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Edward Van Halen: a fanboyography

“It’s all in the notes,” he’d demur when asked about legacy. I expect—as usual—to mimic Eddie’s approach in my own struggle for words over the death of my musical hero. Rather than detail the man’s technical innovations and well-documented bio (plus the many literal tributes found in recordings on my Music page), I thought we’d instead take a personal lifetime-soundtrack journey. I’m gonna fanboy. Most surprising is how closely my tale mirrors those similarly afflicted. Van Halen inspired obsession and imitation like no other among musos of my generation.

Plinking on my dad’s vintage Stratocaster the summer of 1986, I began hearing music from a guitar perspective, and mainlining all I could score. Steve Vai was on MTV trading six-string catcalls with David Lee Roth. Van Halen appeared in a concert cutaway on the VMAs doing it bluesier with Sammy Hagar, who, last I’d heard, took issue with speed limits.

Goosebumps.

Contracted them again rewatching the ceremony in Music Appreciation class. For context, the same day included study of Bruce Hornsby. Not a great era for album rock, but the pop charts featured some choice singles like Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” I’d just turned 13, at my hormonal gawkiest and enduring cowtown culture shock following a recent move from the coast.

I couldn’t play much yet, had been riffing along to the four-chord AC/DC catalog, of which neighbors were big fans. Imagine my surprise when these virgin ears heard “Highway to Hell,” having recently fingered VH’s “Best of Both Worlds”! Backwards discovery, yep, sort of the theme here.

With the latest Roth and Halen vinyl in hand, I bought the 5150 sheet-music book, unaware of the existence of tablature (a string-based notation system), so it was the piano version. I’d been button-mashing my little Casio for a year or two already, so Ed’s synth tunes came more naturally to me, especially since he favored the white keys. When ramping up on guitar, all those dots clustered together were much trickier to decipher. In “Summer Nights,” for example, Eddie transposes the entire guitar’s tuning multiple times mid-song using a patented tremolo system. I learned it using my index finger as a capo and the others fretting positions they’re not used to, because it’s the only way I could jam along with the record. (I would later see this in Eric Johnson’s style, except that sadist does it on purpose!)

5150 standouts:
“5150” – would be nearly as good as an instrumental
“Summer Nights” – who else could fit an Allan Holdsworth-inspired jazz solo into a singalong banger?
“Best of Both Worlds” – this Strat+harmonizer guitar tone is one of my favorites

My first guitar, unfortunately, was not the brand Eddie endorsed. Instead, Dad gifted me a Peavey Nitro-1, which I soon learned was actually more in the spirit of Ed’s axe than the entry-level Kramers I coveted at the time on name recognition. Mine had one pickup, one knob always on 10, and one sound. Ed’s passion for hardware tinkering never rubbed off on me, because innovators like him solved problems I wasn’t even aware of yet, so I could enjoy off-the-shelf gear with minimal part-swapping.

photo of teenager's room wallpapered with Van Halen posters

With 5150 still coursing through my veins, I dutifully procured their previous LP, 1984. Wait, you’re telling me David Lee Roth used to be in the band?? Dude who was zoobily-bopping through those hilarious gigolo videos I’d seen at friends’ apartments who had MTV? The one whose acrobatic new solo band performed with an abandon I’d not heard since … well, the album that was about to drop under my needle: a much different Van Halen than had thrilled me months before. Remember when you learned Dio used to be in Sabbath? Yeah, like that.

Regarding the Sam/Dave debate, I largely abstain. The frontman has been secondary to me. Sammy’s vocal range allowed them to explore more mature melodic ideas, while Dave was the hyper-literate master of ceremonies who pushed their genre boundaries and brought the sex appeal. Had it not been for Dave’s imaging and persistence, the brothers might’ve ended up as SoCal’s finest deep-cuts band. Or in KISS. Dave’s vaudevillian side meshed brilliantly with Van Halen’s big rock, but my interest wanes when his solo work strays from guitars. Hagar remained a touring machine, keeping his voice in top shape and leaving little doubt who won the bout when I saw them co-headline sans Halen in 2002. I’ll take Dave’s clever lyrics every day of the week, though. And his travel advice on Sundays.

