Remembering Al and Ed - Four Months in 1996
1978. Montreal. I was the bass player in a band called The PinUps. We played all around town, and in rural Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. We were gonna be rockstars. We really lived, ate and breathed music – it was all we did – along with checking out other bands, and hearing what was new coming down the pipeline.
The first time we heard Van Halen was a mind blower. NO ONE sounded like that – NO ONE. The fact that David Lee Roth wasn’t much of a singer didn’t even factor into it – because the CRUSHING combo of Alex, Eddie and Mike made things like singing an afterthought. They were the MIGHTIEST of the mighty – absolutely ploughing all the wannabe’s to the curb with their insane power and charisma, topped off with the swaggering machismo of Dave. It was just unstoppable. It changed everything. The heart of rock n’ roll switched it’s beat. And the blazing beauty of Eddie’s guitar playing flash froze itself onto the soul of a generation in an instant.
We went to see them live, 3 shows in a row. We were far back in the stadium’s- in the nosebleed seats, cos that’s all we could afford. It didn’t even matter. They were like a steam roller, a mythical creature of epic proportions – absolutely catalyzing the crowd into a single, triumphant entity. Dave was hilariously funny, ad libbing his assless chaps ass off. The fact that he used the same script every night was one of my first lessons in show biz. It seemed so natural, every night – but he said the same shit! Mike was a pulsating giant on the bass, and he sang way better than Dave ever could, but no one cared. Alex was … he was like a Sensei Drum King – a master of flashing cymbals and totem toms- a whirling warrior of rhythm, driving the whole entity with supreme authority. And then … there was Eddie. Transcendent, epic, legend in the making, guitar god, trailblazer, artist, machine … just indescribably, wildly, unthinkably powerful. He changed everything, that Eddie.
Cut to 18 years later, 1996. I was at home in my house in the San Fernando Valley, and the phone rang. These were the days before cell phones. I answered, and there was a very strange, covert, secret agent type character on the other end of the line, asking if I was indeed, Sass. ‘Yes’, I replied – ‘who are you?’. ‘Never mind who I am – just get in your car and come to this address – we need a good singer to help us out’.
The address was located about a 5 minute drive away from me, up Coldwater Canyon. I hung up the phone and thought to myself – who the hell was that – what a weirdo – and there is no way I’m going to meet some stranger on my own and how did he get my number?
Meanwhile, the phone rings again, and it’s Ray Daniels, Rush’s manager, calling. He asks me ‘did you just get a call from Al?’ I’m like .. who is Al? And yes, I just got a call from a strange man who wouldn’t tell me his name. Ray sighs … ‘that was Al’ … I answered ‘AL WHO? WHO IS AL?????’ ‘Alex Van Halen!’ he said, as if I was a moron – like, who else would it be? I was speechless. How on EARTH did Alex Van Halen know me, know my phone number, and why did he want me to come over???? I couldn’t believe it. However, Ray assured me that it was indeed Alex, and that he and Ed were writing some new music and wanted someone to come and sing with them to see what it would be like with vocals on it. They had just fired Sammy, or Sammy had left, or I don’t know what, as I wasn’t up on the gossip – being in my own little world, but, bottom line was – this was VAN HALEN, teenage heroes of mine, and I was going to go and see what they wanted from me.
Pulling up to 5150, through the gate and up the driveway, past the house and around the corner was a surreal moment. I think it was Ed’s tech, Scotty, who came out to greet me, and he took me into the hallowed walls of the studio. The only person there was Alex, who was super cool, already hilarious and very welcoming. …
Al was a great guy to hang out with – quirky, funny, intense, and quick to anger, as well as laughter. We would get into these great philosophical discussions about the nature of reality and the future of mankind – and he was always teaching me about ‘showbiz’ and fame – some things he was intimately familiar with. We used to go out to dinner after a long day of hanging out at the studio, listening to music and talking, and the first thing he would tell the host is – ‘we need a table next to the back wall so we can keep an eye on who is coming into the joint’, because, deep down, Alex was profoundly suspicious of the outside world. He operated in a super- secretive, clandestine, almost text book spy like manner when we were out in public. I honestly don’t blame him – fame can really put a weird twist on things – and I don’t know how much of it he was acting out for his captivated pal – me – but he sure was hilarious, especially as he got more into the bottle and more out of his armour.
