In the aftermath of virtuoso guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s death following a long battle with throat cancer, there’s renewed attention and speculation concerning his famously rocky relationship with Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. How could two men who made such magic together in the studio and onstage have so much animosity toward one another over the course of more than 40 years?
There is no stereotypical band origin story here in which young friends came together for the love of the music. According to Van Halen News Desk, Roth was only invited to join the group because, unlike Eddie Van Halen and drummer Alex Van Halen, he came from money and already owned his own sound system. Eddie was the band’s lead singer, as well as guitarist. He didn’t have the best voice, but he didn’t love Roth’s voice either. Apparently, the sound system was too much for him to resist. Roth joined the group in 1973 and immediately tried to change things up.
While most of Van Halen loved and wanted to play straight-up heavy metal, Roth was also a fan of Motown, the Beach Boys, and funk. The radio-friendly metal of Van Halen would have been impossible without what each had to offer: Eddie Van Halen with his stunning finger-tapping technique, guitar-hero riffs, and serious gift for songwriting. And David Lee Roth with his over-the-top charisma, showmanship, and vocals. They were both, arguably, the best at what they did, which perhaps contributed to the friction between them.
According to Associate Professor of History and Van Halen scholar Greg Renoff, Roth and Van Halen had entirely different ideas about how to be in a rock band and how to succeed in the music business.
“The Van Halens were content making good money playing shows in the Pasadena area that they would promote themselves, [while] Roth pushed them to audition at clubs and expand their reach.”
Roth also wanted the band to look more like rock stars and glam up their concerts with stage clothes. This push and pull of personalities and musical philosophies ending up defining the band’s sound and image.
Renoff further elaborated on the group’s chemistry…
“Of course they never would have made it without Eddie writing the songs and without their talents. But Roth was the guy who said ‘Look at me!'”
Throughout the years, both Van Halen and Roth always spoke openly about their differences with each other. When Roth appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, he described his early relationship with the Van Halen brothers as…
“Crosstown adversaries [who] hated each other with a vengeance.”
Roth went on to summarize the Van Halen style as…
“Artisanal super-small-batch Scotch craft.”
If we’re running with that metaphor, one could say that Roth is a giant frozen banana daiquiri topped with several maraschino cherries, a few cocktail umbrellas, a novelty silly straw, and an extra floater of rum.
When Roth appeared on The Opie and Anthony Show in 2013, he mentioned that there was tension between him and Van Halen from the very beginning.
In a 2015 Billboard interview, Eddie Van Halen made a few cutting remarks of his own about Roth.
“There are four people in this band, and three of us like rock ‘n’ roll. And one of us likes dance music.”
Van Halen went on to say…
“Roth’s perception of himself is different than who he is in reality. We’re not in our 20s anymore. We’re in our 60s. Act like you’re 60.”
Despite their musical and personal differences, Van Halen admitted, however, that the fans’ expectations included Roth.
“I think it’s now built into people’s DNA, that it just won’t be Van Halen if it’s not Roth’s voice.”
Of course, now there will absolutely be no Van Halen without Eddie Van Halen. The band toured for the last time in 2015 and in July of 2020, Roth told the New York Times…
“I don’t know that Eddie is ever really going to rally for the rigors of the road again. I don’t even want to say I’ve waited — I’ve supported for five years.”
Roth responded to the news of Van Halen’s death with a tweet that encapsulated their uncomfortable but undeniable bond, writing simply:
“What a Long Great Trip It’s Been.”
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