"Three Of A Perfect Pair"
By: Vic Garbarini

Guitar World (March 1998)

IT WAS FUNNY, We did a photo Session the other day and Gary showed up in a shirt he'd made that said, 'Who The Fuck Is Eddie Van Halen?' I said, 'Hey, I want to wear that, because I don't know who the guy is either! Never met him." The man who just about everyone in the known world concedes is the most influential guitarist of his generation gives me a 200-watt smile chuckles and shrugs. "I'm just Ed-just this guy who's connected to something greater that is given to me. That's why it's so hard to talk about this album-for the first time I was really able to let go and let it happen through me."

First, letís start with what has not happened to Eddie Van Halen over the past year: He has not become Ďborn again' anything, joined a religious or spiritual cult, or become a manic depressive. And no, you do not have to call him The Artist Formerly Known As Eddie. But there is no denying that Edward Van Halen, the man and the musician, has gone through an extraordinary transformation. To put it as simply as possible, his old ego structure built of fears, insecurity, alcoholism and other habits, collapsed like a house of cards. And Ed awoke to find himself in that serene, yet highly charged creative center we all catch glimpses of once in a blue moon. Except that, at least for now, Ed lives there all the time. From that space heís put together what he unhesitatingly calls "the most important album of my life," entitled appropriately enough Van Halen III.

My first meeting with Eddie III earlier in the day makes it clear that even the people who know him best sense that something unprecedented has occurred. Sitting in Van Halen's 5150 studio, it's pretty hard to believe you're in the middle of L.A. It feels more like the set of same wilderness adventure movie, high tech yet rustic cabins perched high in the canyons above the city Ed is running back and forth between rooms, doing phone interviews with Japanese and Spanish journalists who seem fixated on the past. They all want to talk about what happened with Sam and Dave, and Karen Moss, Ed's veteran publicist, is concerned. She asks if he's okay, it must be exasperating, she wants to make sure he isn't depressed. Depressed? Ed puts his arm around her and promises her that he's fine, no worries. He just answers Yes, No, or I don't know to whatever the press asks, and moves on. Within minutes, he's comforted and reassured her.

George, Ed's studio manager, offers us both coffee. "It's amazing, isn't it!" George marvels. "He's been so relaxed, joyful and creative over the last six months-and he's like this all the time."
The album's first single, "Without You," is at most a teaser for what's to come. Ed's guitar has taken center stage again after years of playing second fiddle, so to speak, to the Van Hagar-era pop wash. But the real head of the album consists of revelatory cuts like "Fire in the Hole," "From Afar," and "Ballot or the Bullet." This is the guitar album Van Halen admirers have been waiting for since, well, 1984. It's positively brimming with raw, unpredictable guitar excursions that are everything you've always loved about his playing and yet nothing you've ever heard from him before. Each song features multiple solos that roam and soar wherever the spirit literally moves him. He shifts from wah wah to slide to six-string bass--often in the same song. Besides playing all the guitar, piano and synth parts, Ed dabbles with percussion, bass and, for the first time, actually handles the vocals on one cut. Did I mention that he co-wrote the lyrics to the single!

The X factor in the third incarnation of the band is, of course, the debut of ex-Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, who sounds like an edgier and less blustery Sammy Hagar--casual listeners might not even realize Sammy's gone. No doubt some people will be reassured, others disappointed at the similarities. But Cherone is a universe away from Hagar and David Lee Roth's party-hearty lyric sensibilities. His words have bite and depth, touching in a non-preachy context, on spiritual, social and political issues that give Van Halen's music a genuine social conscience and Ed is quick to credit them as a major inspiration in helping him create some of the most adventurous music of his career.

During the course of our lengthy interview in the modest bedroom behind his studio, Ed seems to radiate the same inner light that he explains flooded through him as he wrote and played an Van Halen III. Being around him gives one a genuine contact high. At 43, Ed is one part wise old Zen Master, one part George Carlin, plus a whole lot of the kid next door, crossed with E.T. He's willing to open doors in himself that a few months ago he didn't even know existed.

In Part One of GWs exclusive interview, Eddie tells us about the inner and outer changes that led to the creation of Van Halen III. Next month, he'll take us on a track-by-track tour of the album and share his new perspective on the music business vs. the business of making music.

Guitar World: In most older cultures you don't become a master musician, really get that depth, until you hit 40.

