Eddie Van Halen has died (More details added)

As if 2020 didn’t already suck enough, word from LA is that Eddie Van Halen has died at the age of 65 after a long, long battle with cancer. His son Wolfgang posted this.

Eddie has been suffering from various forms of mouth and throat cancer since the late 90s, resulting in the surgical removal of a third of his tongue in 2000. The cancer might have been from years of heavy smoking (he picked up the habit when he was 12), although Eddie believed it may have been the result of sucking on metal guitar picks. He’d keep them in his mouth, retrieving them when necessary to play.

For a while–five years, apparently–he was going back and forth to Germany for special treatments. Those seem to have been working since every time there was a rumour about Eddie’s imminent death, he’d pop up again in public–a Tool concert, a car dealership–to show that everything was fine. He was, however, in and out of the hospital over the last year, apparently for gastro-intestinal issues. He was also have said to have undergone a round of chemo recently, but the cancer spread to his brain and his condition deteriorated significantly over just a couple of days. He died at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.

Eddie is survived by his wife Janie (they married in 2008 and she was with him when he passed), son and bandmate Wolfgang, and his brother and bandmate, Alex. Eddie was also famously married to Valerie Bertinelli between 1981 and 2007.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard Van Halen for the first time. I was stocking shelves in the local grocery store and we because the boss had left for the day, we switched the store radio to the brand-new local FM rock station. When “Runnin’ with the Devil” came on, we all stopped and stared in wonderment at the speaker hanging on a post. “What the hell was this?”

The next day, I bought that first VH album on cassette. I’d never heard guitar sounds and techniques and textures like this.

Eddie’s guitar sound and tone were unique, the product of serious modifications to his guitar (the so-called Frankenstein ax) and some fiddling with his amplifiers. It was the most melodic distortion ever heard combined with exquisite sustain. How did he do it? Well, he did have a patent for “musical instrument support” that frees up a guitarist’s hands to make the two-handed tapping technique more effective.

And the solos! The hammer-on/two-handed tapping technique had been used in the past (Eddie got the idea from Jimmy Page in the Led Zeppelin song “Heartbreaker”), but not to the same extent (and with the same virtuosity) as what we heard from Eddie. These abilities were bourne out of necessity. In the pre-fame days and unable to afford big amps and effects pedals, all he had was his guitar. As he once explained to people at the Smithsonian, “I did all I could to get all the sound I could get out of my fingers.”

Eddie redefined rock guitar, inspiring millions. And he just kept getting better. Those close to him say that he was never, ever without a guitar. He was always messing with one, working on riffs, lead lines, and solos. How did he pull off some of that stuff? He made it look effortless.

And let’s not forget his songwriting abilities. Do I really have to run down the list of Van Halen songs that have become classics? And even when we were a little skeptical when Eddie introduced keyboards on the 1984 album, it turned out to be a brilliant move. In fact, those six albums with David Lee Roth and produced by Ted Templeman are all worth having in your collection. (I never bought into the Van Hagar thing. Sorry, Sammy.)

Eddie was in demand by everyone. That killer solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It?” Eddie–who, by the way rearranged the song to make it work. He also guested on material by Roger Waters, Sammy Hagar, and even LL Cool J.

My favourite Eddie cameo came in Back to the Future. Remember when Marty McFly spooked his future dad in his sleep by tormenting him with a taped guitar solo from the 80s? Eddie.

I saw VH in concert many times. I wonder how many people wanted to be Eddie, the guitar god with a perpetual smile on his face that said “Ain’t life great?”

Thanks, Eddie. You made rock so much better while you were around.

Variety as a good obit here. More coverage here, here, and here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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