1984 was known for creating a rift among band members if not fans, chiefly because—songcraft aside—it didn’t take a wizard to perform Eddie’s synth parts, unlike his peerless picking. But 1984 contained fewer keyboards than where I’d just come from. As I said, its rawness sounded like the blueprint for Dave’s first solo LP after his EP. “Panama” was a yardstick my first few years playing. I figured once I could get through that tune I’d be ready to go public. Otherwise, high school was bedroom woodshedding and basement jamming with a neighborhood drummer and fellow VH superfan. Later, I could hear the tension on this album, and how Dave kind of ghosts the last couple of tracks as Edward takes the wheel (much like on Fair Warning). The metaphor’s apt, because performing in a good band is simile to driving an overpowered racecar.

1984 standouts:
“House of Pain” – listen to the brothers’ locked-in syncopation; that drop just before each chorus is so muscular and funky: my favorite moment on any VH album
“Hot for Teacher” – one hook after another from all participants and never a dull moment throughout guitar performance

Other connections began firing in my brain. Turns out I’d known of some previous Van Halen singles, just not their band name. My former opinion of “Jump”—other than how the end of its synth solo sounds like a spaceship landing—had been annoyance over dueling-titled songs occupying simultaneous airwaves, given that DJs spun the Pointer Sisters just as often. Keep in mind, my recent musical diet had included the likes of Phil Collins, Jan Hammer, and LL Cool J. I’d heard Van Halen’s cover of “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and surely “Dancing in the Streets.” That made it a good time to get Diver Down, their previous album, which itself is a good time.

Its sonics don’t hold up to the others, and there’s too much filler given Ed’s mad-science output during this period, but if someone asked me who Van Halen was in one musical statement, I might reach for this. It’s diverse, and they got to immortalize a session with their dad on clarinet.

Diver Down standouts:
“Little Guitars” – solo flamenco intro sounds like a duet, plucky verse riffing is distinct and played on a baby Les Paul!
“Dancing in the Street” – a blast to play on guitar instead of synth, using the same echo settings as “Cathedral,” and its solo is among his best, the way he navigates the changes a la “Beat It”
“Hang ’Em High” – smoking guitar track, flubs and all

My teenage walls were papered with VH magazine tear-outs, reading anything that might help unlock Eddie’s techniques, some of which remained indistinguishable from magic. I was deep into Ozzy’s Randy Rhoads Tribute grimoire as well, adding neoclassical sauce to the mix. Next thing I know, Eddie’s on Saturday Night Live in a sketch with his wife and jamming a killer 5150 outtake with the bandleader.

Then I rediscovered some 45 RPM singles bought on my sixth birthday: “I Was Made for Loving You” by KISS, “I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick … and holy shit, Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away”! The Warner Bros logo probably triggered a Looney Tunes association the same way KISS were theme-park superheroes at the time. I didn’t know the difference between A-sides and B-sides, so Halen’s “Outta Love Again” (and Cheap Trick’s “Clock Strikes Ten”) got endless spins on merit. Sheer ferocity. I doubt I even identified the sound as being a guitar, but even then I could feel the way Eddie’s solo was tugging against the rhythm and melody line, creating and resolving tension. Or those raked grace notes on each each riff attack that would make Jimmy Page proud … all coupled with Roth’s beastly whistle-register and jive talking. The A-Side was pretty good, too, which still conjures images of teens roller-skating in knee socks and feathered hair.

photo of Gordon listening to Van Halen for the first time

Next, I acquired Van Halen’s iconic first and second albums, on cassette. In the summer of 1987 before a short Florida vacation, the Walkman and headphones would be my only way to maintain a VH fix on the road. Might’ve stayed home if given the option, so obsessed was I. “No, Mom, I don’t need another virgin daiquiri, but the gift shop’s out of Duracells.”

On their sophomore album, you could hear more of a band effort. Bass and drums had showcases, and I prefer its warmer overall mix to the debut album, which is a bit bright. That “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” riff jolts you just like its title sounds, often one of the first I’ll try when testing a new guitar. The world learned Eddie could play nylon strings, too, on the acoustic “Spanish Fly.”

Van Halen II standouts:
“Light Up the Sky” – dynamic Deep Purple-esque scorcher with a drum solo
“Women in Love” – combined multiple styles of beautiful harmonic overtones
“Outta Love Again” – dig how Ed adds the 5th interval on the low string to embiggen power chords and distinguish them between sections

The debut Van Halen album has been well-dissected. When I discovered it, rappers would soon be sampling its riffs as well. It’s got the song power, the best of what they’d refined through their nightclub years and demos and producer Ted Templeman’s guidance. “Eruption” wasn’t a revelation to me, having used Live Without a Net (from the 5150 tour) as my guitar instructional video to that point, but I awed over the recorded performance all the same. Given the production values on late ’80s radio, I was starting to appreciate how “live” these early albums were, how four people could raise such sonic hell, and how difficult executing these mini compositions in a single performance truly was. I remember blasting “Ice Cream Man” on the daily in that brief window before school after my parents left for work.

