I always thought I was the biggest Van Halen fan in the world, until I talked to Greg Renoff. Renoff is the author of Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal. Greg took his love for Van Halen music and turned it into a 5 year project that tells the story of the early days of the band through exhaustive interviews with the people who witnessed it. It is by far the best Van Halen book I have read, and I’ve read them all. This is not just a book for Van Halen fans, it’s a look at life in the early to mid 70s with Van Halen music as the soundtrack. It’s a must read for all music fans. He was kind enough to give Korea Guitar a call to chat all things VH.
Tell us where the idea for Van Halen Rising came from.
I grew up a big fan of Van Halen. By the time I was 14 or 15, I’d discovered them. I basically got into the band right at the tail end of the (David Lee) Roth years and saw the ’84 tour and absolutely loved it. I was always a history buff growing up and I would read, not just things that are more straight-forward history, I was a big World War II reader, but I also loved reading rock magazines and history of bands. You know, I read Hammer of the Gods (Led Zeppelin) and I would just read Rolling Stone and all the guitar magazines to pieces. I ended up becoming a historian and always kept my love for rock music and in my free time, I read a lot of rock bios for fun. So, I would do my academic reading for school and then when I had some free time, I’d pick up the latest rock bio and dig into it.
I always felt, as a fan of Van Halen, that I was not getting the full story of how the band came to be. The band members would talk in some short blurbs about how those guys met and about Dave’s PA system and about backyard parties and these types of things. There had been some good Van Halen books, but they didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the band’s beginnings. They mostly focused on the post-fame years, after 1978 when the band broke through.
So, around 2009-2010, I started to think about maybe doing an article about how Van Halen got their start. I ended up doing a couple of interviews with individuals, one in particular who was a gentleman who owned a bar in Los Angeles that had actually booked Van Halen for some period of time in 1975 and 1976 and one of the things that went on at that bar was a wet t-shirt contest. After I heard his stories, I was pretty intrigued and ended up just working on trying to talk to people who had either grown up with the brothers (Eddie and Alex) or with Roth or had hired Van Halen for backyard parties or had being competing musicians or any of those types of things. I just kept chipping away at it over a period of years. I would talk to someone and at the end of the conversation I would say “Those are great stories. It’s amazing you grew up around the block from Eddie and Alex. Who else should I talk to?” And they’d say, “you should talk to my friend Jimmy.” And I would to Jimmy and I’d say “Hey Jimmy, who should I talk to.” And he’d say “Talk to this girl Debbie. Her parents left town and then she threw a party in 1974.” So that’s sort of how it all transpired.
As I wrote and worked on it more and more, I really got focused on the fact that I wanted to write a book about the band’s beginnings. That I wasn’t going to write a book that was going to carry into the years when they became famous much at all. I just really wanted to do justice to the 4 or 5 years where they were sort of laboring in relative anonymity outside of Los Angeles where nobody knew who Van Halen was. But of course in LA, they had built quite a following.
Before we get into your book, can you give us a top 5 list of your favorite rock biographies?
1. Hammer of the Gods, by Stephen Davis, about Led Zeppelin
2. No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Jerry Hopkins about Jim Morrison
3. Moon, by Tony Flethcher about Who drummer Keith Moon
4. Kiss and Sell, by C.K. Lendt about KISS.
5. Room Full of Mirrors, by Charles Cross about Jimi Hendrix
The acknowledgement pages in the book say that you conducted over 200 interviews. After the first couple interviews that you mentioned earlier, was it difficult to find people to talk to?
As I did more of these interviews, I’d say around 80 of them, I had talked to a number of people from Pasadena, I had built credibility with those folks I had talked to. They knew I was serious about this and that I was actually going to write a book about really what their experiences were as kids, too. I mean that was the thing I really wanted to make clear to people. The book isn’t really just about Van Halen, I mean obviously it’s a book about Van Halen, but it’s also about what it was like to be on the scene back then, on what it was like to go to these parties. I wanted to use, and I feel like I had to use, the input of the people who were there and witnessed it. You know, like I’ve said to many people before, you have your memories of high school and I might say 5 or 6 things that I remember from high school very vividly. If you put 30 people into the room with me, who I went to high school with and we went around the room and said, “What’s your memory of Greg?” They would certainly have different memories. They would say I don’t remember that, but I remember this. And suddenly, you start to put the whole thing together.
