It’s another afternoon deep into the unsettling year 2020, and Tom Morello is at the kitchen table and back on the mic. Safely under strict coronavirus lockdown in his Los Angeles home with the wife and kids, plus two grandmothers embedded for the COVID-19 duration, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist is about to pay tribute to a lasting inspiration and sonic revolutionary: Eddie Van Halen.
In the days after Van Halen’s death from cancer in October, Morello made a deep dive back into the late guitarist’s dazzling, hyperkinetic work on the albums he’d grown up with — Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning, etc. — “marveling at the genius of this guy’s playing.” And as he begins his weekly satellite radio show, One-Man Revolution, on SiriusXM, Morello is at home remembering what that example meant to a Midwestern teen discovering the mind-altering possibilities of electric guitar.
“We’re celebrating Eddie Van Halen today,” Morello says into the microphone, sitting beside his frequent co-host, his 97-year-old mother, Mary Morello. “I was a huge Van Halen fan, and absolutely tried my best to learn all that technique … He’s the greatest musician of our lifetime, are you kidding me?”
Morello first heard the man he now calls “the Mozart of my generation” on a rainy Saturday in the late-1970s in small-town Libertyville, Illinois. The song was “Runnin’ With the Devil” by a new band called Van Halen, and it erupted from his mom’s car radio with the sound of an otherworldly siren descending on his young ears, followed by an electric guitar riff that marched to its own swaggering rhythm.
There was also some oracular rock & roll wisdom being projected from a bellowing singer named David Lee Roth: “I found the simple life ain’t so simple/When I jumped out on that road …”
This was a different universe from what Morello knew in the Midwest suburbs, and a Southern California rock sound far afield from the heavy metal coming out of England. When Morello finally got the first album, 1978’s Van Halen, to study at home, the overall impact was intense and kaleidoscopic, powered by the slippery growl of Eddie Van Halen’s riffs, and solos that were soaring, stuttering explosions of beautiful noise. Morello tells his One-Man Revolution listeners that it was life-changing, and he wasn’t alone.
“Someone who agrees very much with me is Adam Jones of Tool,” he goes on. “We grew up together. We listened to a lot of Van Halen together. And Eddie was a huge influence on both of our lives as musicians.”
Both Morello and Jones played leading roles as guitarists in taking alternative rock and metal into a new future beginning in the Nineties. In high school, they were in a flinty punk band called the Electric Sheep, with song titles like “She Eats Razors” and the topical “Salvador Death Squad Blues.” Morello was on guitar, Jones on bass, and both connected at their core to what Eddie Van Halen was doing.
“Adam and I, for all of our ‘alt’ pretenses, we’re metal at heart,” says Morello now. “It was me and Adam in his pickup truck driving to the Judas Priest and Iron Maiden shows at Alpine Valley” — an hour-plus away in East Troy, Wisconsin — “and admiring the awesomeness of guitar heroes like Eddie Van Halen.”
Back in Libertyville, Jones used to sit on the edge of his bed studying the pictures of Van Halen’s four band members on that first album cover while the vinyl spun on his turntable. The songs shook him in ways both exciting and alarming, much like the first time he heard the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” or, later, “Blackened” by Metallica and “Loud Love” by Sound-garden — shadowy tunes that scratched a nerve to fuel his own creative impulses.
“It’s the haunting guitar riff that inspired me,” Jones explains excitedly. “Those records just scared me in a creative way. I can’t tell you how many Van Halen songs are like that for me: ‘Oh my God, they did it again’ — this wonderful creep factor.”
Jones and Morello ultimately absorbed different les-sons from Van Halen’s dazzling example. Both are distinctive players of rhythm and lead, but Morello leaned heavily in the direction of the explosive, hyperactive shredding of EVH and Ozzy guitar phenom Randy Rhoads. (Morello even named his oldest son Rhoads.)
