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EDWARD VAN HALEN: A Definitive Biography
By Kevin Dodds
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Kevin Dodds
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLife in the Netherlands
There is no doubt that when you think of Edward Van Halen, one of the first things that does not come to mind is the Dutch East India Company. But if the roots of one human being's somewhat miraculous DNA makeup must be traced to a reasonable starting point, it would be with the world's first megacorporation.
In 1602, the United East Indian Company began colonizing Asia for the benefit of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The principal territory in which the VOC did business was within a string of islands nestled immediately south of The Philippines and just north of Australia. These islands then became known, fittingly, as the Dutch East Indies (or Netherlands East Indies). This was a world away from their colonial pillager the Netherlands, way up in the northwest corner of continental Europe, immediately west of Germany, north of Belgium, with the North Sea on its west and north coasts.
The VOC endured through a nearly two-century rule until things inevitably unraveled beginning in 1780, brought down by the engine of colonialism itself, corruption. Prior to its eventual disbandment in 1800, it was referred to as Vergaan Onder Corruptie ("perished by corruption"). The responsibilities of the VOC fell to the Netherlands in 1800. Rather than pulling back to appease countries like the United States, who obviously had some issues with colonialism, the Netherlands expanded their operations right up until the mid-twentieth century.
Europeans numbering in excess of a million traveled the thousands of ships on trade missions to perform all manner of potentially unspeakable colonial duties on the beautiful tropical island string. Many of these Europeans decided to stay and settle in the islands, a strange new land a half a world away, presenting new and different opportunities—and a major change in lifestyle. Inevitably, race mixing took place resulting in a people known as Indos or Eurasians, or more bluntly, Dutch Indonesians. The ratio of race mixing for people under this blanket description runs the gamut and it is impossible to assess that ratio without taking stock of one's physical appearance and making a fair judgment based on what physical traits are most prominent.
Thus was born a Eurasian woman in 1914 with the markedly Dutch name of Eugenia van Beers in the Dutch East Indies. Technically, she was the first "van" in the Van Halen family. Her given name gives no indication of the percentage of European genetics. In fact, on name alone, an assumption would practically be uncalled for. In viewing photographs of Eugenia, it is clear that she retained a significant portion of her native island ancestry. A reasonable assessment would be likely something approaching one-third European descent.
Back in Amsterdam, Jan van Halen was born in 1920 shortly after the end of World War I. Jan's name certainly suited his ancestry without a colonial tint or guesswork; he was a northwest European. Jan was born with the musical gift and was described as a bit of rebel. As a young man, he mastered the saxophone and clarinet so well that he was gigging regularly by eighteen. It's been said "he worked hard to have fun" playing in a retinue of jazz bands, swing bands, and orchestras across Europe. Jan no doubt enjoyed his pick of opportunities as a young man in the late 1930s, from radio events to a circus troupe, and even political rallies.
He only had a few brief years to enjoy both his early gigging and his youth. When perpetual bad neighbor Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, Jan, like any other Dutch male his age, joined the military. Jan's talents came in handy though, landing him in the Dutch Air Force with the task of playing marches.
In May 1940, the Nazis took over their neighbor's homeland. Starting on May 10, the Germans battled their way all the way to Rotterdam which they bombed into submission in just five days. The majority of Dutch operations were left virtually untouched—they were simply German now.
Hitler's takeover of the Netherlands was less dramatic than Poland. The Nazis considered the Dutch to be essentially 100% Aryan. The Netherlands was simply to become part of Germany following the war. However, Dutch Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses were rounded up and sent to the most notorious concentration camps of World War II. Author Linda M. Woolfe Ph.D. wrote:
As Nazi oppression slowly took shape, so did Dutch resistance. Hitler underestimated the Dutch people and the Nazis were unprepared to deal with the primarily non militaristic character of Dutch resistance. In many ways, there are some striking similarities between the Dutch resistance and the spiritual resistance on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses. Much of Dutch resistance can be characterized as either passive resistance or non-violent active resistance. For example, immediately following the Nazi occupation, American and British films were banned from theaters replaced by German movies including German newsreels. Dutch patrons took to walking out or booing during the newsreels. Thus, new laws were passed prohibiting such behavior. Subsequently, attendance at films dropped. Radio broadcasts under Nazi control consisted principally of propaganda. Thus, while it was illegal to listen to British radio, many Dutch began to listen to the BBC and radio broadcasts from the Dutch government in exile. In 1943, over one million radio sets were confiscated by the Nazis in response to these acts of resistance.