So, when people started to understand that it was about capturing what it was like to be on the scene back then, I sort of always tried to couch it as you know, you guys kind of lived the Dazed and Confused movie with Van Halen in it, which I really think they did, it was the exact eras and the exact time. People got interested and excited about it and as time went on, I ended up moving to talk to people who were much more central to the band as an entity. I talked to Marshall Berle, who had managed them in 1977 and 78. I talk to Don Landee and Ted Templeman, the recording team behind the first record. I talked to other people who were promoters and former band members. These guys who were more integral to the story, but maybe had never had their story told in this way.
I noticed that you thanked only one member of the band, Michael Anthony. Was he a big help?
Well, he was the only one who would talk to me. (laughs) He did an interview with me and was gracious enough to say, hey, if you need any more help from me, hit me up. Out of all the guys in the band, he’s the one who, even though he’s the least famous of the band members, he’s the guy who has done the most interviews in the last 10 years or so. I felt like I had a lot of stuff online from Anthony, stuff from old magazines. So, I only talked to him that one time, but I did attempt to talk to Eddie and Alex and Dave. Eddie and Dave both turned me down through their intermediaries. And I never bothered with Alex, because I figured if it was a no from Eddie, it was a no from Alex too (laughs). I figured, even if he said yes, he was going to check with his brother, he would be irked. So, I didn’t bother with Alex after that.
It wasn’t a matter of not trying to thank those guys, it was just a matter of he was the only one who talked to me. (laughs) I would have gladly thanked them all.
I’m surprised that they wouldn’t talk because it is such a fascinating part of Rock n Roll history. There’s nothing negative in the book at all.
No, you know, what can I say? I don’t know why they said no. I have my own personal suspicions about why. I’m guessing that I was an unknown to them, I was not a guy who was writing the book with them and so maybe they felt as if they didn’t want to endorse a book that they had not been involved in the making of. I honestly don’t know. I will tell you, I just watched, I have young children so my movie watching has sharply declined as we watch more Barney here, but I just watched the first half of the Twisted Sister documentary last night and it’s great. People had told me it was really good and I was sort of struck by the parallel between that band’s story and Van Halen’s story. I think the same thing could have been done with my book. If those guys had participated, it would have been nice to have their voices in there more prominently but you know, over the years, they had done a lot of interviews, especially early on. Eddie has done a lot fewer interviews in the last 10 or 15 years than he used to do about the band’s history, but there was quite a bit of material from the first 10 years or so of the band’s history in the 70s and 80s where Eddie and Alex and Dave talked about the band’s history. So I was able to piece together enough stuff to bring their voices out. But there were questions that only Eddie and Dave could have answered and unfortunately couldn’t get those questions answered.
So, If it’s an unauthorized biography, are there certain things you can’t print or photos you can’t show?
No, if you think about political biographies, there are all kinds of book that are hatchet jobs on politicians, on the Clintons, on this person or another person. It’s a first amendment right to be able to express yourself through a book like that. The only concern that would have been obvious would be not to slander or libel them. And as you said, the book is largely a positive (laughs). You know, I’m a fan and I’m not going to apologize for being a fan of the band. I didn’t have a particular ax to grind with any of those guys. To me, I thought it was a remarkable story of persistence and breaking through at a time when, in my estimation, rock music wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it was 5 or 7 years before, or at least the type of music the band was playing. So, yeah, it’s an unauthorized biography which means they didn’t endorse it and so be it. Hopefully those guys will write their own books, or the brothers will at least.
You know, I remember when I was 12 or 13 years old and walking in on my brother playing Ice Cream Man from the first album. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I bought a guitar a week or two later. Do you have a similar experience regarding the first time you heard Van Halen?
I don’t. I’m almost positive I heard the Pretty Woman single on the radio but it didn’t really register with me. You know it was probably one of those things, driving in the car with my mom. I remember that it was definitely the Jump video. It was the MTV era obviously and I remember that was definitely the first time I heard the song. And then I went out and bought the Jump 45 and interestingly enough, as much as I liked Jump, I flipped it over and heard House of Pain. And that was what made me crazy for Van Halen. It was just that last song on 1984, maybe a throw away track to a lot of people. I just loved the guitar p[laying, the whole sound of the record. That track was so powerful. That really made me love Van Halen as a hard rock band. That was it for me.
Those non-single songs on Van Halen albums were always the best songs in my opinion.
Yeah, I know and that was it. Then I just started getting all the other records soon after that. I got Women and Children First. Actually I think it was 1984 then Diver Down and then Van Halen II and then Fair Warning. I bought them one at a time over a period of that summer or whatever.
I’ve seen Van Halen a bunch of times with Sammy Hagar but I’ve never seen them with Roth.