EVH: That's interesting, because now that I think of it, everything that kind of prepared me for this record, to make this change, started when I hit 40, about three years ago. That's when I got sober, on October 2, 1994. And I've smoked a few times, had a glass of wine every now and then, but that was when I really started to get clear. And I started seeing this therapist, a Sikh woman. And she changed my life.

GW: Was there a moment or incident when the walls came down and your consciousness opened up!

EVH: There was, yeah. I started playing guitar, drinking and smoking at the age of 12. Here I am 40 years old, almost three years ago, and she says, "I am not giving up on you!" 'Cause I fought her tooth and nail, man. I said, "There's no way--I need a couple of beers to loosen up before I play." So finally, about a year ago last summer, she goes, "Just give me 12 hours to work with you." I said, "Okay." So she comes out from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and says, "Are you ready?í, "Yeah, I guess...this is weird." So we do all kinds of intense mind-balancing things for a half-hour straight, and she tells me to sit down. I thanked her, because I was about ready to drop. She goes, "Close your eyes and just breathe. Now, go to that 'room' you go to after you drink. Go to that place, that feeling that you have after you drink." A couple of minutes go by. She goes, "Are you there yet?" I go, "No." She goes, "Go to that room." All of a sudden, this whole new feeling comes flooding in. I said, "I think I'm there!" She said, "Keep your eyes closed." She handed me a guitar. And I immediately wrote three songs. It took her an hour, not 12 hours.

GW: You were ready to pop out of your ego, and she guided you over that threshold.

EVH: And it was just like she'd been telling me. "You don't understand, Ed, you've been blocking the light." She was right, and now I can't stop the light coming through, and I don't want to stop it (laughs).

GW: So all your life you thought that drinking and worrying and stress would make that energy come, but it was actually blocking it?

EVH: I was numbing myself because I couldn't deal with things. I was hitting the brake when I thought I was hitting the gas. And now it's wide open. Because that ego, all those neuroses and worries and fears, just isn't there. Those three little letters don't exist any longer. Not in the way they did.

GW: Meaning it's not in central anymore, it's not at the center of your being.

EVH: That's it exactly. It's just "being" now. That's why I titled the thing for Twister "Humans Being:" We're just human, and we're being. It was like I was watching myself do this album. And I'm playing and thinking, "Ed this is coming from that place of being-it's you, not the old 'you.'" Do you know what I mean?

GW: Yeah, but let's be clear here, Ed. Many people think ego just means pride. It's also your fear, everything artificial...

EVH: That's exactly what I mean. That false outer shell we build up of pride and fear and anxiety and insecurity.

That need to control. People are born pure: no racism, no hate--your ego learns all that through fear. Then, when you manage to let go of that stuff, you find your real self is free of all that. And your creativity isn't blocked anymore. You realize you have a direct line to music and God or the universe or whatever you want to call it. You're home, man. I mean, I know I still have a long way to go...

GW: But that's such an incredibly heavy step you're describing.

EVH: And it sure hit me like a ton of bricks. I saw that what my therapist was saying was so right. For years I'd been getting in my own way, blocking the light. She also said that once you get clear, you're going to start attracting people with that kind of light and clarity. And now I've got Gary [Cherone], whoís coming from the same place. It's like I've been waiting for this guy for 20 years. He'd just handed me the lyrics from something like "From Afar."

Boom. Wrote the music, wrote the melody. I sang it. Called him up and said, "Gar, check this out--is this what you had in mind!" And he just went, "Fuck me, Van, you did it again." And it went on like that. I've been making music for 37 or 38 years and never has somebody handed me lyrics to work with. This record is the biggest milestone in my life because the lyrics came first, then the music. I finally had something to bounce off. I'm so glad you understand this, because I can't get through to people where I'm at because they don't understand that when it comes through-it comes through. You can't call on it and you can't turn it off.

GW: We don't have a vocabulary yet for that kind of constant creative flow in our culture. How many people get into that space? You even wrote most of the lyrics to the single. Was that another example of spontaneous combustion?

EVH: Yeah, I wrote the first two verses and the chorus to "Without You," and Gary wrote the third. We wrote the A section the first day after blasting through four Roth era tunes and four Sammy tunes to warm up. But you're going to think I'm crazy if I told you where I wrote it. I went to the bathroom, and I could still hear the drum loop through the wall. Fragments started coming to me, "Hey you, wake up, get yourself together... there must be some kind of way we can make it right, but I just can't do it without you. You've got to give more than you take." And people will probably take that as being about a relationship...

