Edward Van Halen Is Alive

Van Halen taking an electronic-cigarette break on the new York leg of his band’s tour, March 2012.

Published in the may 2012 issue

I’m shaking this man’s hand and it feels like my Uncle Charlie’s, who swung a hammer all his life. Fingers of iron and forearms of steel, like Popeye. if Charlie pointed one of those rebar fingers at you, he meant some serious goddamned business. same thing with this guy. Dude’s knuckles look like knots in an old oak tree and his fingers are ripped. a workingman’s hand, engineered for manual labor, not for something so fine as music. and that voice, cured with smoke and drenched in Scotch. It’s that voice you hear at the end of your favorite Irish bar in Hell’s Kitchen, always three drinks in, no matter the time, day or night. I’m not a drunk anymore, but since they cut out my tongue, I sound drunk. The cancer got a portion of his tongue and attacked his throat, too. but to hell with all that, this guy is still alive, and we’re backstage at Madison Square Garden in his dressing room about an hour before the show.

Eddie Van Halen takes a deep drag on his electronic cigarette. Sit down on that couch, over there. He rifles through a stack of guitar cases, all guitars of his own making. He wants to show me a special one. The room is comfortable, with a couple of couches facing each other, a nice Oriental rug on the floor, a healthy food spread, a tub of drinks on ice. no alcohol, absolutely no alcohol allowed backstage, he is done with alcohol. It’s like, God gave me one big bottle and I drank it all. I’m done.

Me, I’m dying for a beer. some people are religious pilgrims, running all over to see a miracle. but this is as close to holy as I’m ever going to feel, Eddie Van Halen’s dressing room at the Garden, and I think he’s about to bless me with his guitar, and I need a beer. I had the Eddie Van Halen hair when I was a kid, and I watched his every move, and I even had a guitar — how hard can it be? It took me an unseemly amount of time to realize that I wasn’t him and wasn’t ever going to be him, but something deep inside still wants to think there’s a chance that I was wrong. my face hurts from smiling, and I can’t stop saying, “This is great, this is great, this is great.” I’m sitting across from his wife of three years, Janie, who’s a good-looking woman, great body. Before she was leader of Camp Van Halen, she was a ground pounder … a stuntwoman. She would do bar fights, get hit by cars, fall out windows, rappel down buildings. Her voice is straightforward and commanding. She’s clearly on guard and she should be — she saved his life and she’s not going to let anyone screw it up, least of all Eddie himself. a tiny orange Pomeranian named Kody is jumping up and down on my leg while Ed — Janie calls him Ed — looks for that guitar. The motherfking guitar. The guitar that changed the world, the guitar that sits in the Smithsonian Institution with Einstein’s pipe and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, the guitar he wasn’t even supposed to play. when his family hopped on a boat from the Netherlands to Pasadena in March 1962, they didn’t have much at all — fifty bucks, a couple of bags … and a piano. Who brings a piano on a boat? We actually played music on the boat on the way over here, you know? I’m serious! It wasn’t like, “So what do you want to do in life?” Dad said, “We’ve got to make a living.” So if it weren’t for music, we wouldn’t have survived. but in America, you play guitar, because in America you’ve got your Van Cliburns and your Van Halens, and the Van Cliburns don’t get to be rock stars.

His father was a professional musician once he got to L. a., which meant he worked as a janitor. As Ed looks through the stack of cases, he’s looking for the guitar that changed his family’s life when they had to dumpster-dive for scrap metal for a few extra bucks. Ed was a natural, but he was impossibly shy and he’d get so nervous when he had to face even the smallest audience that you’d see his whole body jangling, and so when he was twelve, his dad gave him a shot of vodka and a Pall Mall to ease his nerves, and started him on a lifetime of playing drunk. there are whole tours that Ed barely remembers. Hey, he had to make a living. There was no thought given. It wasn’t like, “What are your dreams?” I never dreamt of being a musician for my livelihood. I certainly never would have wanted to be in the business that I’m in, meaning the fame and the glory, the glitter, the rock star, the famous part.

First he played with his father, with his brother, Alex, on drums. and later, when the brothers were doing gigs at Gazzarri’s on the strip and their father would be playing a bar mitzvah or a wedding in Oxnard, the three of them would meet up after. Two, three in the morning in the back of Ed’s van, just drinking and disturbing the neighbors. My mom’s just going fucking crazy.”Get your ass in here!” She’d lock us out and we’d have to break a window to get in. She hated the fact that we were into music. She wore the pants in the family. I hate to say it, but I don’t think my dad would have drank as much as he did if it wasn’t for her. She had a heart of gold, and don’t take this the wrong way, but Hitler on a bad day, whoa.

It’s funny, his dear old mom, God rest her soul, would do the air-guitar thing and tell her son, “Oh, you’ll never get anywhere going boom, boom, boom, jing, jing, jing. when are you going to get a real job?” “You watch, Mom. We’ll go somewhere one of these days.” we get signed to Warner Brothers and she goes, “Now how long will that last?” And then he changed rock ‘n’ roll forever.