Author Ian Christie reported that Jan, a member of the Dutch Air Force, was captured by the Nazis during the five-day invasion. When the Germans realized Jan was a talented musician, he was forced to perform propaganda music. This is how Jan van Halen spent his early twenties: playing propaganda music during the Nazi occupation. A gifted musician, who could truly play, forced ostensibly at gunpoint to perform a mandated set of material with no room for individual expression. It was simply a strictly tailored form of hell for him.
The Dutch government operated out of Britain during the period of German occupation, and eventually declared war on Japan, in solidarity with the United States, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Just a few months later, the Dutch East Indies came under the occupation of the Japanese in March 1942. So went Dutch colonial rule of the islands. Japanese occupation through the end of the war in 1945 cannot be described in terms extreme enough to convey the horror and atrocities that occurred. One's mind need only hear a few—sex slaves, forced labor, random arrests, rampant executions. Worse yet, those of Eurasian descent were specifically targeted and interned.
The end of the war in 1945 had an immediate and profoundly direct impact upon Jan van Halen and Eugenia van Beers. They were each caught directly in the heart of the two locales in the world's most brutal war.
Post-WWII Love Affair
Upon his release from musical captivity, Jan clearly felt a need to leave the scene and find somewhere far away to recover from the madness of the past five-plus years. When a musical opportunity presented itself in the Dutch East Indies, Jan jumped at the chance to test the waters in this strange and different land with clearly little in common with northwest Europe.
Now free and no longer under the command of the Nazis—and trying to erase the memories of the god-awful music he'd been forced to play—Jan was feeling loose and dandy enough to take an interest in Eugenia van Beers. Things moved fast and the two were soon married. Clearly, Eugenia wanted to get out of what would be known by 1949 as Indonesia and start over in a new and different land herself. The newly married couple resettled in the Netherlands. An interracial couple in Dutch territory would have been absolutely unthinkable during Nazi occupation.
Back in Jan's home country, he continued to perform at every opportunity that presented itself. The couple's first son, Alexander Arthur van Halen was born in May of 1953. Edward Lodewijk van Halen followed on January 26, 1955 (his music-obsessed father naming the future prodigy after Ludwig van Beethoven). Jan banked on his boys following in his somewhat bohemian footsteps. Also, like their father, both boys were born in Amsterdam, but the family eventually resettled in Nijmegen. Nijmegen is a city in a province directly on the border with Germany and to this day lays claims as one of the oldest cities in the world at 2,000 years old.
After failed attempts at instruction by Jan himself, where he discovered he did not have the patience to teach his own boys, Alex and Edward began piano lessons at a very young age. "Basically, that's where I got my ear developed, learned my theory, and got my fingers moving." It most certainly did get his fingers moving, and Alex and Edward excelled and soon mastered works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky.
Whenever Jan's performances were broadcast over the radio, they all gathered around and listened as a family. Jan was always practicing and noodling around the house, often along with records at home. Jan even showed the boys some of the music he performed with pride during his military service: marching songs from the Dutch Air Force prior to the Nazi invasion. As very small toddlers, the kids followed Jan around with pots and pans while he played his proud marches.
As the boys got older, Jan brought them along to his performances around Holland and into Germany. As a result, the boys—neither yet even ten—were exposed to the nuts and bolts, the glamorous and the perverse aspects of the music business and the entertainment industry. Following one of his father's shows, Alex admitted to losing his virginity at the simply unrealistic age of nine.
As the van Halen marriage progressed, for reasons possibly becoming more and more obvious, Eugenia simply turned sour on the idea of the boys becoming professional musicians like their father. Indeed, it was apparent that, personality-wise, Eugenia and Jan were opposites. According to Edward, "My dad is the person who would cut school and smoke cigarettes, and my mom would be the cheerleader. Complete opposites—the conservative and the screw-up. If you sat there and talked to my dad, he'd make you roll over and laugh." (The quote featured no secondary comment about his mother.) Alex recalled that he once as a child told his mother he didn't feel like practicing. Eugenia instructed Alex to place his hands on the table and proceeded to hit them with a wooden spoon.