Yeah, I got lucky. I was able to scalp a ticket from a kid at school. The show was sold out. It was the 1984 tour in New Jersey. This kid that sat behind me in class had a ticket that his brother had bought him. And he wasn’t really into Van Halen so he sold me the ticket.
There were a couple of things in Van Halen Rising that really surprised me. One thing that really surprised me was a quote you put in the book from Eddie where he said he wanted to be a professional rock guitarist, not a rock star. To me, he is the definition of rock star. What do you think of that statement and what surprised you the most when you were putting the book together?
As I was putting together the story, that wasn’t as surprising to me because I kind of understood the Eddie and Alex primarily saw themselves as musicians. That’s the way they viewed themselves. Now, obviously, as time went on, I’m sure they understood that they had become “rock stars”, but they saw themselves as guys who were making a living making music, not guys who were trying to be rich and famous based on entertaining people.
But for me, I guess the biggest surprise was how much Roth did to steer the direction of the band in the early days. I think because the band broke up and because Roth kind of painted himself at times as “I’m all fucked up on stage”, excuse my language, “and drunk” and didn’t always present himself in his public persona as a guy with a big brain, I think that may have taken away from the understanding that it was Roth who shaped their musical vision in the early days particularly. So, I was surprised when I really got into it and started to hear more and more from people I interviewed, that Roth was the one, when the band was playing backyard parties, trying to get them to play less “heavy metal” music and more pop oriented music, or at least trying to put their spin on pop music, which is sort of what the Van Halen sound was. I think everybody understands the Eddie Van Halen wrote the songs, came up with the riffs, solos, these types of things, but I think Roth was seen as the guy who wrote the lyrics rather than the guy who actually had the vision for the music of the band. I don’t mean that to say he was the only one who had input into how the band turned out musically but I think Roth who really said to the brothers, “If we’re imitating Black Sabbath, we’re never going to get anywhere. We need to try to do something that sounds different and fresh.” I think that was Dave’s take on that. Whether he did it accidentally or on purpose, I’m not saying he had some grand vision, but he understood that danceable music was what was more marketable and that was the way they were going to get club gigs. And I think he understood that was the way to have a career was to have hits. Not to be like Grand Funk Railroad and hope that you could build a big following out of being kind of a jam band. I think Roth understood that that kind of music was passé by 1975 when Van Halen was trying to get their sound together.
I think Roth was a visionary though. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. In the book you even mention that when he was really young, he wanted to be a star.
Yeah, you’re right. Roth was the guy who, especially when things were going kind of sideways for the band, was the cheerleader and the one who was steering those guys forward. Eddie is a guy who, probably by his own admission, is not the most confident person on the face of the planet, and you had Roth who put up the front that he was. So you had this guy beating the drum for the band and he was able to steer the band through some difficult situations by keeping them focused on going forward no matter what happens. I don’t think his book does a fantastic job of making the case for his influence on the band. It’s in there, but you have to…If you’ve read Crazy From The Heat, it’s not the easiest book to read from front to back to get a straight out view of Roth’s role.
Another thing that really surprised me was…We’ve all heard stories about how much the band members hated each other at the end of the 1984 tour and how it was such a horrible situation to be in, but really it started in 1974 or 75.
Yeah, here’s what I would say, as an outsider who’s written a book, not as someone who has talked to those guys about this. I think that there was never really a friendship between Eddie and Dave. I think that’s pretty clear that there wasn’t a conventional friendship. It’s possible that Roth never had “normal friendships” with anybody. But looking at the band’s trajectory, Roth has said in interviews that he was expecting the phone to ring and they were gonna tell him he was out of the band. In some ways, there was a lack of appreciation for Roth from the other guys in the band, especially Eddie and Alex. I mean this to say, I want to make sure I say this the right way. I don’t think that they saw him as a musician or a musical person in the way they saw themselves, so there was underselling of Roth’s contribution. There was always this thinking, “well Dave’s our front man, he’s our singer, our entertainer”, so to speak but I don’t think they saw him in the same way they saw themselves.
Roth had a very different vision of what he wanted the music to be. He wanted it to be flashy, he wanted it to be a bigger, more grand vision for what Van Halen should be than the brothers had wanted. They would talk about the clothes that Roth was pushing them to wear early on, glitter and platform shoes and all this other stuff that, if you look at any band at the time, was perfectly appropriate. Everyone was wearing that stuff…Elton John, the Stones. So Roth was right on target. But to those guys, they were like, “this is weird, this is stupid.” They never really saw eye to eye on things, yet each person got their own ingredients in there and it became Van Halen.
And, like the title of your book says, they saved heavy metal.
