Behind the Curtain: Jamming with Eddie Van Halen (A Tribute to the Late Guitar Legend)

Rock Cellar Magazine

This entry from Steve Rosen in our Behind the Curtain section originally ran in 2014 and was buried in the Rock Cellar archives. With Eddie Van Halen having recently passed away, we’d like to present it as a tribute to the guitar legend, may he rest in peace. 

When Edward Van Halen unleashed his devastatingly beautiful tonal fury on the first Van Halen album, guitar players around the globe realized they’d just heard the death knell for everything they ever knew. The architecture of guitar playing was forever changed February 10, 1978 when Van Halen was released. No longer could you simply lay your left or right hand on the fretboard — you now had to use both hands in what would become known as tapping.

Edward had raised the bar. Rewritten the book. Changed the game. Broken the rules. Kicked every guitarist in the ass.

Well, I didn’t know any of that when I first met Edward Van Halen sometime early 1978. I was at the Whisky to see Eddie Money when Michelle Myers — the club’s booker — grabbed me by the arm and said, “There’s somebody you have to meet. He’s Godhead.” Godhead was Michelle’s way of saying, “This is the greatest thing you will ever hear.” I had known Michelle for a long time and she knew I loved guitar players and wrote about them. She pulled me across the room while up on the Whisky stage Money was singing about paradise and holding onto something.

I had heard and knew about Ed — at that point everyone in Hollywood had their radar up for Van Halen — but strangely I had never seen him play. Though I’d been attending shows at the Whisky and Starwood virtually non-stop for the past four years, I had never seen Van Halen perform. It was odd.

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Since their first album release was still at least several weeks away (and maybe months, depending on the exact date of this first meeting), I really had no idea who this person was standing in front of me — and no clue about how profoundly he would revolutionize the electric guitar.

Michelle made the introductions: “Eddie, this is Steve Rosen. Steve, Eddie Van Halen.”He was thin but muscled, had very cool hair and a remarkable smile. It was a kind of smile that made you feel special. It was the smile millions of fans would come to know very well in coming years. He was smoking a cigarette — he would always be smoking a cigarette — that he shifted from his right to his left hand in order to shake my hand. We said hello and immediately he grabbed me and said, “Let’s go upstairs. It’s too noisy down here.”

Grabbing me as if we’d been long lost friends recently reunited, we walked up the rear stairway, down to the end of an empty hallway reeking of burned out cigarette butts and into an empty dressing room, which may have been Eddie Money’s. We began talking and for about the next 20 years that conversation never ended.

I asked him, “Should I call you Ed, Eddie or Edward?” He said, “My parents call me Edward and my brother calls me Ed. My friends call me Eddie — you can call me Eddie.” He said that as if we’d known each other for years. I immediately liked him. We talked about Eric Clapton — he loved Cream and Jeff Beck — not a huge fan — and Detective’s Michael Monarch who he thought “Sounded too much like Beck.”

I knew the first Van Halen album was coming out soon (I was on Warner Bros. mailing list and I saw it listed on upcoming releases). I asked Ed about the album. “I think it’s good,” he said, the assessment offered up with equal doses enthusiasm and ‘aw shucks’ humility.

“I hope it does OK.” He almost seemed embarrassed by the admission and covered his nervousness with a smile. And there it was again — the famous grin.

Two weeks later or thereabouts, I received the newest shipment of Warner Bros. albums. There was the Rutles’ debut, Manfred Mann’s Watch, Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus and Van Halen. I dropped the needle down on “Runnin’ With the Devil” [this was still in the glorious days of vinyl], which was the first track. Was I blown out of my chair? The answer is: No.

When I first listened to the song and then the rest of the record, I just thought it sounded like Deep Purple on speed. Speed kings. I truly didn’t think it was that special.

But then I sat down and really started listening to it and realized in a moment that the parameters of electric guitar would forever be changed. The sound of Ed’s guitar was mesmerizing — it was huge and powerful and yet had so much character and definition. He would later describe it simply as the Brown Sound — meant to convey the idea of something organic, the wood itself crying — but every other guitar player recognized it as the, “Oh my god Eddie sound.”

I knew immediately that Eddie Van Halen was the most profoundly important guitar player to come along since the classic rock days of Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.

And when it finally dawned on me this was indeed the same guy I’d been talking to just a few weeks earlier, it was hard to make the connection.  That person at the Whisky had been humble, reserved, and soft-spoken. The cat on this record was a fire-breathing dragon, a high-flying eagle.

Here was a Colossus, a giant with an electric six-string voice as loud as thunder. This Ed-Eddie-Edward spoke to gods with his music.

I thought back on our conversation and was blown away all over again how self-effacing he had been. “I hope it does OK,” he’d said. That innocence and lack of guile truly clutched at my heart. By ’78 I had been writing for about four years and had interviewed Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin and many other knights of the sound table.

The difference was I was meeting Edward at the very onset of his career where these other masters had already found fame. He still had such a vulnerable and fragile mien because he had not yet conquered the world like these other electric explorers. It was beautiful.

