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Inside Van Halen’s Casbah

Inside Van Halen’s Casbah

A band of brothers: Van Halen during the OU812/Monsters of Rock era.

How I’ll always remember Edward.

One memory often triggers another, so, while writing about my experiences with Metallica over a crucial decade in their career for this issue, I kept flashing back on my sole encounter with Van Halen—the man and the band. It was during 1988’s Monsters of Rock, and I was on assignment for the tour’s two-day stand in Akron’s Rubber Bowl, a decrepit concrete pit turned convection oven by the summer heat, to interview all the guitarists on the tour: Kingdom Come’s Danny Stag, Dokken’s George Lynch, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs of Scorpions, and, of course, Edward.

For the first day I was there, Van Halen’s publicist kept nudging me aside. Nonetheless, I enjoyed their headlining set, save for the perplexing choice of a Sammy Hagar ballad about burying the placenta from the birth of one of his children under a tree. (If you know what that song is called, please let me know so I can more purposefully continue to avoid it.) Edward was especially brilliant, of course.

I was literally and anxiously sweating it out as Van Halen’s second-night performance neared, when the publicist finally ushered me back into the band’s dressing room, in the distressed bowels of the Rubber Bowl. Their green room was actually a casbah created within the area’s grim concrete walls. There were hanging tapestries, plush furniture, floor lamps, and other homey appointments, all cooled by giant fans at its edges. But the most impressive sight was Edward, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony plugged into a vertical-standing road case packed with practice amps, jamming out some blues. Alex had a practice pad atop the case, and pounded so hard he cut through the astonishing web of sound. They tossed me a few nods, and I sat on the couch next to a table with a bowl of M&M’s on it—I did not check the colors—and watched them wail on for a good 10 minutes. Edward, plugged into what I think was a Fender Champ, still sounded every bit like himself. I thought, “Well, even if I don’t get to ask a single question, this is worth the trip.”

But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees. They all raced toward me and piled onto the arms and back of the couch. I was surprised and surrounded. They answered my questions, but Eddie kept playing his unplugged 6-string, and nearly every reply came with a silly joke or a pun that left them in stitches. They all talked at the same time, sometimes completing each other’s sentences—always answering me but spinning off into all kinds of wild digressions. At one point, Sammy did a decidedly un-PC Ray Charles impersonation that put Edward, Alex, and Michael on the floor. And when I asked a guitar-centric question, Edward slid off the back of the couch and landed next to me to reply.

“But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees.”

It was hilarious—almost sketch comedy. But it was also beautiful, because it was obvious that at this point they were deeply connected by friendship and the joy of still discovering what this line up of the band, which had released OU812 a month earlier, could do. There was a tangible, open-hearted purity to them—at least about this music they were making and the experience of making it—and it wasn’t drugs, because Edward had recently been through rehab and not even beer was allowed in their green room. They were, in June 1988, truly a band of brothers.

Somehow, amidst all the crosstalk and antics, I managed to get all my questions answered, and spent a few more minutes hanging out with them, enjoying a cold cola and avoiding the near-100-degree outside temperature, as they bantered with each other and prepped for the stage. Then it was time for the publicist to reappear and throw my butt out, and for them to hustle theirs into the spotlights.

There were more troubles to come for Edward—struggles with addictions, divorce, and cancers—and a lot more music to be made, until he died, too young, in 2020 at age 65. But because of that day, I always think of him as happy-go-lucky, practically exploding with positivity and elation. And I’m very glad for that. Seeing somebody at their best and happiest is always a gift, and when it’s somebody like Edward Van Halen, it’s a treasure.