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Don Was recalls "sweet," talented former neighbor Eddie Van Halen

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Music fans are mourning the death of Eddie Van Halen as a player, innovator and a Rock God icon for nearly four decades.

For Don Was, it was also the loss of a former neighbor and friend.

Van Halen died Tuesday, Oct. 6, at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer. For a period during the 90s he and Was, an Oak Park native and Grammy Award-winning producer and musician, lived near each other in Los Angeles -- Was on Mulholland Drive, Van Halen around the corner on Coldwater Canyon.

"The most striking thing about him was he was a really sweet guy, just a lovely guy," Was (nee Fagenson), who's now also president of Blue Note Records, recalled by phone from a Los Angeles recording studio where he was working. "He was fun to hang out with. I could see him as a kid sitting in his bedroom, playing guitar all the time. I understand how he got to be great -- and he was greater than everybody, man. He had a real gift."

Born in the Netherlands and moved with his family to Pasadena when he was seven, Van Halen was the preeminent guitarist of his era and one of the greatest of all time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with the band that bore his surname. Van Halen, the group, sold more than 80 million albums worldwide, while Van Halen the man was known for his accomplished and ambitious playing -- most notably the two-handed tapping technique that he adapted from Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and showcased on the instrumental "Eruption" from the band's 1978 debut album.

Van Halen also played the iconic solo on Michael Jackson's 1982 hit "Beat It" and made guest contributions to albums by onetime Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, Queen's Brian May, Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and L.L. Cool J. and David Garfield. He also held a number of patents for guitar body technologies.

Was said he and Van Halen would occasionally play music together during their visits. "We'd plug in and play at times, but I couldn't really keep up with him," Was says with a laugh. "I'd sit across from him, maybe four feet across, just plugging into a little amp. I'd watch his fingers and I could not reconcile what I was seeing with my eyes with the sound that was coming out of that guitar. He was just on a whole other level. He had some extra special thing no one else did.

"He just had a fundamental understanding of the music he was trying to do. He really changed the way people approached the instrument."

Was says Van Halen was working on new music at the time which charted a different course than what he was doing in his band. "He brought me some demos of songs to listen to one time," Was remembers. "It was him singing with a big, crunchy electric guitar and a metronome with a microphone in front of it. It was so stirring. I remember (fellow producer) Rick Rubin came running down the hall saying, 'What is that?!'

"I thought (Van Halen) should put it out as is, but I think he wanted to make a Van Halen (band) album. But it was great, like everything he did. He was just an exceptional, super-talented musician."

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