You’ve been following Van Halen since grade school. You took up guitar because of Eddie, whose countless featured interviews with magazines like Guitar World and Guitar for The Practicing Musician in the ‘80s and ‘90s became your gospel. Eddie’s image graced your Chemistry notebook and the cover of your Norton’s Anthology to English Literature.
Perhaps, like us, you became as much a “Van Hagar” fan as us when “Red Rocker” Sammy Hagar stepped in for David Lee Roth in 1986. Or maybe you sided with Diamond Dave.
You pored over the album liner notes, rewound old MTV interviews on VHS, and perhaps even scoured a few Van Halen biographies (and the official memoirs by Roth and Hagar). You already know drummer Alex Van Halen started out playing guitar, only to switch instruments with little brother Eddie—who went on to become the guitar god of the ‘80s. You read how the Holland emigrants supplemented their income by painting addresses on curbs, and how the two rabble-rousers wrote songs about robots and boogers before mastering classic rock covers by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Thin Lizzy.
You don’t need anybody to tell you that Eddie was a childhood piano prodigy who bluffed his way through rehearsals by memorizing the pieces instead of sight-reading them.
But do you know who Eddie Van Halen’s piano instructor was?
Greg Renoff found out. And the name of said mentor is just one of hundreds of Van Halen-related factoids the Tulsa journalist divulges in his meticulously-researched new book, Van Halen Rising!
Renoff, a Bronx native with a Ph. D. in American History, explains it best in his online “manifesto” for the book: If people wanted to read how The Detours became The Who, or how The New Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin, those books were available. But if someone wanted to learn how Mammoth transmogrified into Van Halen, he was SOL.
Sure, the text is packed with the same trivia that somehow seeped into your noggin over the last couple decades—but there’s also a wealth of information that will come as “new” to even the most dedicated Halen-heads. The best part is that the author confines himself to the group’s youngest years in and around L.A., focusing on the crucial catalysts to their unique boogie rock sound, and then retracting his microscope shortly after Van Halen’s ground-breaking eponymous Warner Bros. debut.
It’s a good bet most of us never ever heard of Van Halen until that 1978 release (when “Eruption” and “You Really Got Me” first shook our rafters), and its an even safer wager that the breadth of one’s VH knowledge corresponds to the quartet’s burgeoning fame: With each new album came more cover stories, TV spots, and exclusive interviews wherein we got the skinny straight from Eddie and Dave themselves. That first record everyone on notice; the world was paying attention when it came time for Van Halen II (and every LP thereafter).
Plenty of books have covered the more familiar ground, and trade publications like Guitar World, Rolling Stone, and Musician chronicled the events of the ‘80s, ‘90s, even as they happened. So it’s nice that someone has taken it upon himself to devote more attention to those leaner years—and those people, places, and chance encounters that might otherwise have been lost to time. And to do the legwork needed to bring such a treatise to life.
Renoff takes care to place the band’s trajectory into historical context, too, which helps fans better appreciate the odds Van Halen were up against when struggling to transition from bars to baseball stadiums. Heavy metal was on the wane, he reminds us—and both disco and punk were in vogue. Indeed, most of the record execs and promoters who witnessed the band’s early shows opined that their sound was outdated: If the tastemakers of the late ‘70s were to be believed, Van Halen had zero commercial potential. It’s astonishing to know how close they came not only to never making it, but how near they were to not even making that seminal self-titled platter.
We certainly learned a lot from Rising, and we’re not exactly a tourist in the land of “Tora! Tora!”
Renoff spoke with over 200 people to glean the intimate, pre-5150 details, and it shows. He chatted with close confidants from boyhood friends, schoolgirl crushes, early groupies, ex-roadies, affiliates and associates, ex-band members (including Michael Anthony), rival musicians to photographers (Neil Zlozower), creative directors (Pete Angelus), promoters (Bill Aucoin), and producers (Donn Landee, Ted Templeman), leaving no stone unturned when it came to excavating the truth lurking in Van Halen’s once-forbidden rock ‘n’ roll garden.
We meet the Van Halen parents, Jan and Eugenia, and learn how ol’ pops played clarinet for the Nazis before fleeting to the U.S. for big band glory in ‘62. Only jazz was on the outs in the States, so Jan took up a humble dishwashing job to compensate for what he didn’t earn on the occasional gig. And when he did play, young Eddie and Alex were often in tow—sitting in more frequently as they got older.
The boys didn’t mind. Encumbered by language problems, they initially shied away from social interaction to whittle away on their instruments: First violin lessons, then piano, with Eddie eventually pilfering Alex’s guitar and Al sliding behind Ed’s drums. Meanwhile, Ed bluffed his way through piano recitals (often taking top prize) by memorizing whole pieces rather than read the sheet music. As the Broken Combs (and Rat Salad), the brothers jammed with another pair of siblings—the Hills—on surf tunes like “Walk Don’t Run,” with Jim Wright showing Ed a thing or two on his budget Sears Silvertone guitar.
By the late ‘60s Eddie and Alex were learning Cream songs by ear and rocking out in gymnasiums and rec rooms as The Sounds. They’d accompany their father to his Wednesday gigs, and passed the hat for donations at weddings and bar mitzvahs. It was their first taste of the business end of things.
Soon The Sounds became The Trojan Rubber Company, with bassist Dennis Travis and keyboard player Jim Pewsey. This nascent Van Halen rehearsed at St. James Methodist Church, sometimes allowing nosy David Lee Roth to sing a song or two in return for borrowing his P.A. system. Before too long the charismatic Red Ball Jets vocalist would weasel his way into the fold on a permanent basis, effectively giving Gary Booth his pink slip.