Yeah, that’s something that a lot of people get hung up on when they read the book. For me, it was all about those guys reinventing hard rock, heavy metal, whatever you want to call it, at a time when it was not in a strong position. Looking at those guys, coming up with a hit album in an era when all those other types of music, like disco, funk, punk rock, the beginnings of new wave, were all seeming to be much stronger, was a really amazing achievement. To have sold 2 million records when no one at Warner Brothers, from what I understand, outside of Ted Templeman and a couple other people, had enormous faith in Van Halen’s ability to sell records, is quite a testament to that sound: the combination of Eddie’s guitar playing and the riffs, what I call the trappings of heavy metal, along with the pop song sensibility that Roth brought to that. And Templeman too. They kind of understood, you know, make it sound pop friendly, that was the key.
You’ve had some great reviews for the book. Billy Sheehan, who of course played with Roth, posted that it’s the best Van Halen book he’s ever read. That’s actually how I found out about Van Halen Rising.
Yeah, that was nice of him to do that.
Are you surprised by that kind of thing? To me it sounds like it was just a hobby to start out with.
Yeah, it’s funny. I gotta tell you, Ken, it went from being this thing that I was working on for myself, because I was interested in it, and I was going to try to do something small with it, maybe write an article. And then it became this thing that I felt I had to write this book. I had this big conversation with my wife. She was always supportive of it, but I had to make it clear to her that I had to write this book and I had to get it out. So, obviously to have someone like Billy Sheehan say that was incredibly flattering and I was just thrilled. The response that the book generated surprised me. I mean books come out all the time on bands, so I didn’t know how the book was going to do. I thought that I was delivering something that was different than other Van Halen books and I thought that was important. But when people like Billy Sheehan and Kirk Hammett, who was like, “I wanna read this book”, I never heard what he thought of the book (laughs). I never heard back from Kirk Hammett. But to have guys like that read the book or say they want to read the book, it blew my mind. I grew up seeing those guys in concert and idolizing them, so yeah, that was incredibly flattering.
To me it was just my own obsessive nature to want to finish the book and give those guys their due. That was the real thing that I wanted to say to you. I was of the opinion, and as I tried to write in the beginning of the book, that some of these other bands really had gotten a lot more credit historically that Van Halen has gotten. And I think Van Halen, if you listen to music of the 80s, was as influential as some of these other bands, like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. We can all look at 90s grunge music and say, Soundgarden wouldn’t sound like Soundgarden if it wasn’t for Black Sabbath. Well, if you listen to all those bands that came out in the 80s, even pop songs like (Michael Jackson’s) Beat It, even songs that Eddie didn’t play on, the guitar solos all sound like Eddie Van Halen guitar solos. That was very much Van Halen’s influence spreading over that decade. So I wanted to give the guys their due as a band that deserved to be more than just a where are they now/rock n roll feud sideshow, which I think at times it becomes when things were going really badly for the band at different times. 15 years ago, there was no lead singer, and just constant fighting with the members. I think that they were a bit under-appreciated in the canon of bands, like The Who and Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. I’m not trying to say that Van Halen was their equal, but I felt that they deserved to be in the conversation of bands that really had a big influence on rock music.
Yeah for sure, they were the Zeppelin of the late 70s and early 80s in my opinion.
Yeah, I think the breakup derailed some of that stuff and they just became a different band. They were very successful with Hagar, but it became a different band. The sound changed and that derailed their historical legacy.
Speaking of Billy Sheehan, you recently wrote a piece for Guitar World for the 30th anniversary of Roth’s Eat Em and Smile album, which featured Sheehan and Steve Vai.
Yeah, that was a lot of fun.
What did you learn about that when you were doing your research?
You know, I don’t think I did enough with this in the article, as it was already long and obviously, you’ve got to watch the length a little bit. One of the things that was really interesting to me was that the movie itself, before Vai got involved, had a very different vision for what the whole thing was going to be. It was gonna be, as I talk about in the article, a movie, and Roth had purchased songs or was going to basically draw on people like Kim Mitchell, Aerosmith, Nile Rodgers, Steve Lukather, who Roth had gotten songs from. So the soundtrack was going to be more like a traditional movie soundtrack, where they’d have an interlude by Nile Rodgers, and the Roth singing a song that Steve Lukather wrote or that Kim Mitchell wrote or something . It was going to be a different sort of soundtrack. For me, that was really interesting to think about how, once Roth got the players together, and once it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a movie, he could just do a more straightforward rock album. But also, i think, a lot of those songs, Goin’ Crazy, That’s Life, these sorts of things, were supposed to be in the movie. So if you look at the script you can kind of see, there’s a version of the script kicking around on the web, how those songs would have been in the movie. That’s interesting too, that as the movie script evolved, and as Roth and Sheehan and Vai wrote songs, these songs were being plugged into the movie. There are all these lost song ideas that Roth had, that were scrapped by the change in the plan, because the movie collapsed in late 1985.
