Eddie Van Halen dead at 65: Revisit our interviews with the singular rock guitar great

Eddie Van Halen is shown on stage at San Diego State University's Viejas Arena in 2012.
Eddie Van Halen is shown on stage at San Diego State University’s Viejas Arena, where the band that bears his name performed in 2012. The guitar great died Tuesday from throat cancer. He was 65.
(File photo)

‘I’m not a songwriter like Barry (Manilow), and I’m kind of envious,’ Eddie Van Halen said in our 1991 interview


Eddie Van Halen, who died Tuesday from throat cancer at the age of 65, was one of the most influential and imitated rock guitarists of his generation.

It was a status he was both proud of and wary, as he noted in our 1991 interview in the San Diego Union-Tribune. (The full interview appears below, along with our 1992 joint interview with him and his brother, Alex, Van Halen’s drummer.)

“The fact that 90 percent of the techniques I came up with are popular has made it possible for (other guitarists) to pick up on it,” Eddie Van Halen said in our 1991 interview. “For me, it’s a part of my playing. But when I see someone else doing it, it’s like they’re doing a trick. Sometimes I think, ‘Man, what did I start here?’ But at the same time, it’s a hell of a compliment, I guess.”

The techniques that the Dutch-born Van Halen helped popularize included two-handed finger-tapping, pinched harmonics, hammer-ons, tremolo picking, whammy bar work and the dive-bombs that became one of his trademarks.

He didn’t create all of these techniques, nor did he claim to, and was quick to credit Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and former Vista guitar legend Allan Holdsworth as some of his key influences.

But Van Halen refined and expanded the language and approaches that could be applied to the electric guitar. And he did so with a unique combination of virtuosity and verve, fire and finesse, dazzling technical command and irrepressible exuberance. And they were on full display during the band’s 2012 concert at San Diego State University’s Viejas Arena.

Alas, his enormous musical gifts were frequently challenged by a variety of health issues. These included alcoholism, hip-replacement surgery in 1999, tongue cancer in the early 2000s (which resulted in a third of his tongue being removed) and diverticulitis surgery in 2012. Cocaine had also been an issue at times for Van Halen, who — by his own acknowledgement — started drinking and smoking at the age of 12.

But his best music will live on, be it on such guitar showcases as “Eruption” and the flamenco-flavored “Spanish Fly,” such Van Halen radio favorites as “Panama,” “Jump,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Hot for Teacher” or “Right Now,” or any number of the band’s deep album cuts. And who can forget his perfectly calibrated solo on Michael Jackson’s 1982 mega-hit “Beat It,” which remains one of the most heard six-string showcases on any pop-music record ever made?

“Playing as fast as you can and making a guitar solo the most important part of a song is the way I used to think,” Van Halen said in his 1991 Union-Tribune interview. “Now, a guitar solo won’t make the song; it’s the icing on the cake. And if you have no cake, where do you go?”

Eddie Van Halen writes to please himself first

By GEORGE VARGA, Pop Music Critic
Sept. 9, 1991, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Eddie Van Halen doesn’t go to sleep humming “Mandy,” “Copacabana” or any of the other Barry Manilow songs that make most of the world’s rockers cringe. But, unthinkable as it may seem, the biggest guitar hero of the past decade recently revealed he sometimes feels just a little jealous of Manilow.

“I’m not a songwriter like Barry, and I’m kind of envious. I can’t sit at a piano and say, ‘I’m going to write a hit’,” said the 34-year-old guitar virtuoso, whose namesake band performs two sold-out concerts at Costa Mesa’s Pacific Amphitheatre tomorrow and Wednesday.

Happily, Van Halen has never needed to write Top 40 hits to sustain the popularity of his band, whose new album, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” entered the national charts at No. 1 and has hovered near the top ever since. His band’s popularity also is thriving at the box office, where its ongoing summer tour has been one of the few standing-room-only draws in a commercially dismal concert season widely regarded as the worst in years.

Given this success, one wonders if Van Halen’s guitarist and sole composer would want to write hits even if he could.