In those days, the boys were publicly on the wagon – but privately, it was a different story. I think that was a large part of my role in their lives for those four months – I was entrusted with the beer and cigarette runs down to the supermarket on the corner of Ventura and Coldwater. It was a Hughes Market in those days – it’s changed since. One evening, or should I say morning – it was about 2:30 AM – Ed asked me to do a run, and I protested, saying that I wasn’t comfortable going on my own at that time – so he sighed, and said, ‘ok, I’ll come with you’. I couldn’t believe that he was actually going to do it – but Ed was a really kind guy, and he wanted to show me what was truly going on, I guess. I mean, I thought I knew, but … little did I know.
We hopped in the car, drove down the road, and went into the empty store. Ed seemed kind of relieved and happy to see no one around, so we were walking around, checking out the snacks and the selections of food items – when suddenly, this guy appeared next to us, with a disposable camera – saying ‘Hey, man – Eddie Van Halen!!! Can I get a photo with you, dude?’ Don’t forget, its 2:30 in the morning … all I can think of is where the hell did this guy come from and how did he recognize Ed in sweat pants, a raincoat and baseball cap? Ed looked at me and winked, and then proceeded to pose good naturedly for the photo, and sign the guy’s arm etc – and within minutes, we were surrounded by people asking for pics and autographs. This was BEFORE cell phones, before cell phone cameras – I have NO idea to this day how this all happened, and happened so fast – we had to pretty much run out of the store to the car to get away from them all.
Once in the car, heart racing, feeling an emotional range of anxiety, fear, guilt, and excitement – I glanced at Ed, who was staring out of the windshield as I sped the car up the canyon like a REAL double O 7 – he seemed to be off in some reverie, so I didn’t say anything, I just kept driving.
As we pulled up to the studio, he looked at me just before he opened the door – and said quietly, ‘now you know why I don’t go to the store very often’. It was a real eye opener for me…. for the first time, I realized how this man, this icon, this rockstar who seemed to be living in a rarefied world of greatness, was actually just a human being, and the world that he had to navigate was a whole lot more isolated and lonely that I could ever have imagined.
I don’t mean that he didn’t have close friends and family – of course he did – but his life was very confined and limited – he had to think before he walked out the door every single time – he had no physical freedom. He found his freedom in his craft, and now that he is free of his physical form, he has left that promise for all us through the music he created while he was here.
The first brother I met was Alex. He had always been more ‘behind the scenes’ in my eyes, although in fact, he was behind the drums – and they towered over him … you could never really see him. So, although he was still an intimidating character to me, it wasn’t too bad, because in person he was not a big man. He was quite slight, actually – wiry, and brimming with a crackling nervous energy. He was edgy, wise-cracking, full of piss and vinegar, and I instantly loved him. There was something about him that seemed familiar to me, like a big brother, and for some reason, he took a big, bright shine to me. We instantly got along like a house on fire, and I rapidly forgot that he was who he was. By the time Ed finally came up to the studio from the house, Al and I were already old pals.
I remember Al saying ‘hey, come meet Sass’, and turning around, I saw Ed. A completely surreal moment. There he was, in the flesh, the astonishingly brilliant musical – wizard that me and ALL my friends had admired from afar – in all his glittering, guitar god glory – there he was … a simple … man? No lightning bolts? No fire – balls? No thunder? Nope … just ….a guy. A quiet, haunted looking guy. He shuffled over, shook my hand, lit a smoke, sat down, picked up a guitar and started casually playing some lines.I have no idea what was so earth shattering about that – I’ve seen a million guitar players play a million lines – but THIS was the the mythical Eddie Van Halen. I was more or less speechless. I didn’t know what to say or how to act – I was literally dumbfounded. Al started jabbering away about I don’t even remember what, Ed kept playing, and I slowly came back to earth and realized that this was just a person, a human being.
