Steve Perry Remembers Eddie Van Halen: ‘He Changed My Life’
On October 6th, Steve Perry got a text from his recording engineer that read, “Oh man, Eddie Van Halen. I can’t believe it.” The former Journey frontman had no idea what he was talking about. “I don’t watch the news anymore,” he says. “And so I picked up the phone and said, ‘What’s going on?’” When he heard the tragic news that the guitarist died after a long battle with cancer, Perry’s mind instantly went back to 1978 when Van Halen opened for Journey for eight weeks on the Infinity tour. He phoned up Rolling Stone to tell stories from that legendary tour and to reveal that he got a call from Eddie after David Lee Roth left the band in 1985 that could have changed rock history in a profound way. These are Perry’s words.
I am convinced that Journey became something we would not have become had we not spent that time together with Van Halen in 1978. That band showed up as an opener for my first tour as a frontman with the band after we recorded the first record I ever made with the them, Infinity. That record was the one with “Lights” and “Wheel in the Sky” and all that.
In Los Angeles, Van Halen had been playing the Whisky, Gazzarri’s, and Starwood right off the strip. Warner Bros. signed them and they made a record with them, the first Van Halen record.
Our manager, Herbie Herbert, decided to take us to the headliner status at that time and said we needed a good opener. He heard about Van Halen and he got them to open that tour. It was about eight weeks of 3,000-seater proscenium-stage gigs. If my memory serves me, it was Van Halen opening, Ronnie Montrose second, and then Journey. This went from the beginning of March to the end of April. We had a good eight weeks where we were all together touring, staying in hotels.
That band was so on fire and Eddie Van Halen was the driving, demonstrative force of that group. The DNA was so strong musically between him and his brother Alex that when they played just on their own together, they sounded liked Led Zeppelin meets punk music. They were truly that powerful.
Then you had David Lee Roth who was a real showman and a real fun guy to be entertained by. And you had Michael Anthony on bass who had this real high, literally operatic tenor voice. Eddie sang beautifully too. They were loaded with what they needed to come out there and do what they did.
Every fuckin’ night I’d stand on the side of the stage and watch their set. I would bring [Journey guitarist] Neal [Schon] and say, “Check this out.” Neal was blown away by Eddie. I’m a drummer and I was blown away by Eddie and Alex. I knew the lock they had going.
There is something that cannot be duplicated when you have DNA in your band. The Everly Brothers had kind of a harmony that the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, in documentaries I’ve seen, admit that they cannot get close to. It was something they had within each other that was deeper than just musicality. It was DNA. Alex and Eddie had that.
Eddie was just so amazing. I was so respectful, but at the same time envious at what he had and what he was contributing and what they had together. Eddie was a big, big driving force in that band, but that whole band was a force to be reckoned with, believe me. Following them was a learning experience.
Back then, rock was about competition and rivalry. It’s like the San Francisco Giants playing the [Los Angeles] Dodgers. There is a rivalry. There is competition. Those two teams bring the best out of each other when they play each other. Back in those days, the headliner was always going to be challenged by the opener. The opener wants to be the winner of the evening. They want to come home victorious against the headliner, no matter who it is. There was competition. It was pro sports.
Somewhere along the line, as soon as laptops came around and everybody could play with a click trick and enhanced tracks from their albums and extra background vocals, extra guitar parts, and extra ambient, floating things, everything changed. The drummer gets the click track with his headphones, everyone plays with the drummer, and the arrangement is locked because he’s playing with the laptop. Nothing moves like it used to because of that. Everything has been neutralized to a playing field called a grid and beats per minute.
Back then, you walked out and you played. The question was, “Who is kicking whose ass?” It was that simple. And every band would be challenging the others, and every band would learn a little something from the others, if not a lot.
People think that Eddie is the most amazing guitar player lead-wise and he is. But nobody talks about his absolute definitive rhythm pocket. When you start a song [hums the riff to “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”]. It was just so definitive by itself. The band hadn’t even come in yet. You hear all the instruments around it before they even come in. That’s how definitive he was as a rhythm player.