Jan continued to perform, ultimately developing into a phenomenal clarinet soloist. As noted by Ian Christie in The Van Halen Saga, at his peak, Jan's band, the Ton Wijkamp Quintent, was the top act at the Loosdrecht Jazz Festival, a highly respectable musical achievement. Nevertheless, Eugenia was finally ready for the ultimate change. After years of Dutch colonial occupation of Indonesia, followed by Japanese occupation, then resettling in the Netherlands, the base of her native country's subjugation ... needless to say, she was more than ready for a change. Furthermore, she fell under the spell of letters from family members who had emigrated to Los Angeles after the war. These letters were full of stories about the Land of Opportunity and perfect weather, even though they were somewhat fabricated according to Alex.
Coming to America
As winter closed in 1962, Eugenia finally had enough of the Netherlands. Edward said bluntly, "My mom wanted us in the U.S. and out of Holland. She was afraid we'd get into music like my father." Consequently, the four van Halens prepared to embark on that all too familiar journey, the one where the family from a faraway land decides to start over, yet again, in a strange and different new land, willing to take the risk for the potential reward. Alex noted, "Taking a gamble, my parents sold everything they had and moved over here."
Except the family did not quite sell everything. It seemed the one family possession they could not part with was their cherished German-made Rippen piano. One can only imagine the reception upon boarding the boat: a married couple, two boys under ten, a few bags, and a piano. A piece of the legend also includes that the family only had "fifty dollars" with them. Of course, the amount of money they spent on freight for the piano would have clearly been a fortune, but obviously that was not an issue of particular importance for the family. The piano was a family member. It was coming, period, no matter the cost.
The nine-day trip on the boat is a pauper's fairytale. Jan played with the ship band to help finance the expedition (and to conceivably help cover the freight cost of the piano). Also, the little boys themselves, likely pushed out as a sympathy act, capably demonstrated their individual piano skills for the passengers. Edward said, "Alex and I actually played on the boat while we were coming to America. We played piano, and we were like the kid freak show on the boat." Alex added, "It was kind of a novelty to have two kids playing the piano." Following their performances, the kids would begin their lifelong routine of working the crowd, getting their start by passing a hat amongst the passengers to collect tips to help raise money for the family during the voyage.
Looking back, it is a rather young age, particularly for seven-year-old Edward, to take on the task of passing a hat for tip money to support the family; it surely left a lasting impression upon this already extraordinarily talented little boy. But Eddie noted poignantly, "Music saved our family." A photo from the journey shows an all-smiles family enjoying dinner on the boat all decked out in paper sailor hats. Clearly, they were a tight-knit group.
The family arrived in New York and promptly had their surname Americanized to Van Halen, because everyone knows Americans would surely just get too confused over van Halen with that funny lowercase "v". The clan, along with the beloved Rippen, next made a cross-country journey via train straight into Los Angeles. One can only imagine the sights they observed out the window along the way—traversing the length of a country a mere 236 times the size of the Netherlands.
Chapter TwoLife in America
Eventually, they settled into a two-bedroom bungalow in Pasadena at 1881 Las Lunas Street where they would stay for two decades. One of the first orders of business upon arrival was to find a replacement piano tutor for the boys. One cannot be sure where the pressing need to become fluent in English laid on the priority scale, but it would soon become a major issue.
Edward and Alex were freshly transplanted Dutch boys in the heart of California in the early 1960s, and not just Dutch boys, but race-mixed kids as well, with Alex bearing more distinguishable Eurasian features than his little brother. At first, of course, they spoke absolutely no English except "yes," and had a habit of smiling and saying "yes" to anything said to them.
Alex said that their mother gave them a book to help them learn English and the very first word in the book, alphabetically, was "accident," which was unfortunately appropriate. The brothers were bearing abuse reserved for weird outsiders. Alex recalled: "One day I was walking in a park and went past a kid carrying a baseball bat. I said, 'baseball,' because it was one of the few English words I knew. He said something to me and I nodded affirmatively, and it turned out he'd asked, 'Do you want me to hit you in the face with this?'" Alex ended up with a broken nose. Welcome to America.
Edward would further add: "I wasn't able to speak English, and used to get my ass kicked because I was a minority [Author's note: part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, 100 percent immigrant]. All my friends were black, and they stuck up for me ... because I was in the same cage as them, literally. In elementary school, there was a special place for us on the playground. And God, those days ... Steven and Russell were my first two friends. Sometimes, I think of going back to that school (and) checking the records to find them. They were wonderful human beings ... Such a trip."
Excerpted from EDWARD VAN HALEN: A Definitive Biography by Kevin Dodds Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Dodds. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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