Van Halen standouts:
“I’m the One” – showcase for Eddie’s fills, band’s power shuffle and backing vox
“Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” – all hail the definitive rock riff!
“On Fire” – angry Van Halen is good Van Halen

Two albums remained to complete my collection, and I bought them on a double-cassette at a Florida mall. Forget the beach, gots to get that rock in my ears!

Women and Children First was my least-favorite listen up to that point (which is like arguing over ice-cream flavors), only to have next year’s Fair Warning on Side B drop my jaw once again. Women grew the most on me over the years, especially the opening track, which I’d read had been performed on a dirty Wurlitzer, but it wasn’t until playing it that way myself that I appreciated how fun it is to cycle that progression endlessly. “Loss of Control” sounded like a freight train careening off the rails. We even got a sea shanty with some tasty slide-guitar licks.

Had his music not been my teacher, might’ve been decades before I cared about learning anything in those other styles. But all of a sudden this 14-year-old is thinking about whether he’ll want a dobro, or various ways to hide a pick, or who this Beethoven cat was. Of course neither of us mastered all those other genres; we merely borrow seasonings for flavor. I did put a banjo solo on my last album, though.

Women and Children First standouts:
“Romeo Delight” – two-hand tapping into a punk riff into a blues verse
“In a Simple Rhyme” – The Who vibes, a dreamy interlude, and bonus teaser
“And the Cradle Will Rock…” – such a bluesy interlude for a banger

On Fair Warning, Eddie finally just flopped it on the table and opened the proceedings with a funk guitar solo, while Dave drove us through the seedy side of town for half an hour. To my ears, and the cover’s colors, this is both the epitome of their famed “brown sound” and the only album before Andy Johns’s involvement where we enjoy proper bass levels. I love this mix. Al’s snare sounds like a log. This album and 1984 contain my favorite solos, where you can hear a lot of fusion influence that would remain in his repertoire. Edward was becoming a perfectionist and would comp takes together after long hours alone with the engineer. Unhealthy, but hear the result, and I so identify.

My first grandparent died back home while we were in Florida. That meant more frequent flier miles on the Walkman, and Fair Warning’s dark tones continuing to underscore the week. I had nearly forgotten about that, so thanks a lot for bringing it up.

Fair Warning standouts:
“Push Comes to Shove” – sounds like ladies night in Tunisia more than The Police
“Unchained” – flanger guitar effect reminds me of a shark jumping out of the water
“Mean Street” – a guitar tour-de-funk, from the slap intro through the verse riffs and another sleazy interlude

To recap thus far, I discovered Van Halen with 5150, then binged their back catalog before the release of OU812, now jacked beyond belief with anticipation as I’m caught up to their timeline. A local radio station aired the entire album, during which I imagined tape decks market-wide engaging in unison recording. I think they did this for all the Sammy-era releases.

The California-sunny songwriting really grabbed me. Sounded like Dave-era material, that classic variety always fresh and unpredictable, but with Sam’s voice. Chemistry felt loose, Ed skating all over the fretboard and grinning all the while. By 1988 I was able to keep up with some of the current guitar riffage on offer, getting naturally wired and black and blue and whathaveyou. I would gladly part with twelve bucks for a remix of this album with the effects minimized, especially on the rockers. The singles sound noticeably superior to me.

OU812 standouts:
“Mine All Mine” – reminiscent of “Light Up the Sky” with airy choruses and fierce solo
“Finish What Ya Started” – more dickin’ with chicken pickin’
“When It’s Love” – anthemic tunesmithing, sweet Clapton-esque solo reminiscent of “I’ll Wait”

The ensuing Monsters of Rock tour would be my first opportunity to see the mighty Van Halen live … were I not parentally denied. Duuuude! Whether it was the ticket price or the daylong metallic massacre of Arrowhead Stadium on a 15-year-old, I don’t recall, so my first arena-rock show would have to await Cinderella the following spring.

