Backstage in the celebrity green room of Spike’s Guys Choice Awards in a booth next to his fellow honoree Clint Eastwood sits Eddie Van Halen — rock’s ultimate guitar slinger — with his fiancé Janie Liszewski as he prepares to make an exceedingly rare public speaking engagement. In a star-studded night that will find Mel Gibson getting called “sugar tits” by Brad Pitt and Halle Berry making out with Jamie Foxx, Van Halen provides the clear emotional highlight when he receives Spike’s first ever Guitar God Award from Robert Downey Jr. and is called “a rock & roll revolutionary” (RS called him a Guitar Hero last year, too). Shortly before taking the stage at Sony Studios in Culver City, Van Halen spoke exclusively to Rolling Stone about the future of Van Halen and his fears of accepting the honor: “I never go to anything. That’s why I’m actually a little nervous to get up there,” he says. “I don’t even know what to say. Especially sober, shit.”
Eddie, this is not the first time you’ve been called a god. But what did it feel like when you heard Spike wanted to give you the Guitar God Award — the first ever?
Well, it’s a little overwhelming, I guess. I mean, who ever would have thought? I was seven years old when we came to America with my mom, my dad, my brother with 50 bucks and a piano. Who ever would have thought I would be a guitar god, you know? If I’m a guitar god, then my son would be Jesus, right? That means on the next tour, he’d have to walk on water.
The Van Halen tour was such a success. Were you pleasantly surprised?
You never know. But I do know this. Janie and I are getting married on the 27th of June, and then we’ll go on a honeymoon. Then Dave, Wolfie, Alex and I are going into the studio and record some new music and go on tour about a year from now.
Did the Van Halen tour help fire up some new musical ideas?
No, I am always writing, you know. But we’re a true band now. It wasn’t just a reunion one-off thing. I’ve already gone to Dave’s house four or five times over the last month. I’ve got so much music. It’s just trying to figure out what Dave’s into because we haven’t written together in a long time. But it’s great. It feels like we’ve always felt in the beginning. But I’m sober, so it’s different. He’s sober, so it’s different. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Does getting married again and being so happy these days help or hurt musically?
Because some people write better tortured but you seem to be in a great place these days.
Tortured, no. I started drinking when I was 12 years old because I was nervous. And my dad gave me a shot of vodka and it was a wonder drug. It really worked for a lot of years. But I certainly didn’t drink to make music or to write. It had nothing to do with it. I just get nervous. I’m nervous now. But I stopped drinking over a year ago, and I’m done with it. For 42 years, I drank. It just shows you anything is achievable. Just like coming here with 50 bucks and a piano.
When I saw you guys on tour, the thing I got from it was that in rock & roll there’s the self-destruction myth that people like — the Kurt Cobain way to go. And this was the opposite. It was a statement about survival and growing up.
Thank God I caught it in time.
Have you heard Chickenfoot?
No, I haven’t.
No particular interest?
Well, I don’t listen to anything really, for one.
You make your own music?
Yeah, I’m too busy doing my own thing. I wish them well. The funny thing is that everyone who quits the band always claims they got fired by me. Hey, I’m not the bad guy here. When Hagar left the band, Mike went with him. Then when we get back together with Dave, and all of a sudden, he wants back in. It’s like, “No, dude, you quit the band.” So my son became the bass player. But we didn’t give Mike the boot to have my son play. He was around. We didn’t have a bass player. “Hey Wolfie, you want to play?”
It must be pretty mind-blowing to play with your kid.
He was only 15 years old. “You want to play bass?” “Sure.” We did not have a bass player. That’s the only thing really that bothers me about people acting like I’m the bad guy. I just sit in the studio and write music. I’m not some tyrant. I’ve got no beef with anybody. I wish them well. I hope they are … I don’t know what a “supergroup” means, but I hope they accomplish what they’re setting out to do.
There was a time when people were writing the guitar off. What do you think of the fact that kids are playing guitar in all these games and guitar is being rediscovered by a new generation?
When was guitar written off?
Well, first there was the time when the synthesizer era…
Guitar is one thing you can’t synthesize.