Then I remembered, “Didn’t he give me his phone number?” I ran to the closet and went through the pockets of the pants I was wearing that night and there it was — Eddie’s phone number. He wanted me to have it. He told me he was still living at home with his parents and that floored me. It made me like him even more.

Ed and I would remain friends for over 12 years. During that time, I’d pass a lot of hours in his company and at his house. One evening when I was up at his house, we jammed. Ed picked up a bass, tossed me one of his Frankenstein guitars and we jammed. It took everything in me to fight through the nervousness of playing guitar in front of him. But he hated that.

He was uncomfortable with the feeling of being deferred to or treated with kid gloves. So I tried to calm my galloping heart and started playing this guitar lick.

Ed jumped on it. He had me play it over and over while he ran through different bass lines. Besides the sheer joy of playing guitars with him, I saw briefly how his mind worked as a songwriter and how he approached music.

It was like sitting there while John Steinbeck was writing a story. It was sublime, extraordinary and out-of-body all at the same time. I still have a tape of that jam session — Ed recorded everything he ever did — and play it whenever I start believing I was never there.

On another occasion, he came over to my place in one of his Lamborghinis. He may have called and said he was driving over but might not have. Sometimes he’d just be there. He came up the stairs carrying two of the most beautiful 1959 Sunburst Les Pauls anybody had ever seen.

Walking into my small rented guesthouse, he tossed the guitars on the couch. They weren’t even in cases. I had a Marshall stack in the corner — sold to me by Jim Marshall himself, I might add proudly — that I’d never played through. Laurel Canyon was a quiet neighborhood and about the loudest sounds you ever heard were crows squawking or some forlorn dog barking.

Ed took one of the Gibsons, plugged it in, turned up all the knobs on the Marshall to 10 and began playing at a volume that knocked the pictures off my walls. It rattled the windows and went trumpeting out the front door like the song of 10,000 angels. It was glorious and majestic and just the most ferocious guitar riffs you’d ever heard.

The birds were scuttled from the trees and anything barking, howling or baying was suddenly silenced. All I could do was sit, stare and listen.

What you needed to understand about that moment was that he wasn’t trying to disturb the bucolic nature of the neighborhood or bother the neighbors. That wasn’t his intent at all. For Edward, he was simply somewhere with his guitar, an amp standing unattended in a corner and a desire to play. That was it. He wasn’t thinking along conventional lines like, “Oh, it’s quiet up here. I better not turn this up too loud.” No, that wasn’t how he was wired. And it was precisely that unorthodox way of thinking that made him he was.

A while later after Ed left, a neighbor from down the street knocked on the door. “Man, that sounded really good.”  He knew I played guitar — so did he — and asked if that was me. I told him it was.

One time while up at Edward’s house, he ran out of guitar strings, which seemed impossible because he always had hundreds of sets lying around. We jumped into his Lamborghini and sped down the hill to Guitar Center on Ventura Boulevard. The store was fairly empty in the middle of the afternoon. We walked in, Ed sauntered up to the counter and asked for a couple sets of Fenders or whatever he was using.

The clerk almost coughed up a lung. You could see his brain working behind his eyeballs. “Was this really Eddie Van Halen standing in front of me asking for strings?” As if that wasn’t surreal enough, Ed had to borrow money from me because he didn’t have any. I bought his guitar strings. How perfect was that?

One of the most beautiful times I ever spent with him was when he invited me to accompany him to New Orleans for the NAMM Show.

A brief synopsis of that historic weekend:

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My alarm clock shook me awake at 5:30 a.m. and I immediately called Ed to let him know I was on the way. We had a flight leaving from LAX around 8:00 a.m. and the drive there from his house would take about an hour. The phone rang and rang and there was no answer. I called again five minutes later and a voice answered, “Yeah?” Ed rarely said hello in greeting. “Where are you? Hurry up.”

I jumped into my RX-7 and sped up Laurel Canyon to Mulholland Drive and banged a left. Nine minutes later I pulled up to his gate and pressed the buzzer and no answer. I buzzed again and still nothing. Finally the gate slid open and I drove in. He told me he was just now jumping in the shower. A taxi pulled in the driveway as he emerged from the bathroom carrying a can of Schlitz Malt Liquor. “Is that breakfast?” I asked.  “No, I had a tuna sandwich,” he said.

We boarded the flight and he immediately fell asleep, a talent honed after spending thousands of hours in the sky. Dennis Berardi, president of Kramer guitars picked us up at the airport and brought us back to the New Orleans Hilton. An hour later, we were ushered to a special fete dubbed the NAMM All-Industry Dinner Spectacular. Edward, amidst rumbles and grumbles, reluctantly attended.

Berardi told him he’d have to take a bow during the evening and he refused. Remember his reluctance to be deferred to?  But when the MC addressed the more than 1,000 retailers and manufacturers seated there inside the Louisiana Superdome and said, “A special thanks to Eddie Van Halen,” the guitarist stood, drink raised in hand, and acknowledged the applause.