Jonesing for more Van Halen content found me down the bootlegs rabbit-hole, waiting months on end for the mail carrier to deliver from Canada or anydamnwhere. I had seen zero live Dave-era footage to that point, but eventually scored VHS and/or audio cassettes from each tour, way back to the nightclub days. Now such things can be found just a click away on YouTube. Other gems include jams with Brian May, film scorings of various quality, guest spots, TV appearances, production credits, anything. Thrilling as each of these finds were, they also reinforced that Ed’s home was in the band bearing his and his brother’s name.

photo of bootleg cassettes

A spring 1990 student exchange allowed me to preach the gospel of Van Halen to France. America’s chief export, far as I was concerned … erm, handcrafted by foreign labor. My host family pointed to their dusty acoustic and requested a demonstration, s’il vous plaît, so I Spanish-Fly-ed a medley of the types of licks you can imagine. Their gaping jaws had me feeling like Marty McFly at first, then an impostor, quick to disclaim these were others’ compositions, not mine. Later I noticed their instrument shops didn’t feature gaudy superstrats like those that dominated stateside. I left them with the gift of 5150 on cassette in hopes of a regional outbreak. It would be five more years before I owned an acoustic guitar.   

Other influences had taken root by now, such as Dokken, Satriani, Nuno, and Stevie Ray. Spent a minute in a garage band of older kids, bumming rides to practice because I couldn’t drive yet. By senior year I was confident enough to perform at some extracurricular functions and try my hands in the school jazz band. 

photo of a collection of miniature guitar replicas

At last, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge coincided with graduation. The album, I mean. This was my jam, y’all. Its sonic departure felt as dramatic as Hagar’s addition had two releases prior. Welcome back to the mix, Mikey. Pleasuredome drums of doom. A new guitar tone courtesy of amp prototyping and Eddie’s first signature axe, now soloing on its silky neck pickup. I had to have one! Couldn’t afford one. Settled for fingering a friend’s. And is that a wah pedal I hear now? “Yeah, Dad, I know Clapton used one, too. Already saving paychecks.”

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge standouts:
“The Dream is Over” – should’ve been a single, huge chorus, fiery solo, slide guitar
“Right Now” – acoustic piano, Sam avoids Joe Cocker vibes
“Spanked” – six-string bass for that Spinal Tap big bottom, dark funky groove

Very first week of college, I had to return to Kansas City not to miss our F.U.C.K. tour stop. Goosebumps again. Something I always admired is the band’s focus on their latest material. It’s what I want to see performed. Sammy and the boys are planning on stopping by your ole fishing hole every summer, so why would you wanna hear the same hits? If I’m not mistaken, they performed every song on the album, clearly as psyched about it as we were. Sam’s aversion to the classic catalog never bothered me. It did feel a little presumptuous incorporating his solo numbers, but they chose the right candidates for Van Halenization.

Confession: I’m not a fan of equal solo spots. Just do a break in the context of a song, or extend an intro/outro. An arena show is like Super Bowl commercial airtime, and it’s a rare feat that a rock performance is made more compelling by the absence of supporting players. Eddie got a pass early on because of his unique talents, but earned the right to continue those lengthy solos because they’d had the stones to include many such ditties on their albums as published compositions. Unlike most of his peers, this wasn’t wanking: Eddie was performing crowd favorites with improvised connective tissue.

Alice in Chains opened that show, which really stamps the date, huh? A changing of the popular-music guard was underway that VH would weather, with Alice being one of the few new bands who could immediately bridge the hard-rock audience. My new roommate had recently introduced me to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.

In the spring, a neighbor had an extra GA ticket to that night’s Omaha show, so we round-tripped it for the greatest concert experience of my life. First, just being on the floor close enough to see crew doing changeover. Recognizing iconic gear in the shadows, or Eddie’s guitar technician, or the striped Makita waiting on the drum riser. Anticipation. Between the dropping of the house lights and the opening revs of “Poundcake” I found myself pressed to the barricade in front of my hero’s monitor. The sound pressure levels were so intense I could hardly breathe, body regulated by the kick drum in the kind of fervor people describe under revival tents. Sure, I’ll kiss the snake. If music is a religious experience, the baptism had been five years prior. This was more like God embracing me at the gates for having chosen the correct deity. For all I knew it could’ve been the same exact performance they gave in KC … the difference, as in life, was my perspective. Baby Animals opened, fronted by Nuno Bettencourt’s future (now ex-) wife.