“No, I don’t come from that mold,” he said, speaking from Atlanta on the eve of his band’s first tour date. “We’re actually very selfish — the whole band. We do what we like, to the disappointment of many critics. They seem to think we write for a (commercial) reason.

“The reason we write is for ourselves. If we like what we do, we’ll put it out. If we don’t, we won’t. I think we’re one of the most real bands you’ll run across, because we’re not contrived. We’re ourselves, take it or leave it.”

Depth charges

Van Halen’s band has fared consistently well — musically and commercially — with or without critics’ approval. Frequently, the press has praised his guitar playing while dismissing the contributions of drummer Alex Van Halen (Eddie’s older brother), bassist-singer Michael Anthony and — in particular — singer-guitarist Sammy Hagar, who became the band’s front man in 1985 when he replaced original Van Halen singer David Lee Roth.

“A lot of critics don’t have a clue,” said the dark-haired guitarist. “They just can’t figure us out. Like, I was reading a review of our new album, and this writer said that ‘In and Out’ was ‘a typical Van Halen song about women,’ when it’s really about the price you have to pay when you’re born and when you die. It’s not the same old s--t; there’s a little depth to it.”

That depth is readily apparent throughout “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” easily the band’s most accomplished album since its Roth-led heyday in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Performing as if their artistic credibility was on the line, the four musicians sound more focused and committed than they have in years, and it shows — from Hagar’s atypically thoughtful lyrics and the rhythm section’s unexpected twists and turns to Van Halen’s surprisingly understated guitar work and finely crafted melodies.

Where he was once happy to cram more notes in a song than most other guitarists could manage on an entire album, Van Halen has matured dramatically, as demonstrated by his tendency to now play only the best notes, rather than all the notes. The result is some of his most sophisticated and satisfying fretboard work.

“I think it’s a natural progression,” he said of his musical development. “I don’t mean to say it has anything to do with aging or maturing, but playing as fast as you can and making a guitar solo the most important part of a song is the way I used to think. Now, a guitar solo won’t make the song; it’s the icing on the cake. And if you have no cake, where do you go?

“That’s what a lot of people get wrong. They think the faster you play and the more notes you put into a measure, the better. Whereas, as you put it, the less you play and more you say, the better.”

Tranquility and charm

One of the surprise highlights of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” is “316,” a lilting, Leo Kottke-flavored solo acoustic guitar piece that Van Halen wrote while his wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, was pregnant with their recently born son, Wolfgang.

“I play guitar around Wolfgang all the time,” said Van Halen, who describes parenthood as “the greatest” event of his life. “I first played ‘316,’ which was named after Wolfgang’s birthday, while he was still in the womb and he’d be kicking and kind of hurting Valerie’s bladder.

“I’d put the acoustic guitar on her belly and play the song, and it would calm him down. Now he coos all the time when I play.”

The tranquility and earthy charm of “316” suggests that an all-acoustic Van Halen solo album merits serious consideration. Has he thought about such a project?

“Well, you know, I haven’t,” he said. “When you have people in bands leaving the band or doing a solo album, it’s usually because they can’t express themselves in the band context. And, to me, every Van Halen album is a solo album, because I write all the music. I like being in a band.”

An admirer of Mozart and of jazz saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker, Van Halen credits his classical piano lessons as a boy for helping him achieve musical prominence.

“The piano is the most beautiful instrument — an orchestra at your fingertips,” said the guitarist, who regularly traveled to smoky jazz clubs as a boy to watch his clarinetist father perform. “It’s definitely the instrument to learn music on. So, all you kids out there, if your Mom and Dad make you play the piano, don’t fight it!”

Arguably the most influential and imitated rock guitarist of the past decade, Van Halen has spawned hordes of imitators hell-bent on appropriating the more overt elements of his distinctive style. Is he flattered or annoyed that so many other guitarists have devoted themselves to being Eddie clones?

