s perfect.”
It was like, “OK, you can’t repeat anything that we’re about to tell you. Please sit down. Sammy has been fired and it’s very top-secret.” And I was like, “Holy shit.”
In fact, when I got there, one of the first things Ed said was, “This isn’t an audition. We just want to hang out.” And I just kind of laughed. Like, of course, it’s an audition. I’m just Mitch Malloy and they’re Van Halen.
They fly me up first class, and a limo took me all the way up to the top of the hill where [Van Halen’s home studio, 5150] was. When I pulled up, the band was lined up waiting for me. So I get out and they’re standing there. There’s Van Halen there to greet their new singer. It was frickin’ awesome.
So I got out of the limo and they’re like, “Hey.” I’m like, “Hey.” I’m like, “Holy shit, that’s Van Halen standing there waiting for me.” And so I get out and the first thing Ed did was hug me, and I have sunglasses on because we were in L.A., so he took my sunglasses off and looked in my eyes. He said, “Hey, I just had to see your eyes,” and then he puts the sunglasses back on.
He’s like, “Awesome. You ready to go?” I’m like, “I’m ready to go, man. Whatever you want to do.” He was like, “OK, well, let’s go shopping. You’re going to be here for a long time. So let’s go shopping and just buy two of everything that you need.” So that’s the first thing we did.
And then we played some music. We did it right away. We went right into it. He’s like, “Do you want to chill out? Do you need time?” I’m like, “No, let’s go. I’m ready.”
So Al is out in his drum room where they record the records. His drums are just set up out there in the big room, in the studio. And Ed had four 4 x 12 cabinets set up in a square pointing at each other and he had four mics on every cabinet. And I made the mistake of being out there for about two seconds when he was playing. It was louder than God.
Alex Van Halen declined to comment for this story. Michael Anthony says through a publicist that “a lot of what happened with Mitch Malloy he wasn’t involved with at the time.”
And I was using an SM57 too, which is the biggest piece-of-crap microphone ever. I never used one even in high school and here I am, I’m auditioning for Van Halen, through an SM57. I mean, I was an afterthought. They hand me a 57 and you can’t even really hear me, and it’s like, “What’s going on? This is Van Halen. This is supposed to be first class.”
But it was amazing, because, of course, they sounded exactly like Van Halen, because they are. And they were playing through the studio where they made their records. So basically, it’s almost like a Van Halen record coming at you through those speakers. So for me, the adrenaline was like, “Oh, my God.” I don’t think I was actually touching the ground.
Ed goes, “What do you want to start with?” And he goes, “God, I’m nervous.” I just looked at him like, “Really? Come on.” Like, “You don’t get to say that to me.” You know what I mean? Like, “You’re nervous? Really? Come on. You’re actually Eddie Van Halen. I’m not. You don’t get to be nervous.”
So anyway, he goes, “What do you want to start with?” And I’m like, “‘Panama,’ man, let’s go.” It was “Panama,” “(Don’t Tell Me) What Love Can Do,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” We ran through those songs and that was kind of it. He seemed really happy. We had dinner and I got to hang out a little bit with Valerie when Ed was off doing something else, or whatever, and she was so nice. She invited me to go out with her in the morning. She said, “I have a trainer coming in the morning. Why don’t you come and work out with us?” I’m like, “That’d be great.” So I did that. And she said to me, “Eddie is really excited. He loves you. He’s really, really excited.” So it was kind of like, “You’re in.”
On the second day, he took me to the studio and he wanted to hear me on … What’s the big ballad, that piano ballad? “When It’s Love.” He said, “Do you know it?” And I said, “No.” I said, “I didn’t learn it because you didn’t tell me to learn it, but I could sort of try to fumble through it. I’m sure I can sing the chorus.” And he’s like, “Well, OK, just do the best you can.”
So we went into the bigger room. There’s a grand piano in the big room and he started playing piano and I started singing. After the first chorus, he just stopped and stood up and he looked at me and he goes, “You’re better than Sammy.” And I was like, “Yeah, right.” You know what I mean? Like, whatever. I mean, the whole thing was just kind of surreal. I mean, taken out of context, a guy like me saying that, it’s going to sound terrible. I don’t want Sammy to hear that. So I don’t generally say that. But he was excited that he got a new guy that he’s excited about. That’s all it was. And, he would have said that about anybody. I remember when Gary came in and it was decided that Gary’s the guy and they announced it and everything, he was saying amazing things about Gary. That’s just how he is.