Actually, he and his guitar knocked it right on its ass around 1978, when punk was cutting itself with razors and disco was … mother of God, check out this Top Ten from Billboard, 1978: 1. “Shadow Dancing,” Andy Gibb; 2. “Night Fever,” Bee Gees; 3. “You Light Up my Life,” Debby Boone; 4. “Stayin’ Alive,” Bee Gees; 5. “Kiss you All over,” Exile; 6. “How Deep Is Your Love,” Bee Gees; 7. “Baby Come Back,” Player; 8. “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” Andy Gibb; 9. “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” a Taste of Honey; 10. “Three Times a Lady,” Commodores. and when the world heard “Eruption,” Ed’s one-minute, forty-two-second assault, with its dive bombs and furious precision picking, teenage boys everywhere started pounding their heads against a wall. that guitar.

Ed finds the case he’s been looking for, and without thinking, I stand up and walk over to where it rests and kneel before it. Not in a religious way — like I said, I’m not religious. I just want to get a good look. Ed walks over and kneels down next to me. He pops the three latches one by one, pop, pop, pop, then he opens it. This is the guitar that contains the latest of several patents that Ed holds — things that he saw in his head that he needed to play the way he wanted to play but didn’t yet exist. He’s probably the greatest guitar engineer since Les Paul, makes his own line now called Wolfgang — named after his son and some other guy — and this guitar is the culmination of all of his thinking. Les and I used to always talk about the reasons that we built things. One day I’m hangin’ with him, and we both flip out a pick and we both have sandpaper Krazy Glued to them. we had the same problem, you can’t hold on to ’em. everything that we do is not for the sake of creating something but because nobody else makes it. It’s like “I need this in order to do that.” Okay, there. It works.

The instrument’s body is beautiful like a woman’s hips, with two devil horns at the top where his hands hit the upper register of the fret board. It is amber and tobacco-brown-red, and it glows like something sacred when the light hits it. Its neck is unfinished bird’s-eye maple, stained with the sweat and oil from Ed’s hands. When that stain sets in from playing it a whole bunch, there’s nothing like it. It’s just smooth and perfect. He’s saying this and I’m thinking they should put a tap in him and sell that shit. Eddie Van Halen’s Essential Oils! Makes you play better instantly! After all his years of partying, it’s probably 100 proof. like everything else he does, it would sell, too.

Everybody’s got things that make their lives worth living. we all start out with insane enthusiasms that are tempered by age or suppressed for appearances. I mean, you can’t be an asshole, you know? you have to grow up. some famous guy said that all of us are born originals, but most of us die copies. but what if you’re the guy everybody copies? what if somehow you get to be the original? whatever you think of his music, that has been Ed Van Halen’s lot in life. over all his years, millions of young men would watch his every move. Led by me. I’d memorize him, trying to catch any kind of clue. Because in the beginning, Ed didn’t have the shiny new guitar in the perfect red velvet case. He couldn’t afford it, so he built his own. you couldn’t buy what he had because it didn’t exist. there was a certain mystery behind his creation. The guitar, the one that hangs in the Smithsonian, that’s an exact replica of the one he built. Nicknamed by fans, it’s called Frankenstein and it’s a mess of a guitar. a variety of pieces and parts slapped together over the years. a paint job so nuts, black and white and red crisscrossing, there’s no way anyone would dare copy it. What’s that, a quarter he put under the tailpiece? Have you heard the front pickup doesn’t even work, it’s just there for no reason! when I was a kid, I heard he boiled his strings; by God, I boiled my strings, too. Why did I boil my strings? Only the wound ones. Right. no, I was boiling them all. Only the wound ones, because dirt gets in the windings. It saves, you know, it saves a lot of money. He’s probably the only one who could get a halfway decent sound out of that piece-of-shit guitar. Where’s the original? I ask, and he and Janie look at each other then back at me like I’m asking Janie to show me her underwear. We can’t tell you where the original is. It’s somewhere safe. Ed’s old Marshall amp? same thing. his sound was called the brown sound and it was mythical. People were always trying to figure it out. and everybody suspected that he was using some kind of magic.

It’s all in the fingers, man. He tells a story about when the band first hit. Van Halen was opening for Ted Nugent back in 1978 at the Capital Centre. Ted was cool enough to give the band a sound check. He’s standing off to the side and he’s listening to me, and he comes up and says,”Hey, you little shit! Where’s your little magic black box?” I’m going, Who the fuck is that? and it was Ted. Hey Ted, it’s nice to meet you, thanks for the sound check. and he’s going, “Let me play your guitar!” I go, “Okay, here you go.” He starts playing my guitar and it sounds like Ted. He yells,”You just removed your little black box, didn’t you? where is it? what did you do?” I go, “I didn’t do anything!” So I play, and it sounds like me. He says, “Here, play my guitar!” I play his big old guitar and it sounds just like me. He’s going, “You little shit!” what I’m trying to say is I am the best at doing me. Nobody else can do me better than me.

You know, Eric Clapton is Eric Clapton. Nobody does Clapton better than him. Nobody does Hendrix better than Hendrix. We’re not trying to be anything other than who we are.

We’re still on our knees, and Ed picks up his guitar, thumbs around in his pocket for one of his custom picks, and starts playing. his hands move up and down the neck of the guitar with ease. He’s just dicking around, beautifully playing nothing in particular, and I just can’t take my eyes off the guitar. He demonstrates the new piece of equipment he made for this model, a gadget that allows you to switch the tuning with the flip of a metal bar. He calls it Drop to Hell, D2H for short. It’s shiny, clean, and housed within a cavity carved out of the guitar’s tail — it looks like something you might see used in surgery. at this point, I just can’t help myself and unconsciously extend both hands in Ed’s direction. “Can I try?”

Edward Van Halen Is Alive

Related Websites

    Be Sociable, Share!