Eddie Van Halen, 1955-2020

A rock and roll legend is gone too soon.

Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen on 3/4/78 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

One of the most-imitated and admired rock and roll guitarists has succumbed to cancer at the age of 65.

NPR (“Eddie Van Halen, Guitar Hero, Dies At 65“):

Eddie Van Halen, the guitarist and songwriter who helped give the radio-rock band Van Halen its name and sound, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was 65.

His death was announced by his son, Wolf Van Halen, on Twitter.

“I can’t believe I’m having to write this,” the statement said, “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.”

In a band known for its instability — due in part to a rotating cast of lead singers that most notably includes David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar — Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex remained constants, appearing on 12 studio albums that reached across five decades and sold tens of millions of copies.

No matter the singer, Eddie Van Halen’s high-flying guitar sound — heavy on tapping, with both hands on the neck of the instrument — was deeply influential, but also hard to imitate. He grew up obsessed with Eric Clapton, only to himself become a lodestar for generations of guitarists.

In 1972, with Alex on drums, Eddie Van Halen formed the band that would become Van Halen. By 1974, it had the lineup that would make it one of the biggest groups in rock history: the two Dutch-born brothers, plus bassist Michael Anthony and singer David Lee Roth. From there, Eddie Van Halen stood at the center of an era-spanning — but unmistakably volatile — rock-and-roll juggernaut.

Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, Van Halen became increasingly successful. Early hits such as 1979’s “Dance the Night Away” eventually gave way to the best-selling 1984 — the band’s sixth album — which spawned the chart-topping “Jump,” as well as flamboyant hits like “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.” Peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, 1984 was held back only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, whose iconic “Beat It” just happened to feature a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen.

But 1984‘s success only intensified tensions between the Van Halen brothers and David Lee Roth, who left the band in 1985 for a solo career that capitalized on his cheerful, outsize persona. The remaining members of Van Halen regrouped around former Montrose frontman Sammy Hagar, who helped the group top the charts with its next four albums: 5150 (1986), OU812 (1988), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) and Balance (1995).

From there, the band’s output slowed. Hagar left Van Halen in 1996, citing creative differences, which led Roth to rejoin briefly — only to give way to former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, whose one album with Van Halen (1998’s Van Halen III) was a critical and commercial disappointment. Hagar and Roth both rejoined the group at various points since, with the latter presiding over Van Halen’s final album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth.

Long known for his reclusiveness, Eddie Van Halen battled an assortment of issues with his health in recent years, including hip-replacement surgery in 1999, a bout with tongue cancer in the early 2000s, a history of drug and alcohol abuse that led him to enter a rehabilitation facility in 2007, and surgery for diverticulitis in 2012.

Though the guitarist often had contentious relationships with bandmates — particularly Roth and Hagar, each of whom criticized him heavily in books and interviews — Eddie Van Halen remained extremely close with family. In addition to a lifelong working relationship with his brother Alex, he tirelessly championed his son Wolf, who joined Van Halen as bassist after the departure of Michael Anthony in 2006.

Van Halen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

While I grew up listening to country and western, thanks to my parents, I became a fan of the rock genre in junior high upon our return to the States from Germany in 1979. My dad was stationed at Fort Bliss and we lived in El Paso and all the kids were listening to the album rock station KLAQ, “95 Rock.” It was there that I first heard Van Halen and so many other bands.

As with almost anything one is introduced to at that period in life, the original was my favorite. So, while I bought several albums during the “Van Hagar” period, I always considered the David Lee Roth iteration the “real Van Halen.”

But Eddie’s guitar was the constant. While the iconic photo of him atop the post is from the band’s breakout to superstardom, he was still going strong until quite recently.

Given his health history, I can’t say that his passing is a total shock. Still, he was not only a relatively youthful and active 65-year-old who could have continued touring for years to come.

Here’s his iconic instrumental, “Eruption”

“Running with the Devil” was a junior high favorite:

And, of course, “And the Cradle Will Rock,” with its timeless question, “Have you seen Junior’s grades?”

