Brad Tolinki (L), Chris Gill (R)
The Van Halen News Desk had the chance to talk with Brad Tolinski & Chris Gill, authors of the much-anticipated book Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen, which is released today!
Tolinski and Gill collected over 50 hours of unreleased interviews with Eddie – most conducted at his legendary 5150 studios in Los Angeles dating back to the early 90s – to write this book. They also include extensive comments taken from interviews with Eddie’s family, friends and colleagues. This is the closest readers will ever get to hearing Eddie’s side of the story.
Here is what Tolinski and Gill had to say about the book and Eddie Van Halen to the VHND‘s Eric Senich:
VHND: You both made frequent visits to Edward’s 5150 studio which is, as you write, just a short uphill jog from his house in the Hollywood Hills. He’d greet you with his famous smile and wave you into the studio. We’ve seen the studio from the outside, a few clips and photos here and there of the inside but you two were there. Can you take us through that experience, what it’s like inside? You write that it’s not messy, but felt comfortably lived in.
Brad Tolinski (BT): As I said in the book you’d go in there and Ed would make this joke where he’d sort of rub his hands together and he’s like, ‘Eh! It smells like work in here!’ [laughs]. That was the great thing about 5150. You go into a New York recording studio and it’s pristine and it’s beautiful and the lighting’s great but there isn’t any vibe. At 5150 there’s vibe. It feels like, not like you’re in somebody’s garage, but it feels like [it’s] lived in. It feels like a band is working there and having a good time and doing creative stuff.
Chris Gill (CG): The thing is…it’s just these iconic guitars strewn about that you’ve heard about, we saw on stage, we saw in photos before and to actually see them in the flesh, it’s kind of like a religious experience. It’s like seeing the Ark of the Covenant or seeing the Shroud of Turin or something like that. To see this is where the magic happens, basically. So much magic happened in there, obviously the 1984 album and onwards. So many great tunes and everything. But, like Brad said, there’s just this element of home to it. It’s kind of glamorously unglamorous. It’s not super tidy, you can see all of this evidence of activity. Picks strewn about the ground. Drum sticks. There’s Alex’s kit. Later days there’s Wolfgang’s bass, Michal Anthony’s bass, just there ready and waiting. You kind of get that tingly feeling [laughs] walking in there! But at the same time, it felt like, ‘Oh…OK, I could work here.’ You don’t feel intimidated by it. It feels just like a really, comfortable warm, inviting place.
VHND: What was your first impression of Eddie when you met him? You write in the book about that familiar smile. We’ve heard about him being very unassuming, not at all someone who acted like a rock star.
BT: You see Ed and you’re like, ‘Oh my God…It’s Ed Van Halen!’ So there’s that minute or two of sort of shock or surprise, I guess, whenever you see a celebrity. But Ed was always super quick to basically disarm you a little bit in the beginning; present himself as a regular guy. And he knew people would get tongue tied in front of him so he’d be always the guy that would come up to you first and say, ‘Hey man how’s it goin’?’ Put you at ease a little bit. That’s how I found him always. Pretty relaxed, calm, ready to have some fun but ready to talk about guitar and that’s sort of Chris and my “in” with Ed. We could throw down with him, we could talk about the instrument and I think understand where he was coming from and what he wanted to accomplish and for him that was a great thing. That’s what started the rapport.
CG: Ed was just a regular guy. When it came right down to it he was a guitar player, he was a brother to all of us guitar players. I think that was the really great thing, was to talk to him not as a music journalist with an agenda. I remember Musician magazine, there was an article where they just kinda ripped him to shreds and Ed just really…that just pissed him off. Because [he was like], ‘It’s MUSICIAN magazine’ ya know? But I think he really liked talking with the guitar guys. Our eyes wouldn’t glaze over when he was talking about 6CA7 and EL34 tubes and all these other nuts and bolts things. I think that also led him to open up a little bit more about other stuff because he felt comfortable and he felt understood.