Van Halen spent most of my college years on the road, first for Carnal Knowledge, then in support of their first live album, where I saw them again with Vince Neil opening. Mom got me Vince’s autograph at the airport, where she worked as a bartender. I’m surprised she didn’t try to put him on the phone with me, like she did when LJ from Sevendust was inquiring about school systems and real estate in my area. Anyway, Halen opened with “Mine All Mine” and I felt the flesh tingling again when those background vocals jumped out of the shitty tower speakers on the shed’s lawn a mile from its stage. The boys closed with “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young, who was enjoying a boost from bands like Pearl Jam, and my own, also covering it at the time. Eerie. That song’s actually why I wasn’t crazy about “Humans Being” later: too similar.

Most of the musicians I performed with in college worshipped VH while either playing what was popular at the time or exploring alternative genres. Some of us held on to that core beyond those years, and others continued along new paths. It’s hilarious that you get a bunch of alt-rock guys together and what do they wanna jam? Anything from the first three Van Halen albums! What does Van Halen wanna jam? The Who. Here’s a peek inside 5150 Studios, where the albums since 1984 had been recorded. Rewind a bit for more indoor fun.

Speaking from experience, home studios can be as restrictive as they are freeing. When you have all the time in the world, you take all the time in the world. I think it’s best to just demo at home before having a producer crack the whip during the actual sessions. That’s apparently what happened when Bruce Fairbairn stepped in to produce their next album Balance on more of a workmanlike schedule.

There’s some smokin’ tunes here, new exotic chord progressions, and the band never sounded huger on your stereo, but half of the songs, you can hear them punching in. For work, I mean, not edits. One could argue the lyrics had more substance. Sometimes. The bright and sunny production would’ve lent itself to summer albums like 1984, 5150, and OU812, however F.U.C.K. and Balance had been autumnal albums in the theater of my mind. Even at their creative low point here, hair-raising moments still abounded throughout, such as in the jurassic thunder of “Baluchitherium”: what Eddie said an unnecessary solo album from him might sound like. Also, maybe it’s his mix presence, but I felt Alex’s drum performances got stronger with each successive release throughout the Hagar era.

Balance standouts:
“Amsterdam” – solo groove could be its own song, like “Drop Dead Legs” outro
“Feelin’” – epic, apparently about Ed’s sobriety (also, whenever wide receiver Adam Thielen scores a touchdown, sing his name to this)
“Crossing Over” – B-side tribute to their deceased manager with the demo in the left speaker and final in the right

In 1995 I was on my third college band since the previous VH release, stage and studio experience with covers and originals, now playing The Black Crowes and Stone Temple Pilots while weaving in EVH-inspired phrasing for self-amusement on occasion. When their Balance tour reached the Midwest that summer, I had graduated and moved back to Kansas City, pursuing broadcasting jobs. At the KC VH show, my bandmate had to step away … to help introduce Van Halen on stage. What an asshole! (He jocked for the sponsoring radio station.) I’d been a radio intern the previous summer—for the competition—spending a lot of time backstage here at Sandstone Ampitheater, where my interactions were with bands like Scorpions or Candlebox, or at clubs for Joan Jett or The Smithereens. 

Half of my band packed into a van the next day en route to St. Louis for a block-party gig (my last with them) while Mike Anthony had gotten to meet our other half earlier in the day, since VH was performing in STL tonight as well! We staked outside their hotel into the wee hours after our own gig, but not a glimpse. It’s still one of my favorite memories, just hanging out and cutting up, brought together by music fandom.

If your attention’s waning, go ahead and scroll down to 2012.

They gone? A’ight, let’s talk about the lean years. Ed switched guitar manufacturers and introduced a new signature model, the Peavey EVH Wolfgang, named for his son. I had to have one! Still couldn’t afford one. Now producing videos full time, I soon acquired a deflowered one for $999, gloss black just like on the Best Of – Vol. I cover, with a contraption that lets you drop-tune the lowest string. It was my first in a long line of arch-top guitars (creating a more comfy picking angle), an absolute workhorse through countless gigs and recording sessions, and remains an arm’s length away as I type this 23 years later. I also started assembling bits of gear for a home studio that evolved over time, recording demos and eventually complete albums on my own. 

photo collage of Peavey EVH Wolfgang guitars

Van Halen releases and info during this period came in teases and batches. The debacle over recording their two-song contribution to the Twister soundtrack. Sammy’s first departure. A premature Roth reunion announcement at the VMAs. (Real talk, though: Did you see all those attending celeb faces light up during their standing-o?) A one-disc hits package that divided their audience. 