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. EddieInCA says:

    Who here can say that they had Van Halen* play a concert for them at home?

    This guy!!!

    *They were about 17-18 years old in 1973 when they played in my back yard in Highland Park because my sister knew David Lee Roth. David wanted to date my sister, but she was only like 13 and he was 17-18. They met, literally, roller skating at Moonlight Roller rink in Glendale. I was 14 at the time, and still remember it. All the kids from the neighborhood showed up. My mom was pissed by how loud it was.

    RIP Eddie.

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  2. Scott says:

    My one Eddie Van Halen story (and my one brush with celebrity).

    Went on a ski trip to Park City, UT in 1990 or 91. After a day of skiiing, my friend and I went to a basement bar called Papa Jenks. It was early so we had a table for 6 to ourselves. It was against the wall. The place filled up pretty quickly. Soon, a guy and a gal came by and ask if they could share the table and, of course, we said sure. She happened to be the editor of the local Park City newspaper and the guy’s name was David. He was an instructor there at Park City. Had a couple of beers and chatted. Soon afterward came Eddie and Valerie Bertinelli who came to join the other couple. David turned out to be David Bertinelli, Valerie’s brother. It was a very pleasant experience. Eddie drank Heineken and Valerie supervised. It was clear who was running the show.

    It’s a fun story to tell.

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  3. Paine says:

    My Van Halen phase was pretty short-lived as I moved on to heavier music in high school but no denying that EVH was an absolute legend. Rest in peace.

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  4. Mikey says:

    I still remember the first time I heard “Eruption.”

    I’d heard “Running With the Devil” on the local rock station (WRIF Detroit, The HOME of Rock-n-Roll!) and ran out to get the record. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time. I brought it home and put it on, the first song of Side 1 is “Running With the Devil” so that was cool, and wait, what’s this instrumental thing? Pretty cool start…nifty guitar…

    And then came the two-handed tapping thing Eddie basically pioneered…

    …and my teenage brain melted and then imploded. I was overwhelmed with awe.

    Eddie had his own sound, too–the combination of his technique and musical phrasing and the setup of his equipment. His sound was BIG. It came in like a freight train, all power and dirt and reverb and glory. With the first chord you knew it was Eddie Van Halen.

    RIP, Eddie. Thank you for all the years of great music and for sharing it with the world.

  5. Mikey says:

    @Paine: My musical taste is also much heavier than Van Halen now, but I have never lost my love for the David Lee Roth era albums. They are just absolute classics.

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  6. Jc says:

    For rock guitar to me it has always been Hendrix and then EVH. You can argue others (Clapton, Page) but there is no denying EVHs influence on an innumerable amount of guitarists and bands in general. Those two changed the instrument and may be jamming right now. RIP

  7. Paine says:

    My god, DLR’s outfit in that last video…

  8. keef says:

    EVH, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan………oh, and George Thorogood for a little slide action and the Bo Diddly beat.

    There you have it. EVH rest in peace.

  9. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Mikey:

    WRIF Detroit, The HOME of Rock-n-Roll!

    You can read it, but it had so much more impact when Arthur said it.

    Let’s not forget WABX and WWWW (pre-country). Sad now that FM is dead as well.

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  10. Mikey says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: I actually found Arthur saying that!

    https://youtu.be/xCQY02eKq10?t=87

    WLLZ “Detroit’s Wheels” is back, but it’s where W4 used to be at 106.7 MHz rather than 98.7 MHz where it was in the 80s.

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  11. Rob says:

    @Scott:I had an eerily similar experience, it was 1991/92. I worked with dave at the ski area. We hung out occasionally but I never put 2&2 together that dave Bertinelli was valeries brother until the Van Halen’s came to visit. I was really surprised when someone told me they were stopping to see her brother dave. I said dave who? Duh… Ed and Valerie were very nice and cordial. I remember dave as a genuine, down to earth guy who frankly never ever mentioned who he was related to. That alone speaks volumes to the character of his upbringing and the way he lives his life. I’m very sorry for their loss.

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