Gold necklaces, contraband mags, and backstage near-run-ins: How the guitar god helped shape the life of PG’s editorial director in far more than just guitar playing.
My earliest memory of Edward Van Halen is from 1978, the year his band’s eponymous debut LP was released. I was 6 years old, and our family had just moved to a new neighborhood miles from everything I’d ever known. I was in a new school and didn’t know a soul. My shyness didn’t help matters. I felt alone and insignificant.
I remember standing in front of the big Sharp-brand record player in our hardly furnished, plush maroon-carpeted basement family room, in utter awe at the sounds emanating from the 2-foot-high speakers. The backward car horns, the foreboding Eb bass note, the behind-the-nut string plucks, all worming through a black hole and forever into my brain. As a goody-two-shoes (then) Mormon kid from Provo, Utah, I felt guilty for being so captivated by a song called “Runnin’ with the Devil.” But that didn’t last long, as the next track was “Eruption”—Eddie’s tour de force instrumental guitar track that blew minds around the world and changed the landscape of modern music. It didn’t matter that I didn’t yet know how to play guitar—in fact, the idea had never even occurred to me before that. I didn’t need to know a thing about the 6-string to echo millions of other music fans—including expert guitarists—in gaping, “How the heck is he even doing that? Is that really a guitar?”
I wouldn’t lay my hands on the instrument myself for another six years, but the seed was planted. I’ve already shared how, as a kid, the only 8-track cassette I ever wanted to listen to in the family car was Van Halen II. And my older brother, Sam, and I spent countless hours lip-syncing to all the Roth-era albums. School art projects, workbooks, and folders were crisscrossed with striped patterns like those on Ed’s famed Frankenstrat, his Ibanez “Shark” Destroyer, and all those weird axes on the slipcover for 1982’s Diver Down.
Besides imprinting on my musical mind, EVH affected my very identity in other ways … some of which are pretty funny/embarrassing. The year Women and Children First came out (1980), the images of Eddie suddenly made me enamored with gold chains. I unabashedly drew pictures of myself on school stuff with long hair and a VH (“Van Hammond”)-logo necklace. Before long I’d gotten in trouble for absconding with Mom’s recently bought gold chain and wearing it to either a baseball practice or a scout get-together. I forget which it was, but I do know that once I’d gotten to the activity, Sam noticed the chain and made me take it off so it wouldn’t get broken. But he put it on instead, so he probably just wanted to look like Eddie, too.
On vacation that same summer, I pestered my parents so bad about getting my own gold chain that they finally acquiesced and got me a cheap fake-gold thing. I’d wanted one with a crucifix, too, just like the one clearly visible around Ed’s neck on the back of Women and Children, but Mormons don’t typically wear crucifixes and I knew not to push it with Mom and Dad on vacation. Dad was probably never more ashamed of me than he was when I donned a sissy piece of jewelry out of love for the greatest guitarist I’d ever heard—the guitarist responsible for music he insisted they’d be playing in hell. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t voice my desire for the jumpsuit Ed was wearing in the same pics.
By the time 1984 came out, new wave and synth-pop were all the rage. Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, A-ha, Depeche Mode, Alphaville, Men Without Hats, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc. were in, and to kids at school everything else was outdated garbage from a bygone, no-longer-cool era. I liked a fair amount of the new stuff, too, but I took all sorts of heat for being the die-hard Van Halen fan still decorating everything in sight with red-and-white stripes.
That year was a huge turning point in two ways. First, I finally started taking guitar lessons. I had no interest in “boring” ol’ acoustic guitar, but Mom said I could switch to electric if I stuck with it for a year. Second, I went to my first ever rock concert. Fittingly, it was Van Halen's 1984 tour. It was just me and Mom, in the nosebleeds at the Salt Palace arena in Salt Lake City. (Sam, despite being the one who slept in line for tickets, prioritized some school event that he’s probably kicking himself over to this day.) I’m not ashamed to admit that the “Little Dreamer” in 12-year-old Shawn sat there, peering through the haze of pot and tobacco smoke, fantasizing about being called onstage to play alongside EVH, despite the fact that I could barely play a barre chord, let alone pull off blazing double-tapped runs.
In 1985 I got my first electric, a 1983 Fender Strat the local shop had never been able to sell. I didn’t know anything about electrics except that I wanted one and a Strat technically was one. I began devouring every guitar magazine I could lay my hands on, and I’d only had my Strat for a few months before I realized it simply wouldn’t do. The interviews and ads clearly showed Eddie with cool-looking, brightly colored Kramer guitars outfitted with a humbucker and Floyd Rose tremolo you could endlessly wail on. Naturally, I had to start nagging Mom again. Within another year, I’d saved up for the best Kramer in the state of Utah, a Stagemaster Custom in “flip-flop red.” All because of my hero Ed, whose poster was over my dresser, bidding me good day as I headed to school each morning.
That year, Mom and I also hit the 5150 tour, and when OU812 came around, Sam took me to that show. As difficult as it is for longtime readers of my Tuning Up column to believe, the now-atheist author of those columns was a door-knocking missionary in Washington state when For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge came out. I wasn’t supposed to listen to anything but church or classical music during those two full years of proselytizing, but on days off I sometimes managed to convince my missionary “companion” (I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?) that it was okay to sneak off to the local music shop so I could play electric guitar for a little bit. On one of those visits, I saw Ed on the cover of a guitar mag for an interview about Carnal Knowledge. I bought it and voraciously consumed the contraband interview, against missionary rules. It was the only time I did so during those two years, and the fact that it was for the only EVH-related mag I saw during that period attests to the pull the man who “ran” with the Devil still had over me, even then. Naturally, I missed that tour, but Balance came out the year I married my wife, and she and I took Mom to that one, too.
Several years later, I had two windows to meet the man who’d turned me into a lifelong guitar freak. In 2011, while covering the Winter NAMM show for PG, I spotted Edward just a few feet away in Fender’s exhibition space. As you’d imagine, people thronged about him, as they must have everywhere. I’ve never wanted to be that guy, fawning and pawing for an autograph or a selfie. Plus, I was behind schedule for my next video appointment. I hoped someday I’d have another chance to say hello under better, less harried circumstances. I always held out hope we’d get to do a proper interview.
The following year, PG multimedia manager Chris Kies and I flew to Nashville in 2012 to do the closest thing to an interview or Rig Rundown that Van Halen management would approve. We got to sit in on soundcheck. Eddie played impeccably, and it was lovely to see and hear him and son Wolfgang having a ball together onstage, all while singing trademark Van Halen harmonies perfectly, unimpeded by Roth’s struggling vocalizations. Afterward, we got to photograph Edward’s gear and talk to his and Wolf’s guitar techs.
In the midst of all this, as I was walking back from a trip to the backstage restroom, I saw Eddie briefly emerge from a side hallway blocked off with a curtain and an “authorized personnel only” sign. Having been given strict instructions from Van Halen management to not exceed the bounds of the agreed-upon arrangement, I had a mighty internal dilemma. With a mind to both management strictures and my lifelong aversion to coming across like an ass-kissing wanker, I chose to play it cool. I smiled and gave a friendly wave, and within a couple of seconds he was gone. Ever since then I’ve held out hope for that proper interview. I’m sure he had no idea who I was. But I know who he was. He was and is my hero, Edward Van Halen.