Eddie Van Halen, the legendary guitar innovator and virtuoso who led Van Halen through five decades and three lead singers, establishing himself as one of the all-time great players in rock history, died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 65.
“I can’t believe I’m having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning,” his son Wolfgang Van Halen wrote. “He was the best father I could ever ask for. Every moment I’ve shared with him on and off stage was a gift. My heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss.”
“Heartbroken and speechless,” added Sammy Hagar. “My love to the family.”
Were it not for his titanic influence, hard rock after the late 1970s would have evolved in unimaginably different ways. He may not have invented two-handed tapping, but he perfected the practice and introduced it to a mass audience. Yet despite his complete mastery of the electric guitar, he never learned to read music.
“I don’t know shit about scales or music theory,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980. “I don’t want to be seen as the fastest guitar in town, ready and willing to gun down the competition. All I know is that rock & roll guitar, like blues guitar, should be melody, speed, and taste, but more important, it should have emotion. I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something: happy, sad, even horny.”
Even through Montrose’s Sammy Hagar replaced original frontman David Lee Roth in 1985, Van Halen ruled the rock world from their explosive self-titled LP in 1978 — arguably the most perfect debut by any group in rock history — all the way to the mid-1990s, when they parted ways with Hagar. The 2000s were marked by battles with alcohol, erratic public behavior, and nostalgic reunion tours with Hagar and Roth, but very little in the way of new music.
Still, no matter who was fronting the group or when they had their last hit, fans never stopped flocking to Van Halen concerts to worship at the altar of Eddie Van Halen. “I suppose what bothers me is that often the kids don’t even notice when I’m bad,” he told Rolling Stone. “I come offstage and get compliments up the ass. That’s so frustrating.”
Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born in Nijmegen, Netherlands, on January 26th, 1955, a year and half after his older brother, Alex. His father, Jan, was gifted at the clarinet, saxophone, and piano. “It was difficult to make money playing his type of music,” Eddie told Rolling Stone in 1995. “So he joined the [Dutch] air force band, and he played marches. Every morning at six o’clock he’d have to go up there freezing his ass off and play marches. We’d listen to all those march records, and Al and I would parade around the table in the living room and take pots and pans, doing all that kind of stuff. And at night we’d hear him playing classical music downstairs. He loved classical and jazz.”
The family immigrated to America when Eddie was eight and settled in Pasadena, California. An infatuation with the Dave Clark Five caused Eddie to take up the drums, while Alex tried his hands at guitar. One fateful day, frustrated that he couldn’t nail the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” on the drums, Eddie swapped instruments with Alex, and the change stuck.
The duo formed a series of bands in the early 1970s with names like the Broken Combs, the Trojan Rubber Company, and Genesis, but never got significant traction until they came across the charismatic son of a wealthy doctor named David Lee Roth. “Roth was the only guy who had a PA,” Eddie said. “We were renting his PA every weekend for $35 and getting $50 for the gigs. So it was cheaper to get him in the band.”
With Roth at the helm, Van Halen — which also featured Michael Anthony on bass — became one of the most popular groups on the Pasadena rock circuit, playing backyard parties, strip clubs, and whatever other venues they could find. Their repertoire consisted largely of covers, but they slowly began to assemble a collection of original tunes like “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” Kiss frontman Gene Simmons recorded a demo with them and tried to land them a deal, but they wouldn’t sign anything until Mo Ostin of Warner Bros. caught one of their gigs and gave them a record contract in 1977.
Years of relentless road work had turned the group into a tight unit, which producer Ted Templeman expertly captured on tape. The guitar solo “Eruption” remains a standout for Eddie’s jaw-dropping chops, while their cover of “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks shows their ability to make even the most familiar rock standard fresh and exciting.
But it’s the group’s original material such as “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Jamie’s Cryin'” that helped their self-titled debut album reach Number 19 on the Billboard 200 and get them a stint on the road opening up for Black Sabbath. “Just three years ago I was … up front with the rest of the kids to see Aerosmith,” Eddie told Rolling Stone in 1980. “Then a year later we’re playing with them. That boggled me to death. I mean, I knew I’d always play guitar, but I had no idea I’d be in the position I’m in now.”
They followed it up the next year with Van Halen II and the hit singles “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls.” The next five years were a blur of sold-out arenas, wild parties, and smash albums, even if they didn’t land a ton of big radio hits and many of their singles were covers like “Dancing in the Street” and “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” which Eddie later explained were a result of tension within the band.
“Dave and our producer, Ted Templeman, were threatened by [my new studio, 5150],” he told Rolling Stone in 1995. “The first thing I did up here was ‘Jump,’ and they didn’t like it. I said, ‘Take it or leave it.’ I was getting sick of their ideas of what was commercial. That’s how we ended up doing all those covers on [1982’s] Diver Down. I never wanted to be a cover band.”