GW: It could also be a literal wake-up call to people to realize that everything is connected.

EVH: Exactly. It is about the fact that we're all living on the planet, and in order to keep the light alive for our children, we've got to get together. "I can't do it without you." I certainly can't do it on my own. I picked up this book on Buddhism in Japan and it was so to the point of what we're talking about: all things are impermanent. Ego isn't real. "You" own nothing. If you surround yourself with impure people, you wind up with impure or toxic thoughts. Greed and being out of touch with what's real in ourselves is the basis for so much of what we've screwed up. Humans have only been around for a relatively minuscule period of time, and look what we've done to this planet just in the last one hundred years. It's like we're sawing off the limb we're sitting on. That's basically what "Without You" is about. It's funny I don't know if I was born or conceived in the bathroom, but everything comes to me when I'm sitting on the pot. I've got to show you the bathroom in the house. It's turned into a full-blown studio. It started out where I'd sit on the pot, and play. Now I've had the urinal removed, set up a whole rack system: I've got a recordable CD, a TASCAM DA88 and a mixer. Actually, I wrote the whole record in there. If it was a solo album, I'd have to call it "Straight From The Pot." [laughs]

GW: For me, that happens when I take a shower. It's one place where you don't worry. The ego doesn't go to the bathroom...

EVH: And you literally are relieving yourself of your toxins, and then new stuff can come in. I mean, where do ideas and music come from! They're given. The key is to stop thinking and let it happen. I thank God every night that I can keep my chops up, so that when I get handed this stuff, I can execute it on the guitar to the best of my ability. I can't sit down and intentionally contrive a song. I won't mention any band's names, but I can't do the same record, the same thing, over and over. It isn't about money. It's about letting go. Then music really does have the power to heal.

GW: In other cultures it's actually used as a form of medicine. And Sufi master musicians in Turkey told me rock and roll was a major healing energy coming through our culture. They could even understand a Dylan song, even though they didn't know English, by feeling the energy behind the words. Does that make sense to you?

EVH: That's amazing, and yeah, it makes perfect sense. We're all connected to something greater if we can be open to it, and music is really the universal language. We get such heavy fan mail from people about what you're saying. They play our music for their kid that's in a coma-and they come out of it. Now, whether they came out of it to tell them, "Will you turn that shit off!" or not, I don't know. [laughs] Regardless, it had an effect.

GW: The guitar solos on this record are amazing. To extend the bathroom metaphor, they're like the essence of what you do, with all the crap removed. They sound fresh and free, exploring emotions I've never heard from you. If they could talk, what would they say?

EVH: That's a good one. [long pause] They'd say, "I'm just an open wound, I'm letting it flow. I'm not afraid to fall on my face. There's mistakes, there's slop, there's whatever--but it's real emotion. It's human. Itís really me at my most vulnerable. It was not planned." And most of them are live takes. Actually, I don't remember playing the guitar. I was looking at the big picture.

GW: It also reminds me of 1984 in that youíre letting the rhythm guitar parts and the riffs, rather than synth pads form the back of the songs. The rhythms and chordal forms you come up with are really incredible.

EVH: Right, the chords are a series of movements, but I don't know what made me think of doing it--because I wasn't thinking. The less I thought, the better. It's like explaining a color to somebody--how do you do that? It just came through, because thatís what the songs called for. On the song "Once," the melody that I came up when I saw the lyrics had a certain rhythm, an emphasis on the one. It was what it was! I decided I couldn't build on it vocally, so I built musically and rhythmically underneath the melody. Every time around I added something, layering it up until it slowly builds into a complete piece. But again, I didn't think it through.

GW: It's like riding a bicycle. Think about it too much, you fall on your ass.

EVH: There, that's perfectly put. If you start thinking it too much, you're not letting the creative power that's in control do its thing. Or like sex--if you worry about your performance, you're lost.

GW: Okay, but on the last few Van Halen records the songs themselves didn't have that harmonic movement with the guitar. The songs sounded kind of bloated, or flabby.

EVH: It also depends on the dynamics the people you've been working with. "Wham Bam, Amsterdam" wasn't my fault! Blame the music on me, but not that other stuff.

GW: So you've taken charge of the this time...?

EVH: What I did was I took charge of myself, my own life. And that freaked people out who used to control me.

Because many people love to control others. Look at history. Hitler. The point is, control yourself and don't get out of control, rather than trying to control other people.

