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In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen (January 26, 1955 to October 6, 2020) — “…and then one day I’m the FOH engineer for Van Halen!”

Memories of serving as a mix engineer for Van Halen in the 1990s.
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Eddie Van Halen performing in the late 1970s with his “Frankenstrat.” CREDIT: BY CARL LENDER - FLICKR: EDDIE VAN HALEN, CC BY 2.0

In early October, rock ‘n’ roll – and really the entire music world – lost one of its most beloved and influential artists: Edward (“Eddie”) Van Halen. I was instantly crushed by the news when my wife told me. Almost immediately, many of my friends and colleagues who knew that I’d spent most of the 1990s as a mix engineer for Van Halen (the band) reached out with a kind word. That helped a lot, but we couldn’t believe he was gone. It just couldn’t be.

The production crew and the band had a very close working relationship during those four tours in the 90s, and a nice friendship as well, but I won’t pretend that Eddie and I stayed close after my time mixing the band finished following the 1998 Van Halen III tour. I don’t want to write something that may feel insincere, so instead I’ll focus my thoughts and words on the amazing period of time I got to mix this legendary band. It all started in 1991…

Hitting The Big Time

I was on a roll. After years of being a system tech, I’d finally been asked to be a mix engineer for a touring concert band – and it was Aerosmith! Monitor engineer on the “Pump” tour, to be specific. After that, almost like magic, another monitor engineer position was offered with Poison.
There were good and bad nights on that latter one, for sure, but I had another successful run. The best part of being in that camp was getting to know Scotty Ross, who was the tour manager on the “Flesh and Blood” tour.

We got along really well. When the tour was wrapping up, he whispered that he’d just received an offer to manage the tour for another huge band, and he wanted to bring me in for monitors. I was all for it, even though he couldn’t say who it was at the time. Soon enough, my phone rang and Scotty asked if I would like to be the monitor engineer for Van Halen. Are you kidding?!

The author at the monitor board in his first tour with the band. Regarding the hair – well, you had to be there…

I was introduced to the band on the first day of rehearsals – Alex and Eddie Van Halen, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. It was surreal. Everyone was very nice. The thing I remember most of all about that day was Eddie’s guitar tech, Matty, handing him a guitar and firing up the amps. Eddie rolled the volume knob up and the room was filled with “that” sound. We all know what I’m talking about – Massive and “Brown.”

I spent my early years in Western Canada mixing bar bands and every one of them played a handful of Van Halen songs. Every rock guitarist on the planet tried to play like Eddie. Some were better than others, but when he played the first note in that rehearsal room it was apparent who was the creator and who were the imitators. His skill was enormous! I couldn’t believe I was standing 10 feet away from him.

On the third day with the group, a couple of hours after they’d left for the evening, the phone rang in our rehearsal room at The Power Plant in North Hollywood. I was the only one there so I picked it up.

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It was Eddie. He asked if I knew any good front of house engineers because the previous engineer had just called to say he wasn’t going to do the tour. I quickly replied, “Sure… me!” He laughed, and a little confused, said, “But I thought you were a monitor guy.”

I countered that I was indeed, but my heart was truly in mixing front of house and I’d love a crack at the gig. As it turned out, Sammy Hagar was quite happy with me in the monitor seat, so it just wasn’t my time. Instead, my soon-to-be-great friend Jon Ostrin got the gig and he did a wonderful job.

A Fortuitous Twist

That 1991 tour was in support of the album “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” and it was an amazing run. The band and crew were a huge family. There were a lot of laughs and great respect and love in the camp.
It was so fantastic to be a part of that experience that we nicknamed it “The Camelot Tour,” and in fact, we were recently asked by the creators of “Live From Nowhere” (livefromnowhere.org) to do a virtual crew meeting, and the conversation turned out really great. Check it out if you want to see (and hear) more.

Front of house engineer Jon Ostrin and Jim Yak prior to a show.

The tour wrapped and we all went our separate ways. The band planned to spend several months mixing a live recording from that tour, and “Live: Right Here, Right Now” was released in late February of 1993. There were no initial plans of touring that summer, but the album was doing well and the song “Right Now” was blowing up (with some help from a Pepsi commercial). Promoters were scrambling to try to get VH back out on the road that summer.

As it turned out, Jon was only available to mix FOH for the first several shows of the tour and then would need to leave. When he told me (and with his blessing), I held my breath, said a prayer and called Eddie at his house to formally petition for the job after Jon departed. He paused, then said he’d have to discuss it with the rest of the band.

For a few agonizing days I waited for an answer. When I heard back from him, he said they’d give me a few shows on a “trial basis” and see how it went. I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait for my shot.

We started in Europe, and for the seventh show of the tour, in early April in Stockholm, Sweden at the Globen (Stockholm Globe Arena), I got to stand at FOH and feel what it was like to mix this incredible band. I was certainly nervous, but the good kind of nervous, and I think it went pretty well.

My friend Jon hung around for a few shows and gave me some pointers and reported back to the band. Not a fun task if you’ve ever been in that position, but he’s a consummate professional and he eventually handed me the keys and left our family with much love and respect from the entire band and crew.

We wrapped up the European leg of the tour in late April in London at Wembley Arena, then enjoyed a nice break before resuming in the U.S. in late June at Pine Knob, outside of Detroit. I have a distinct and fond memory of something that happened shortly after. We were at Alpine Valley, an amazing ski hill amphitheater in East Troy, WI, and the show was in full swing. I was quite comfortable by that point, but the reality that I was in this position was never lost on me.

The Van Halen production team in Cabo San Lucas for the 2nd anniversary of the original Cabo Wabo Cantina.

Something about that night hit me in a big way. At one point, the audience lights came up and they roared on cue. I snuck a peek over my shoulder at the mass of humanity behind me climbing the ski hill as far as the eye could see. There were a lot of people there! I had a moment of clarity and awe that I was actually mixing one of the greatest rock bands of all time. It was a feeling I’ve never forgotten, and I count my blessings daily that I was given the opportunity by the band to do that.

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