It could be heard in 1992 on the very first album from Rage Against the Machine, which collided that metal guitar god tradition with Morello’s layering of deep funk, hip-hop and extravagant special effects that at times had his guitar sounding like turntable scratching, a synth melody or the cello-like cries of a blue whale. It was as recognizably his own as EVH tapping his fingers along the frets and slamming down the tremolo bar.
That sound unfurls again on Morello’s recently released Comandante EP, including an instrumental called “Secretariat” played with a delay pedal set to what he calls “EVH” or “Halen,” as he has it scrawled in Sharpie right on the EFX stompbox. The song lands like a cosmic dispatch from quarantine and is in the one-man tradition of Van Halen’s “Eruption.” Morello dedicated the track as a tribute to the late sound-scientist.
“Tom learned all that stuff and then he just went down a path that is completely his,” Jones says of his high school bandmate. “If anyone is the modern Eddie Van Halen, it’s Tom to me, in my age group.”
For Jones, discovering Van Halen came during the same years he was learning of guitar alchemist Robert Fripp and wading into his older brother’s prog records. Eddie’s mastery of the riff was part of what led Jones to Tool’s evocative, mysterious rhythms, layering ominous walls of sound. The instrumental adventurousness heard on 2019’s long-awaited Tool opus, Fear Inoculum, was a fusion of guitar, drums, bass and vox — coalescing into something meticulous, monstrous and gorgeous.
Another reflection of that sound is “The Witness,” a 7:38-minute instrumental he recorded with Tool’s bassist, Justin Chancellor, and drummer, Danny Carey. The track was released in October to coincide with Gibson’s release of the Tool player’s first-ever signature guitar: the Adam Jones 1979 Les Paul Custom.
With Tool, Jones pushed his music forward, crafting his own voice, even as he keeps “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” as his permanent cell ring tone. He also uses an EVH-brand flanger pedal in his gear setup, and it can be heard right at the end of “Pneuma” on Fear Inoculum. “I’m allowed to like shredders,” Jones says humbly, “even though I’m not a shredder.”
The link between generations is much like Eddie Van Halen growing up worshipping Eric Clapton and learning every note he ever recorded with Cream. Eddie ended up sounding nothing like him, creating a sound entirely his own. It was at a Led Zeppelin concert at the Forum in Los Angeles early in the 1970s that Van Halen witnessed guitarist Jimmy Page hammering the frets with one hand. Eddie then took that technique into another dimension with two hands and made it central to his sound. He adopted a variety of tricks and otherworldly harmonics partly because he couldn’t yet afford effects pedals (wah-wah, fuzzbox, etc.) “and all the toys that everyone else had,” Eddie explained later. “So I did everything I could to get sounds out of the guitar with my fingers.”
The hot-rodded guitar he constructed from parts of other instruments and called Frankenstein (or “Frankenstrat”) became one of the world’s most recognized guitars. There were many other guitars in his arsenal, but for him, gear was always secondary to the skills he developed in his fingers.
“The thing most notable about his guitar and its monstrous beauty was that it had only one knob: volume,” Morello says. “And that blew all our minds. This guy doesn’t need any more knobs than one!”
Morello refers often to the imagined “20,000 hours” (and more) that Eddie woodshedded with his instrument before the world had heard a note. That obsessiveness continued throughout his life, particularly on his recordings in the Seventies and Eighties, when the Van Halen guitarist made a habit of sneaking back into the studio in the early morning hours to refine his solos.
In Libertyville, Morello practiced alone four-to-six hours a day, amid a full schedule of high school study, Electric Sheep rehearsal and acting in school plays. A late starter on the instrument, he took a few lessons at age 13 but didn’t pick it up seriously until he was 17, so his thousands of hours practicing, experimenting, inventing paid off.
“I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but when I met Tom, he sucked at guitar,” says Jones, who was introduced to the instrument at age six, regularly joining his dad in playing an old gut-string in front of the TV. “Now the guy is just better than anybody and I totally admire him. Tom worked really hard and he really loves what he does.”
