Tapping Into Greatness

Of the many music stars who’ve died in recent years, Eddie Van Halen has a unique place in the pantheon of pop culture: the hard-rock hero, the last guitarist who changed what people thought guitars could do. The heir to Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, Eddie was one of those who, as the authors of Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen say, “redefined the rock guitar vernacular.”

Eruption is primarily an oral history based on interviews that music journalists Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill conducted with Eddie Van Halen over the course of his career. Each interview is preceded by a brief narrative about the relevant period in Eddie’s life and the band’s history, from his childhood through his illness and death. Additional interviews with friends and peers expand the perspective of Eddie’s personality, struggles, and accomplishments. The story of his life, like those of many people of other-worldly talents and fame, is alternately inspiring, frustrating, and tragic.

Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born in 1955 in Amsterdam, the second son of Jan and Eugenia. His father was a musician—Eddie described him as “a soulful guy” who “played saxophone and clarinet like a motherfucker.” But it was his mother who saw to it that Eddie and his older brother Alex took piano lessons starting at the age of six. She was severe: Eddie recalls that she used to call him a “nothing nut—just like your father.” But the prejudice she experienced for her Indonesian background, along with the couple’s financial struggles, was a reason the family left Holland for the United States, arriving in Pasadena in 1962.

Alex acclimated more easily than Eddie, who preferred to spend time with his music than with people. He continued studying the piano and picked up the violin before turning to the guitar at the age of 12. That same year, to help him overcome his anxiety of performing in front of crowds, Eddie’s father gave him his first drink.

The Van Halen boys formed their first bands in the early 1970s: Eddie on guitar and vocals, Alex on drums. Charismatic singer David Lee Roth became a member through the twin virtues of persistence and owning good equipment; they poached bassist Michael Anthony from another local band. The book conveys the excitement of the band’s early years: struggling to be discovered, recording demos with Gene Simmons of KISS, signing with Warner Brothers in 1977, releasing their debut album the following year.

One reason Eruption reads like more than just the script for a Behind the Music episode is its attention to musical detail. Tolinski and Gill were editors in chief of Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado, respectively, and they delve into the technical side of Eddie’s music. They ask him about his amps, recording consoles, endorsement deals. The book is interspersed with pages dedicated to “Eddie’s Oddities,” pictures and descriptions of various guitars he used over the course of his career. These details underscore how Eddie’s creativity involved extensive experimentation and craftsmanship.

That experimentation includes the guitar-playing technique that set him apart: tapping. This involved Eddie moving his right hand onto the fretboard, “enabling him to play intervals and lightning-fast passages no guitarist could with just their fretting hand.” He also enjoyed experimenting with the instrument itself, famously creating his legendary Frankenstein (or Frankenstrat) guitar by piecing together hardware and parts from different guitars, and helped develop a device that allowed guitarists to use a whammy bar without the strings going out of tune.

Still, any account of Eddie’s career is bound to include plenty of personal drama. The book makes it easy to see Eddie’s side in his feuds with bandmates. Even if you believe (as I do) that the band made its best music with Roth, it’s hard to deny he must have been difficult to work with and that his vocal range was a liability. It’s also clear that Roth and Eddie had different visions for the group: Just compare the band’s synth and ballad-heavy debut with Sammy Hagar to Roth’s guitar-dominated first solo album.

But Eddie’s critiques aren’t always fair. Take his version of the time Michael McDonald—captain of Yacht Rock—helped write a Van Halen song. McDonald has explained that the band’s producer, Ted Templeman, invited him to visit the studio, where he and Roth exchanged ideas and sang together. But in Eddie’s version, Roth doesn’t contribute at all—instead, Templeman secretly records McDonald’s singing in the studio and rips off his ideas without permission. That account seems designed to make the others look as bad as possible.

As for Sammy Hagar, Eddie appreciated his guitar-playing abilities and superior voice but eventually grew frustrated with the dopey lyrics. In “Amsterdam,” for example, Hagar reduced Eddie’s birthplace to clichés about the red-light district. On the other hand, you can’t blame Sammy for preferring to spend time with his pregnant wife instead of keeping Eddie’s odd hours.

Eddie’s treatment of Michael Anthony is the hardest to swallow. Anthony wasn’t invited to tour with Van Halen in 2007 and was replaced by Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. It’s easy to understand why Eddie would want his son in the band; but his disrespect for Anthony’s vocal contributions is galling. Anthony is right when he says, in one of his two interviews here, “Our background vocals were like Ed’s guitar sound: You knew it was Van Halen when you heard them.”

These personnel changes point to one of Eddie’s most dominant traits: Although he frequently mentions his disregard for any set of musical or technical rules, he was a perfectionist. The authors often evoke the image of him as a teenager alone in his bedroom, sitting at the edge of his bed, drinking beer and practicing the technique that would make him famous. It’s a romantic image of the lone genius putting in his Malcolm Gladwell-prescribed 10,000 hours.

But Eddie’s perfectionism was often eccentric and extreme. When he had surgery on his hip, he insisted that he receive only local anesthetic because, as he explained, “I wanted to be wide awake and in control so I could call the shots in case something happened.” Toto guitarist Steve Lukather recounts how Eddie, while recording the famous guitar solo for “Beat It,” cut the master tape and added a section to the song without the permission of Michael Jackson or Quincy Jones. And his enthusiasm for his bathroom’s mini-studio is truly bizarre (and the butt of a joke in Eddie’s Two and a Half Men cameo).

This obsessiveness inspired Eddie to build his famous 5150 recording studio behind his house in the early ’80s. In his telling, Van Halen’s album 1984 was a smash because he could block Roth and Templeman from exerting their wills in his studio. But the band’s worst album (Van Halen III) was the one on which Eddie exerted the most authority, working with a malleable new lead singer (Gary Cherone) and producer (the greatest American theme song composer, Mike Post). Eddie even sang lead vocals on a track—by far the worst, most cringe-inducing song in the band’s catalog.

Eddie struggled with substance abuse, getting sober in the mid-90s before falling off the wagon and hitting his nadir in the early 2000s. These troubles were exacerbated by other serious health concerns, including surgeries and tongue cancer. This time of his life is painful to read. But sobriety stuck in 2008 and the chapter featuring interviews from this period is one of the most positive in the book: Eddie is happy with Dave. He’s grateful to be working with his son and brother. Later, he would reconcile with Hagar and entertain the idea of a tour with all three singers.

But those plans were upended when doctors found a brain tumor in 2019. His death last year makes this remark from an early interview especially poignant:

“My dad died when he was sixty-six because he was an alcoholic, but he led a full life. My mom was eighty, and she didn’t do anything. I’m trying to find a balance. I don’t want to be like my mom and live to be eighty, but do nothing. But I don’t want to die at sixty-six, either.”

He died at 65.

There’s unlikely to be another guitarist like Eddie Van Halen—he will be the last guitarist to reshape rock and dominate the pop-cultural landscape. Although other greats are still at it, guitar rock isn’t nearly as significant as it once was: Pop songs are likely to have a rap verse where a guitar solo would have been, and the youngest stars haven’t even heard of Van Halen.

They should start their education by listening to the records, of course, but reading Eruption would help them understand the complex personality and awesome talent central to one of America’s greatest bands and most important musicians.

Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen
by Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill
Hachette Books, 336 pp., $28

Christopher J. Scalia works at a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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