The resulting tracks featured a similar sonic palette—and musical caliber—as Balance … even with Dave at the mic. Like the inverse of how I described OU812 as a Dave album with Sammy’s voice. Song lengths were getting out of hand and meander-y. “There’s a killer three-minute single in here somewhere,” I would’ve offered if asked. Gripes aside, each contained great hooks and Buddhist riffs and general customer satisfaction, because as Dave said, you “Can’t Get This Stuff No More.” Like that tornadic solo in “Humans Being” where Eddie sounds like he’s ratcheting a crank to its breaking point over eight straight measures (only to have Sammy jack out of the box). Or how ’bout using a talkbox this time? Or those modulating climbs before each “Me Wise Magic” chorus drop (reminiscent of “Summer Nights”) that had us all grinning on that same sugar high baked into every new release throughout recorded Halen history.

Everyone from Los Angeles seems to have an Eddie story (see also: Lemmy). Oh, you, too? The guy installing my carpet had just renovated 5150 Studios, chuckling about some Dave-inspired amateur artwork seen on their fridge. Folks might talk about how Ed would show up on their doorstep, or terrify them with his breakneck Canyon driving, or give some fan a unique experience that no one hears about for a decade. Seemed like every musician in his orbit received an EVH gift guitar at some point, right off his back. Not to mention the school music programs he stocked or charity events leveraging his fame, however introverted—even insecure—he remained about it.

In 1998 I visited L.A. for the first time, my old high-school-drummer pal tour-guiding the hallowed Halen haunts near Sunset. Guitar Center showcased Alex’s retired drum kit. I think it was the same I later saw on display at Cleveland’s Hall of Fame in 2014 while shooting some performances there. Edward’s exhibit at Experience Hendrix in Seattle is disappointing, but he’s not whom you’re there for. 

photo of Van Halen display at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

That year’s album, Van Halen III, saw Gary Cherone emerge from the public-relations miasma of vocalist candidates (its “circus” artwork is amusing through this lens). It may have surprised or disappointed fans, but didn’t faction us into camps like 5150 had. The stakes also felt lower in this musical climate as their appeal perhaps became more selective. Guitarists will tell you III is a dark-horse favorite, occupying similar air as Fair Warning in the canon. For years, we wondered what an Edward Van Halen solo album would sound like, and bootlegs aside, it’s the closest we’ve heard as of this writing. Too bad the records with his biggest fingerprints sold the fewest, but that’s commerce, not caliber. I think they missed with their singles here, choosing familiar but bland rockers that were outliers on the album, making it sound to radio and MTV like they were regressing instead of progressing. If that’s what they wanted to present, why bump one of its best songs?

Van Halen III has a soul, though. An aesthetic. Bone-dry drums, buzzing amps, controlled feedback. More acoustic and electronic textures, more experimentation. Some of those riffs are absolutely crushing! Take the gnarly drop-tuned funk verses in “Ballot or the Bullet” or its intro “Primary” (performed on electric sitar) continuing the VH instrumental tradition. Edward even takes a duet turn at the mic on the piano ballad “How Many Say I.” I would’ve loved a second album with this lineup and pros behind the console, because it felt like they had the beginnings of a good songwriting partnership that had perhaps just been rushed. 

Van Halen III standouts:
“Dirty Water Dog” – new revamp of that SNL “Stompin’ 8H” tune, a.k.a. “I Want Some Action” or “Twist the Knife”
“Once” – layers upon layers building intensity, reminds me of my own recordings
“Josephina” – first time I’d seen Eddie play acoustic on stage, also alternate tuning

Imagine having a bandmate leave what you’ve built together to go sing for your idol instead! That’s what Nuno Bettencourt was facing in their former band Extreme when Gary got called up. They’re another favorite of mine from day one, whom I’ve had a chance to meet several times, so I was mortified to hear my own former singer made a drunken ass of himself attempting to compliment Gary backstage. A feeling I knew, trying to play it cool with the Def Leppard gents after a show, sweating booze through my ill-fitting bootleg Union Jack tee. That guy.