I remember telling Eddie one time, “I really love that ‘Jamie’s Cryin” song. You should be playing that.” He want, “Naw, I don’t like it.” I think he felt it was too pretty. Isn’t that crazy?
But to be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time with Eddie on that tour. They really had a bit of a punk “fuck you” thing going. They really didn’t hang with me. Neal may have hung with Eddie, but I didn’t.
But one night, I decided I had to go tell him, “I just love you guys.” I open the door and was about to say, “Hey, guys …” Now, back in these days, guacamole came in a cottage-cheese–like container. The band was having a food fight. Just as I was opening the door, a container of guacamole bumped off the mirror to my left and splashed against my most prized possession, being a small town kid from Fresno. It was my satin tour jacket that had “Journey” on the back of it. Wearing that, I felt like I was finally somebody.
The guacamole went on my left shoulder and my left arm. I looked down on it and I looked up at them and they sheepishly laughed like, “Oh shit.” I just looked at them and I closed the door and left because I was pissed. I went into the bathroom and I was just pissed. That was my prized jacket. I still loved them, but I couldn’t give them props anymore after that. I wiped my guacamole off my satin jacket.
[Ed. note: There are reports that Perry was found crying in the bathroom after this.]
No. There was no crying! I wouldn’t cry over guacamole [laughs]. It becomes folklore at some point. It becomes silly.
Now let me tell you something Van Halen did do on that tour that was a little bit of a cardinal sin against the headliner. Back when Journey opened for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer or anyone else, often before I joined, they would get the PA slightly limited peak-wise so they’d save the ears of the audience from the opener being too loud.
And so when the headliner comes on, you’re in the headliner position, and you get to have the rest of the amplification in the hall that the headliner classically deserved being the headliner. That was a tradition in the music business that we did not create, but we had to live in when we opened for people.
When Van Halen opened for us and Montrose, the PA had a slight limiting on it. But let me tell you how brilliant their mixer is. Eddie had stacks of Marshalls. Michael had stacks of SVT bass amps and they only ran the drums and vocals through the PA. As I said, it sounded like Led Zeppelin meets the Sex Pistols.
I don’t think anyone knows this, but when David Lee Roth left Van Halen [in 1985] I was living in the Bay Area and not sure what I was or wasn’t going to do anymore. I don’t remember how it went down, but either I called Eddie or Eddie called me. Back in those days, we were both having what you could call “late-night behaviors” on the phone. All I know is we both ended up on the phone that night having some fun talking trash.
Eddie said that I should come down sometime and we should jam, have a play. Man, at some level within me I felt so honored because I was in awe of Eddie’s natural talent. He was just born with it. I wanted so badly to do that. We talked about how cool that could be musically. This was before Sammy [Hagar].
The next day and in the weeks to come I thought, “I don’t know that I should do that. If it goes creatively to what I know it can go to …” Whatever I could bring to that, I know it would be something I’d really love doing. My only problem I had with it was the thought, “I don’t know that I could be the guy to go out and represent the David Lee Roth years with my voice. I don’t know if I want to be that guy.” And shortly therefor, they got Sammy and he was the perfect version of that guy.
I don’t know what Eddie’s intentions were when he called me. He was just saying, “Let’s get together and play.” It wasn’t a promise. It was just, “Why not? Let’s see what this sounds like.”
As I said, I think representing their legacy up to that point would have been something vocally that I don’t think i was really suited to doing. It’s a different kind of singing. David had something vocally that I would say was in kinship with Louis Prima. Later on, he did “Just a Gigolo” and sounded more like Louis Prima. He was a real character.
Looking back at that 1978 tour with Van Halen, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, we were really blessed to be around that kind of musicality because it changed my life. It changed what I wanted out of myself. It changed what I wanted out of my songwriting. It changed what I appreciated. People should really know that not only did Van Halen truly make Journey a better band, they made a lot of bands a better band.