Did you find out in your interviews if they are going to do anything special for this anniversary. I know they had a show in LA that got shut down because too many people showed up.
Yeah, in so many words, they all said they were into it. I mean Sheehan, (Matt) Bissonnette, and Vai. But again, it was always up to Dave. Bissonnette, super nice guy, very much wanted to be clear that, look, I don’t call the shots on this. Dave calls me and Dave wants to do it, hey, I’d be into it and I’d make time to do it. These guys are all busy but they all said they would be in. From recording a couple songs, Sheehan said let’s get Ted Templeman. We’ll do a couple of songs. Kind of imagining what it was going to be like. Of course, that’s all Dave’s call. I think it’s Roth’s move. I’m a little bit surprised that nothing’s happened, but I do know that Vai is very busy, I think for the rest of the year. I’m sure all those guys are busy, but from what I remember, if you look at Vai’s schedule, it’s pretty packed for the rest of the year, so maybe next year. Maybe they’re working on that, but God, I think it would be so fun if they would do something to honor the legacy. And I think that’s what Vai especially said to me, I just want to honor the legacy of the band. Just do it to say hey, it was great back then when we did it, let’s get it one last time while we still have the juice to do it.
Back to the book, it brought me back to a time when I would walk downtown in Ottawa and see posters and flyers taped to lampposts advertising band and venues. That was obviously a much different time that the days of Van Halen starting out. These days we have Facebook and Twitter. These days, there seem to be too many bands and many of them survive on playing small venues. Van Halen was selling 1500-300 tickets as an unsigned band. Do you think this will ever happen again?
You know, I don’t think it ever will happen again like it happened for those bands. I think the model that was in place through the 90s was, you had to get a record deal to be able to have your music heard. Bands were always angling towards that so you built a following in a local area to get the attention of record companies. That’s what Twisted Sister was doing. I think because you can get your record out on Soundcloud and Youtube, and that’s all good obviously, there’s not a need to build a local following. You can go right for the Youtube following , not the geographical area. That said, I think one of the other issues right now is there are so many bands, as a fan, it’s impossible to keep up with all the bands. I feel like I’m overwhelmed by all the new bands. I think the old model had a lot of flaws and obviously it didn’t mean you were going to get good bands at the end of it, but there was also this pipeline. The products were rolled out at a rate that you could consume as a consumer. It’s almost like if everyone was making cars in their backyard and putting them out on the street. You’d be like, look at all these new cars that I’ve never seen before. Where you had Chevy, Ford and Chrysler putting out the cars, you had the ability to embrace and look at and select.
I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to the way it was with that type of thing, because I don’t think there’s really a need, necessarily, to build local followings. That said, in a place like Austin or some of these other places where there is a scene so to speak, I could imagine that having enthusiastic fans, as you are building a following online as well, can’t do anything but help especially if people are going to come see you live and see your fans going crazy.
A lot of these bands have 200-300,000 likes yet their playing shows in small bars across the US.
I just saw Lamb Of God, Clutch and Corrosion of Conformity here in Tulsa and they probably played for about 2000 people. But it was a great show. People were into it. And it was clear that those bands, for them, that’s what you do in this market. You team up and you tour and you then play your European Festivals and your Heavy Montreal and some of these other festivals to get the bigger shows. Especially for heavy bands, I think that’s the thing too. Heavy metal is not as popular as it used to be. Maybe it’s more underground or maybe my view of heavy metal is narrowing. Black metal is obviously a lot more popular now than it was in the 80s. (laughs) But that’s the thing. We haven’t seen a band break through in the same sort of way. Now things come around and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. If a band, say Ghost, becomes a massive band, it could lead to a revival, get us back to the old days. But it’s a market where there are a lot of bands and that’s the trick too. I think it’s probably hard to get your music heard and to make waves when you have so many bands.
So, what’s next for you?
Well, I am currently working on another book. It’s a Van Halen related book that I would like to have out in the next couple of years. I’m trying to juggle a couple other writing projects, doing some stuff for Guitar World and I’m going to write an article for LA Weekly. But I’ve got something cooking, but since I don’t have a book deal for it yet, I just don’t want to announce something prematurely. But it will be Van Halen related and I think it’ll be cool for people to check out.
Looking forward to it. Best of luck.