In July the Van Halen III tour rolled into town, the final time I’d see them at our shed before the party moved indoors. Had great seats, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd opened, whom I didn’t much care for then. Most exciting for us was getting to hear them dust off so many Dave-era favorites that had gone unplayed for 15 years, like “Mean Street,” “Romeo Delight,” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” Gary’s timbre and range are similar to Sammy’s, so he could handle the entire catalog, yet his ego was more deferential with clear respect for the material, which endeared him to a segment of fans like myself who wanted to see Edward driving the car for a change. As I said, this was a lower-key era of stripped-back everything. No dramatic offstage intro. Ed simply walked out—now tethered to his rig after years of wirelessness—and started riffing “Unchained.” Ponder the irony for a moment. It felt like this band might play your house party if you passed the hat around, and I’d hoped this all-about-the-music evolution could work for their longevity, and re-establish a cycle.

Four years later I was back at the ampitheater to see Sam and Dave. Hagar and Roth, that is, in a co-headling tour that probably sounded like a good idea at the time. Not so much for Dave, who did have the superior set list and a hotshot tribute-band guitarist. But Sammy had the pipes, with Mike thumping alongside for the VH numbers, and we all recognize what a big part of their trademark vocal blend he is. Sorry, Ed and Al, but I had to bucket-list that one because I’d never seen Diamond Dave in person. Rumor was he’d done some rehearsing with the brothers the preceding year that didn’t yield anything. 

Mike working on the side (so to speak) with Sammy caused a rift with the brothers, reducing his role as they were about record three new tracks for another compilation, The Best of Both Worlds. At least this time we got a double-disc affair accurately repping the band. But Sammy got all the new vox. Of these, “Up for Breakfast” was my favorite. I’d actually like to hear what Dave could’ve done with that one. Eddie fired up that throbbing “Why Can’t This Be Love” sequencer again, with the guitars focused on midrange crunch.

Remember, after Balance, really into the III era and beyond, is when the world wide web expanded. Van Halen always enjoyed a certain mystery because of how tight they kept things in the family, and while that remains the case, fans and haters the world over were now connected, sharing their concert experiences, media, and Eddie stories, for better or—increasingly through this period—for worse, as his lifelong battle with alcoholism, coupled with recent ailments, was at its most visible.

In 2004 we were concerned what shape our hero would be in when he and the band hit the stage reunited with Sammy to promote The Best of Both Worlds. At an old arena not played since the 5150 tour, our show unfolded exactly as foretold in the online gossip. The guitarist in me enjoyed watching Eddie try to reinvent each song on the spot with improvised variations. Having seen it all, I always wanted more of that, but careful what you wish for. A bigger part of me thought he was trampling all over his own legacy, and by the time he brought up his son to participate in his climactic solo spot, the thrill I’d gotten from his “outside” playing was replaced with sympathy for the kid having to witness this train wreck night after night. Al’s drum solo was a show highlight. Or maybe it was easier to focus on him given the distance between Sam and Ed.

Joining me at that concert were two members of my old college band who would soon own a KC music store together, where old pals like me were eager to join in on any fun. Got to jam with George Lynch, meet Vai, Satch, Petrucci, Vernon Reid, and some others already mentioned. At this time, I was playing weekends in a regional ’80s tribute band with new friends, fronted by a young woman. Not much hard rock, but I managed to script Van Halen bits into our instrumedleys, all of us being fans. Our drummer had studied under the guy from Tesla, so we hung with them before an Omaha show. Many other musicians over the years, too, but I’m trying to keep it about the six-string here, and just thought if you’re reading this you might enjoy those. Enough name-drops.

photo collage of famous guitarists

Ed seemed to bottom out in the period following that tour, and it hurt my heart to read accounts of his behavior after divorcing Valerie, Mike, Sammy, and Peavey. Earlier I mentioned the hazards of home-studio hermitage. In no time at all, you can find your head up your own ass, chasing tones or looping the same lick until punch-drunk with imperfection. Frustrated that musical partners don’t share your dedication to songcraft and production. How could they, not living at the music factory?

Imagine how strange it must feel to have one of your iconic guitars buried with a fan, not to mention one as famous himself as Dimebag Darrell of Pantera. But Ed did just that with his “Bumblebee” axe from 1979. Would Clapton donate his psychedelic Gibson SG to Edward’s memorial?

Around this time, Edward launched his own EVH® brand, offering signature gear that he would constantly refine and road-test through his remaining years, even replicas of his famed striped guitars, right down to their cigarette burns. Players always clamored for whatever magic box Eddie must be using (none could replace a decade of bedroom woodshedding), so after a string of awkward, compromising endorsement relationships, he now seemed much more confident as the face of the brand actually bearing his name. This was a welcome evolution, especially during lulls in band news, we could count on Eddie cooking up something new on the workbench.

