MUSIC / The man, the band and the widdly bits: He drinks, he smokes, he does bad things in hotel rooms. And he doesn't see what's so funny about Spinal Tap. Giles Smith meets Eddie Van Halen

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The Independent Culture
ONE NIGHT last month, the legendary rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen went out with the legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck. According to the legendary rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen, the conversation went something like this. ' 'Hey, you're the best]' 'No, you're the best]' 'Hey, really, you are the best]' 'No, you're the best]' 'Have another couple of beers]' 'Wooorrgghh]' '

Returning at 4.00am to a chintzy rented apartment off Park Lane, Eddie Van Halen then detonated the building's smoke alarm while attempting to fix a snack. 'I was just trying to melt some cheese over some bread, and next thing I know the fire department's showing up.' So come lunchtime, and after two hours of rehearsing with Van Halen, his band, he was keeping his shades on to hide his wrecked eyes, but was still lively enough to pull off a little practical joke he does, which involves slipping into the room unnoticed and then shouting 'Ha]' to startle you.

At the time, Van Halen the band were preparing for this month's concerts, their first in this country for nine years. We're promised 'a down and dirty rock'n'roll show' which will probably follow fairly closely the contours of the recent live album Right Here, Right Now: huge drums, Eddie's ridiculous guitar-playing ('you can get the thing to sing like a saxophone, but you've got to use a lot of distortion'), and a copious amount of vocal wailing (sample chorus line: 'I just love my baby's poundcake'). And though Eddie Van Halen seems to carry his end of this peculiar business lightly, it's worth remembering that the musician Thomas Dolby (who lives next door to Van Halen on Mullholland Drive in Los Angeles) once reported that Eddie had found the spoof rock movie This is Spinal Tap] too close to the bone to be funny.

The copious credits on the sleeve of the live recording carefully mention the band's Accounting Firm, 'Nigro, Karlin & Segal Inc'. Van Halen's records don't shift quite like they used to, but the group are still a big deal in the arenas where fans come in their thousands to watch Eddie do the widdly bits, convinced that he is, indeed, the best.

'I would sit there and note for note learn all of Cream's stuff. I'd sit with my turntable and slow it down to 16rpm. I was Eric Clapton, note for note.' Except, eventually, he was much faster and had incorporated into his playing a repertoire of hitherto unheard whoops and whines and scrapings. Strangely, his most famous burst is not on a Van Halen record at all. It's that blur of bent notes in the middle of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It', a key moment of crossover in American pop, at which a white rocker came together with a black soul singer. 'I used to have this old phone system in the studio. Phone rang, I picked it up and there's this voice saying, 'Yo, Eddie? That Eddie?' There was lots of crackling and stuff. And I said, 'Yeah, who's this?' But he obviously couldn't hear me. So I hung up, figuring it was a fan. Phone rings again, and the same voice says, 'Hey, Eddie.' So this time I shout 'Asshole]' and hang up. Phone rings a third time. 'Hey, Eddie, Eddie, it's Quincy Jones.' Have I ever felt small.

'Certain people in the band at that time didn't like me doing things outside the group. But Roth happened to be in the Amazon or somewhere, and Mike was at Disneyland and Al was up in Canada or something, and I was home alone. So I thought, well, they'll never know. Seriously: who's going to know that I played on a black guy's record? Michael said 'I love that high fast stuff you do.' So I played two solos over it and said, 'You guys pick the one you want.' It was 20 minutes out of my day. I did it for free and later everybody was telling me, you could have got a royalty point out of that record. But it didn't matter because Quincy wrote me a letter thanking me, and he signed it 'The Asshole'. I framed it. Classic.'

Most people thought Eddie would end up doing nothing but session work after Van Halen's singer, David Lee Roth, waltzed off for a solo career in 1985. Van Halen can hardly bear to mention him these days, except in a context of open hostility. 'I was really bummed out when Roth decided to take a hike. We didn't even get the opportunity to kick him out.' But then Van Halen signed Sammy Hagar, thus maintaining the band's format exactly within the guidelines laid down by the heavy rock record producer Bob Rock - 'guitars, drums, and a skinny guy who can sing real high'.

'I called Sammy on a Friday from Claudio Zampoli's car shop. And he came over and joined us on the Monday morning. Suddenly, a lot of things became easier for us. The song 'Right Now' I had written way back when, except Roth wasn't into it. And 'Jump', too - the stink he raised about that because of the keyboards on it. 'You're a guitar-player, nobody wants to see you playing keyboards.' Of course, then when it became a hit, he shut up about it.'

Eddie takes the top off another beer. 'Roth had an attitude about things. Where my attitude is, if I can blow in a tuba and do it convincingly, I'll do it.'

Van Halen play Birmingham NEC, 25 April; Sheffield Arena, 27; Wembley Arena, 29.

(Photograph omitted)