Eddie Van Halen recently passed away at the age of 65, and while my heart goes out to his family and friends, I can’t help but also feel a twinge of sadness for those of us who didn’t know the guitar genius personally, but “knew” him nonetheless: The Legion of Rock Music Fans.
Once upon a time in a mystical world – the late 20th century on planet Earth – rock music was continually produced by a multitude of talented musicians. This rock music was not only enjoyed but consumed by the masses with a fervor that sometimes bordered on mania. It was amusing, therefore, to ponder the meaning of the Don McLean song called American Pie that included the lyric “the day the music died”. Because that could never happen. Several years later the wonderful Ozzy Osbourne had a hit song called You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll. Now, it is doubtful that Ozzy knew who Don McLean was at that point in his life, and even if he did, he almost certainly wasn’t trying to be contrary. Ozzy’s Diary of a Madman album, after all, was a long way from the school dances and pink carnations that McLean sang about. However, I couldn’t help but juxtapose the two lyrics while recently reading the rock biography Runnin’ With The Devil: A Backstage Pass To The Wild Times, Loud Rock, And The Down And Dirty Truth Behind The Making Of Van Halen. How’s that for a title? It’s like one of The Doctor’s run-on sentences. In other words, I love it.
Written by Noel Monk, who served as Van Halen’s personal manager from 1978-1985, the book is exactly what it claims to be: an insider’s look at the history of Van Halen during the era of David Lee Roth. The fact that 1978-1985 was just an awesome era in general doesn’t seem coincidental, does it? I had meant to read the book upon its 2017 publication, so I can only chalk it up to irony that I finally dove into it shortly before Eddie Van Halen’s untimely passing.
Runnin’ With The Devil is a fantastic narrative, told with a sharp eye for detail from one who lived through the day to day drama of the band. Monk had just completed a gig as tour manager for The Sex Pistols on their only trip to America. The tour, although brief, was considered a stunning success in that no one had been maimed or killed while Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were spitting from the stage in places like San Antonio, Texas. In the good graces of at least one Warner Brothers executive, Monk was asked to take a job as tour manager for the newly signed Van Halen on their inaugural tour at the beginning of 1978. Van Halen’s eponymous debut album had not yet been released, so the band would have third billing on the tour behind Journey and Montrose. After some opening hiccups, Van Halen proceeded to blow the other acts off the stage at each subsequent venue while the album sold like hotcakes. Four more platinum albums would follow, one per year from 1979-1982, and Van Halen became one of the biggest rock and roll bands in the world and secured their place in history… all of which happened prior to the release of the multi-platinum album 1984 in that same halcyon year. The Doctor’s favorite Van Halen album of the Roth era is the original Van Halen, but I did own a cassette tape of 1984 that was purchased in a mall record store after playing Frogger in the arcade. Ah, but I digress…
Stories of sex, drugs, and rock and roll have become cliched by now but they did actually happen, and Runnin’ With The Devil captures all of these pinnacles of 70’s-80’s rock life in details both sordid and empathic. The innovative and singular talent of the mostly low-key Eddie Van Halen combined with the showmanship of the bombastic but equally talented Roth made for a potent mix that produced magic in the studio and on the stage. Eddie Van Halen was immediately considered the greatest guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, and this was no hyperbole. And who can forget the raspy voice of Diamond Dave as he leapt into the air from the drum riser? Unfortunately, as the fame and wealth – along with the well documented abuses of drugs and alcohol – increased exponentially, so too did the personality conflicts. In the opinion of Noel Monk, while artistic differences were certainly involved, the breakup of Roth and Van Halen was mostly due to a distinct clash of personalities that had always been present but were exacerbated by the trappings of fame and drug use.
Monk doesn’t pull any punches with his opinions of the band members, who are much more than the sum of their parts, and he does not spare the reader his views on the relationship and subsequent marriage between Eddie Van Halen and TV star Valerie Bertinelli. However, Monk is keen to repeatedly point out that no one could hold a candle to the Roth-era Van Halen on the stage, where they were an awesome force that never failed to deliver kick-ass live performances in front of throngs of fans. That they continued to do so when the interpersonal conflicts were raging in 1984 is a testament to the raw power and true talent of the band. If the individual band members failings are a sign of anything, it is that they were human beings caught up in a vortex that most people will never be able to comprehend.
There is a wistful aspect to this book for me, as it describes an era of life and music that essentially no longer exists. Gone are the days when we eagerly awaited the release of a new album from one of our favorite bands and the stadium tour to follow. Gone are the days of celebrating rock star hedonism left unchecked. I strongly urge all fans of Van Halen, David Lee Roth, and music history to purchase this book and prepare for an emotional trip. I think there is nothing left for me to do tonight other than put on my headphones and crank up Runnin’ With The Devil. It would be better if I put the Van Halen CD on an old stereo and blasted the neighbors awake, but in today’s touchy-feely times I would likely get served with a noise violation. Perhaps Don McLean’s prophesy of “the day the music died” has not quite come to fruition. I choose to still believe in the words of Ozzy, that You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll… even if now it mostly resides inside of us. This book takes us back to a time when rock and roll – as personified by Van Halen – was not only out in the open, but in your face and many of us loved it. As always, dear friends, The Doctor wishes you well.