My 26-Year Interview With Eddie Van Halen (Book Excerpt)

Rock journalist Steve Rosen started interviewing Eddie Van Halen in 1977 and continued to speak with the guitar legend through 2003. Those conversations, and his observations and insights, are shared in the book “Tonechaser – Understanding Edward: My 26-Year Journey with Edward Van Halen,” out now.

Rosen had previously authored biographies on Jeff Beck, Free/Bad Company, Black Sabbath and Randy Rhoads. In this excerpt describing a 1978 hang, his budding friendship with Van Halen is on full display.

More from Variety

Excerpt from Chapter 4: How to Play Guitar Like Eddie Van Halen in One (Not So) Easy Lesson (December 30th, 1978)

I sensed early on that Edward didn’t want somebody falling all over him or telling him how great he was. He didn’t need me to say those things to him because even from the earliest times I spent with him, he seemed to know precisely who he was and where he began and ended. Going back to that first at the Whisky, he already displayed an outsized humility in the face of praise and compliments. That humbleness and aw-shucks demeanor would always remain a part of him and anybody who ever met him would be blown away by that self-effacing aspect of his character. I know it was more times than I could count.

Edward didn’t need me lashing him with superlatives because every single person he encountered was filling his head with them. They didn’t mean anything to him or at least I didn’t think so. No, what he wanted, and I believed he needed was someone to simply listen, care and try to understand him. He had his family of course, but we all know you can say things to a friend that you can’t tell your own flesh and blood. Am I wrong?

So, I tried to be that person or no, I didn’t have to become that person — I was that person. I’d always been a great listener — and what else was a music journalist if not someone who sat and quietly observed as much as anything else? — and someone capable of offering a sympathetic ear.

After playing that snippet from “Dance the Night Away,” he told me how the band recorded, working with Ted Templeman and Donn Landee (the band’s producer and engineer respectively), and not trying to copy what he’d done on the first album. I asked him, “Why don’t you give me like a rundown of the songs? Titles? What was involved? Things like that? Can you remember?” and that’s when all the real magic was unleashed. I had uttered the secret password to enter Castle Van Halen.

As soon as I posed the question, he said, “Oh, I don’t even remember. I can go out and get the tape.” At that point, he laid the Strat on the couch and went outside to fetch the cassette. That was the first time he had stopped holding the instrument since he first grabbed it from the stand. When I think about that, there were very few times in all the minutes and hours spent with him when he wasn’t holding one guitar or another. The act of cradling a guitar in his arms, settling his fingers on the fretboard, and touching a pick to a string had been drilled into his brain. It was second nature.

Immediately upon his return, Ed lifted the Fender from the couch and placed it in his lap. It was an automatic response. I saw it. Positioning the guitar just right, he pulled the tape from his shirt pocket, and I asked, “Track one?” He said, “This isn’t the order at all,” confirming my earlier assumption that the album hadn’t been sequenced yet, which meant the record probably hadn’t been completed yet either and the fact he would have come over in the middle of recording the album was pretty unreal.

He proceeded to talk about the songs on the tape, giving me titles and such and would then play the main riffs from the songs on the Strat and that was so impossibly unbelievable to watch as he picked out licks from “Outta Love Again,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” “Women in Love…;” “You’re No Good,” “Bottoms Up!,” “Light Up the Sky,” “Beautiful Girls,” and “D.O.A.”

Edward telling me about his music was one thing, but watching him play those songs in front of me was astonishment of a different intensity. When I first started working out in my head what the interview would look like and tried to imagine that and how it would unfold, I never in a thousand years saw him playing the guitar. My guitars were in plain sight from the second he walked in the door but then they were always sitting in that same spot, so it wasn’t as if I had tried to stage something or tried to lure him into playing. Of course, I was desperately hoping he would play but I also knew I wasn’t going to ask him or try and coax him. I would have felt uneasy doing that. But when he grabbed the Fender and started tuning it, I knew how special the interview would be.