“That’s a toughie,” he said. “It seems like nowadays people are more into being and looking a certain way. If you drive down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, everybody is wearing the same leather pants and has the same helmet haircut. I think 90 percent of them put that (appearance) ahead of music.

“The fact that 90 percent of the techniques I came up with are popular has made it possible for them to pick up on it. For me, it’s a part of my playing. But when I see someone else doing it, it’s like they’re doing a trick. Sometimes I think, ‘Man, what did I start here?’ But at the same time, it’s a hell of a compliment, I guess.

“But I’m not the type of person who will stop playing hammer-ons or harmonics because everyone else is copying them. I think the bottom line is, if you’re for real, don’t try to fool people and play from the heart, there are bound to be a few people who like it.”

Eddie Van Halen, left, and brother Alex Van Halen are shown at a 2012 Los Angeles concert.
(Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times)

Van Halens a singular pair — More complex lives, more complex music

By GEORGE VARGA, Pop Music Critic
April 30, 1992, The San Diego Union-Tribune

LOS ANGELES — In the movie “Dead Ringers,” director David Cronenberg created a grisly tale of twin brothers whose lives were so inseparable in thoughts and actions that they became a single entity until their simultaneous deaths did them part.

Should Cronenberg ever wish to make a benign, music-oriented sequel to “Dead Ringers,” he would do well to cast Alex and Eddie Van Halen, two very live ringers with passion in their fingers and rock ‘n’ roll thunder in their hearts.

True, they aren’t twins (Eddie is 35, while Alex turns 37 next Friday). Nor are they inseparable in their personal lives -- Alex lives in Malibu, Eddie in Coldwater Canyon -- although both are married, and both are recent fathers.

But when it comes to the band that bears their name — a band they have helmed together for the past 15 years — drummer Alex and guitarist Eddie Van Halen are flip sides of the same coin.

“We’ve always been like two peas in a pod,” said Alex, who performs with Van Halen tomorrow night at the Sports Arena. “When my dad was playing in the Dutch Air Force Band, Ed and I used to march around the dining-room table together. I was 4 and Ed was 2, and I can remember the two of us marching around and around.”

Today, the Van Halen brothers are still marching to the beat of the same drummer, albeit one far removed from the military rhythms of their youth. And the musical empathy the two share is manifested in a variety of other ways:

Both cite the Dave Clark Five’s 1964 hit “Glad All Over” as the first record they heard as youngsters that made them want to become rockers;

Both started off as classical pianists in their native Holland, then moved on to drums and guitar -- in reverse. (Alex was the first Van Halen guitarist, Eddie the first drummer, until the two traded instruments and laid the foundation for one of the hardest-rocking bands on either side of the Atlantic.)

Both got a taste of road life early when their father, jazz clarinetist Jan Van Halen, took them on European tours with him while they were still in grade school. (Alex’s first paying gig, at age 13, was a New Year’s Eve date with his father’s jazz band. “He paid me $80, and kept $20 for himself as a finder’s fee!” said Alex, laughing.)

After moving from Holland to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s, both cut their teeth playing in a succession of cover bands in high school and beyond, and both took jazz and music-theory classes at Pasadena City College.

As the brothers’ stardom increased, so did their drinking, to the point where their music began to suffer. But both have been sober for several years. (“The trick is to do your art straight, to do it sober,” said Alex. “Because if you can do it straight, that’s when you’re really communicating.”)

Both are so attuned to each other that, in concert, the only musician they have mixed into their onstage monitor speakers is the other.

“I have a whole wall of monitors on stage, and the only thing coming out of them is drums. It’s great,” said Eddie, as he joined his brother in mid-interview in the hilltop recording studio behind Eddie’s Coldwater Canyon home.

“Even if the monitors are horrible, we somehow land on our feet together,” added Alex, as he reclined in a seat behind the studio’s mixing console.

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “We’re definitely connected.”

Alex nodded. “Ed and I started off playing just as a two-piece, guitar and drums. And to just have one melodic instrument and have it remain interesting, he had to literally do everything — rhythm and lead.”