I swear to god it must have taken me about 30 minutes to rediscover my self and behave like a normal person. You have to understand that Ed was a personification of my childhood dreams – dreams of knowing and working with the people who I looked up to as a young musician. This, from the human point of view, however, is both a blessing and a curse. This reaction of mine was precisely the reason Ed couldn’t go anywhere or do anything ‘normal’. I mean, if I couldn’t behave normally around him – and I had been around a lot of ‘famous’ people, not to mention experiencing it myself to some degree – then imagine how much tougher it would it be for someone who wasn’t even in that rarefied world – who only saw how it appeared from the outside?
As the days wore on, the three of us would sit around and discuss music, the music business, people we knew, and the state of their band. They were very angry in those days – they had a lot of fury about the singers they had worked with – but it was a natural phase that anyone goes through after a break up. They seemed to be way more interested in talking about music than actually playing it. I was writing songs for my next record at that time, so they would listen and critique the songs. There was one song in particular that Ed would ask to hear over and over. I don’t know what it was that got him about that song, but he would make me play it over and over.
One night I arrived at the studio late, and Ed buzzed me through the gate, told me to hang tight and that he’d be up in a minute. I don’t remember where Al was – but I do remember just hanging out for about an hour or so, when suddenly, Ed burst through the door in sweats and a raincoat, his hair all wild, looking for all the world like a rockstar Einstein. He was in a super intense mood … “Sass – play that song of yours – the one about I don’t know who I am – play it!!!” I put the song on, a little disturbed by his disheveled appearance, and he seemed to go into a trance. He just stood there in front of me, eyes closed, swaying to the music … and all of a sudden, tears started to roll down his cheeks. ‘Sass!! Play it again!!!!’ I was dumbfounded. Slowly, he reached into the pocket of his raincoat, and pulled out … a burrito??? I swear to god, he pulled out a fucking 7-11 burrito – and, eyes still closed, tears streaming down his face, reached into the other pocket and pulled out a packet of hot sauce. I am not kidding. I didn’t know whether to laugh – or cry with him. I finally ended up doing both. That man had some deep pockets.
– For all the wonderful people who are asking WHAT IS THE SONG THAT MADE ED CRY???? Well, strangely enough, this is it. I don’t know what it was .. and I will never know – but here it is – the burrito, hot sauce and tears song.
I now have to reveal the disappointing and sad truth that there are no recordings of me and the Van Halens that exist – for the simple reason that we never actually recorded anything together! Not only that, there are no photos – for the precise reason that those were the days before the ubiquitous camera in everyone’s pocket, and the last thing I wanted to do was ask for photos with them, for obvious reasons. The only thing I have to show from that time is a cassette tape that Ed gave me of some noodling he and Al were doing – he told me to write some words and melodies over it, but I never did because I honestly found it too disjointed- it had no structural form – it was just all over the place.
I was going back and forth between LA and Canada during those months – I had just met my now husband , Derek, and I was touring and getting ready to make a new album, so I was a little scattered, myself. Al and Ed were not the type of people to grab a bull by the horns, so to speak. They were far more ethereal and artsy – I don’t know who it was that got them to settle down and focus long enough to actually make records – but it didn’t appear to be something they did on their own volition. They were very hurt and upset about Sammy in those days, so we spent a lot of time talking about that – or rather, they talked, and I listened. They would argue a lot between themselves – it got heated on occasion, to the point where I got a little scared, but Scotty said ‘ahhh don’t worry about it, they’ll be hugging each other in a minute, you watch’ … and of course, he was right.
One night, Al decided he wanted to go out for sushi – Ed never came out with us for the same reasons I have been talking about all along. Al was less recognizable, so it was a bit easier for him – I’m not saying people didn’t know who he was, but it wasn’t as radical as Eddie. He had more freedom of movement. So, Al and me jumped in the car – he’d already consumed more than a couple, shall we say, so he was in rare form, cracking jokes, turning the radio up to eleven, sticking his feet on the dashboard, yelling out the window – absolutely humiliating, but still, kind of funny. We stopped to pick up my friend to come with us – I ran up to her apartment to get her, and left Al waiting in the car.