GW: Controlled you through intimidation? Guilt tripping!

EVH: Oh, yeah. Then I realized there's really no such thing as guilt. Fuck guilt! It serves no purpose. Why beat yourself up more about something you did wrong? Everybody makes mistakes. Are you going to carry guilt around with you the rest of your life! It's pointless. In fact, in reality there's no such thing as ego. It's just a man-made thing.

GW: From the space you're in now, describe the old, intimidated Ed.

EVH: One thing that I've really learned is that I'm actually a very shy, nervous person, and that I used to be very easily intimidated. Thatís why I used to drink. It was like, [agitated voice] "Okay, just give us the riffs, Ed... you stupid. . .Shut the fuck up!" You know what I mean? And I've learned not to be afraid... of being afraid. I named the studio here 5150 because that's the police code for escaped mental patients. What I'm saying is that, at the time, I thought I was a nut. But now I realize I'm not--everyone else is! [laughs]

GW: Does it bother you that so many interviewers are still harping on the Roth/Hagar stuff?

EVH: No, at this point it really doesn't. They ask me if I've read Dave's book. Why bother? I know the guy better than he probably knows himself. One Japanese journalist said it was like "fiction comedy." I said, "You tell me, I haven't read it." But yeah, that's kind of the way he is.

GW: Parts of it are brilliant, but then he'll get enraged and go off on some weird tangent.

EVH: Well, he's an intelligent, well-read guy. But it's like he can't connect the dots somehow. He's like a disgruntled postal worker on a...[covers mouth] I don't know... I didn't mean to say that.

GW: Do you feel you've now got the confidence to just walk away from people who intimidate or want to control you, instead of meekly accommodating them?

EVH: That's what happened. With Dave, I just wanted to give him another shot on those two songs for the "Best Of" album. The idea was not for him to be in the band again, but to try and help him get out of the Vegas trip he was in. Let him establish himself as a rock and roll singer again so he could put together a new band and do his own thing. But he was never back in this band. Then he basically spit in my face. And I said, "Okay, I thought we were friends, forget it." Then this incestuous thing in the media and on the Internet begins to snowball.

GW: Looking back, do you regret getting dragged into that media battle with Sammy and Dave?

EVH: That's where I made the mistake over a year ago--when both Roth and Sammy were just slinging shit at us. I just had to get on MTV, and say, "I'II take a lie detector test. Both these guys are lying. They're both full of shit."

Then what does Sammy do! He does a fucking video with a monkey taking a lie detector test. And people ask, "Doesn't that bother you?" No, I actually thought the monkey was kind of cute. [laughs]

GW: I'm sure you've made mistakes, who hasn't? But is this what your therapist meant about certain people not being able to stay around you after you've released those old patterns?

EVH: Yeah, they just can't. And yes, I've hurt people--but not consciously or purposely, not with malice. But man, I know so many people who premeditate it, plan that kind of thing out. I'm not a dictator, I'II try anything anyone asks. All I ask is for them to do the same. It's like the Ten Commandments--why do you need 10! One is enough: Treat people the way you want to be treated. If I told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what I've gone through over the last 20 odd years, what it took to finally get where I am, people just wouldn't fucking believe it. So it's pointless. I now realize that I can't change people's minds, and I really don't want to or need to try.

I'm at peace with it, and that's all that matters.

GW: On a more positive note, what do you enjoy most about working with Gary?

EVH: He's very much like me--very normal. People think he's a prick because he's quiet! He just doesn't like having photographs taken by himself, because he doesn't know what to do. I just kind of go on autopilot; I've been doing it for so many years now. But like him, I still don't enjoy that part of the process.

GW: What is that greater thing we're connected with--and what does all this tell you about why you're on this planet playing the guitar?

EVH: For one thing, I believe that everyone is born with a gift. I think a lot of people won't bother to acknowledge it, or care. And I thank God on my knees every night to be connected to He, She, or whatever it is. I think that whatever God is, it's within everyone, in every molecule. There is no hell. Hell is what you make your life. We're on this planet to learn. If you don't, you can come back and try again 'til you get it right. And then you move on.

GW: When you're playing music, and you feel that you're falling out of that clear space you've been talking about, what is the first thing you do to get back in the flow?