The band may have been descending towards chaos, but Eddie found peace offstage when he married One Day at a Time actress Valerie Bertinelli in 1981. The guitarist said that Roth was unhappy with the marriage since it interfered with the group’s reputation as wild, single partiers. “I remember once he said, ‘Tell your old lady not to come to Detroit, because we’re doing a Life magazine interview,'” the guitarist told Rolling Stone in 1986. “He was afraid they were going to corner her and ask her some real things. So she ended up not coming to the show. I put up with it. But it hurt my wife. How do you think she felt? She was a newcomer, and not to be accepted in that way hurt her.”
When it came time to record a follow-up to Diver Down, Eddie insisted they record “Jump” and incorporate synthesizers into other tracks. The result was the smash 1984 that turned them into MTV superstars as videos for “Jump,” “Panama,” and “Hot for Teacher” went into heavy rotation and the album began selling by the millions, reaching Number 2 on the Billboard 200. The subsequent tour took them all over the world, but Eddie and Roth were barely speaking offstage. When the tour ended, Roth left the group and began working on a solo album. “I cried,” Eddie told Rolling Stone in 1995. “Then I called my brother and told him the motherfucker quit. I felt like I’d put up with this guy’s shit for all these years just for him to walk.”
Eddie briefly considered cutting a solo album with a parade of guest singers like Phil Collins, Joe Cocker, and Pete Townshend, but he quickly realized the band should simply carry on with a new singer. Ferrari dealer Claudio Zampolli arranged a meeting with former Montrose frontman Sammy Hagar, who’d just had a huge solo hit with “I Can’t Drive 55,” and they tried jamming together. “There was such chemistry, and it was so exciting,” Hagar told Rolling Stone in 2016. “We played until midnight, about 12 hours without stopping. I went to sleep, woke up the next morning, and went, ‘Wow, I’m joining that band.'”
Warner Bros. was unsure about the change and suggested they consider calling the band Van Hagar to separate it from what came before. “It would have been interesting,” said Hagar. “Looking back now, it’s sort of a way to divide the two eras up. But we were so fearless when we realized what we could all do together.”
Anyone who doubted Van Halen’s ability to carry on without Roth were proved wrong in March 1986, when 5150 hit shelves and became their first Number One album. That run at the top of the charts continued with 1988’s 0U812, 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and 1995’s Balance. Even though many hardcore fans preferred the Roth era, Hagar made the band even more popular and brought them huge hits like “Dreams,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” and “Poundcake.”
Things fell apart, however, when the group got into a fight over, of all things, a contribution to the Twister soundtrack. They’d just completed a long tour and Sammy wanted to take a break with his wife and new baby, but the group wanted to go right into the studio. “I said, ‘Sam, if you want to make another record or do another tour, you’ve got to be a team player,” Eddie told Guitar World. “Van Halen is a band — not the Sammy Hagar show, not the Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, or Michael Anthony show. He finally said, ‘Yeah, goddammit, I’m fuckin’ frustrated. I want to go back to being a solo artist.’ I said, ‘Thank you for being honest.'”
A brief reunion with Roth to record two new songs for a compilation album blew up when the group quarreled backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards. Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, who shared management with the band, was brought in to become their third singer. “The guy got out of the car, and immediately I could tell he was real,” Van Halen told Rolling Stone in 1998. “Not a hint of bullshit, no ego.”
But their 1998 effort Van Halen III failed to connect with fans, and the tour was soft in some markets. When it wrapped, Cherone was given his walking papers and the group went into an extended hiatus. When they reemerged in 2004 with Hagar for a reunion tour, Eddie was deep in the throes of alcohol addiction and acting extremely erratic. “He told me he cured himself [of tongue cancer] by having pieces of his tongue liquified and injected into his body,” Hagar wrote in his memoir. “He also told me when he had his hip replacement, he stayed awake through the operation and helped the doctors drill a hole.”
The tour was marred by sloppy performances and bad reviews. A little more than a year after it wrapped, Bertinelli filed for divorce. When the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, Eddie didn’t make the ceremony, reportedly because he was in rehab. Later that year, the group finally reunited with Roth, though they pushed Michael Anthony out of the band to make room for Eddie’s teenage son, Wolfgang, on bass.
In 2012, they finally released the new LP A Different Kind of Truth, though many of the songs originated as demos in the 1970s. They promoted it with a tour in 2012, and three years later they went out again to play U.S. amphitheaters. But Eddie said that writing new music with Roth was almost impossible. “It’s hard, because there are four people in this band, and three of us like rock & roll,” he told Billboard in 2015. “And one of us likes dance music. And that used to kind of work, but now Dave doesn’t want to come to the table.”
He also said that any sort of offstage relationship with Roth was virtually impossible: “He does not want to be my friend. How can I put this? Roth’s perception of himself is different than who he is in reality. We’re not in our twenties anymore. We’re in our sixties. Act like you’re 60. I stopped coloring my hair, because I know I’m not going to be young again.”
But the last time that Van Halen performed in public, at the Hollywood Bowl on October 4th, 2015, Roth embraced Eddie onstage as they both smiled warmly. “The best years of my life,” he said, “the high points of all my life — onstage with you, homeboy.”
We lost lots of legends over the past few years, but none hit harder than this news.
Can't believe he's gone.