VHND: Eddie talked to you about being bullied as a kid. He retreated into his own world, which was music. His talents became pretty obvious early on and at the age of nine he beats out thousands of kids in local classical music competitions on the piano yet he couldn’t read music. He played by ear, which led to him creating his own interpretations of pieces by Bach and Chopin.
CG: That’s actually what a really accomplished concert pianist does. If you really listen to a lot of classical music, especially solo piano works, you find that they put they’re own little spin on things. You may hear Chopin’s “Nocturnes”, for example, performed by Claudio Arrau – one of my favorite versions – then you hear another guy perform it and it’s different. It almost sounds like a different piece of music but it’s not. The notes are the same but the emotion is different and I think that’s one thing about Ed is that he just had this innate ability and that’s, I think, what they saw and that’s why he won first place three times in a row is because the guy just put so much of his soul and emotion to it.
VHND: An interesting comment from Eddie in your book regarding his parents that I think speaks to both his drive to become successful but also the pressure he felt. He said, “I think deep down my dad wanted us to be musicians, but it was my mom who really cracked the whip and wanted us to be proper musicians. She didn’t want us to struggle playing nightclubs like our dad. The whole time I was growing up, whenever I didn’t practice or when I started playing guitar, my mom used to call me a ‘Nothing nut, just like your father’. When you grow up that way, it’s not conducive for self-esteem.” A pretty revealing comment.
CG: Absolutely. I think the thing with Ed and his mom, she kinda had this kind of tiger mom sort of personality. It’s like, ‘If you’re gonna learn to do music, you’re gonna become a concert pianist’. She thought that was a respectable thing to do. It’s hard to make money doing that too [laughs] ya know? But I think that’s how she viewed it. There was this aura behind that and she was really upset when Ed discarded that; first with drums and then with guitar. And then him and Alex, they started hanging out with neighborhood kids and forming these bands and everything and she used to come in and complain about that “high crying sound” when Ed was playing his guitar in his room all hours of the day. It’s interesting because I don’t know if she ever really accepted [him not becoming a concert pianist]. I mean she did. [Eddie and Alex] bought her a nice house and everything but I think, at the same time, I think there was still maybe a little bit of disappointment in her that she never saw the boys become concert pianists, even though they went way beyond their father’s dreams with success. I mean, my God, they took [their mom and dad] to the [L.A.] Forum, they invited them to the Forum when [Van Halen] headlined there. That was quite an experience. I know dad loved it but I really have no idea what they’re mom thought.
BT: To that point though too. So, Ed has this problem in school, like relating to the other kids, and he has his mom sort of beating up on him, which doesn’t lend to much self esteem. Throughout the course of the book we point where Ed still never achieved a comfort level with dealing with a lot of people. He would talk about that, about how he would use drugs or he would drink in order just to allow himself to fit in. And that was even bad too ‘cuz he knew that he would act like a jerk and that bothered him too. The other equation, I guess, here is that artists are often tortured in certain kind of ways, which also brings out an emotion that people can relate to. And, even though people looked at Ed as sort of looking like this sort of all-American kid, he was carrying around a lot of baggage and you hear that in the music too.
Purchase your copy of Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen direct from Van Halen Store. It’s in stock and shipping now.
VHND: What did Eddie have to say about those early days of Van Halen and their determination to make it?
CG: It was a struggle. They had kinda this interesting dichotomy going on where they were hometown heroes in Pasadena. They played these big beer keg parties. They’d got to the point where they started renting out the Pasadena Civic and selling it out. So they had this huge following around the San Gabriel valley and Pasadena. Kids just knew them. If you wanted a happening Friday or Saturday night you’d look to see if Van Halen was doing the show. But at the same time, there was this club [Eddie] talked about called Plush where they got kicked out of ‘cuz they were too loud. Like Ed liked to say, his playing was too psychedelic. They would play these cover tunes but the cover tunes that they’d play didn’t sound anything really like the original material and the club owner’s like, ‘I hired you to play top 40!’ and kicked them out. Wouldn’t even let them take their gear with them. They had to come back later and pick it up. So it was really quite a struggle but they just were determined. That’s really what I got out of him, [which] was [that] they weren’t gonna let anything get them down. When they did these shows, every show they played as if it mattered and that paid off dividends for them in a very big way when Ted Templeman showed up to see them at the Starwood on an off night.