Glancing at Eddie, who stood opposite him on the other side of the mixing console, Alex smiled broadly. “So it made Ed overplay!”

Both brothers laughed. “No, no,” said Alex, assuming a more serious tone. “It made Ed play in a style where you don’t need a rhythm guitarist, because he covers all the bases. We’ve been playing together for so long, it’s like we’re one. I can’t really play with other guitar players.”

Eddie beamed. “And I can’t play with another drummer,” he said. “Alex is probably the most musical drummer I know. He definitely knows how to tune the drums to make ‘em sound great. And he’s got great rhythm, great timing.”

Alex and Eddie frequently get together for private jam sessions that find them exploring a more complex style of music than the ground-breaking hard-rock and heavy metal they pioneered with Van Halen.

“Sometimes it’s just odd-meter stuff,” said Alex, who maintains odd meters are best played in private only. “You know, a lot of people have asked Ed, ‘When are you going to progress? This rock ‘n’ roll stuff is the same (stuff) we heard when we went to college.’

“Well, you get these people who have learned some techno thing, like to count in sevenths, and it’s like, ‘Wow, aren’t you amazing?’ ”

Both brothers laughed. “And to utilize tricks like that just to make somebody think you’re writing good music, to me is ...”

”... Bull,” said Eddie, finishing his brother’s thought.

“Yeah,” continued Alex, “because the most difficult thing is to make something memorable out of three chords. Just because you can’t tap your foot to it does not mean it’s not artistically substantial music.

“A lot of people make things complicated just for the sake of making them complicated. But when’s the last time someone wrote a new Christmas carol? That’s the stuff people remember.”

Alex’s sentiments in favor of simplicity notwithstanding, Van Halen remains an atypically inventive band in a world filled with hard-rock clones and heavy-metal pretenders.

This is borne out by the band’s latest album, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” which features some of Eddie’s most sophisticated and satisfying fretboard work yet, along with unusually thoughtful lyrics by singer Sammy Hagar and deft rhythmic interplay between Alex and bassist Michael Anthony.

What results is hard-driving music that listeners can tap their feet to, or sit back and enjoy for its finely wrought nuances and unexpected twists and turns.

“We do that,” allowed Alex, “but it’s very subtle.”

“We do it kind of to keep ourselves on our toes,” said Eddie.

Reflecting on their musical training, both brothers proudly noted that their instructor at Pasadena City College, Truman Fisher, had also taught Frank Zappa.

“It just shows you how the same musical information can lead to different things,” said Alex.

“The three of us — Zappa, Al and I — all got something different out of that class,” said Eddie. “I kind of learned what not to do. And Al went completely head-first into it.”

“I was a genius,” cracked Alex.

“He was!” said Eddie. “He’d write these arrangements for a 17-piece jazz ensemble. And Truman Fisher would always say that Al’s stuff was in the ‘true Van Halen tradition.’ With my stuff, he’d say, ‘Not quite as good as your brother.’ I used to dread that.”

Alex chuckled. “I know music theory till it comes out my ears,” he said. “And Ed really knows very little theory, and he writes all the songs! But the thing is, the four of us -- after all these years — this band is our creative outlet. I don’t just play the drums, but the other things I do don’t really need to be talked about, other than among the four of us.”

Eddie agreed. “We’re all very involved in every aspect of the music,” he said. “It’s not like Al’s just a drummer and I’m just a guitarist. The four of us work together to make the whole thing happen.”

And as far as Alex and Eddie are concerned, that “thing” — Van Halen — will continue to be their musical outlet of choice indefinitely. But, they both note with parental pride, the next generation of Van Halen is already underfoot in the form of Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, 1, and Alex’s son, Eric, 2½.

“They’ve got rhythm. You can tell they’re attracted to music,” said doting father Alex. “Uncle Ed, of course, was nice enough to buy Eric a miniature, pre-tuned drum set for his first birthday. And Eric chooses 8 a.m. as his practice time.”

Alex laughed, then winked conspiratorially. “So I think I’m going to get little Wolfgang an electric guitar and amplifier. That should even things up ...”