Eddie Van Halen, the self-taught guitarist for Van Halen who influenced generations of players with his legendary licks, died today of cancer. He was 65 and had battled health problems and substance abuse for years. His son and bandmate, Wolfgang Van Halen, announced the news on social media:
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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 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. I love you so much, Pop.
Famous for his signature red-white-and-black guitar, Van Halen introduced entirely new sounds to hard rock. He ranks No. 1 on Guitar World‘s 2012 poll of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time and eighth on Rolling Stone’s 2015 list.
Van Halen is among the most popular and influential hard-rock bands to emerge from Los Angeles, which is saying a lot. Pretty much every heavy metal guitar player to emerge in the late 1970s or early ’80s, when the genre was at its commercial peak, owes a debt to Van Halen and its singular player. In a classic scene from the 1985 film Back to the Future, the time-traveling Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) famously slips headphones on his sleeping father-to-be (Crispin Glover) and inserts a cassette marked “Edward Van Halen.” The ensuing shredfest awakens the sci-fi-obsessed teen, and time-traveling McFly controls the playback dressed as a spaceman to get the boy to do his bidding.
Born on January 26, 1955, in Nijmegen, the Netherlands; Eddie was a founding member of the band that bore his name, along with his older brother Alex Van Halen. After moving from Holland to Southern California in the early 1960s, the brothers from a musical family teamed with singer David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony to create one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest and most enduringly popular groups. Van Halen amassed a dozen multiplatinum albums; rank 20th among all recording artists in U.S. album sales at 56.5 million-plus; and left a legacy of classic songs, memorable live shows and infamous debauchery.
Bursting out of Pasadena, by 1977, the quartet was signed to Warner Bros Records, and their 1978 eponymous debut album became a breakout smash. Despite barely cracking the national top 20, Van Halen would spend more than three years on the Billboard 200 and has been certified 10 times platinum.
The album featured a cover of the Kinks classic “You Really Got Me” that dented the top 40, but its instrumental intro on the album has been fodder for hard-rock guitarists ever since. “Eruption” featured the two-handed “tapping” technique that Van Halen perfected and popularized. The track remains a must-learn for rock ax players. The album also features such raw rock classics as “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Atomic Punk” and “Feel Your Love Tonight.”
The group followed up its debut disc with Van Halen II (1979), which had a more polished sound but met with huge success. It peaked at No. 6, as did its follow-up, 1980’s Women and Children First. Multiple tracks from both discs were and remain staples of classic rock radio: “Beautiful Girls,” “Dance the Night Away,” “… And the Cradle Will Rock,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and others. By then, Van Halen was selling out arenas around the country.
Van Halen’s fourth LP, 1981’s Fair Warning, was the least popular of the Roth era — it remains “only” double-platinum — but spawned the rock staples “Unchained,” “So This Is Love?” and “Mean Street.” The group’s 1982 set Diver Down sold a little better and contained covers of “Oh, Pretty Woman” — with the Eddie Van Halen classic “Intruder” as its instrumental lead-in — and another Kinks hand-me-down, “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” The album also featured the Van Halen brothers’ father, Jan, playing clarinet on their tongue-in-cheek cover of the 1920s tune “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).”
Despite their FM success, Van Halen struggled to break through to mainstream top 40 radio in an era when rock was pop. “Dance the Night Away” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” had reached the Billboard top 20, but the lead single from the group’s sixth album would change that.
Released on January 9 of its titular year, 1984 featured “Jump,” a band composition that would spend five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, introducing Van Halen to the pop masses and landing the group its first Grammy nomination. Fueled by Eddie Van Halen’s signature synth riff, the song propelled 1984 to No. 2 — kept from the penthouse by Men at Work’s Business as Usual and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Eddie contributed to the latter, playing the scorching guitar solo on “Beat It.” The 1984 album also included such classic rock chestnuts as “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher” and synth-driven ballad “I’ll Wait.”
Here’s the classic “Beat It” video; Van Halen doesn’t appear in it, but his half-minute solo starts at the 3:11 mark:
The ensuing tour sold out around the world and included a headlining slot on “Heavy Metal Sunday” at the 1983 U.S. Festival, which drew some 400,000 fans to Glen Helen Regional Park east of Los Angeles that Memorial Day weekend. Those concerts — as before and generally since — had fans’ ping-ponging from Eddie Van Halen’s guitar wizardry to the charismatic Roth’s rock-god preening.
But long-simmering tensions were beginning to surface within the band. In February 1985, at the pinnacle of Van Halen’s global popularity, Roth released an offbeat solo EP of American standards and had an MTV and radio hit with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” The disc showcased the singer’s decidedly non-hard-rock side and fed the creative rift between the singer and guitarist Van Halen. Roth left the group that summer for what would become a spotty solo career.
Enter Sammy Hagar.
The veteran hard-rock vocalist who’d had lots of solo success and sang for Montrose in the 1970s gave the band a commercial jolt. His first album with Van Halen, 1986’s 5150, was the group’s best chart performer, giving the quartet its first No. 1 and ultimately selling more than 6 million units. Paced by the melodic but less-heavy lead single “Why Can’t This Be Love,” it solidified Van Halen’s status among the world’s most popular rock groups.
Here is a long clip of Van Halen playing “Eruption” on his signature ax in New Haven, CT, in 1986:
“Van Hagar” continued its impressive commercial run with OU812 in 1988. It became the second of five consecutive studio albums to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Their 1991 disc For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge earned Van Halen its first Grammy, for Hard Rock Performance, and generated the FM smash “Right Now,” whose video clip won Video of the Year and two other Moonmen at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
A live album and another No. 1 studio disc — 1995’s Balance — later, Hagar would leave the group, and Roth returned for a brief reunion. But an infamous appearance together at the 1996 VMAs would doom that version of the group. Singer Gary Cherone of Extreme joined the group for one forgettable album, 1998’s Van Halen III, and tour, but Van Halen had peaked as a commercial band.
Van Halen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, though Eddie did not attend the ceremony due to health problems. Alex Van Halen, who’d started the band as its guitarist but would cede that spotlight to his kid brother and take over drumming duties — also sat out the induction ceremony, but Hagar was there.
By then, Roth had agreed to return to Van Halen for a tour, but it was delayed by Eddie’s health concerns. Hell froze over several months later, though, and the Van Halen brothers, Roth and Eddie’s then-16-year-old son Wolfgang — who took over bass duties from Anthony — held a news conference at the Beverly Hilton announcing their reunion tour. “We are a band,” Eddie said succinctly at the event. “And we are going to continue.” The ensuing North American arena jaunt was a success, and there seemed, finally, to be peace in the Van Halen camp.
In February 2012, the reunited quartet released A Different Kind of Truth, its first album of new material since 1984, and returned to the concert stage. But the tour was scuttled twice — first when its final 30 dates were scrapped over what sources said was burnout, and later when Eddie Van Halen came down with diverticulitis. Still, the truncated tour grossed more than $38 million and played to some 95% capacity.
In 1999, Van Halen underwent a hip replacement after a painful four-year battle with a bone tissue disease. He began tongue cancer treatment in 2000 and ultimately had a large portion of his tongue removed. His diverticulitis required emergency surgery in 2012.
Van Halen is survived by his wife of 11 years, Janie Liszewski; his brother, Alex; son, Wolfgang; and ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli, to whom he was married from 1981-2007 and is the mother of their son.