BT: To that point, when we would just hang out with Ed at 5150 and he would play, sitting on a couch or on the chair at the recording desk, he played like it really mattered…right then and there. There was nothing casual about how he played..ever. And we all know Dave [Roth]. Dave doesn’t drop it for a second either! [laughs]
VHND: Chris, you recently wrote an excellent article for Guitar World titled “Perfectly Frank: The True Origins and Evolution of Eddie Van Halen’s Legendary Frankenstein Guitar”. There are a lot of stories out there about this iconic guitar but not all of them are accurate.
CG: It was a work in progress but the actual Frankenstein actually came by, I wouldn’t say late in the game, but it was kinda [at this] transitional point. The earliest I’ve been able to pinpoint him actually building a guitar was this photo taken at the Pasadena Civic [on] February 18th, 1977. I still wonder, because we know that he had the ’61 Strat that he had modified and put a humbucker in. There are still photos of him with that; he’d actually had gone from sunburn finish to white during January of ’77. So he was still playing it and that was still his main guitar and then, all of a sudden, February 18 he’s showing up with the Frankenstein body and this neck. I’m wondering if he was actually playing the Frankenstein when Ted Templeman saw him. I almost look it as this magical talisman. He had this piece of wood and it was discarded second. It’s almost [like] the Christmas tree in Merry Christmas Charlie Brown or something ya know! That he saw the beauty in it and all of a sudden they get signed and they’re off. The image of Eddie Van Halen that we know, the sound of Eddie Van Halen that we know. Really, the Eddie Van Halen that we know and love on that first album came together after they recorded the [Warner Bros.] demos. He had time to woodshed. Warner Bros. was telling them to hold back, don’t do so many club gigs anymore. We don’t want you over exposing yourself. They had to wait while Ted Templeman finished up [producing The Doobie Brothers’] Minute by Minute. Ed really spent time working on his technique, his sound, he put the guitar completely together. He got the neck, he painted the body with stripes and it was just the whole package.
BT: I think that one of the great things about “Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen” that we do in this book – and a lot of this is due to Chris’s research – is really straighten out that timeline and how the Frankenstein came together. It’s a huge contribution to the history of Van Halen.
VHND: Eddie blew people away with his instrumental “Eruption”. That was all just happenstance. Ted Templeman happens to hear Eddie playing it in the studio one day and decides to roll the tape. It’s ultimately included on the band’s ’78 debut album. Eddie said there’s a mistake on that recording, do you guys hear it?
CG: I have gone through that with a fine tooth comb and it’s like, “Ed, you’re on another level man if you think [there’s a mistake].” But that’s the thing. There’s all kinds of mistakes. There’s uh…oh, which song is it? There’s something on Women & Children First, there’s one song where his finger slips off the fret board and it just sounds perfect. He talked about that famous statement of his – falling down the stairs and landing on your feet. I think that’s a lot of what he did and that came from him being willing to take risks.
BT: He might of had an intention but the thing that wasn’t the intention came out just fine as well. It was all musical.
VHND: What do you make of Eddie and David Lee Roth’s relationship? It’s really one of the great singer-guitarist combos yet they are so different.
BT: Musically, I think Ed figured this out towards the end of his life how important Dave was. But, to me, what’s really interesting about their relationship on a musical level is that, I think Ed developed his whole guitar style built around the way Dave sang. Dave was so unconventional as a singer, he was almost more of a rapper than a singer. Ed had to come up with all these really cool musical ideas to enhance basically what Dave was saying. I compare it in the book to almost like Carl Stalling and how he would create sounds for the Looney Tunes cartoons. And Ed had to come up with this whole guitar vocabulary to sort of fill in the blanks and to describe what Dave was singing. That’s why when Sammy comes into the picture, who was much more conventional in terms of his songwriting, Ed’s playing becomes more conventional. So, musically Ed and Dave played off of each other in a super interesting way, which is I think what created the unique Van Halen sound. But, as human beings, you really couldn’t find two people more different. I think that they recognized it and at the same time they cursed the Gods that this was the case. It just wasn’t Ed. It was also Dave, like, ‘UGHH!! I gotta deal with this guy who’s always such a downer.” That kind of thing.
