Rocker Eddie Van Halen, former guitar virtuoso of rock group Van Halen, died Tuesday morning at the age of 65 from throat cancer, according to his son, Wolfgang.
Wolfgang Van Halen posted a brief message to his Twitter page.
“I can’t believe I’m having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning,” he wrote. “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.”
Van Halen had been suffering from cancer for more than a decade. While he was a longtime chain smoker, he blamed his cancer onset on a metallic pick he often held in his mouth.
Van Halen is considered to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time — using blinding speed, control and innovation — and one of the kings of the rock genre. One of his most notable solos was featured in Michael Jackson’s hit Beat It.
With his distinct solos, Eddie Van Halen fuelled the ultimate California party band and helped knock disco off the charts starting in the late 1970s with his band’s self-titled debut album and then with the blockbuster record 1984, which contains the classics Jump, Panama and Hot for Teacher.
“I don’t know s–t about scales or music theory,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980. “I don’t want to be seen as the fastest guitar in town, ready and willing to gun down the competition. All I know is that rock & roll guitar, like blues guitar, should be melody, speed, and taste, but more important, it should have emotion. I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something: happy, sad, even horny.”
Van Halen is among the top 20 best-selling artists of all time. Rolling Stone magazine put Eddie Van Halen at No. 8 in its list of the 100 greatest guitarists, and the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Born Edward Lodewijk van Halen in Nijmegen, Netherlands, on January 26, 1955, he and his family emigrated to the U.S. when Van Halen was eight and settled in Pasadena, Calif.
After settling on guitar when he grew frustrated with the drums, Van Halen had found his way. As he grew older, the band — the two Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex; vocalist Roth; and bassist Michael Anthony — formed in 1974. Together they became one of the most popular rock bands in Pasadena, eventually landing them an official contract.
(They were originally named Mammoth, but then changed to Van Halen after discovering there was another band called Mammoth.)
Their 1978 release Van Halen opened with a blistering Runnin’ With the Devil and then Van Halen showed off his astonishing skills in the next song, Eruption, a furious 1:42 minute guitar solo that swoops and soars like a deranged bird. The album also contained a cover of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me and Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam told Rolling Stone magazine that listening to Van Halen’s Eruption was like hearing Mozart for the first time. “He gets sounds that aren’t necessarily guitar sounds — a lot of harmonics, textures that happen just because of how he picks.”
Van Halen released albums on a yearly timetable — Van Halen II (1979), Women and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981) and Diver Down (1982) — until the monumental 1984, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album charts (behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller). Rolling Stone ranked 1984 No. 81 on its list of the 100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s.
“Eddie put the smile back in rock guitar, at a time when it was all getting a bit brooding. He also scared the hell out of a million guitarists around the world, because he was so damn good. And original,” Joe Satriani, a fellow virtuoso, told Billboard in 2015.
But strains between Roth and the band erupted after their 1984 world tour and Roth left. The group then recruited Sammy Hagar as lead singer — some critics called the new formulation Van Hagar — and the band went on to score its first No. 1 album with 5150, More studio albums followed, including OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance. Hit singles included Why Can’t This Be Love and When It’s Love.
Hagar was ousted in 1996 and former Extreme singer Gary Cherone stepped in for the album Van Halen III, a stumble that didn’t lead to another album and the quick departure of Cherone. Roth would eventually return in 2007 and team up with the Van Halen brothers and Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s son, on bass for a tour, the album A Different Kind of Truth and the 2015 album Tokyo Dome Live in Concert.
For much of his career, Van Halen wrote and experimented with sounds while drunk or high or both. He revealed that he would stay in his hotel room drinking vodka and snorting cocaine while playing into a tape recorder. (Hagar’s 2011 autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock portrays Eddie as a violent, booze-addled vampire, living inside a garbage-strewn house.)
“I didn’t drink to party,” Van Halen told Billboard. “Alcohol and cocaine were private things to me. I would use them for work. The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions. I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state.”
Sober since 2008, he lost one-third of his tongue to a cancer that eventually drifted into his esophagus. In 1999, he had a hip replacement. He was married twice, to actress Valerie Bertinelli from 1981 to 2007 and then stuntwoman-turned-publicist Janie Liszewski, whom he wed in 2009.
He is survived by his wife, Janie, and his son.