Edward eyed Dennis venomously and muttered sotto voce,  “I’ll get you for this.”

We visited Bourbon Street and as people passed by, they did double takes. We strolled past a bar that was just beginning to play Jump when he poked his head inside a side window. Had the band known who was listening, they certainly would have gone into hysterics. We went back to Ed’s room about three in the morning when there was a knock at his door. It was Twisted Sister’s Eddie Ojeda, who must have been standing down the hall just waiting for Edward’s return.

Ed let him in and as I sat there and eavesdropped on a conversation between the two, it was like watching master and mentor. Ed tried to explain his songwriting process to Ojeda and how his “favorite guitars are shitty guitars.” He told him how he loved to work with keyboards and verbalized his overall philosophy as “I don’t try to impress anybody.” By then it was 8:00 in the morning and fatigue and exhaustion had transported me to another world.

I somehow made it back to my room and fell into a coma on the bed.

The next morning, the Kramer booth was full of onlookers who’d heard Eddie might be there. Everybody wanted to see him.  He was obviously the most important person attending the show even though people like Allan Holdsworth, Brian May, Ted Nugent and the Who’s John Entwistle were all wandering around. He just had that kind of magnetism and charm. Charisma.

The entire area had been cordoned off and as I stood next to him, the look on his face said, “What the hell am I doing here?” Screams of “Play the guitar, Eddie” fell on deaf ears because he was in no mood to pick up an instrument. Brian May’s head popped up in the audience and he was quickly engulfed by the human tide. John Entwistle made his way through the partition and Van Halen was pleased to see a recognizable face.

That evening we took a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi River. May and Entwistle were on board and there was talk of a late night jam back at the hotel.

Back at the Hilton Ballroom, Bugs Henderson and the Stratoblasters [in reality Seymour Duncan and friends] were performing and when word passed around that Eddie Van Halen, Entwistle, Nugent, and Julian Lennon’s guitarist [most probably Justin Clayton] were going to play, the stage was cleared.  Backstage the make-shift band dubbed The Unrehearsed Scumbags tried to choose a number they all knew and finally decided on Wild Thing.

The event was more memorable than it was musical as each guitarist attempted to out-volume and out-solo the other. Edward, grin on his face, enjoyed himself and thrilled the lucky fans in attendance. After the show he went up to Entwistle and in a humility-laden voice said, “Sorry.”  He returned arm-in-arm with Brian May to his room.  They played around for several hours, May’s eyes absolutely transfixed while Edward played his homemade guitar.

Van Halen mentioned he would like to do something with Brian sometime — the Queen guitarist played with Edward on the Starfleet Project — and that he would play keyboards so Brian could play guitar. Brian looked at Edward and gave him a look that said, “You’re kidding, right?” May couldn’t believe what he’d heard but Ed was dead serious. Remember that humility?

It was 5:00 a.m. and Brian exited. Edward came next door to my room and we talked for a while longer. Of the jam he said, “That was a perfect example of the Over The Hill Gang” and laughed.  Shutting the door, he went back to his room. Five seconds later he was pounding on my door.  He had lost the second of his room card keys — the first had been misplaced earlier that day — and  wanted to phone down to the front desk for another. “Nah, I’ll just walk down,” he decided, leaving me to fall back asleep.

I had just done so when 45 minutes later he was beating on my door again. He told me they didn’t believe who he was at the front desk and for almost the past hour minutes he had been doing his best to convince them. He finally did.

We returned early Monday evening. It was obvious Edward had enjoyed the late nights in the hotel rooms more than he did being put on display at the dinners and show. Valerie picked us up at LAX though she drove right past us one time and had to circle back around the airport. Bryan Adams was blaring out of the speakers. Ed was a Bryan Adams fan.

We drove back to the Van Halen home and Valerie asked if I had a good time. I numbly nodded yes, so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. Between the lack of sleep, Hurricanes [the local drink], running around, and generally high levels of adrenaline, it was hard to remember what kind of time I had. But I was sure I had an amazing time. I must have. I would call Edward the next day and ask him.

That was a truly wonderful weekend I spent with Edward. I remember thinking at one point when Ed was walking with John Entwistle and Brian May, “Why was I even here? Why was Ed even friends with me?” I felt left out because I wasn’t famous and I thought maybe I was just in the way. I said something to him about it, “Hey, why are you ignoring me?” It was a stupid thing to say and came from my own insecurities.

Eddie Van Halen had enough on his mind and he didn’t need to hear that from me. But he was cool enough to understand why I’d said it. He said I was there  because he wanted me there. Maybe he even put his arm around my shoulders.

I truly loved Eddie Van Halen and still do, though it’s much more difficult now. We haven’t spoken for many years. It all just unraveled and fell apart and to this day I’m not quite sure what happened. He had been a friend for many years and then he wasn’t.

But I can still go back and listen to the tape of our jam. That’s real. Or  I can recall the afternoon when he came to my house and split the heavens with his Les Paul or the lost weekend I spent with Eddie Van Halen in New Orleans. Nobody can take those away. Those still remain.

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