What was strange was why he hadn’t plugged into the Marshall in the corner or an Ampeg VT-40 I think I had, which was probably sitting somewhere in the room. That was a suggestion I should have made and looking back now, it looms as an oversight and a mistake of such epic proportions that I can’t even think about it without wanting to smash my head against the speaker cabinet. But even playing the electric acoustically, Edward was Edward. The wizardry was there in his fingers and even without an amp, there was nobody else in the world he could have been mistaken for other than Edward Van Halen.

We yammered on about a ton of stuff: how he must have been blown away by his playing on the album, solos, the live feel of the tracks, the sound of his guitar, and finally, a question about whether he did any singing on the album. That led to a response about singing lead on Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad and Cream songs in the band’s early days, which in turn led me to ask him whether the band ever did any Deep Purple songs because I had heard a lot of Purple on that first Van Halen album.

“No, I don’t think we ever did any Deep Purple,” Edward said. “I don’t think we ever really played any Deep Purple until we started playing at clubs and we had to do ‘Smoke on the Water.’ Oh, yeah, we did one song by Deep Purple, we did ‘Highway Star.’”

With that comment, he launched into the song, playing the main rhythm figure and then a section of the solo. If anything, hearing him play the Purple song was even more remarkable and poignant for me than when he ran through the Van Halen tracks. I lived and breathed Deep Purple and had played Machine Head too many times to count and had heard “Highway Star” over and over in an attempt to try and copy the solo, which I never could, and neither could most other guitarists and even very good players never seemed able to emulate Ritchie’s staccato-styled picking attack or that unforgiving triplet feel he maintained through the entire solo. That solo left many a guitar player with bleeding fingertips and bruised egos.

But Edward had it down. Who knows how many times he had listened to the song; placing the needle of his record player down on the first track on side one of Machine Head around the 3:46 mark to hear the beginning of the solo? I’m guessing he listened to the song a million times, but it could have been more. He tossed off a few licks in an almost nonchalant fashion and barely seemed to be concentrating at all though it was instantly obvious to me that he must have devoted hundreds of hours in learning those phrases, crawling inside the solo, studying it, practicing it and becoming part of it so he could fly through those incredibly challenging series of notes with such ease and freedom.

I watched his fingers scramble along the ebony fretboard as they performed an exotic and intricate digital dance and if that sounded a bit on the poetically cheesy side, well, forgive me. It was poetry. I doubt whether he had played that solo in years, but his fingers simply flew to the right frets. There was something so perfect about it.

Then we talked about Cream, and he whipped through the “Crossroads” solo from Wheels of Fire. Oh God, was that beautiful. He was playing along when he got tripped up on one little section. Taking a breath, he noodled around for a brief second and then resumed the phrase note-for-note and even to the point of emulating Eric Clapton’s legendary finger vibrato. Watching him work that out, seeing the determination and focus and ultimately the muscle memory kicking in during a brief interlude that maybe took six seconds, was an entire world unto itself. It was both a stunning and sublime thing to see. Edward ran through a few lines from Cream’s “Sitting on Top of the World” from the Goodbye album and I made some remark about “That’s the fastest Clapton ever played.” It was though Ed already knew that and stared at me as if I was merely stating the obvious.

* * *

Guitars returned to their stands, I shut the tape player off. Edward snuffed out his final cigarette in the Whisky ashtray. I remembered that much. What I can’t recall at all is whether he said anything about the interview or if he had dug it or anything like that. I was positive he did and when I heard our exchange on tape all these years later, I know for a certainty he had a great time, but when the conversation ended on that day, I wasn’t sure.

I walked him down the stairs to his car and he turned and hugged me and that was maybe the greatest moment of the entire day. I would later come to understand after spending time with him that Edward possessed kind of a prescient quality. He always knew the right things to say or do and, in that case, he didn’t even have to utter one word. That hug was everything. In it, I felt validated. It held the promise of friendship and things to come.

That was the first of many times he would hug me and even now reminiscing about it, I can feel the comforting pressure of his arms around me and mine around him. It was such a pure and uninhibited gesture and went to the very core of his sensitivity and empathy.

Edward climbed into his car, gunned the motor, and drove away. He hadn’t said one word during the entire exchange.

Sometimes the best things he ever said to me were the things he never said at all.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.