And when you think of his band Van Halen, the person who comes to mind might not be one of the Van Halen brothers who founded it. It might be David Lee Roth.
Eddie died on Tuesday after a long battle with throat cancer, and while fans will trade odes to his mind-boggling riffs, they’ll also swap tales of his relationship with Roth. Like Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Noel and Liam Gallagher, Joey and Johnny Ramone and (for a time) Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the tension between the two stars led to both personal disputes and iconic music.
They met when Eddie and his brother Alex, both born in the Netherlands but raised in Pasadena, Calif., were auditioning singers for their band in 1972.
“We were crosstown adversaries, and we hated each other with a vengeance,” Roth said on the podcast “WTF” with Marc Maron in 2019. “My material was simpler like ‘Johnny B Goode’ or simpler Stones songs but really colorful. … The Van Halens had craft. Man, did they have artisanal super-small-batch-scotch craft.”
The brothers did not like Roth all that much, but they liked the sound system he owned — so they invited him to join the band. And, as it turns out, they were a perfect match. Yin and yang. Roth had personality; Eddie had genius.
For a while, it worked. Even if it didn’t.
“There were always creative differences,” Roth told Maron. “We never got along. It was a beautiful, beautiful pairing of … you’ve seen cowboy movies where the guys are always sabotaging each other, but they’re working to somehow accomplish something, and I think you’ll see that in a lot of popular bands.”
Much of the difference came down to personality. By all accounts, Eddie cared about making music while Roth cared about being in a band.
“I’ve always been the quiet one in the band — the rest of the guys make up for me,” the guitarist told People in 1981. The gregarious Roth did more than his share to “make up for” Eddie. He became the face of Van Halen and enjoyed the hedonistic options available to the lead singer of one of the world’s most famous rock groups. Eddie, meanwhile, said he would retire to his room to spend the night consuming copious amounts of alcohol and cocaine while writing songs until morning. (He became sober in 2008).
Eventually, Van Halen wasn’t big enough for both of them. Their relationship was fraying by 1983, when Eddie wrote the synth-driven “Jump,” which would top the Billboard charts and remains a sporting arena favorite to this day. When Eddie presented it to Roth, though, the singer was appalled.
“When I first played ‘Jump’ for the band, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. Dave said that I was a guitar hero and I shouldn’t be playing keyboards,” Eddie told Guitar World. “My response was if I want to play a tuba or Bavarian cheese whistle, I will do it.”
That song appeared on “1984,” their last record together before Roth ventured out on a solo career and Sammy Hagar replaced him in Van Halen … for a while.
Years later, Roth still seemed to be in Eddie’s corner, despite their differences. When Howard Stern called the guitarist’s personality “dull” in 1996, Roth quickly jumped in: “No, no, no. This is a world of specialization, and what he specializes in, he’s the best at, period.”
At the time, they were flirting with a reunion. Naturally, it didn’t go well. Eddie had been diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his hip. As he later told MTV, things quickly fell apart when Roth accused him of discussing his health too much at news conferences, saying, “Tonight’s about me,” not about his hip.
When Eddie agreed to not mention his hip again, Roth reportedly said he “better not.”
“I told him, ‘You ever speak to me like that again, you better be wearing a cup,’ ” Eddie recalled. The reunion was over before it began.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Roth rejoined the band, but his relationship with Eddie didn’t seem to have improved.
Eddie rarely gave interviews, but when he did, he didn’t hold back. In 2012, when Esquire asked about Roth, he said, “I’m not saying the lead vocal detracts, but in general the first thing people focus on is the vocal. But vocals aside, there’s a lot of s--- going on that you’re missing. You know what I mean? [He hummed the opening notes to “Beethoven’s Fifth.”] You can’t be singing to that — you’d ruin it, right?”
“He does not want to be my friend,” Eddie told Billboard in 2015. “How can I put this: 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. I stopped coloring my hair, because I know I’m not going to be young again.”
To his credit, Roth echoed the sentiment to Maron, telling him, “a part of me remained 23 years old forever.”
What’s particularly telling is that the men gave these interviews while they were still touring together. When Maron asked Roth if the two could have dinner together at the end of a long day, he replied, “Nope. Not even close. Not even close. This is not a golf club. This is a little closer to ‘The Wild Bunch.’ There is a fury and an antagonism, and what comes out of that is, when it’s good, oh man.”
But what seemed to matter most to Eddie — what always seemed to matter most — was the music.
“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,” he told writer Chuck Klosterman in 2015. “This conversation brings me back to being in Pasadena Community College with Alex, where all these strict jazz guys would call us musical prostitutes, because we would be gigging at rock clubs every night and then stumbling into class the next day. But there is an element of music that is for the people. You make music for people. Otherwise, just play in your closet. And how do you reach the most people? By giving them the band that they know. To do it any other way would be selfish.”