SAN FRANCISCO, CA- Edward and Wolfgang Van Halen. The names sound like owners of the old Dutch East India shipping company, or perhaps a couple of guys looking to put a stake through Dracula's heart.
So let's go with what friends call them: Ed and Wolf. Guitar revolutionary and musical disciple. Father and son.
"Look at him," says Dutch-born Ed, 57, staring straight into the slightly embarrassed eyes of an all-American Wolf. "He's 21 years old, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink, he doesn't do drugs. What more could I ask for? He's never done a (expletive) thing wrong."
Wolf smiles shyly and returns the compliment when the two are asked about their musical heroes. Ed cites Eric Clapton. "For me, my inspiration was obviously ... you," Wolf says.
In a rare joint interview with USA TODAY, the two Van Halens recently took time between dates on the band's A Different Kind of Truth tour to discuss their relationship in and out of music.
But the news of the moment is about that very tour being cut short after a New Orleans date on June 26.
So what gives? Ed is direct.
"We bit off more than we could chew," he says. "This record took a lot out of us. And we went on tour earlier than we wanted to so we could play Madison Square Garden (in March, before a renovation), and that threw the schedule out of whack."
The band will have completed more than 40 shows on this leg, and "a lot of the canceled dates were in cities we already played," he says. "So in November, we'll hit Japan, and in the new year, we'll possibly do something special, but I can't talk about it."
But he will talk about singer David Lee Roth. Contrary to what has been reported, he says there's no tour-nuking feud. "Dave's the same as he's always been, funny, witty," Ed says. Then he laughs. "Sometimes I can only take that in small doses, because he just goes on and on."
Wolfgang jumps in: "He's like the Energizer Bunny- wind it up and see what happens."
"But Dave always lands on his feet," Ed says.
Wolf rises amid the chaos Many fans thought the band itself would not. And Wolfgang appears integral to that rebirth.
Many fans thought the band itself would not. And Wolfgang appears integral to that rebirth.
After Van Halen's monster debut in 1978 and nearly two decades of chart-busting albums (with Roth through 1985, Sammy Hagar through 1996), chaos reigned in the new millennium.
Various reunions with both Roth and Hagar jelled, then fizzled. In 2007, Ed's divorce from Wolfgang's mother, actress Valerie Bertinelli, became final, and he continued to battle drug addictions and cancer. That same year, Van Halen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the only attendees were ex-members Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony, who had been let go without explanation the year before by Ed and drummer Alex Van Halen.
Despite the turmoil, Ed was determined to carry on. So instead of finding a new bass player, he used one he created. Having appeared with the band as early as 2004, Wolfgang shocked fans by becoming the official bass player in time for a Roth reunion tour in fall 2007.
Ed concedes that Bertinelli wasn't thrilled when he pulled Wolf out of high school to face the rigors of the road, but he didn't want to mess with what he considers destiny.
"Alex and I used to joke, why didn't Mom and Dad have another kid for a bass player? Well, now we have our own Van Halen bass player," says Ed. "So now I think, why didn't Valerie and I have another kid? Could have been the singer."
"There's a reason to be out there," he says, looking over at his son. "He's the reason I'm on tour, and probably alive, too."
Growing up, Wolf's memories of his father "are of him being wacky. I remember home videos of us dancing around the house."
"Yeah, we had our PJs on, just dancing around like nuts," says Ed, recalling the scene. "We always just hung out and had a silly goof-off time."
Surely the two spent hours hunched over instruments, father showing son the tricks of his six-stringed trade?
"I never showed him anything, honest," Ed says. "The happiest day of my life was when I saw him tapping out a beat with his foot to some TV commercial, because then I knew he had rhythm. But I never pushed this on him."
Wolf's musical progress continued, though it's not clear how, considering Ed "isn't down with learning by the book," says the man who changed rock guitar with Eruption, a solo Bach-infused explosion that redefined the instrument. "The EVH School of Music Theory says that music is just that, theory."
Odder still, the sprawling Tudor-style house Wolf grew up in near Hollywood wasn't filled with the incessant sounds of Van Halen. For the longest time, Wolf thought the band's greatest-hits album was the only record his father had ever made.
"One day, Wolf comes up to me, and he's got these other Van Halen albums, and he's going, 'What are these?' " says Ed. "I said, 'Just some other stuff we did.' All he ever heard me playing was stuff I was working on."
Now on his second full tour with his father's band, Wolf has learned the canon cold. But he says some disgruntled fans still malign him online and speculate that he might be playing to a tape on tour.
Wolf shakes his head. "If some people think that what I'm playing and what I'm singing is so good that it can't possibly be me doing it, then thank you."
There's no evidence that Wolf's addition has had a negative impact on the band's drawing power, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, which reports on the concert industry. "Lead guitar and vocals are arguably the most key positions, and no one really can say (Wolf) isn't holding his own," he says.
Guitar Player associate editor Matt Blackett says he gets that fans are "protective of Michael (Anthony), but the critics are not justified. Wolfgang is a genuinely talented kid."
Having three musicians with the same DNA locking down the rhythm section is an enviable situation for any band, he says.
"They always know where the downbeat is. That's not really something you learn, you almost have to just feel it," Blackett says. "But beyond that, Ed's always been a family guy, and the chemistry he and Wolfgang have onstage is obvious."
The night before the interview, the band played Oracle Arena in nearby Oakland. On multiple occasions, Ed and Wolf shared glances.
"We'll look over at each other and laugh," says Ed. "Sometimes, I'll go, 'Damn, that's my son.' But most of the time, we're just a three-piece power trio kicking (butt). He's an equal."
Jitters run in the family
What the two also share is a habit of getting extremely nervous before shows. Wolf handles jitters by practicing incessantly. Dad just throws up.
"Really. I did it just before the show last night," Ed says. "Then I don't eat, so by the time I get offstage, I'm cooked."
Says Wolf: "It's a Van Halen thing. We get that anxiety where you think you're going to die, but really nothing's going to happen to you."
"I don't know what I'm afraid of," Ed says. Then, incredibly: "I guess I always thought I entered the wrong business."
When the tour ends, they may see each other less. Ed will start work on a house remodel, while Wolf and his girlfriend will begin looking for a place to buy.
"I want something with my own studio, where I can play as loud as I want," says Wolf, who foresees starting his own band down the road, for which he could play bass, drums or guitar.
Having the last name Van Halen makes playing lead guitar a bit of a thankless pursuit. "It's kind of a curse," Wolf says. "People won't let you be who you are without comparing you to someone else."
But that's perhaps a small price to pay for standing shoulder to shoulder with your dad, making music for screaming fans. "It's neat," says Wolf.
Actually, it's more than that, as was apparent at the end of the Oakland show.
After the quartet saluted the crowd, Ed put his arm around Wolfgang and planted a kiss on his cheek. Not your average close to a rock 'n' roll show. But then, Van Halen has never been your average band.