VHND exclusive: Interview with Dennis Travis, ex-member of the Trojan Rubber Company (Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s band in 1971)
While many claim to have known the Van Halen brothers in their formative years before signing with Warner Brothers, few can call them their childhood friends. However, Dennis Travis not only knew the Van Halens, but was a member of one of their first bands.
“I walk into some places and tell people that I used to be in Van Halen and they laugh at me,” says Travis. “The thing they don’t understand is that Eddie and Alex were kids once, too. They grew up and had friends, you know, and I was one of them.”
A guitar player himself, Travis remembers teaching young Eddie Van Halen a few riffs. However, Eddie learned so quickly that before long there wasn’t anything else Travis could teach him. “He was so good, he could pick things up instantly.”
As a sophomore in high school, Travis remembers trying to impress Alex with his new blues band. Alex listened but wasn’t interested. Instead, he suggested Travis hear his little brother, Eddie, who was tearing up the local garage-band scene with record- perfect cover tunes.
Several months later, Travis stumbled upon the two jamming in their high-school gymnasium. “l heard some music that sounded like a Cream album going full tilt and became curious. Back in those days, Cream was mostly instrumental, with big jams and no singing, and I couldn’t tell if it was Cream or not,” Travis exclaims. “They were that good. As I got closer, I realized that it was Ed and Al doing Cream tunes note-for-note with no bass player. I asked, ‘What happened to your bass player,’ and they told me they had to get rid of him because he wasn’t serious. I asked them if they needed somebody and they jumped back and said, ‘Let’s go get your equipment!”
Playing bass and occasionally guitar, Travis recalls being impressed with Eddie’s playing from the beginning. “I remember Eddie practicing that old James Gang song ‘Walk Away.’ He started copying it note-for-note from the record, and he had it down instantly. Look at it this way, there were people that tried harder than he did and never got good. Eddie could pick things up so easily, and it was like he already had it in him. He was born with it, and Alex was the same way on drums. When Eddie played, he sounded like Eric Clapton. I mean, if you took out the other guys, it sounded like Clapton was standing right there. I was really surprised, because a lot of guys his age couldn’t even play.”
For the next year, Travis and the Van Halen brothers played around Pasadena in the band known as the Trojan Rubber Company. “The name was Eddie’s idea,” Travis smirks, “we were not only the neighborhoods most talented band, but also the most versatile.
“Eddie had an old Fender Deluxe which had a great sound to it and we would trade off playing licks. l would do the Jimi Hendrix stuff— l was always better at the crazy stuff — and Ed was really good at Clapton. We would play blues and sometimes Ed would play bass or double-guitar. A lot of people might not know this, but Ed could play drums,too, but wasn’t nearly as good as Alex. Eddie could play bass extremely well. The first time he took my bass, he played along with the Hendrix stuff perfectly without ever having a single lesson. He was right there on every note and had a good ear.”
Travis recalls that Alex was no slouch with instruments, either. “At our battle of the Bands, Alex did ‘Toad,’ the twenty minute Cream drum solo. I’m not a drummer, but l have a good ear and l didn’t hear one mistake! From what I remember, we either tied for first place or won. All the guys we beat were 20, 25 years old. Me and Al were 16, and Ed was only 14.
Even today, decades later, Travis still finds himself thinking back on his brief friendship with the Van Halens. “Alex was really a nice, congenial guy. In fact, when he saw the picture of the Trojan Rubber Company, it supposedly brought tears to his eves, since it brought back a lot of old memories. He was the first one of us to learn to drive and would often take me and Eddie to music stores. We’d go in and look at all the stuff together and Eddie would try and get people to buy him cigarettes!”
As everyone grew older, Travis drifted away from the Van Halens. “l was with them for a year, and we had a lot of fun. We all got along really well, but my dad was a minister and he got a job at a church 300 miles away, so I had to move.”
After Travis moved, the band changed its name to Van Halen and continued playing high schools and backyard parties in the area. One of Travis’ fondest memories of his old band-mates was in 1974, when Van Halen played at a high school dance. “They went in with a cocky attitude. While the opening band was playing, Eddie and new vocalist David Lee Roth were sneaking backstage and repeatedly unplugging their Marshall amplifiers one after another. After awhile, the band either gave up or was forced to quit playing and I’ll never forget when Dave ran out on stage and shouted, “Well, the band just couldn’t cut it! But have no fear, Van Halen is here!”
Rock ‘n’ Roll has never been the same.
This interview was published in the debut issue ‘The Inside’ magazine. The Inside was the ALL-VAN HALEN full color, glossy magazine published by the staff of VHND.com from 1995 – 2000. It went on to become the band’s official magazine. Most of the 16 issues published are still available here.