Eddie Van Halen photographed by Chrissy Olsen in Studio City, California on May 29, 2015.Chrissy Olsen
By Chris Payne
Van Halen is about to embark on a 40-plus-date North American tour. But when legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen takes the stage with the band (starting July in Seattle), fans won’t be in the presence of a typical hell-raising rock star, even if his technique did inspire scores of hell-raising metal bands. He’s been sober since 2008, but kicking alcohol is only the tip of the iceberg.
For Billboard’s latest cover story, out Friday, June 19, we caught up with Eddie Van Halen, who wasn’t shy about his atypical rock star ways. He hates touring (and doesn’t have much of a relationship with flamboyant frontman David Lee Roth), but is hitting the road anyway. He continues to make new music (Van Halen released a the LP A Different Kind of Truth in 2012) but doesn’t listen to anyone else’s music, new or old. Here are five reasons there’s no other rocker quite like Eddie Van Halen:
1. He Partied in His Heyday, But Not Exactly Like a Rock Star
Like the rest of Van Halen, Eddie indulged in drugs and alcohol, but not while partying. Drug and alcohol-free since 2008, he told Billboard about how he would get drunk and snort cocaine alone at night in hotel rooms, just to experiment with the guitar: “The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions,” Van Halen says. “I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state.”
2. He Doesn’t Listen to Any New Music
Not only does he not listen to old Van Halen records, but the guitarist hasn’t purchased new music since 1986. That special album was Peter Gabriel’s So. And new music? Don’t even think about it. “I couldn’t make a contemporary record if I wanted to, because I don’t know what contemporary music sounds like,” he admitted to Billboard. He does occasionally listen to Yo-Yo Ma (because he love the sound of the cello), so there’s that.
3. He Dresses Normcore
Okay, so there are punk and indie musicians who rock the regular Joe look, but few rock stars from Van Halen’s era will say, “I’m a T-shirt and jeans guy.” And he definitely didn’t bond with former Van Halen singer Gary Cherone over clothing choices: “We were getting ready to go on tour, and all of a sudden I see this John Travolta outfit — these big lapels and a crazy jacket. He’s like, ‘This is my stage outfit.’ That’s when I realized it wasn’t going to work,” says
4. He Played on Michael Jackson’s Iconic ‘Beat It’ — But Doesn’t Think It’s a Big Deal
When asked about playing the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” Van Halen simply refers to it as “20 minutes of my life,” and figures he probably should have gotten songwriting credit, but doesn’t seem to care much for not making any money off it:
“I literally thought to myself, ‘Who is possibly going to know if I play on this kid’s record?’ So I went to the studio and listened to the song twice, and I didn’t like the section they wanted me to solo over. They wanted me to solo over the breakdown. I asked [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones to edit the chords underneath the solo,” he recalls. “Then I could play the solo in the key of E, but it was the chords underneath that made the solo interesting. So I guess I did rearrange it.”
5. He Doesn’t Remember His Own Band’s Lyrics
Aside from not being able to read music, Eddie admits he’s also forgotten many of the lyrics to Van Halen’s songs. And though he barely has a relationship with David Lee Roth, he soldiers on for the fans: “I think it’s now built into people’s DNA, that it just won’t be Van Halen if it’s not Roth’s voice,” he explains. “You make music for people. Otherwise, just play in your closet. And how do you reach the most people? By giving them the band that they know. To do it any other way would be selfish.”
Read Eddie Van Halen’s Billboard cover story when it’s out Friday, June 19.