5 June 1998

One night in Berlin

With Eddie Van Halen

You are a young, unemployed American singer who used to play with an extremely successful but rather banal rock band. Now you need a new gig. Surely the last outfit you’d audition for would be the legendary Van Halen, whose 20-year punk-metal career has been marked by an unfortunate tendency to eat up singers and spit the chunks out with acrimonious relish. You’d feel like a drummer auditioning for Spinal Tap after your predecessors had all mysteriously exploded on their stools.

But Gary Cherone, ex-vocalist with Extreme, did exactly that. Now he’s part of the gang: the band has released a new record, Van Halen 3, and they’re a couple of months into a mammoth world tour. On Tuesday the band were in Berlin, holed up in the ridiculously opulent Schlosshotel Vier Jahreszeiten, a toy-coloured castle where oil paintings of worried-looking Prussian generals circa 1934 eye you beadily as you prowl around the Kaiser Suite. I am summoned by the tour manager, a gregarious fellow who collects BMX bicycles and whose odd beard is probably a sculpted homage to the Gibson Flying V guitar. Eddie needs to “sit down” for a moment, so we will begin on the balcony with Gary.

Van Halen 3 is easily the group’s best record for a decade: certainly Eddie feels he has found the perfect vocalist. Van Halen’s first singer, Dave Lee Roth (hit: Jump) was sassy but eventually ridiculous, while their second singer, Sammy Hagar (hit: Why Can’t This Be Love?) was more melodically capable but fatally constipated. When I suggest to Cherone that he marries the best qualities of both singers, he blinks and says “Thanks” in a small, surprised voice. That evening, Cherone will morph into a roaring, frenetically lithe fusion of Robbie Williams and Mick Jagger, but for now he’s disarmingly modest. Talking of the perils of singing Van Halen tunes that are associated with the other vocalists, he murmurs: “Well, the fans still recognise them so I guess I haven’t butchered them too much.”

At that moment an imp in faded pink corduroy trousers bounces onto the balcony and declaims: “I’d go further – it’s the way those old songs are supposed to sound.” He slumps in a chair and unfurls an enormous, wicked grin. This is him, Eddie Van Halen, globally famous 45-year-old guitar maestro – but he’s not acting the way you’d expect. The lightning-fast string-tapper has sold more than 70 million albums and spawned countless imitators. But having given up drugs and nihilistic drinking a few years ago, Van Halen is seemingly ego-free, ministering to me with a little blowtorch lighter and a bottle-opener, and chucklingly deflating his own reputation. “Everyone’s going ‘You’re a guitar hero’ – I’m going, ‘I don’t own a cape or a mask, what do you mean?'”

He admits, too, that he’s had to do some serious work to get his chops in order for the tour. Cherone wanted to play an old number called I’m The One, so Eddie dug out the CD: “It’s like dun-duddle deh dun-duddle duddleyduddleyduddley – and I’m like ‘What the fuck?’ Last time I played it was 20 years ago!” And what does this one-time debauched rock’n’roller like to eat? Er, steamed vegetables. “Yeah, maybe broccoli.” He shows me his watch: the face is a photograph of his seven-year-old son, Wolfie, potential star in the making. “He’s better-looking than Bon Jovi already. But I don’t care if he becomes an attorney – whatever he wants to do. We could use a good attorney…”

Eddie will sometimes huddle over to Gary and excitedly discuss new songs, crooning the guitar parts and waggling his celebrated fingers in the air. He’s boyishly happy with his new collaborator. “Here comes Gary, probably the biggest milestone of my life, somebody to hand me lyrics and inspire me to write music. I just used to write all the time, but now I can’t write without his lyrics – he’s got me by the balls now…” Not satisfied with keyboards, guitars, sitars and the like, Eddie is also teaching himself the cello: “I sit in a squash court, light candles . . . the sound’s just amazing.”

Sometimes Eddie can be a little impressionistic, as when he muses “I think we’re all sponges, and then you become a filter”, or compares the band to a big oak tree. He has, too, a quirkily unhip attitude to where his music comes from. Eddie Van Halen, you see, is an unapologetic Platonist. The music comes from God (“or whatever you want to call it”), and the musician’s just a conduit. Of his band’s extraordinary success and longevity, he remarks: “I don’t think it has anything to do with us; we’re just blessed with music that people enjoy.”

Which musician would he most want to be if he wasn’t Eddie Van Halen? “My father,” he says simply. Eddie’s father was a clarinettist. “He lived a good life. He worked his ass off. He worked so many jobs when we came over from Holland to America – he played lederhosen, he played oompah music, he played jazz. I gotta tell you this story about him. We played on the boat from Holland to New York. Me and Alex [Eddie’s brother, and drummer in Van Halen] were kinda the freak sideshow and my dad played in the band on the boat. So, we were playing and my dad passes the hat round. Alex counts the money and there’s like 30-something dollars in there. My dad takes the money and divides it up. We get five bucks apiece – and Al goes ‘What happened to the other 20?’ And my dad goes: ‘Welcome to the music business’!”

That night, an eerily quiet, black Mercedes deposits us at the gig. Down the road, the disconsolate sound of a small jazz ensemble wafts up through a pavement grating. The venue is the New World club, a dank, decaying old barn with walls straight out of a Weimar ballroom. It is Berlin’s premier venue, one earnestly drunk German fan tells me, for “the new alternative movement”. Accordingly, it is peopled by teenagers with asymmetrical goatee wisps and tragic mullet haircuts, plus the odd middle-aged rocker in leather waistcoat and shorts. The support act is a screaming woman called Doro Pash, who apparently was big in the early 1980s with the same sort of scummy, malodorous heavy-metal balladry that her small coterie of fans is adoring tonight.

Eddie Van Halen is backstage, sitting on the sofa with a guitar in the cramped, tatty dressing room (the fridge is emblazoned with stickers advertising a pantheon of 1970s metal losers). “You sure picked a hell of a place to come see us,” he jokes, proffering beer. The rest of the tour is stadium and arena gigs, but tonight it’s Club Van Halen. Doro Pash eventually gives up on mutilating the corpse of music, and after a swarming, ant-like army of roadies with headset mics and torches has virtually rebuilt the stage, Van Halen run up into the lights, salute the crowd, and begin to blast out 90 minutes of wild dirt-boogie.

It’s a wonderfully thrilling noise, but hold on. You might think that Alex’s extended drum solo, Eddie’s ‘How’s that?’ faces as he squeals and rumbles away on the fretboard, and the band’s towel-waving curtain calls, are pure cheese, pure Spinal Tap. Of course they are, but that’s really not the point: Van Halen are playing their socks off, which is on the order of a force of nature. You might as well stand in front of a tidal wave and tell it sternly that you don’t really feel like getting moist, thanks very much.

A couple of years ago, Eddie nearly had to have a hip replacement: cardiovascular necrosis, he says, from too much jumping up and down on stage. Dinosaur prosthesis looms. But the guy can’t help himself: all the way through the show, right up until the blissful double encore of Jump and Panama, he’s pogoing away in little circles, with his eyes squeezed shut and a beatific smile on his face. It’s obviously thanks to this sheer joie de vivre that Van Halen are still going without having turned into a pus-filled parody of themselves. Eddie’s dad would be proud.