The guitar legend succumbed to cancer but left a mighty mark on rock ’n’ roll history.
Rock ’n’ roll will never die, but fans of hair metal and hard rock have one less guitar god walking among us, as Eddie Van Halen has passed away.
Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, announced the news on Twitter this morning. “I can’t believe I’m having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning,” he tweeted about his dad and bandmate. Wolfgang was in the final incarnation of Van Halen when he replaced bassist Michael Anthony and joined his uncle, Alex Van Halen, and David Lee Roth on what would be the group’s final tour.
“He was the best father I could ever ask for,” Wolfgang wrote. “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. I love you so much, Pop.”
Born in Amsterdam, Eddie and his family emigrated to Pasadena in 1962 when he was 7 and his older brother, Alex, was about to turn 9. Their father, a jazz musician, would often drive them across L.A. to San Pedro to get piano lessons from Stasys Kalvaitis.
Those lessons paid off. Eddie and Alex formed the legendary band in the mid-1970s alongside David Lee Roth and Anthony. They became the house band at the Sunset Strip club Gazzarri’s — now 1 Oak — next to the Rainbow and quickly became one of the most influential and successful bands of all time.
Their self-titled debut changed hard rock and heavy metal thanks to Eddie’s two-hand tapping technique unveiled on “Eruption” that would be forever heard in bedrooms, garages and guitar stores, emulated by every young aspiring rock star wielding an electric guitar.
The guitarist also provided the awe-inspiring solo for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” a cameo he nearly turned down because he didn’t believe the voice on the phone asking him to join the session belonged to the legendary producer Quincy Jones. And he didn’t believe he had anything he could contribute to the recording of “Thriller.”
But Eddie went to the studio the next day and asked Jones what he’d like for him to do on the single, “and [Quincy] goes, ‘Whatever you want to do,” Eddie told CNN in 2012. “And I go, ‘Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, ‘Do anything you want!'”
Eddie listened to an early version of “Beat It” and reworked the song with the engineer and laid down two solos quickly. So quickly, rumor has it he never sent an invoice to the King of Pop.
“I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in,” he recalled. “And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, ‘Look, I changed the middle section of your song.'”
Jackson listened and was impressed and grateful. “‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.'” Van Halen recalled Jackson saying.
Ironically, the success of “Thriller,” fueled in part by “Beat It,” kept Jackson’s album atop the charts for 37 straight weeks in ’83-’84, blocking Van Halen’s “1984” from ever going number one. But it did provide a bit of levity for its guitarist when he strolled into a record store in the Valley.
“I’ll never forget when Tower Records was still open over here in Sherman Oaks,” Eddie told CNN. “I was buying something, and ‘Beat It’ was playing over the store sound system. The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, ‘Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.’ I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘That IS me!’ That was hilarious.”
Decades later, Eddie would attend a Tool concert with his son where a fan asked if he could take a photo of him in front of the stage. Little did the fan know who he was asking to snap the photo. Wolfgang was there to document the hilarity.
According to Scott Sterling, author of the Van Halen book, Runnin’ with the Devil: Growing Up Black and Metal in Detroit Rock City, Eddie was more than just a guitar virtuoso, he was a fully realized musician, and his love of keyboards, dating back to his childhood piano lessons in Pedro, should not be overlooked. Likewise, the “Van Hagar” era should be considered part of the Van Halen canon, despite the softness of those songs which irked early devotees of the group.
“Combining Eddie and Sammy Hagar– as much as I love David Lee Roth, Dave was a showman and Sammy was a real singer,” Sterling explained. “Eddie was at the point where he needed a real singer to realize the songs in his head. Anthems like ‘Right Now’ which for a lot of people were like, ‘whatever.’ But for other people, it was a huge record that DLR never could have pulled off.”
Up the coast in Santa Barbara, Nerf Herder’s Parry Gripp wrote and performed one of the more interesting and loving Van Halen tribute songs decrying Roth’s exit and Hagar’s arrival.
“Is this what you wanted, Sammy Hagar? Sammy Hagar, is this what you wanted, man?” Gripp sings on the band’s hit “Van Halen,” saying he’ll never listen to his favorite band again. A concept echoed by many of the band’s followers who hated the new direction post “1984.”
Now following Eddie’s passing, Gripp had this to say to Los Angeleno: “Eddie Van Halen meant the world to me in high school. His playing was remarkable, and to my 14-year-old ears, inhumanly fast. But after decades of listening to him, I’d say the real magic of Eddie Van Halen was the undeniable emotional connection that his playing conveyed. Joy and sadness, he said things with his fingers that words couldn’t express. There are a lot of guys who can shred, but he never just hammered away like a robot. Every note that Eddie tapped on his fretboard came straight from his heart.”
Eddie’s influence stretched far beyond aspiring guitarists and teens. Pantera’s “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott reportedly listened to early Van Halen records before every show. “He plays ‘Eruption’ and you go, ‘Shit, I never heard a guitar sound like that in my life.’ He was to our generation what Hendrix was to his,” Abbott told Ultimate Classic Rock.
When Abbott was shot and killed by a crazed fan who leaped on stage and murdered him, it is said that “Van Halen” were his last words.
Upon hearing about the shocking murder, Eddie traveled to Abbott’s funeral with a special gift: the guitar he used on “Van Halen II,” the 1979 sophomore classic that included “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls.” Eddie gave the guitar to Abbott’s girlfriend, who then placed it in the casket. Eddie didn’t have the heart to look into the casket. But he did have something to share with Abbott’s family and friends.
“I’m here for the same reason as everyone else: to give some love back. … This guy was full of life. He lived and breathed rock ’n’ roll,” Eddie said to the fellow mourners that day. Then he held his cell phone to the microphone and played a message Abbott had left for him days before his death. Words that ring true today.
“Thank you so much, man, for the most awesome, uplifting, euphoric, spiritual rock ’n’ roll extravaganza ever!” Abbott said in his message.
Today, tributes from bandmates, musicians and admirers flooded Twitter.