He played me [the instrumental versions of what became songs on Van Halen III.] And,my reaction to it wasn’t really that positive. Not in the sense where I said anything bad, because I’m not completely stupid. I’m pretty polite, I think. So I was trying to find my way in. Keep in mind now, I’ve been writing constantly for years and co-writing a lot with a lot of people. And, I can’t really fake it. So if you play me some music that I’m not attracted to … I just wasn’t hearing it. I didn’t get it. He didn’t play me anything that I was excited about except one song. And he seemed almost pissed off that I was excited about the one song. It was the one that sounded the most like older Van Halen.
I think in his head, he was thinking, “Hmm. This guy isn’t hearing the new stuff.” And I wasn’t. I didn’t. I still don’t. I listened to Van Halen III once. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now.
Prior to playing it for me, he did talk about his addiction and he was telling me that he couldn’t write unless he was buzzed. And so he had a really dark phase when he went to AA and he stopped drinking and then he couldn’t write music. So he went to a therapist and the therapist got into it and he was able then to create music. “And this is what I created.” Poof! Like that! And then he played it for me and I was like, “Uhh …”
Then, on the third day, he told me I was in the band. That morning, the phone rang at the guest house, and they said, “Yep, they’re all meeting in the conference room, and they want you in the control room in 20 minutes.” So of course, I was there at about 8 o’clock, sitting there.
The door opened, and there was a silhouette of Ed, because the sun was shining and that’s when he told me I was in the band. It was an amazing moment in my life that I will never forget. The door closes behind him and he doesn’t step forward. He stays where he is. So I’m sitting in the chair behind the console and he’s maybe eight feet away, at the front door to the control room which leads outside. He stops and he goes, “Well, we just had a meeting.” He goes, “You’re the nicest guy I’ve ever met. Best singer I’ve ever heard in my life. Congratulations, you’re in the band.”
I jumped out of my chair and went around the console, went down to where he was. He put his hands on my shoulders, hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks, said, “Congratulations!” Turns and walks out of the room. I go back up, sit down again at the console and giggling … my body’s actually giggling. I can’t control it. I’m giggling like a 12-year-old girl, and I actually uttered the words, “I’m in Van Halen.” Through the giggle. And that was that.
At least for that moment, I was in the band. Ed said that to me and that happened. And I wish it was on video, but it’s not. But that happened. And I’ll take that to my grave.
So then we played some more. They had the music for “It’s the Right Time,” but it wasn’t “It’s the Right Time.” It was a just really, really bad song. He’d written it with two amazingly talented people, Glen Ballard and Desmond Child. You would think that this is going to be an amazing song. Well, it wasn’t a good song; it was a bad song. And I was like, “Uh, OK. Yeah, sure.” He wanted to hear me on that song. So I recorded myself on that song. So there’s a recording of me singing on that song and, and Al singing backgrounds. It’s cool.
Later, Ed handed me the music and goes, “Go rewrite this. This is crap. Go fix it.” It was the DAT [of Malloy’s rehearsals with Van Halen]. He goes, “Here, I want you to have this.” And he said, “Also, what I’ve put on here is a new song that’s not a song yet. I want you to take it and I want you finish the song and bring it back when you come back.” I completely trashed what they had and started over. All I used was what Ed wrote. I didn’t use the melody, the phrasing, nothing of what they had written. So that ended up being “It’s the Right Time.”
Anyway, Ed had told me numerous times, “We’re going to go do this thing. MTV wants us to go do this thing.” And he brought it up a couple of times. I remember one time specifically we were in the golf cart and we were going up to the studio. I think we’d maybe just had dinner. He had a golf cart and he would drive it up and down the hill, because he had a bad hip. He didn’t limp or anything, but he had a golf cart because, why not? I would too. In fact, I think I might get one.
To me, everything was new. And as far as I knew, I was the singer in the band and my whole life was about to change. So everything he said to me was new. Everything was exciting and everything was cool and everything was new and everything was great. So the way he would talk about the MTV thing, it seemed kind of negative. He seemed like he didn’t want to do it. But he didn’t mention anything about Roth being involved.
Shortly before Malloy’s time in Los Angeles, the band had temporarily reunited with David Lee Roth to record two songs for a greatest-hits package, “Me Wise Magic” and “Can’t Get This Stuff No More.”
He had played me the new Roth songs at a zillion decibels. I didn’t have much to say. I’m really honest, and he got that right away. He knew that I wasn’t going to bullshit him. And so I was just kind of like, “Hmm.” I didn’t want to be like, “This sucks.” Because I just got there. So I was indifferent. Like, “Wow, that was loud,” was probably what I said.
David Lee Roth is going to hate me if he reads this. But what Ed said was, he goes, “I’ve become a dentist,” and I was like, “What?” He goes, “Yeah, I’m a dentist. Getting that vocal out of Roth was like pulling teeth.” And I was like, “Oh, OK. I get it.” I chuckled. For me, I’m a massive fan and I just didn’t think it was that good.
