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"What we're doing now is, excuse my French, really fuckin' rewarding," he says. "It's like to me, this is the shit, this is for real, it's from the heart. There's no contrived anything, there's no sitting around saying, 'Hey, I think the fans will like this.' The way I've always been musically is very selfish--I could only do what I like. I can't sit there and go, 'Oh, I think people will like this,' because you're kind of double-fucked. You don't like what you're doing, and people don't like it, then you got nothing. At least if we please ourselves and the audience doesn't like it, well, at least I still like it, so at least I'm halfway there.
"I think people get very comfortable and set in their ways, whereas music, it's just a natural evolution. I'll never forget reading a review of our second album years ago, back in '79. A guy slammed it for being different from the first one. If it had been the same as the first one, he would have slammed it for the same reason, because it's too much like the first one. It's like, no shit, Sherlock. It's a different record."
Van Halen is stuck between rock and a hard place, left in the unenviable position of trying to satisfy old customers while also fulfilling their own, well, creative needs. The band exists both as a permanent fixture on classic-rock radio, where "Jump" and "Jamie's Cryin'" and "Dance the Night Away" are in 24-7 rotation, and as an evolving entity that still releases brand-new records every few years. They are constantly trying to reconcile their platinum past and a more tenuous future with its third lead singer in 12 years; they perform more old songs in concert than ever before, including "I'm the One" off the first album and other Roth-era hits Hagar long ignored, even as they try to extricate themselves from the cutout bins of history on their way to making an album that Eddie likes to think will one day rival Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
And perhaps Eddie's capable of making such a disc one day, capable of using his genius for good instead of evil. He is, after all, the last, best arena-rock guitar god to come down the pike, the accidental guitarist (at first, he wanted to play drums) who turned solos into symphonies. But he will always have to combat those who will forever want Van Halen to, plain and simple, rock.
"Van Halen 3 is just another page in a long, long book that's way from being finished written," he says. "We still have our Dark Side of the Moon to make, but it's coming. We just go with the flow, and people just do not understand that we do sit around and think cerebrally. We don't sit there and plan what we're going to do. People try and pick my brain and find out what makes me tick, and I don't know what makes me tick. I swear. I was chosen to do this. I love doing it. It's my life. It's the only damn thing I know how to do, and I love doing it. I truly believe everyone is born with a gift, and I was lucky enough to find mine. It's more than you can ask for."
From the beginning, Van Halen seemed to have no greater aspiration than being America's premier party-rock band. Their set lists back in those days included an odd amalgam of AOR schlock ("Tush," "Rock Steady," and "Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo") and top-of-the-pops fodder ("Get Down Tonight" by KC and the Sunshine Band comes quickly to Eddie's mind now). "We did all kinds of silly shit," he says. "We had to."
From the get-go, when they were playing the Pasadena Hilton in 1976 or places with names like The Garage a year later, Roth always acted as though he were working a room of thousands; old bootlegs from that period reveal him as the ultimate used-car salesman long before he actually landed defeated in Las Vegas years later. Perhaps, in the end, that's what makes those early records so fascinating: They were at once utterly stupid and coolly brilliant, a loudmouth buffoon competing for the spotlight with a guitarist who deconstructed his instrument like no one since Hendrix. Roth made his racket, spouting his lamebrain lyrics as though they meant something, while Eddie provided his own brand of calculated chaos--he never let his technique get in the way, but you never forgot how good he was every second of every song.
"Eric Clapton was my main influence, but the more I think about it, Pete Townshend was very much an influence, especially on Live at Leeds," Eddie says now. "I'm a very rhythmic player. People think I'm just a soloist, but I'm actually more of a rhythmic guitar player than a solo guitar player. I mean, we're probably the only rock and roll group that the guitar and drums are the rhythm section, and if you listen to Live at Leeds, it's the same--it's Townshend and Keith Moon as the rhythm section, and so are we. Mike just lays down the cement, the glue that keeps it all together, and Alex and I get to do our thing together."