CG: Initially Dave really worked his way into the band. They had to rent a PA from him and then eventually decided it’s just cheaper to put Dave in the band. And then the demands kind of increased too. Its like, ‘Oh, the rent’s going up and I need to do a couple songs with you guys.” Then they just decided, “Let’s just put Dave in the band so we don’t have to pay.” But it really was a happy occurrence because sometimes you need that Yin and Yang. You had these two wild men but very different [men]. Dave was this kind of street guy but from a rich background. [He] listened to a lot of funk and disco. Eddie came from this immigrant background and very much rags to riches. Started out as rags. Like [the lyrics in the song] “D.O.A.”, dressed in rags. There were these differences but they worked well off of each other. Unfortunately, over time the rifts started to grow. They were both very much Alpha-type personalities but Dave was outgoing and Ed was introverted. It’s only a matter of time before those two guys can’t really see eye to eye.
VHND: The debut Van Halen album is a huge success as we know. The next four albums Van Halen II, Women & Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down all big sellers and, of course, 1984 another mega hit. The die-hard fans and musicians all say 1981’s Fair Warning album is Eddie at the peak of his powers. Do you agree with that?
CG: I would agree to a certain extent. For me, Fair Warning is great. It’s a guitar player’s record I think as much as anything. It has some really phenomenal playing, I think that there’s a few little weak spots here and there. For me it’s between Fair Warning and 1984. I think that Fair Warning in its own way is a little bit more intellectual and more of a mind thing whereas you have phenomenal playing on 1984 but it also just hits you on that pop level. It’s got this breeziness to it, these great melodies. Every single song on it is just a hit, it just stands on its own whereas I think Fair Warning has some songs that are great but they don’t quite resonate with the mass audience in the same way. They’re kind of like for the people who appreciate jazz or that kind of thing. It’s why jazz is never going to have a diamond selling album because it’s just a little bit too brainy for the masses out there.
BT: 1984 is built like a brick shit house man! [laughs]. That is a solid record! And what’s great about it is Ed doesn’t sound like he’s pullin’ punches. He’s playing great guitar solos on it but every song is a banger, you can’t deny it. 1984 is difficult to talk about ‘cuz you almost feel bad about saying it’s their greatest achievement because it’s been overplayed, it’s one of those things, but at the end of the day I don’t think you can deny it. My favorite Zeppelin album is Houses of the Holy but their greatest moment? It’s Led Zeppelin IV, you can’t deny it. So we all have our personal songs or our personal things that we like better but 1984, man, you can’t deny it. And I gotta tell you, the guitar solo in “Jump”; I don’t know what was sort of goin’ on. Between that and the guitar solo in [Michael Jackson’s] “Beat It”, done at the same time, that sounds like John Coltrane playing in the middle of a pop song. They are strange solos. There’s nothing conventional about the phrasing or the note choices in either one of those songs. And it goes to show you, you can tickle a pop audiences’ ears in different ways if you’re a genius.
VHND: Sammy Hagar enters the picture in 1986 and the band releases the 5150 album. A massive success commercially. Sammy has often responded to those who criticize this era of the band being heavy on keyboards and including ballads by saying those were songs Eddie came to him with.
