Eddie Van Halen Dead at 65
The news was confirmed by his son Wolfgang. "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 wrote on Twitter. "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."
Van Halen's former wife Valerie Bertinelli, who gave birth to Wolfgang in 1991, reported that she and their son were with Eddie during the final moments of his life. "Throughout all your challenging treatments for lung cancer, you kept your gorgeous spirit and that impish grin," she wrote on Twitter. "I'm so grateful Wolfie and I were able to hold you in your last moments. I will see you in our next life my love."
In her own post, Van Halen’s second wife, Janie, with whom he’d been married since 2009, declared that her “heart and soul have been shattered into a million pieces” by the rocker’s passing. “I never knew it was possible to cry so many tears or feel such incredible sadness.”
David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar all paid tribute to their former bandmate on social media, each posting pictures of themselves alongside the guitar wizard. Roth's post simply reads "What a long great trip it's been," while Hagar and Anthony describe themselves as speechless and heartbroken.
Van Halen’s health woes began in 2000 when he was treated for tongue cancer. Initially, the guitarist, who traditionally didn’t talk about his well-being, would only admit to having undergone an outpatient procedure to prevent cancer. He later revealed that a third of his tongue was removed in surgery and was declared cancer-free in 2002.
That status would not last forever. The cancer returned in 2011, this time spreading to his esophagus. Soon afterward, the musician was forced to have emergency surgery due to a severe - though unrelated - case of the digestive disorder diverticulitis.
"Cancer is like a cockroach," Van Halen once opined to Howard Stern. "It just comes back stronger."
Though Van Halen was once a heavy smoker, he blamed a different habit for his diagnosis: "I used metal picks – they're brass and copper – which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer," he told Billboard in 2015. "Plus, I basically live in a recording studio that's filled with electromagnetic energy. So, that's one theory. I mean, I was smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything. But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it's possible."
The rocker’s declining health had been the subjects of many rumors, whispers which were amplified by his band’s inactivity. A photo in which Van Halen appears to have a shaved head and gaunt look circulated in June 2019, further stoking fans’ fears.
Van Halen was born in the Netherlands, but moved to Southern California with his family at the age of seven. Raised in a musical household, the future rock star initially learned the piano before discovering the guitar.
Eddie and his older brother Alex formed their first band, the Broken Combs, in 1964. As the group continued to evolve, it adopted several other names, including the Trojan Rubber Co., Genesis and Mammoth. The band, which at this point had welcomed singer David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony, changed their name to Van Halen in 1974.
Van Halen made a name for themselves in the Los Angeles music scene, playing everything from house parties and school dances, to shows at the legendary Whiskey a Go Go. Though an initial demo tape, recorded with Gene Simmons of Kiss, did not generate interest, the band eventually signed their first record deal in 1977.
Released Feb. 10, 1978, Van Halen’s self-titled debut album launched the band into stardom. Tracks like “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Jamie’s Cryin’” and a cover the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” became worldwide hits. Chief to Van Halen’s sound was Eddie’s guitar work, a distinct blend of aggression and braggadocio. His style would help usher in a golden age of guitar playing and became the high-water mark to which other ax wielders were measured. Meanwhile, Van Halen would go on to sell more than 10 million copies, becoming one of the biggest debuts of all time.
Over the next four-plus decades, Van Halen would cement themselves as one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Sold-out tours, millions of adoring fans and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only begins to explain the magnitude of their legacy. A string of multi-platinum albums reflected their massive commercial appeal, with the group’s seminal LP 1984 ranking among the best-selling of the ‘80s. Even as the band endured lineup changes, most notably the decade-long period from 1986-96 in which Sammy Hagar replaced Roth, Eddie remained the dependable engine of the Van Halen machine.
Family was also paramount to Eddie. In 1982, his father, Jan, recorded clarinet on the band’s version of “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).” The Van Halen patriarch had previously been a musician in his own right, performing in groups throughout the Netherlands and U.S. before instilling the musical bug in his sons. Even though the jazzy track was a departure in sound for the band, it became a fan favorite.
Years later, Eddie welcomed another family member into the band, his son, Wolfgang. The bassist was only 15 when he replaced Anthony in the group, touring with Van Halen and contributing to their 2012 album A Different Kind of Truth. Eddie was married to Wolfgang’s mother, actress Valerie Bertinelli, for 26 years. The couple divorced in 2007; the guitarist later married actress Janie Liszewski in 2009.
Eddie's contributions to music were not limited to Van Halen. The guitarist famously played the solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” co-wrote tracks with Black Sabbath and created a line of guitars and accessories.
Still, if a man’s legacy is best defined by the influence he has on others, then it’s Eddie’s fellow musicians who can encapsulate what he meant to the world.
Aerosmith’s Joe Perry has stated that Van Halen “reinvented guitar playing,” while Jeff Beck praised his “amazing technique.” Steve Vai called his contributions to guitar “immeasurable,” Tom Morello labeled him “innovative” and Phil Collen of Def Leppard described Eddie as a “pioneer” who, along with Jimi Hendrix, defined “electric guitar as we know it today.”