"Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love"
By: Chuck Crisafulli

Los Angeles Times (October 20, 1996)

"Utter lunacy."

With a shake of his tousled locks and a flash of his trademark party-boy grin, guitarist Eddie Van Halen summarizes the recent events that have shaken the world of his band--platinum-selling monsters of good-time rock Van Halen.

In the last few tumultuous months, the band has parted ways with Sammy Hagar, its lead singer for the last 11 years. And it reconciled with its original frontman, David Lee Roth, long enough to record a pair of new songs to be included on the "Van Halen Best Of, Volume 1" album being released this week.

But almost as soon as the reunited foursome made its first public appearance as presenters at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, the band and Roth split again as bitterly as they had back in 1985.

Roth's second breakup with the band--Eddie, his drummer brother Alex and bassist Michael Anthony--was followed by a battle of press releases. The singer believed that he had returned to Van Halen as Hagar's permanent replacement and accused Eddie of crass deception. The band claimed that Roth had never been told whether his future with the band would extend beyond the two new songs.

Despite the turmoil, Eddie is in good spirits at his expansive home studio in the hills of the San Fernando Valley, called 5150 after the lunatic-on-the-loose police code that titled one of the band's albums.

After a late breakfast with his wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, and their 5-year-old son, Wolfgang, the guitarist settles into the clutter behind the studio console, begins puffing on the first of a long chain of cigarettes and displays the affable, unassuming manner of the quintessential Southern California dude.

In conversation, the 39-year-old Dutch-born, Pasadena-raised musician--generally recognized as a major innovator in the art of rock guitar--is open, friendly and almost shockingly free of rock star affectation.

Before a question can be posed, Eddie's nearly ever-present smile fades, and he insists on setting the record straight in regard to his dealings with Hagar and Roth.

"I've just been feeling sick about all this," he says. "I thought we were taking the high road by not commenting on anything, but it got crazy.

"First of all, Sammy quit. I had a final conversation with him where I asked him to be more of a team player. I'm the kind of guy who'll do anything for the music--play with my toes, stand on my head--and I wanted to hear that kind of commitment from him.

"We talked, and he said, 'I want to be a solo artist again.' I thanked him for being honest. We said we'd stay in touch--it felt like we would continue to be friends. Then he went around telling everyone he'd been ousted. I'm saying that if he had wanted to be in this band, he'd still be here.

"As for Dave, he called me up to talk about the 'greatest hits'--how it was going to be packaged and so on. We apologized to each other for childish behavior in the past, and we got together and actually had some fun doing the two new songs.

"But there was never any talk of anything permanent. Anybody who expected us to tour with Dave for an oldies-but-goodies thing--forget it. To me, that would just be taking people's money. I think Dave was putting the cart before the horse, and the horse didn't even exist."

Van Halen sighs and picks up a guitar to strum while he talks.

"Alex and I have been joking that both of these guys suffer from LSD--lead singer disease. But truthfully, it doesn't feel good to say bad things about Sammy or Dave. They're both talented, we made a lot of good music together, and we had a lot of fun together. I still respect them both, but it's going to be hard to ever be friends again.

"The worst part is that I just don't want any fans to think that we were misleading them. I tried to be straight with everybody.

And I do apologize to the fans for all this, but I'd just ask that they let the music speak for itself."

Nearly 20 years of Van Halen music is represented on the new "'Best Of" (see accompanying review). The group's recording career began in 1977 when, after several years of buzz-generating club dates around the L.A. area, the band got a recording contract at Warner Bros. with the help of Gene Simmons of KISS.

The band showed an early predilection for party-hearty anthems and leering, jokey lyrics, but Roth's wild charisma and Eddie's stunning musicianship and composition skills elevated the group into a powerhouse act. The band topped the pop charts with Roth when "Jump" became a No. 1 single in 1984, and all of its studio albums with Hagar--1986's "5150," 1988's "OU812,"

1991's "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" and 1995's "Balance"--went to No. 1 on the Billboard album charts.