CG: That is correct. Ed had talked about how he’d write some of these songs and they just came to him and sometimes they were pop songs ya know?! [laughs]. And, who is he to deny them? I think it was “Can’t Stop Loving You” [from the Balance album] later on [that] was an example of that; where this isn’t probably the kind of song he would listen to himself but it came to him and he wrote it.  was a continuation of 1984 and I think everything just, kind of, was teed up for him with that album. Ed was ready to expand and he needed someone that could do that with him and I think it almost was inevitable that him and Roth just had to part ways ‘cuz they just weren’t seeing eye to eye on so many things. Ed needed somebody who was a little bit more of a sympathetic foil for him to bounce ideas off of and who could appreciate the keyboards, the expanding guitar tones, some of the more pop style stuff. There’s still heavy stuff in there too. I think one of the great overlooked songs on 5150 is the song “5150”. I was just listening to that again today for the first time in a while and it was just really a cool thing. It’s such a great time capsule of where Ed was at that point because you kind of have this happy guitar riff in the beginning and then it gets heavy and then there’s this great solo. You see this growth that was happening with him. Ed really was just constantly growing and, at that point in time, Sammy was the guy to basically fill that. He had a wider vocal range, could sing more melodically and that sort of thing. Sammy was the right guy at the right time for them.
BT: I think For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is a great record. I think [producer] Andy Johns did a great job on that record. The first record that I feel like you can hear Michael Anthony as an actual presence. That was welcome, at least from my point of view. I think the songwriting is really good but Sammy’s complicated. I think that that’s why people tend to lean towards the David Lee Roth years is because Eddie’s pushing, he’s experimenting but, to some degree, the band is going for more conventional song structures and I think is, in some ways, less exciting for it. Sammy has his virtues. He brought the band into a modern commercial arena, they wrote some great songs with Sammy but Sammy was no Bob Dylan and I don’t think, lyrically, he was even a David Lee Roth so, to me, that era is a little less exciting for it. But there’s still some great music.
VHND: You talked to long-time Rush manager Ray Danniels, who managed Van Halen in the mid 90s after their previous manager Ed Leffler passed away in 1993. Ray has taken a lot of blame for ending the Sammy era of the band. You spoke to him for the book. What did he have to say about that?
CG: I was one of those people who thought, “Ugh, this guy just ruined everything.” I had kind of this prejudice against the guy. But I also realized from my years of dealing with Alex [Lifeson] and Geddy [Lee of Rush], how bad can this guy be? They’re two of the nicest guys in the world so Ray can’t be that bad. I think there’s so much that’s misunderstood. I misunderstood when they brought Dave back in [in 1996]. It was a series of missteps. I think Ray was probably afraid to really put down the hammer as much as he should on that call. Because that was a big disappointment for so many people when you had this cameo appearance by Dave and he’s in it, he’s gone. Two songs, appearance on the MTV awards and then, boom, he’s out. I think that just set up something that was really hard for the next singer, whoever it was, coming in. They couldn’t live up to it because so many people were anticipating this reunion and didn’t get it and had the rug pulled out from underneath them. But I think Ray got an unfair shake. He’s very much a traditional manager, he was really just taking care of business. He was trying to make sure that there music was being treated properly, that the royalties were being paid, that they weren’t being exploited, that they weren’t going to sign any bum deals, that they weren’t going to do anything that was necessarily bad for their image. Some people say maybe they did a few things that they shouldn’t have done but he really was looking at it from a business perspective and he was just trying to keep that all…basically keep the wolves at the door and keep them at bay. Constantly, with Ed, there was always somebody coming up to him with a project or this idea or whatever. He just needed, they all needed somebody to just say, “Stand back”, ya know? And, “I’ll deal with that and you guys just deal with the music,” and that’s really what Ray did. I didn’t realize, especially, which you’ll have to read in the book, about really how [Gary] Cherone came to be in the band. I will say it wasn’t Ray Daniels, he wasn’t forcing Cherone on the band by any means and that’s a big misconception about what he did with them.
VHND: Eddie experienced some difficult times in the 2000s. You called them “The Lost Years” in the book. But, as we know, Eddie eventually worked his way out of those years and returned for a new run with David Lee Roth in the band and Wolfgang on bass. He looked and sounded so good on that 2015 tour, which is now remembered as his last. Unfortunately, his cancer returned before we would get to see him and Van Halen again. Can you talk about what you felt when you heard the news of his passing?
