A vivid and energetic history of Van Halen’s legendary early years
After years of playing gigs everywhere from suburban backyards to dive bars, Van Halen led by frontman extraordinaire David Lee Roth and guitar virtuoso Edward Van Halen had the songs, the swagger, and the talent to turn the rock world on its ear. The quartet’s classic 1978 debut, Van Halen, sold more than a million copies within months of release and rocketed the band to the stratosphere of rock success. On tour, Van Halen’s high-energy show wowed audiences and prompted headlining acts like Black Sabbath to concede that they’d been blown off the stage. By the year’s end, Van Halen had established themselves as superstars and reinvigorated heavy metal in the process.
Based on more than 230 original interviews including with former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and power players like Pete Angelus, Marshall Berle, Donn Landee, Ted Templeman, and Neil Zlozower Van Halen Rising reveals the untold story of how these rock legends made the unlikely journey from Pasadena, California, to the worldwide stage.
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About the Author
Sean Runnette, a multiple AudioFile Earphones Award winner, has also produced several Audie Award-winning audiobooks. His film and television appearances include Two If by Sea, Copland, Sex and the City, Law & Order, Third Watch, and lots and lots of commercials.
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Van Halen Rising
How A Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal
By Greg Renoff
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2015 Greg Renoff
All rights reserved.
It's rare that something so loud comes to life in someplace so quiet, but that's exactly how it happened with America's greatest rock band. In the 1970s, Van Halen evolved into a musical force in Pasadena, a Los Angeles suburb of white picket fences, tree-lined streets, and good schools. David Lee Roth reminisced about those environs on the band's 2007 reunion tour. "The suburbs, I come from the suburbs," Roth told a packed house at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. "You know, where they tear out the trees and name streets after them. I live on Orange Grove — there's no orange grove there; it's just me ... we used to play the backyard parties there. I remember it like it was yesterday."
But years before Van Halen ever disturbed the peace in Pasadena, the group's future members laid the foundation for a partnership that would make rock history. Soon after arriving in America in 1962, the Van Halen brothers resolved to become top-flight rock musicians. Likewise, David Lee Roth set his sights on becoming a rock singer — a rock star, as he'd put it — before he and his family even made it to the San Gabriel Valley in 1963. Van Halen didn't come to life until the early 1970s, but the band's true genesis dates back a decade prior.
* * *
Before the Van Halen family made music in California, they made it in Holland. Jan van Halen (Jan would begin capitalizing his surname's first letter after he arrived in America) was born in Holland on January 18, 1920, to Herman van Halen and Jannie Berg. When the Netherlands fell to the Nazis in 1940, a young Jan joined the Dutch resistance, only to become a prisoner of war. After his Nazi captors discovered that he had an aptitude with the saxophone and clarinet, they placed him in an orchestra that toured German-occupied Europe.
When the conflict ended, he played in jazz acts, hit the road as part of a circus orchestra, and later performed on live radio shows in Holland. He then relocated to Indonesia, where he met and married Eugenia van Beers. "Our pop went over to Indonesia on a six-week radio contract, which turned into six years," Alex recalled. After the fall of the Dutch-backed Indonesian government, the couple moved to Amsterdam, where they welcomed two new additions to their family: Alexander Arthur van Halen, born on May 8, 1953, and Edward Lodwijk van Halen, born on January 26, 1955.
The boys had their musical baptism almost at birth. In Holland, they started taking piano lessons when Edward was about five years old. They also traveled with their parents as their father toured with jazz and big band acts during the late 1950s. "We were taken all over the place," Alex explained to the Los Angeles Times. "If my dad was going somewhere, we'd all go to the gig and hang out. My mom couldn't afford a babysitter." Edward added, "Growing up in Holland when me and Alex were seven years old, we used to go across the border to Germany to clubs where he played. That was just normal to me ... staying up to two, three in the morning, hanging in the club."
By 1960, Jan's career was on the ascent. His talents had earned him a spot in the elite Ton Wijkamp Quintet, which won honors at Holland's Loosdrecht Jazz Festival that year. Edward, reminiscing about his father's musical career in Europe, said, "My dad was one of the baddest clarinet players of his time. He was so hot — unbelievably."
Despite Jan's success, the van Halen family began to consider relocating. Some of Eugenia's relatives, who lived in Southern California, had written to Jan and Eugenia and told them about the promise of American life. "We had some family that had moved to L.A.," Alex said, "and they were always writing letters about the beautiful weather, the ample opportunities, and whatnot."
Convinced that Jan could find greater success in America, the van Halen family departed Holland on February 22, 1962, by steamship. They carried with them a few suitcases, a Rippen piano, and about seventy-five guilders. To subsidize the cost of their passage, the family entertained their fellow passengers during the nine-day trip. "Alex and I actually played on the boat while we were coming to America," Edward recalled. "We played piano, and we were like the kid freak-show on the boat."
After arriving in New York, the family took a cross-country train trip to Southern California and settled in the prosperous Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, having spent most of their savings to pay their way to America. As Edward would later summarize, "My father was forty-two years old when he left Holland and came to Pasadena with fifteen dollars and a piano."