Eddie kept bringing up the MTV thing and he was strange. His energy was a little weird every time he talked about it. And I didn’t understand why until the moment Roth walked out on the stage.
Despite Malloy’s belief that he had gotten the gig, the band apparently had second thoughts. Soon after he departed L.A., Gary Cherone flew in to begin auditions and rehearsals with Van Halen. By the time of the VMAs, Cherone had recorded two or three new songs with the band, he tells Rolling Stone through his manager. At the time, Malloy had no idea; he thought he was still in the band. he says.
By that time, I had come back to Nashville. I’m sitting, watching TV there by myself. It wasn’t good. I think literally, my jaw dropped. So in that moment, I was shocked. And you know how sometimes as humans we just know some things? You just know it. You don’t have to say it. Nobody has to say anything. People just know things. And that moment that Roth walked out behind them, I knew it was over. I am not going to be in Van Halen.
I just knew somehow. And so that was it for me. I was just like, “That’s it. This can’t happen now.” I just knew it. It was just … a wall came down. But it just felt like it was over, somehow. It was like, “This can’t work now.” Not because people won’t accept me. But there’s just something else going on that I didn’t even fully understand at the time. You know what I mean?
It was like a knife sliced through and just, it was over. I think it’s the only time it’s ever happened to me in my life, where it was that definitive. And I had a lot going on at the time, aside from Van Halen. Real promise with my career moving forward. So it wasn’t, for me, my only thing. I wasn’t like, “Oh, my God! This has got to happen,” kind of thing. Of course, I really did want it to happen. But who wouldn’t?
I went to my manager. I just said, “I don’t think that this can happen now. And it just feels like it’s over.” And he said, “I agree.” And I said, “I think we should let them know and I think probably you should do it because you’re my manager.” And he said, “OK. Yeah. I’ll write them a letter.” And he sent it and that was that.
When they got the letter, my friend Steve called me, freaking out. He’s like, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “What do you mean, what am I doing?” And he goes, “Dude! They love you!” And I was like, “Oh, really? They have a funny way of showing it. If that’s love, wow … I hope they never get mad at me.” So it was like that. He goes, “It’s not over!” And I said, “Steve, I think it’s over, man.” He goes, “It’s not over! It’s not over! I’m going to have Ed call you and blah, blah, blah.”
Van Halen’s then-manager, Ray Danniels, confirms that he got the letter — and that he didn’t realize until he saw it that Malloy had been left with the impression he had the gig.
And it was just really strained and really weird and I was really pissed. I just said, “You know what? I don’t need this in my life, man. If they’re going to start treating me like this right from the get-go, I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I can hang with that. Honestly, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Ed called me to apologize. He said that he was sorry and he mostly talked about how horrible it was with Dave and that they got into a huge fight. And that he almost punched him out. And that was really it. That was the end of the conversation. It ended abruptly.
I’m just not really clear on how that all went down, why it went down. I mean, he told me, “Mitch, they made us do it. They told us that the only way they would support the new band is if we did this.” And I was like, “OK. I wish you had told me.”
Mike [Anthony] had given me his home number. So I called Mike and he apologized to me too. And I told Mike that I was out. That was before I spoke to Ed. I had said, “Mike, I don’t think it could work now.” And you know what Mike said to me? He goes, “Man, I wish we had never had done that.” Which was a nice thing for Mike to say to me. He was sorry. He felt like it was a mistake.
And it’s funny because I think pretty much everybody thought it was a mistake, in retrospect, right? It just didn’t make any sense, except for the corporate overlords of MTV. They benefited from it. But they still crapped out. They’re not even MTV anymore. So, screw them.
I know that Ed tried to do some songwriting with Gary before me. Before I got there. Gary hadn’t been there yet, but they had him audition by doing some songwriting and singing. Ed goes, “There’s this guy, Gary, and he’s got a little bit of a success, little bit of a history. I’m not sure if I like that. I like the fact that you’re coming out of nowhere.”
On October 2nd, 1996, David Lee Roth released an open letter revealing that Van Halen had “auditioned other singers.” Two days later, Van Halen revealed that “Gary Cherone is 99 percent locked in as lead singer.”
To be honest, when I pulled out, they didn’t come after me. They could have. They didn’t go, “Oh, please, oh, please. We’ll never lie to you again.” You know what I mean? There was none of that. There was none of that. It was done. It was over.
For me, when I heard about Gary, it was like, “Oh, yeah. Of course.” He was the only guy, the only other guy in the mix, so to speak. He was the only other person they spoke about, and I knew Ray managed him. And so, it was like, “Well, yeah. That makes perfect sense.”