Jones and Morello grew up in Libertyville, about 40 miles north of Chicago, amid leafy neighbor-hood streets, vintage storefronts and open fields. Then as now, it was a bucolic, small-town setting. Marlon Brando lived there as a teen between 1939 and 1941, and was known as a relentless prankster who attended Libertyville High and briefly led a band called Bud Brando and His Keg Liners. At home, Marlon milked a family cow named Violet.
By 1980, the population was still well under 17,000, and the U.S. Census that year calculated that the number of black residents was barely 0.2 percent of the population. It was a predominantly white community, and reliably Republican for most of the last century, so a young African American KISS fanatic with leftist leanings named Tom Morello was going to stand out.
“It was an archly conservative, narrow-minded suburb of Chicago,” Morello says now, “where the lawns were well-manicured, the church services were well-attended and the physical, emotional and sexual abuse was rampant behind those closed doors.”
Morello spent most of his childhood there, and his mom taught world history and African studies at Libertyville High. His hometown is also where he became the occasional target of local racists. When he was 13, a noose was left in the family garage by neighbors.
His mom is a lifelong activist and radical, and fed her only son’s political consciousness. She protested Apartheid in South Africa and Salvadoran death squads, marched against fascism and decades of institutional racism as a member of the Illinois Urban League.
Growing up in Libertyville, Morello has said, “fueled my creativity and my rage.” As a teen, he channeled that through music. Punk rock inspired by the Clash and others became the deafening noise of choice for the Electric Sheep — a band that, unsurprisingly, was not universally embraced by local gentry.
“One of the guys in our band quit the band for theological reasons,” says Morello. “He was a Born Again Christian and thought that our punk-rock band was heretical, which is probably accurate.”
Morello remembers being formally introduced to Jones downstairs in the high school drama department. Soon, Jones was in the band, thrilled to be in a group that played original songs. (A cover of Electric Sheep’s “Country Boner” was later released as Puscifer’s first single in 2007, sung with an appropriately sideways twang by Maynard James Keenan.)
The adolescent rockers rehearsed in Morello’s basement. Mary Morello, who was Jones’s home-room teacher, not only tolerated the loud noises but actively encouraged them. She shot many of the surviving snapshots of the two teenagers at the house, with Tom and Adam mugging with their guitars, a KISS poster on the wall behind them. A handful of those pictures make up the earliest pages of Morello’s new career-long retrospective book of personal photo-graphs, Whatever It Takes.
After graduating from Harvard University, Morello left for Los Angeles determined to rock. Jones wasn’t far behind, at first crashing at his friend’s apartment. Morello landed in a band called Lock Up, which got signed to Geffen Records and released an album in 1989 to little notice. Jones spent the late Eighties and early Nineties as a filmmaker, creating special effects with Stan Winston Studio for the films Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Batman Returns.
Jones remembers witnessing a lot of metal bands on the Eighties Sunset Strip, with the big hair, jeans tucked into their cowboy boots, guitar players showing off. A lot of them were also inspired by the example of Eddie Van Halen, trying extra hard to blow the doors off at Gazzarri’s and the Whisky a Go Go, and falling way short of his innovations and essence.
Eddie’s pyromania was balanced with restraint, demonstrated almost casually with the sonic twist dropped into 1984’s “Panama,” shifting from the song’s hurried riff and into a dazzling breakdown that goes weightless and dreamy. Eddie had learned and perfected the lessons of an earlier generation of players (Hendrix, Page, etc.), balancing light and dark, knowing when even the hardest rock needs a soft touch on the strings.
“That guy had so much discipline,” Jones says now. “Knowing when to play, when to not play. On ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,’ his solo is very conservative, but it’s huge and iconic. If you’re learning a lesson from Eddie Van Halen, that’s another thing I would take away — being tasteful.”
Jones and his close friend Buzz Osborne of the Melvins talk about this stuff all the time. “Buzz said the most perfect thing: ‘You can have the best amp and the best guitar, you can have $300 cords made in Japan, you can have the best pick and the best strings. And someone like Eddie Van Halen can take the shittiest guitar and bury anybody.’
