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Van Halen insider recalls the ‘intense, mad genius’ of Eddie Van Halen

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When guitar great Eddie Van Halen died last week, after the musician’s two-decade cancer battle, the world lost a tireless ‘mad genius,’ according to photographer and filmmaker Andrew Bennett, who lived with the guitarist in 2006 and 2007.

Bennett’s self-published coffee table book of photographs and text chronicling many of his adventures in and out of the studio with Van Halen, “Eruption in the Canyon: 212 Days and Nights with the Genius of Eddie Van Halen,” was released earlier this year.

The interview with Bennett for this story aired on BIG 104 FM in April of this year.

Bennett’s introduction to Van Halen’s world came about in a most unusual way. His success as a music video producer had filtered its way toward Eddie Van Halen, whom he says woke him from a sound sleep one night in the spring of 2004.

Within an hour of receiving an introductory 3:00 am phone call, Bennett was sharing a bottle of wine with Eddie Van Halen at the guitarist’s 5150 studio constructed on a hill behind the Van Halen family home in the Studio City section of Los Angeles.

“One of the first questions Eddie asked me was ‘What do you know about my band?’” Bennett recalls.

When Bennett honestly responded that he was only aware of the band’s No. 1 hit song from 1984, “Jump,” he says Eddie’s response was “Andrew, we’re going to get along just fine.”

Bennett says he observed Eddie Van Halen closely as the indefatigable guitarist pursued perfection in the studio.

“I’d been around musicians but I’d never seen anyone go into this kind of trance when they played the guitar,” Bennett said. “This is kind of a cheesy comparison but it was like watching Michael Jordan when he’s focused in a game and driven to win. I realized right away that there was this kind of mad genius I was watching.”

Bennett began filming Van Halen recording sessions in 2004, when the band once again featured Sammy Hagar on lead vocals. Hagar had rejoined Van Halen in 2003 after a seven-year break. He’d put in 11 years as Van Halen’s frontman following original lead singer David Lee Roth’s 1985 departure.

Bennett had the unique opportunity to observe how two versions of Van Halen interacted and how Eddie Van Halen’s mood changed accordingly.

He vividly recalls Eddie Van Halen’s temperament as “intense” and “aggressive” in 2004, and says the musician’s mood and outlook lightened considerably by 2006 when he brought his son Wolfgang into the fold as Van Halen’s bassist, a position that had been held by Michael Anthony since 1974.

“Eddie was having some issues with Mike and things weren’t going swimmingly with Sammy in the studio,” Bennett remembers.

When Wolfgang Van Halen joined his father’s band in 2006, at age 15, Bennett says he saw the happy side of Eddie’s personality.

“It was like the clouds broke and the sun shone down on 5150,” Bennett remembers. “All of a sudden, Eddie is smiling again and having fun in the studio. To watch him play and look over at his son with a big smile, it was like seeing a new happy side of Eddie, but man that work ethic did not go away.”

It wasn’t unusual, Bennett says, for Eddie Van Halen to work in his studio for 18 hours a day.

“Even teenaged Wolfgang would say things like ‘Are we done for the day?’ and Eddie would turn to him and say ‘We have three more songs to do, get up!’” Bennett recalls.

The drive to create new music was an unceasing force in Eddie Van Halen’s life, and it has resulted in an overwhelming amount of unreleased recorded material, Bennett says, adding that the band’s archive is practically bursting with unheard music residing on multiple recording medium.

“When you spend that much time in the studio every day of the week, you’re going to compile quite the collection of music,” Bennett said. “The shelves are lined with old Ampex tape boxes going back to the reel-to-reel days, and there’s tons of music recorded digitally.”

According to Van Halen’s longtime manager, Irving Azoff, the guitarist’s family will soon be going through that mountain of unreleased music to try to get a handle on what material is there.

Azoff told concert industry trade publication Pollstar last week that Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, and brother, Van Halen drummer Alex, will soon go into 5150 to begin the process of auditioning tapes and digital media in an attempt to ascertain whether or not it may be suitable for release.

According to a 2015 interview with the guitarist, the entire recorded archive had been transferred digitally but those files were later lost in a hard drive crash.

“The computer took a dump on us,” he quipped at the time, adding that he was hesitant to go through the process of transferring everything to digital once again because “the only person that can do that is me, because nobody knows what I like.”

Bennett believes that the absence of archival Van Halen material in the marketplace lies squarely with the fact that Eddie did not want people to hear anything he felt was less than perfect.

“Eddie’s a perfectionist and isn’t going to release a song until he believes it’s absolutely flawless,” he said.

Sadly, Bennett’s personal relationship with Eddie Van Halen ended in litigation. First, after he claimed he didn’t receive the full payment he and the guitarist agreed upon, and again in 2018 when Bennett released some of his video footage of Van Halen at work at 5150.

Despite the sourness that marked the end of their association, Bennett looks back at those Van Halen years with awe at the access he’d been granted, and the incredible stories that resulted from it, many of which are described in rich detail throughout his book.

Andrew Bennett’s Van Halen book is available at www.EruptionintheCanyon.com.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 October 2020 08:12

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