We must have taken a few minutes, because by the time we came back down, we were greeted by the sight of Al pissing all over the cars parked behind ours. My girlfriend FREAKED – ‘those are my neighbors cars, you idiot – stop being such a fucking rock star!!!!’ Al seemed quite taken aback by her outburst, and rather meekly folded himself back into the car, but within minutes he was back on fire – back to his zany, delightful self – balls to the wall and decorum to the wind!
He was always telling me that I needed to marry Derek, who, in fact, I did end up marrying – he would always tell me ‘I know a good guy when I meet one, Sass.’ He followed this up by sending me a copy of ‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom’ by Baltasar Gracian, a 17th century tome on how to live a good life – and then he told me I was lucky he hadn’t sent me ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, even though he thought that might be more appropriate. Al had a mischievous and cheeky sense of humor – he was the protective older brother type, and that sure seemed to be the dynamic between him and Ed that I observed in our time together. They fought like demons, but the familial bond and love between them was more powerful than any marriage I had ever seen.
Ed was one of the most kind, generous people you would ever want to meet. He could be very funny, just like his brother, but I think he was a pretty shy soul, at least, he seemed that way to me – very involved in his own internal world, yet very kind and giving all at the same time. I remember him calling Derek, who was still my boyfriend then, because I had told him that Derek was a guitar player. The look on Derek’s face when I told him that Ed was on the line and wanted to speak to him was priceless. Ed talked to him for about an hour, and then shipped him one of his signature Peavey amps a few weeks later, for free. That’s the kind of person he was- I’ve heard stories from other people about how he called them out of the blue to chat, and just by doing that he was able to bring such joy and inspiration to others.
It’s funny, you never think the last time you see someone is actually going to be the last time.
The last time I saw Ed in person, was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. The old Four Seasons Hotel, I should say. It’s long gone, converted into condos, as all precious landmarks eventually seem to do. We were there with our two kids, visiting Al and Stine, along with all the Van Halen kids, and Ed was on a tear. I don’t think he was doing particularly well, but he was making the best of it. They had just played the Toronto stop on the 2004 tour, and we had taken the kids to see the show – they stood at the sound desk all night, surrounded by hundreds of true Van Halen fans, all flashing the metal horns and jumping and swaying to the music – it was the first loud rock concert the kids had ever been to, and they were completely carried away by the power of it all.
We were back at the hotel for a dinner in Al and Stine’s suite, and the kids were going crazy, burning off some energy, running all over the hallway in full on childlike joy – and Ed was right there with them, chasing them all over the place – and right into the elevator – myself, Derek, Ed, and all the kids, including our then 6 year old daughter, Stella – who came flailing into the elevator with the other kids, all out of breath and sparkling with laughter and joy, when she spotted Ed. She marched right up to him, stared right up at him, and said, while waggling her finger in his face – ‘you play weally good – you were weally good!’.
I’ll never forget the look on Ed’s face – complete surprise, and then the most wonderful gentle tenderness as he recognized the innocence that the compliment came from. ‘Why, thank you very much, Miss’ was his reply. It was a surreal moment.
From then on, Al and I stayed in touch fairly frequently for about a year or two. Eventually, though, life started to take us all in different directions, as it always does, and it became more and more difficult to maintain our relationship, especially long distance – and especially when you have young families and intense careers going on. It’s a damn shame, because I really love Al. And now that Ed, his brother, band mate, muse and soul mate is gone, I cannot imagine how he must be feeling. My heart goes out to him and to the rest of Van Halen family, along with the legions of fans that were there through thick and thin, through different singers and lineups, through all the years of silence and rumours…
Ed was an original, a glorious fireball comet that shot across the musical soundscape, blasting a new trajectory that was followed and imitated in an infinite myriad of ways. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know him even a little bit, but his genius touched me and so many others in a way that is difficult to articulate.
Godspeed, Eddie, and may you fly free. We’ll see you on the other side. 🙏❤️