CG: I remember meeting with Ed and [his wife] Janie and hearing that they were getting back together with Michael [Anthony] and it was like, “I can’t tell anybody.” Boy, you can’t believe how hard of a secret that was to keep. It was the saddest thing because Ed’s health prevented that from happening and then he seemed to look like he was gonna get better and then Wolfgang brought up the idea of bringing Sammy and Gary along as well and kind of doing the “kitchen sink” tour basically. By then it was too late, ya know? Ed was just too far gone. At that point, all they could do was to just spend quality time as a family with each other and Ed to just enjoy his life and not have to worry about putting a tour together and touring and the toll that takes on your body. Just spend time with his wife Janie and with Wolf and enjoy what time he had left. [I knew something was wrong] about April of 2019, he had that motorcycle accident. The only reason why I know that – they didn’t’ really tell me ‘cuz I didn’t probe into Eddie’s private life at all – it was at that time I was supposed to do the interview with [Eddie for] Guitar World on Van Halen II. I had gone off on vacation to Tokyo and was gonna do the interview with Ed and I came back and it had been cancelled. That was very unusual. I never had Ed cancel an interview on me ever and so I knew something was up. He was supposed to come to the Met for the Play It Loud exhibit that was based on Brad’s book called “Play It Loud”. They had the Frankenstein there, the real Frankenstein was there and Ed was really looking forward to being there and he didn’t show. I was just like, “Oh, something’s up.” That was when they discovered…they did some CatScans or whatever and they discovered this tumor in his brain and I just knew, ya know, I’m not gonna bug him. I didn’t know what was going on but I just knew something was wrong so I just kinda laid back. I knew something was up and I just hoped for the best but unfortunately that day in October, October 6th just hit me like a ton of bricks. It was just like, gosh, he’s gone. Our good friend, our hero. My guitar hero. That’s why we did this book. Brad and I were working on this book before, actually. And we wanted to do it with Ed, and with his blessing, while he was still alive. When he passed it was just like, we have to do this.
BT: I knew Ed wasn’t in great shape. I’d known that for months so it wasn’t unexpected but my response was almost – Chris and I have to do this book. We have to do it because we’re the only two guys that could present Ed in a full and complete way as a human being and as a musician. I wanted to honor him and this book was nine months of us just really putting together this thing that we felt would express our feelings in a fulsome kind of way. Of course, it was terrible news when Ed passed but, the great thing about it, if there is anything great about it, is Ed’s life had this huge and very interesting arc. It started out really difficult for him when he came to this country. He became what he wanted to become – one of the world’s greatest guitarists. But then he went into this really dark period. He only made one record in the last 20 years of his life, one studio record and that is just a terrible situation. And he wasn’t in a great frame of mind for a lot of it because he was struggling. But, the good news is – the last few years of his life, Ed was back to being Ed. And he seemed to have a whole different perspective on life and his relationship with all the musicians he had worked with. I felt like he ended on a great note, just like one of his solos. His life was unpredictable, wild, went up and down, but ended on a fantastic note and it’s something we’ll always remember and carry with us.
CG: He fell down the stairs and landed on his feet.
Tolinski and Gill had even more to say about Eddie, Van Halen’s David Lee Roth era, the Sammy Hagar era, Van Halen III and EVH in the 2000s during their appearance on Eric’s podcast “Booked On Rock”. You can listen to the entire interview below:Listen to “Episode 26 | Brad Tolinski & Chris Gill [“Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen”]” on Spreaker.
Brad Tolinski was the Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine, the best-selling magazine for musicians in the world, for over 25 years. He is also the author of Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page and Play it Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar, which was the inspiration for the Play It Loud exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.
Chris Gill was the Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Aficionado magazine and a regular contributor to Guitar World magazine. He is also the author of Guitar Legends: The Definitive Guide to the World’s Greatest Guitar Players, and he contributed extensive guitar background and historical text to Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories and Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll.
Purchase your copy of Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen direct from Van Halen Store. It’s in stock and shipping now.