EVH: Breathe. Really, breathe naturally from your diaphragm. It's so relaxing. And it brings you out of your head and centers you. Most people don't even know how to breathe properly. [sucks in breath] They get uptight. I've learned advanced breath exercises like the "Breath Of Fire," but I'm not a teacher, I'm a student. Just be aware of your breathing... it's like when I watch my son breathe when he's asleep. So pure and natural.

GW: When you were a kid, was music the only way you could communicate with the deeper part of yourself?

EVH: I remember sitting on the back of my bed in Pasadena with my guitar. Alex would go out at seven p.m. at night, come back in at three in the morning. I'd still sitting in the same place, playing my guitar. Yeah, that was the one thing that nobody could take away from me.

GW: A lot of people don't realize you were almost a teenager when you came here from Holland. Did that add to the isolation and alienation?

EVH: My father brought us here with 75 Gilders [Dutch monetary unit] and a piano. I wasn't able to speak English, and used to get my ass kicked because I was a minority. All my friends were black, and they stuck up for me.

Because I was in the same cage as them, literally. In elementary school there was a special place for us on the playground. And God, those days. Steven and Russell were my first two friends. Sometimes I think of going back to that school checking the records to find them. They were wonderful human beings. Such a trip.

GW: Your father was a musician, and also had occasional problems with alcohol. Were you close to him?

EVH: He was a happy guy. He wasnít an angry drunk. He worked his ass off. He was a janitor for the Masonic Temple, he worked the telephone for a graveyard shift. He washed dishes at the Methodist Hospital. And he was a professional musician. He gigged on weekends--anything from weddings to oompah bands, you name it. I learned how to use one of those big floor waxers working with him. My mom cleaned peoples' houses. It shows you that you can make something out of nothing if you put your mind to it. And the funny thing is, my mom was the one pushing us. You know the father in the movie Shine! Thatís what my mom was like. And my dad, who was a musician, didn't push us at all.

GW: Did he enjoy your success! Could he appreciate your music?

EVH: He was so proud. He'd sit up at the monitor board and he'd just be crying, he was so proud. And I'd be onstage looking at him...crying. He was just... I just wish he would've been around longer to see my son.

GW: One of the things that helps burn out musicians in this culture is the idea that rock has to always be about youthful energy, partying, anger--even when you hit 40 and may be looking for deeper stuff. I guess it was great when you were 20, but is it...

EVH: It's all contrived. Even when I was in my twenties, or my teens, I knew music was about much more than that.

But I dressed up funny and did all that stuff because it looked pretty silly with one guy up front dressed like that and me in the back being normal. So I played the game, so to speak. But I knew what music was really about ever since my earliest memory of hearing my dad downstairs in his music room, holding just one note on his clarinet for as long as he could. I'm serious. He wouldn't just sit there pissing up a rope. He was going for the tone, the tone.

GW: I don't believe it. You just scared the shit out of me. The next question I just wrote down was, "What did you musically learn from your dad!" Then, I made a note to tell you that my Sufi music teacher told me his first lesson was to play only one note on his flute for 1,001 days. Here, look. [shows Ed notes]

EVH: Thank God for music, man! This is getting deep. [laughs] GW: What makes you scared--or at least nervous?

EVH: I'm very nervous about going out on tour with this record, but that's something I've got to deal with, I don't know how many people are going to get it, how many people are going to be in shock. Once we walk out of the studio, all you can do is feel good about what you've done, and then it's out of your control. You can't will your will onto others, or force people into anything. People are either going to like it or they're not.

GW: Are you nervous about the album's reception, or performing it live?

EVH: I'm nervous about doing the best to execute what I was given. About giving the same intensity and vibe onstage that I think we captured on record. I just need the practice to become a good vehicle so I can get to the point where it's second nature, so I don't start to think too much and screw it up.

GW: Wouldn't you approach playing it live the same way you did recording it--by letting go and allowing yourself to be in that "room" of creative flow?

EVH: That's what I was going to get to. Since my therapist said, "Go to that room," I haven't been able to get out of that room, which is a blast! And Valerie has started going, "When are you going to see that therapist again!

When are you going to get out of that damn room and get in the bedroom?" [laughs] But I swear to God, I just can't stop, it just keeps coming.

GW: They say there's an inner faucet you can eventually use to balance the flow a bit.

EVH: I know, but after 40 years or whatever of being in pain, of feeling beaten down, I want to stay wet! It's like [spreads arms]. Give me a couple of years of just letting it flow. Thank you!

Interview © 1998 Guitar World Magazine