Danniels says it was a widespread misconception that he was the one pushing to get Cherone in Van Halen; in fact, he had hoped Cherone would join Queen. Before either Malloy or Cherone was in the mix, Eddie and Alex Van Halen briefly had their sights on a female singer, Sass Jordan; after that, several “big-name” singers reached out, but the band wasn’t interested, according to Danniels.
When Van Halen played Nashville [in 1998, with Cherone on lead vocals], they invited me to come. So I met them at the hotel. I went to the afternoon soundcheck with them and I was with them the whole day and during the show. I had known Gary since maybe 1989, and Gary, I’ve got to say, could not have been more gracious or more classy and more nice than he was that night. He was absolutely above and beyond the epitome of class, grace, and character. To the point where I don’t know if I could have done what he did. I mean, he was so nice. He was not threatened. At all.
Ed couldn’t have been nicer. Spirits seemed good and everything backstage was good. Relations seemed good and everything. But I will say, after the show, Ed was mad. He didn’t feel like they got the response they deserved from the audience and he seemed frustrated. Really frustrated by that. He was saying all kinds of expletives.
For me, it was a good feeling. I could have been up there singing with them. So that made me feel kind of successful in a way, like that’s success to a degree. I was floating out of that place that night, at the end of the night.
We stayed in touch after that. I sent Ed some music I was working on; he loved it. Said some amazing things to me about my ability, and sent me a check. He’s like, “I’m going to help you.” He goes, “I’ll have my accountant send you a check.” And I was like, “Ed, you don’t have to do that. I don’t want your money. I’ll figure it out.” He goes, “No, I want to do it.”
He goes, “Mitch, my accountant tells me I have money problems. I got too much money.” I laughed. And he sent me a check. So I was able to finish recording. To have him believe in me was pretty amazing, I would say.
The day that Gary was no longer in the band, Ed called me, and he was crying, actually. He was really upset.
Ed was a pretty calculated guy and he was really smart. And so the fact that he was calling me right as Gary has gone, was like, “Oh, here we go again!” kind of thing. It had been while since we had spoken. So, for him to be calling and then saying Gary is no longer in the band was like, “Oh, that’s why you’re calling!” So, this is going on for days. It was like, “Oh, there’s my buddy Ed calling me again.” He would call me three times a day, some days. One day he says, “So Mitch, what do you think I should do?”
And I was like, “Gulp! Here it is. …” And I said, “You want my honest opinion?” He goes, “Of course I want your honest opinion. We’re friends! I don’t want you to bullshit me. That’s why I like you, because you never bullshit me.” And I said, “OK. Here’s the thing, I think you need to get Dave back.” And he just lost it. He went coo-coo crazy. He just went, like, “I told you what Dave said to me!” The whole MTV thing, that whole fight between them and Dave.
So he reiterated that. “I told you what what he did! I told you how I feel about him!” and “I can’t even believe you would say that to me!”
And I was just like, “Whoa! You asked my honest opinion, man.” He was like, “Yeah, but, I never thought you’d say that.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry. But that’s how I feel. I think that that’s the right thing for the band. I think that’s what the fans want. And I’m a fan and you asked and that’s what I think!” And he was really upset. That was a brief conversation and yeah … So there it is. He listened to me.
I don’t think he ever really got over the fact I said that to him. And I’ve had friends close to the situation tell me, “That was his way of asking you back and you basically slapped him in the face by saying that.” And I’m like, “I don’t know. Maybe.” But he was really hurt by it. And I didn’t mean to hurt him by it. I wasn’t aware that he was asking me to be back in the band. He didn’t say that. He was just asking me a question. Had I thought he was asking me, “Do you want to be in the band?” I think I might have said yes.
What doesn’t make sense is why would he react so negatively to me saying, “Get Dave back,” if he wasn’t, in the back of his mind, thinking, I want Mitch to be in the band. I mean, that does make sense. But I’m not going to sit here and tell you that that’s a fact, because I don’t know it to be a fact.
After that, I think we just drifted. I wasn’t really calling him much. I wasn’t really aware of what he was doing. I became buddies with [Toto guitarist] Steve Lukather online, not knowing that Steve was friends with Ed. And so, I would hear about Ed a little bit from Steve. Or I would just tell Steve, “Hey, tell him I said hi.” And then he would say, “Yeah, he said hi,” and whatever. But we didn’t really speak.
You know, I don’t talk about this much. So when I get asked about it, it’s kind of fun to talk about it because I do not usually harp on it. I did not want to make it who I was. I did not want to be, “That’s the Van Halen guy.” I thought that wasn’t a cool thing to do.
But then the years passed and I became a dad. And I thought finally, you know what? It’s good for my kid to learn when she grows up. And it’s a good thing for the fans to know that it happened.