Changes had to be made, health addressed, habits broken, a housecleaning of certain associates, etc., and these coincided with Ed’s remarriage. Soon I’m hearing things are cordial with Roth again, and they’re hitting the road as VH with the kid on bass. Say what?! Wolfie having a role in the family biz seemed inevitable, I just didn’t imagine so young. Or so live.

If there’s one chink in my fan battle armor, it’s skipping the 2007 reunion tour, which featured a killer set list. To me, this was all just too soon after having seen Ed at his worst, Dave on stage versus Sammy, and no new material to support. Felt like a cash-grab, and I didn’t want my beloved Van Halen to become a heritage act, despite how healthy and smiley everyone looked. I regretted it, of course, fearing I may have missed my last chance. So thanks for sticking it out, Dave, and giving us another few chapters to conclude the saga.

2012 brought the news of a new album, A Different Kind of Truth, prickling up the fur on my arms when I heard how they were going about it. Outside producers: check. Recorded off site: check. Shorter tunes: check. Reworking unused demos from the early days: check. I was hopeful a little nepotism would also elevate the bass in the mix. Check!

They announced with a surprise gig at New York’s Cafe Wha? Brilliant, and such a Dave maneuver to pull this off, once again showing there’s no smoke and mirrors here: Van Halen can still slay on a skeleton stage just as they had nearly four decades ago. Doing it in NY instead of their home L.A. turf made it even cooler. The online video stream favored Wolfie’s side, leaving no question the prodigal was crushing it old-school with both fingers and voice, locked in with his uncle on the drums behind him. Coincidentally, I had recently spent two nights at this club with some coworkers on a video trip, regaling them with its Hendrix and Dylan history, and how Roth’s uncle owned the place.

Knowing so much of their unreleased work, I loved dissecting where some of the song elements had come from and been rearranged. Dave reclaimed his status as one of rock’s finest lyricists, having rewritten their majority. It really does sound like a continuation of the earliest albums that saved us from disco the first time around. Eddie absolutely blazes throughout, often in unison or counterpoint with his son. No ballads, and hardly a synthesizer within earshot.

A Different Kind of Truth standouts:
“Blood and Fire” – right out of 1984 with stereo Ripley guitar intro
“Stay Frosty” – an “Ice Cream Man” style rave-up
“China Town” – metallic face-melter

I would not miss this tour at our shiny new downtown Sprint Center, for the opposite reasons I stayed home last time. After too many happy-hour beers at the entertainment district across the street, we arrived as Kool & The Gang opened, and I felt a nostalgic twinge for the days when such disparate acts would share a stage … before my time. Most of them probably got booed off, unlike this night where celebration was in effect early. 

The irony was not lost on me—given what I said about Sammy-era sets, but now factoring in modern ticket prices—that I wanted them to perform the hits as well as some new cuts, and they delivered, also digging deep for “The Full Bug” from Diver Down, unleashing “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Hear About It Later.” The vocals were the best I’ve heard from any involved, backgrounds always spot-on regardless of what terrain Roth was navigating, and it was the most professional and accurate of all Eddie’s live performances.

Eddie showed up at a club here later that year to watch his son perform in the Tremonti band, just hanging out like a fan back where my friends used to fly off its mechanical bull. (Don’t worry, I’ve seen everyone from GWAR to Hank Rollins there.) I think Wolfie was dating someone from my neighborhood at the time, so I wonder if that had anything to do with the occasion. I, an idiot, was not there.

Finally we’d get an official live album with David Lee Roth! He chose the Tokyo show, wisely, because it was way lucid by his vocal standards. Maybe it was his personal connection to the culture. It sounds like they left the recording as-is (hahaha), which is exactly as it should be with this band, one of the few of their era who could pull off such a four-man gig. They even performed live with Dave for the first time on American television to promote it.

As fans, we were now in the bonus round. Anything else would be gravy. In the years preceding Edward’s death at age 65 from cancer—fuckin’ cancer of all things—rumors of vault recordings had resurfaced along with reunions and medical treatments. Hopefully when it’s the right time, those will be treated by the family with the same care Edward would have wanted … and my dream-job application will be accepted.

Wolfgang’s musical legacy is yet to be written, with his debut solo album expected soon and hopefully starting an interesting journey of his own.

Me, I have no Eddie stories. How many say I?

photo collage of Van Halen imitation