* * *
Despite the city's advantages, the family's dream of a better life did not initially come to pass. Instead of finding themselves in a suburban dream home, the Van Halen family rented a cramped apartment at 486 South Oakland Avenue. Their new home was so modest that all three families in the building shared the same bathroom. Over the next four years, the family would relocate in Pasadena at least two more times.
During their first months in America, the Van Halen clan had bigger problems than housing. "My dad couldn't speak the language ... and he didn't even know how to drive a car, 'cause in Holland you ride bicycles, at least back then," Edward said, as he recalled his father's first American job as a dishwasher at Arcadia Methodist Hospital. Because his father didn't even own a bicycle, he walked six miles each way to work, and his mother pitched in by working as a maid. These difficulties led their youngest to call the "American Dream" that had brought them to America "a crock of shit."
Of course, Jan had hoped to support his family through music. "For my dad, America was the land of opportunity," Alex remembered. "Then he found out differently, of course. The big band thing wasn't happening here either." In fact, when it came time to provide the city of Pasadena with information for the 1962 city directory, Jan listed his occupation as a "machinist." Nevertheless, Jan did find some part-time work as a musician.
For the brothers, the language and cultural barriers that initially separated them from their peers drew the two together. Alex explained, "The only friends we had were each other. That's part of the reason we're so close. We knew no English whatsoever. It had a lasting effect on us in terms of [being able to accept] traveling and touring and not being sure what the next day brings." Edward agreed, adding, "We were two outcasts that didn't speak the language and didn't know what was going on. So we became best friends and learned to stick together." Still, in the months that followed, the brothers began to build friendships with kids they'd met in school and in their neighborhood.
As the brothers acculturated, their parents' hard work began to pay off. On April 27, 1966, they purchased an896-square-foot home located at 1881 Las Lunas Street in Pasadena. Still, the Van Halens remained far from prosperous. George Courville, who lived nearby and has known the Van Halens since he was seven years old, remembers, "They had the smallest house on the block. These were all Pasadena bungalow homes. There were two bedrooms. The kids had one room and the parents had the other. There was a single bathroom, a living room, a dining room, and what they called a galley kitchen."
Ross Velasco, who was a close friend of the brothers, recalls an incident that highlights life in the Van Halen household in the 1960s. "Alex and I had been down to the beach to bodysurf. Someone broke into my van when we were in the water and stole all of our clothes, even our shoes. So we drove back to Pasadena in our wet swimsuits. When we pulled up to Alex's house his mother was at the door. She was such a sweet woman. He told her what happened, and she got very upset. I think at that time she might have been sewing and making the clothes he wore. She was most upset that he had lost his shoes."
This hand-to-mouth existence prompted Jan and Eugenia to ponder their sons' futures. In their minds, music offered the best prospects, and so music lessons remained a staple in the brothers' lives. Alex and Edward took violin lessons while in elementary and junior high school, with Alex progressing well enough on the instrument to make the Los Angeles All City Orchestra. But their parents had one particular hope for their children. "Mom had this grandiose idea of us becoming concert pianists," Alex told the Los Angeles Times. "We kept it up about ten years. It made for a great foundation in music. You learned all the theory, and it forced you to listen to different kinds of music."
While Edward's and Alex's years of piano lessons are a well-known component of the Van Halen story, less is known about who gave them lessons. Soon after settling in Pasadena, Jan and Eugenia hired an elderly Lithuanian pianist named Stanley Kalvaitis. He'd teach the boys for a stretch of years during the 1960s. From their first lesson onward, the brothers learned that Kalvaitis was nothing if not demanding and harsh. "I had this Russian teacher who couldn't speak a word of English," Edward told Guitar Player, "and he would just sit there with a ruler ready to slap my face if I made a mistake."
Despite the family's meager resources, Jan and Eugenia had not employed a run-of-the-mill teacher. Kalvaitis was a seasoned professional pianist and a 1914 graduate of the elite Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, an academy that trained, among other musical greats, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. While at the Conservatory, Kalvaitis studied under some of the giants of Russian classical music, including composer, pianist, and conductor Nikolai Tcherepnin and violinist Leopold Auer. He also shared classrooms with luminaries like composer Sergei Prokofiev and violinist Jascha Heifetz. Edward and Alex, it turns out, learned piano from a musician who'd studied and played with world-class talent.
In the case of Edward, these revelations cast his later guitar mastery in a new light. While he never took guitar lessons, his musical foundations came from formal study with an elite musician.
Kalvaitis, who recognized his young pupils' gifts, entered them in the Southwestern Youth Music Festival in Long Beach between 1964 and 1967. As a contestant, Edward enjoyed success. "I was good," he told journalist Steven Rosen. "You sit there and practice one tune for the whole year, and they put you in a category and judge you. I think I won first place twice and second place the last time."
Despite Edward's achievements, neither Edward nor his brother enjoyed these lessons or thought much of their undergirding philosophy. Alex remembered, "We used to go to these contests, where you were given a certain piece of music, and they tell you to play it, and if you don't play it the way they interpret it, then you lose points. Well I don't think music should be that way." Edward rebelled by memorizing the compositions rather than learning how to read music.
