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Q&A: Eddie Van Halen

A detailed interview with an American guitar god

Musician, Eddie Van Halen, Van Halen

Musician Eddie Van Halen performs during the Van Halen concert at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey on May 13, 2008..

Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage/Getty

HIS NAME IS EDWARD VAN HALEN, but he’s better known as Eddie “Fuckin’ ” Van Halen — a god to Bill and Ted and millions of other guitar freaks. For more than twenty years, Eddie’s been at the center of the Van Halen circus, living the bacchanalian rock life: He married a hot TV star (Valerie Bertinelli), built his own studio (5150), named his son Wolfgang and had a robust booze habit that made for a hell of a show onstage and just plain hell at home. His twelfth studio album, Van Halen III, features new singer Gary Cherone (formerly of the Boston metal band Extreme), and though Van Halen’s life is more settled since he quit drinking, he’s no less charismatic. Fresh from therapy, he calls from atop the toilet at 5150, ground zero for listening to new material.

Hello.
I just came from my therapist. She’s a Sikh, wears a turban. I’ve been seeing her since ’92. I used to go drunk, but she just wouldn’t give up on me. Boy, I did the whole last tour sober, the Balance tour, and stopped drinking October 2nd, ’94. I’ve been playing music since I was six and just turned forty-three, so for thirty-something years  — since I was eleven or twelve  — I’ve been writing by playing guitar, smoking and drinking, all at the same time. My therapist said, “Give me twelve hours and I can get you to write without a sip of alcohol.” I was willing to try anything because there were a couple of years, seriously, where every morning I’d wake up and dry heave. I’d have to drink a six-pack of beer just to feel normal.

So what did she do?
She had me do all kinds of crazy breathing exercises, then had me relax with my eyes closed and try to go to that place where I am after a six-pack. Because all the booze really did was lower my inhibitions, you know? In actuality, it was blocking the light. Finally, I felt it and said, “Fuck, I’m there.” I wrote three fucking songs in half an hour. And now I can’t stop writing.

You played a huge role in this record: engineering, mixing, mastering . . .
I was hands-on. With some of our producers, I would just blow my guitar parts and leave. Another thing my therapist says is that the clearer you get, the more you attract people that are the same. I mean, that’s why Sammy [Hagar] quit. I started seeing things. I was, like, “Hey, Sam, you’ve got to be a team player if you wanna do another record.” The way he treated [producer] Glen Ballard[/producer] [during the making of Van Halen Best of Vol. 1] was an embarrassment. He basically spit in Glen’s face. I called Sam and told him we couldn’t go on like that. Valerie was standing next to me and counted eleven times that I said, “Sam, all I ask is that you’re a team player.” I’ll stand on my head if those guys ask me to.

He didn’t want to work it out?
Nah. It boils down to the fact that I’ve always been controlled. That’s also why I used to drink: “Give us a riff, Ed, and shut the fuck up.” You know? But we parted amicably.

How about David Lee Roth?
I asked him to do a song for the Van Halen Best of because I wanted it to have something new. Then MTV and everybody else  — including him  — thought it was a reunion. I told him every fucking day, “Dave, cut the crap. You’re not in the fucking band.” Then we presented at the MTV Awards  — a total embarrassment; what happened backstage between Roth and I, I won’t get into, but the first thing that went out the window was the friendship.

That brings us to Gary Cherone.
Yeah. There was no real audition with Gary. Extreme, Rush and us are managed by the same guy, so when we heard [that Extreme was breaking up], we wanted to meet him. The guy got out of the car, and immediately I could tell he was real. Not a hint of bullshit, no ego.

Will old fans like this record?
A lot of people hate it. It’s the third incarnation of the band. It’s not a departure, but we’re branching out. I was listening to the radio yesterday and the DJ was just rambling over it, saying Gary sounds like a weak Sammy Hagar. Then they took phone calls and one guy was like, “Ah, I still like Dave.” So obviously he’s not gonna like it. What’s funny to me is that this isn’t international espionage  — we’re a fucking rock & roll band. People, get a life, will ya? If you can’t, get on the Internet and join the club.

Are you ready to tour?
Yeah. Since Gary’s open to doing all the old tunes, we’re going to do “I’m the One” and “Mean Street”  — it’s great. But I’ve had to sit and learn the records again. There’s a lick in the beginning of “I’m the One” that’s a motherfucker. There’s probably people out there that can play it better than me.

What’s your philosophy on surviving in Van Halen for more than twenty years?
Sometimes you’ve got to taste shit before you know how good a steak is. Aw, but even all the shit was pretty good.

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