Since the band's earliest successes, several pop trends have come and gone, and many of the metal bands that challenged Van Halen in the '80s have either disappeared or been reduced to the ignominy of club tours and negligible album sales.

Asked why his band has demonstrated such staying power, Eddie seems genuinely bemused.

"I think we've never followed trends, because we were just unable to," he says. "It's a funny thing--back in the club days it was always my fault when we lost a gig, because for the life of me I could never make those Top 40 songs sound like the records did. I was too loud or too psychedelic or too out there. . . .

"But it was a blessing in disguise, because I ended up only able to sound like me. When I try to copy anybody, I'm hopeless. In Van Halen, it works. I thought Nirvana was brilliant--absolutely great. But we didn't suddenly try to put out a grunge record, even though a lot of other bands did. All I can do is what I do--and I can't even explain what that is."

The door to the studio suddenly flies open and in strolls Alex Van Halen, fresh from an afternoon swim. The powerful bond between the brothers is quickly evident. They set up each other's jokes, finish each other's sentences and seem delighted to be working together after all these years.

"We love to make music, and we're normal people," says Alex, 41, with a laugh. "That's the big secret. You can't live your life walking around as a 'rock star.' You have to stay grounded in reality. When I go to the market, they don't give me free milk.

We're no different than anybody else. This isn't international espionage--we're just a rock band."

The troubles with Hagar and Roth haven't slowed down the music making of the Van Halen brothers, who say they are in the studio almost every day coming up with new material. Eddie says he has been keeping up a particularly furious work pace since becoming sober two years ago.

"I've never missed a gig in my life, and I've always been able to get my work done," he explains, "but it was time to start walking a better path. The old habits weren't doing me any good anymore.

"The thing was, I was worried that if I stopped drinking I wouldn't be able to write anymore, but I found the complete opposite was true. If anything, alcohol was a blockage. Now, the gates are open.

"I don't like to walk around talking about being sober to everybody, but since I've been sober, I've been really passionate about everything. If I took up needlepoint right now, I'd be passionate about that. And I need to work with people that feel the same passion for creating something."

Eddie has some particular people in mind. He enjoyed working with producer Glenn Ballard (who produced Alanis Morissette's breakthrough "Jagged Little Pill") so much on the two tracks with Roth that he has lined him up to produce the next Van Halen album. And it is all but certain that the band's new singer is Gary Cherone, formerly of Extreme.

Eddie says that, contrary to claims that Roth has made, the band did not hire Cherone before working with Roth again: "If we had already hired Gary, then we would have used him instead of Dave. But Gary and I have been writing together, and we've come up with seven songs in the last two weeks. He's quick, he's deep, and he's got a good sense of humor. I can't wait to record with him."

The band may indeed begin recording its next album very soon, but touring plans are going to have to wait at least until next spring, as Eddie is scheduled to undergo hip replacement surgery in December.

"It's the same problem Bo Jackson had," he offers. "Twenty years of bouncing and pounding on these joints has done them in.

It'll be a while before there's a tour--and, for the record, Dave knew all about this surgery. But the surgery won't affect recording--I'll play in bed, in a wheelchair, whatever it takes."

Eddie executes a few of his distinctive hammer-ons and pull-offs on the unplugged guitar in his lap, pauses to take a final puff on a smoke and reflects on the idea of beginning a new chapter of Van Halen's history just as the band's past is encapsulated in a "Best Of."

"Well, we've evolved," he says with a shrug. "You can't help it if you've been at something as long as we have. But if you ask me what I've learned--I've learned that I've really learned nothing. Every time you start a new record, it's like you've never done one before. The same anxieties and excitement and experimentation is there every time. There's no such thing as 'OK, I got it down now.'

"And despite everything we've been through recently, when I shut the studio door and start making music, I'm as pumped up about it as when I was a little kid. We've got 11 albums behind us, a 'greatest hits' coming out, but frankly, I don't feel like I've done anything yet. I'm sober, I'm writing music every day, and I'm in a great band--I feel like I'm just getting started."

Interview 1996 Los Angeles Times