“It’s the passion. It’s playing with your heart,” Jones adds. “It’s just ripping your guts out when you play. And Eddie had all that.”
In Los Angeles, Adams met singer Maynard James Keenan at a barbeque. And Tool began in 1991 as simply a way for the guitarist and singer to play a show at Raji’s, a Hollywood rock dive a safe distance from the era’s fading hair-metal wars. Even with that modest ambition, there was seriousness to their approach. Morello was at their first rehearsal in a loft.
“Let me say, that band came out fully formed,” Morello recalls of Tool’s earliest moments. “And there was my friend from high school. In our punk-rock band, we’d had a lot of difficulties sort of remembering four-chord songs. Now he was playing some of the most intricate, powerful, hard music that I ever heard in my life. Mind-blowing.”
While Rage and Tool became monumentally important multiplatinum acts in the Nineties, Van Halen also survived into the grunge era as a fully functioning band, charting one last No. 1 album, Balance, with singer Sammy Hagar in 1995. Things fell into disarray soon after. Hagar was out, and an aborted reunion with Roth in 1996 (recording two new songs for a greatest hits package that year) led to fan outrage as the band recruited a third singer: Extreme’s Gary Cherone. The album that followed, Van Halen III, was their worst-selling to that point, and would be their last studio album for another 14 years.
The band missed their 2007 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, leaving only the banished Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony to show up for their trophies. But Eddie Van Halen’s time with Roth wasn’t over, and the guitarist and the singer reunited for one final album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth.
There had been an earthquake among fans when Roth first exited in 1985. The multi-platinum successes continued with Hagar for another decade, if minus the sharper edges of early Van Halen records. Critics turned against them. (The Village Voice opined: “Trading Dave for Sammy sure wrecked their shot at Led Zep of the Eighties.”)
Jones was onboard for everything. “I loved it all,” he says. “I like David Lee Roth and I like Sammy Hagar, and I got into arguments about that all the time. I bought every record. I worship them.”
In October 2019, Eddie Van Halen attended a Tool concert in Los Angeles. That night, a bearded goofball handed his cell to a random goatee’d dude to take his picture in front of the stage. The grinning, graying fan who obliged was not recognized as the mighty EVH, whose son Wolfgang captured the moment for Instagram, calling it “my favorite moment from the @Tool show last night.”
Soon after, the Van Halens went backstage to meet Tool, and Jones finally stood before this most crucial guitar hero. Eddie hadn’t been seen much since his band’s last tour in 2015, which ended with two hometown shows at the Hollywood Bowl.
“My most pinnacle moment is meeting Eddie Van Halen backstage with his son and the guy telling me how much he enjoyed the show and what a good job he thought I did,” says Jones. Tool’s tour manager Jerome Crooks set it up. “I still thank him to this day, and for not telling me that Eddie Van Halen was in the audience.”
Morello got to meet Van Halen only in passing a couple of times over the years. “I wish that I had known him better. I wish that we had played together,” Morello says now. He did get to solo on a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” while touring in 2014 as a guest guitarist with Bruce Springsteen, opening the show with that chart-topping hit in Dallas, Morello tapping the neck like the old master.
He got back into some of that again the day after Eddie died, sitting at home with his youngest son, Roman, to listen to Van Halen’s debut album. Morello has been giving him some first-class guitar lessons, and his boy has mastered the solos of “Crazy Train” and “Stairway to Heaven.” They listened to the first three songs on Van Halen again and again, as Morello and son played along on their guitars.
“Just watching this nine-year-old kid shredding over these classic Eddie Van Halen songs, it gave me hope for the future. We listened to ‘Eruption’ a number of times in a row, just listening to it,” Morello remembers warmly. “I said, ‘Do you want me to try to teach you that?’ And he said, ‘Dad, no one can play like that.’
“I said, ‘Well, we can break it down …’ And he said, ‘Dad, no one can play like that.’ I was like, ‘You’re right, son. No one can play like that.'”