The Van Halens’ early exploits are paralleled by those of young Roth, whose can-do ambition would more than compensate for Eddie’s lack of confidence. The only son of a well-to-do doctor, Roth grew up idolizing Al Jolsen and Ray Charles (ah, now it makes sense!) before his parents’ divorce left him “unshackled.” Rehearsing with his own band at his dad’s Altadena palace, the John Muir High School deviant drew notice with his workout regimen, martial arts prowess, and sheer determination. By all accounts, Roth never said he “wanted” to be a rock star. It was always “I’m going to be a rock star.” His pipes weren’t the best, but the kid was king of B.S. and knew how to hustle to get what he wanted.
Which was the front man position for Pasadena’s most popular backyard act, Van Halen.
Though he’d failed one audition with Ed and Alex, Roth never gave up, and eventually convinced the brothers it was in their interest to have him in the gang rather than rent his gear forever. Eddie had upgraded to a Gibson goldtop Les Paul by this time, thanks to an unexpected payout to his injured father (who lost a finger to a trailer hitch). He could replicate just about any solo after a couple run-throughs and (with Brian Box on harmonica and Mark Stone thrumming a Lucite Dan Armstrong bass) turned heads at Jewish temples and neighborhood parks. He practiced a lot, mastering albums by Canned Heat, Cactus, and Yes—only to be bested at battle of the bands by a cheating Uncle Sam.
Eddie’s fortunes shifted with Roth at his side. Fresh off his Red Ball Jet joints with the Komora brothers (and funky guitarist Danny Hernandez), Roth was eager to parlay considerable stage presence into a memorable show with virtuoso musicians. It took some prodding, but Roth got the Van Halens to ditch their jeans and T-shirts (for platform heels and bellbottoms), get their hair done, and move around onstage a bit. Wearing lame tuxes tailored by his sisters, the vaudevillian Roth hired a tap-dancing expert as a consultant…but that was taking it too far too fast.
Still, the “spoiled kid from San Marino” was the real deal when it came to winning over concertgoers—especially females. Roth was in thick with African-American women, could speak fluent Spanish, could play acoustic guitar and saxophone, already had considerable swagger, and could always hit up Dr. Nathan for extra funds. Some naysayers (rightly) accused Roth of aping Black Oak Arkansas singer Jim “Dandy” Mangus, but Dave didn’t care for critics; he was busy testing his group’s latest tunes for “danceability.” And he was preoccupied with getting Mammoth out of dingy cover band bars like Gazzari’s onto coveted slots at The Starwood and Whisky a Go-Go. Our jaws dropped when the fellows flunk their first try-outs on the Sunset Strip.
We make the acquaintance of Snake front man Michael Anthony Sobolewski—who is recruited to replace Stone more for his “canon mouth” background vocals than base chops—and join thousands of teenage revelers who flock to “dance concerts” and backyard parties featuring the talented ensemble. Renoff puts us on the scene as tables are overturned, beer is guzzled, pills are popped…and swimming pool water nearly electrocutes Edward. This is a band that stopped traffic even when they were still rocking the ‘burbs.
Roth suggests another name change when the band receives a cease-and-desist from some other band doing business as “Mammoth.” Going ahead under Eddie and Alex’s surname, Van Halen starts drawing attention from people in-the-know, including one Gene Simmons of KISS, who refers the lads to his manager and underwrites their (next) demo tape. And still the suits at Warner Bros. and Columbia snub them. But it’s cool to get inside the origins of the tracks that would ultimately appear on Van Halen (“Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Little Dreamer,” “Ice Cream Man,” and “I’m on Fire”) and subsequent discs (“House of Pain”)—plus a few originals and covers that wouldn’t be committed to tape for another thirty years, or not at all.
We discover where that funny car horn sound from the very beginning of “Runnin’” came from, and how tinkering Eddie employed a Variac and a wall dimmer to create his “brown sound,” allowing him to perform on his Franken-strat guitars with those killer “up to 11” tones—but at decibels he could manage onstage. We’ve given the bona fide lineage of Eddie’s finger-tapping and whammy bar techniques, and realize just how late in the game both were adopted into his already uncanny repertoire. Renoff lets us become flies on the wall at wet T-shirt contests, battles of the bands, and dances where Van Halen blows away the competition (before the police break up the soiree). Heck, we even look on as Eddie puts Michael Schenker (UFO) and Toni Iommi (Black Sabbath) to shame. Later, the group upstages Journey on one of its first major tours.
And yet perfectionist Edwards chastises himself for not playing better.
We get the real deal on the infamous M&Ms in the VH contract rider, and find out specifically where and when the photos on the Van Halen jacket were taken. You’ll get a look at the rejected “punk” logo proffered by the trend-conscious graphics people at Warner, and meet the guy who dreamed up the now-legendary winged VH crest.
The book’s got dozen of rare color and black-and-white images, with many making their first appearance here. And perhaps the only thing funnier than the hand-scrawled concert fliers are the vintage shots of cherubic-faced Eddie and Alex rocking out in everyday attire, betraying no pretense or air of superiority about the otherworldly musical skills that would soon rocket them into the stratosphere.
Bravo, Mr. Renoff, for turning back the clock on the “Atomic Punks” from Pasadena—and to Van Halen themselves for fighting the good fight en route to gold and platinum glory. This is a must-read reference, in the same sense that Women and Children First, Fair Warning and Diver Down are mandatory listening.
Signed copies are available now for pre-order. http://www.vhnd.com/2015/08/06/van-halen-rising-is-coming/