Still, Jan and Eugenia indulged their children by letting them play other kinds of music with friends. Dana MacDuff, who went to school with Edward and Alex, remembers one of these kiddie acts: "I was a third grade student at Hamilton Elementary School. We'd have lunch outside near the pergola and there'd be performances for the student body. One day there was a band playing; it was Ed and Al, and their band was called the Broken Combs. I was totally unaware that they were budding musicians." The pint-sized group, which featured Edward on piano and Alex on tenor saxophone, was rounded out by Don Ferris on alto saxophone and the Hill brothers on drums and guitar.[ 55 ]"They were just kids at our school. Ed played the piano. He was a year ahead of me. I remember the guy who was the leader of the group said, 'And now — your favorite and ours — Boogie Woogie!' They played that kind of music."
For young boys who loved music but were less than enthusiastic about violin and piano, guitar-driven rock music had become a potent distraction by the mid-1960s. Edward noted that the brothers had been "kind of sheltered" from rock prior to their arrival in America. As Alex recalled, "Edward and I were seriously going to train to be concert pianists, but then the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five came along, and so it was goodbye, piano." Alex, who'd begun taking flamenco lessons, now wanted an electric guitar, while his brother coveted a drum set.
To pay for these instruments, the brothers became paperboys. Edward's childhood friend Rafael Marti remembers, "Alex had a double paper route. Hmm, I think both of them had double paper routes come to think of it. They used the money to buy equipment. It was beg, borrow, and steal with those guys."
Before long, friction arose in the Van Halen household over Alex's and Edward's declining commitment to the piano and violin. Alex, who struggled to make progress on the guitar, saw his interest shift to drums, which he played with gusto when his brother wasn't around. Edward, in turn, took to guitar as he continued to play drums. Despite their parents' wishes, it became clear that the brothers' other instruments wouldn't be central to their aspirations.
Within a short period of time, both brothers realized that they had an affinity for each other's instruments, which led them to make their legendary swap. As Alex explained, "I could play all the chords and do whatever, but for some reason, my fingers could just not move fast enough. I knew that I was limited. I mean, you can practice all you want; if it isn't there, it isn't there. It's not going to grow. But I noticed when Ed picked up the guitar, he could play better than guys who'd been playing for years. So when he was gone, I got on the drums and just started playing them."
For Edward, the switch made sense not only because he had a talent for guitar, but also because the instrument inspired him in a way that drums didn't. "The first song I ever learned was 'Pipeline,' by the Surfaris, and 'Wipe Out.' Then I hear this song on the radio — it was the 'Blues Theme' on the soundtrack to [The Wild Angels]," he told Spinner. "It was the first time I heard a distorted guitar, and I'm going, 'God, what is that?' I didn't really have an amp then. I went to Dow Radio in Pasadena, and I jury-rigged this plug to plug into the stereo. I just turned the damn thing all the way up, and it distorted. So every amp I've ever used, I just turn it all the way up."
Rob Broderick, who was friends with the brothers, remembers when Edward had taken up guitar full-time and had gotten his hands on an amp. "When I first met Eddie, he was going into sixth grade and I was going into seventh, and he had this little Fender twin amp. He was playing something like 'Day Tripper' and I was like, Wow, this kid is playing this song well and he is in elementary school!"
Edward's and Alex's interest in rock only grew after they formed a band with a friend. Jim Wright, who met Edward at Pasadena's Jefferson Elementary School after Edward transferred from Hamilton Elementary, recalls, "My last name is Wright, so they stuck the new kid with the last name Van Halen by me. We got to talking and we got along. Ed said, 'Do you want to come over my house and have lunch?' I said sure. So I went over to the house on Las Lunas. I see this guitar and drum kit in the back room."
That day, Edward strapped on a Sears Silvertone guitar plugged into a Fender Deluxe Reverb. "Ed played something and I said, 'Wow, you can really play!' Well one thing led to another and we became close friends. This was in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. Ed said, 'We've got these paper routes. Why don't you save your money, buy a guitar, and I'll teach you how to play.'" After throwing papers for some weeks, Wright had an instrument of his own.
Wright remembers that soft-spoken Edward was eager to teach him. "I played bass guitar on a regular guitar, so I wasn't much of a bass player." Wright, who isn't a natural musician, says that his friend did his best to improve his chops. "I took guitar lessons from Eddie Van Halen," he laughs. "He was very patient. He never got mad. I'd never tell people I took lessons from him, because today all I can do is barre chords. Ed taught me everything I knew how to play, and Al would get frustrated because I played it so poorly!"
Regardless of Wright's struggles, a new band was born. "Our band was first called 'The Sounds of Las Vegas,' and then just 'The Sounds.' Al took this piece of white cardboard and wrote 'The Sounds' on it and stuck it in his bass drum."
Excerpted from Van Halen Rising by Greg Renoff. Copyright © 2015 Greg Renoff. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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