“How’s Michael Anthony doing?”
That’s the first thing I say to Eddie Van Halen, the legendary guitarist and co-namesake of the rock band Van Halen. Rather, that’s the first thing I say to someone who possibly is but probably isn’t Eddie Van Halen. I mean, who am I kidding? There’s no way the real Eddie Van Halen’s email address should be available for anyone to find in a public database — and it sure as shit shouldn’t be an America Online account.
In other words, this can’t be him, which is why the first email I send is something this stupid and slapdash. Those familiar with the history of Van Halen know Anthony — the band’s original bassist — was not so much fired from Van Halen as he was replaced in 2006 with Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, without anyone ever bothering to tell Anthony. At least that’s how Anthony’s told it. So, my opening line is the type of thing you might see a Van Halen traditionalist hold up on a giant sign at a concert just to troll Anthony’s replacement.
This isn’t just a fan talking. In a former life, I’d been a music journalist, including some time as an editor for Rolling Stone’s website. Back then, I got to interview everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Diddy. But now it’s 2015, and I’m more than a decade removed from my dream job. Today, as a market researcher for a health-insurance company, I stare at data tables till my eyes water and monitor my employer’s social media mentions, featuring angry posts about how only “fraudelent fucks” and “#scumbags” would work there.
Sending emails like this has become something of a pastime, an exercise in nostalgia when the drudgery of my workday becomes too much to handle. Not long ago, I discovered that an old login I had to LexisNexis — a directory lawyers and journalists use that shows, among other things, a person’s criminal record, residences, phone numbers, and, yes, email addresses — had never been deactivated. After using it to look up a couple of exes, I’d turned to rock stars. On a lark, I’d reached out to who Nexis told me was Gene Simmons, Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks, and pretty much every member of the original Guns N’ Roses. But I’d gotten nary a response.
So, I fire off the Michael Anthony email at close to 5 o’clock on Sunday, May 31, 2015, and figure that’ll be the beginning and end of it. But 51 minutes later: “You’ve Got Mail!” That response kicks off a five–plus-year correspondence that would change my life.
I don’t actually see the email until Monday morning, when I get to work. My insides flutter just a bit.
“Not nearly as good as Wolfgang Van Halen, nor will he ever!! Who the fuck is this, you would know that if you had a brain and ears!!”
Whoever this is, they’re pretty protective of Wolfie. Here’s another thing: The time stamp on the email is 6:46 p.m. — or what time it would have been in California, where Eddie Van Halen is known to live, when it was sent.
And this is a bit of a reach, but twice the writer uses double-exclamation points — the same way Van Halen does on the song “Everybody Wants Some!!” That’s always annoyed the shit out of me and, quite frankly, makes me enjoy the song less. Most normal people either use one or three exclamation points as a point of emphasis or volume. But two? I start thinking this person is either Eddie Van Halen or the world’s greatest Eddie Van Halen impersonator.
There is one other thing I notice. Next to the email address is a name: Edward Van Halen.
But, no, it’ll take more than that to catfish me. So I write back immediately, throwing in a reference to Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth, which was released three years earlier. It’s their first album featuring David Lee Roth since 1984 (released in the titular year), and seven of its 13 songs have origins that date back to before the band released its self-titled debut in 1978.
“Regardless, you screwed up the classic lineup and, with all due respect to your son, with DLR’s voice in the shitter, you need Anthony more now than ever. And how ’bout some new music you didn’t write in 1975? You are super lazy.”
I sound like Principal Ed Rooney talking shit to who he’s pretty sure isn’t Sloane Peterson’s dad. Yet my question appears to strike a nerve. A few hours later, five new emails arrive in my inbox. They’re a bit stream-of-consciousness, filled with rage and incredulity. I speed-read them all.
The writer says they “can’t control Roth’s voice” and mocks my stopgap solution that Anthony rejoin the band to help cover for Roth’s vocal inadequacies. “And now you think Mike is a ‘lead singer,’ ” reads one email. “He sounds like Mickey Mouse. He just has a high voice.” Then they blame Roth for leaving the band originally in 1985 and lament the decision to bring Sammy Hagar in to replace him later that year: “Once Hagar joined it was never the same.”
“This is the last thing I’m going to say,” reads the final email. “When Hagar quit, Mike went with him instead of staying with Alex and me. That was as much of a betrayal as Roth blindsiding us when he quit. We didn’t see either one coming!! All we had was ourselves, Alex and myself. Wolf happened to be there and [it was] fun again. Life is change. I can’t control it any more than you can. If I could, I would change a lot of things starting with never having my first drink and maybe sticking to piano instead of guitar!!”
Holy shit. That’s a lot to unpack. And those damn double-exclamation points!!
“When Hagar quit, Mike went with him. That was as much of a betrayal as Roth blindsiding us. We didn’t see either one coming!! All we had was Alex and myself.”
Not including the pre-Van Halen band Mammoth, the 2015 incarnation of Van Halen is their fourth, with Eddie and his brother, Alex, the drummer, serving as the constants. It came to be when Wolfgang got permission from his dad and Uncle Alex to phone Roth and ask if he’d be interested in jamming with the band. He agreed, and it’s been Eddie, Alex, Wolfgang, and Roth ever since. As Roth told crowds on the 2007 tour, the lineup was “three parts original, one part inevitable.”
But it was the classic lineup, featuring Anthony instead of Wolf, that had sold 57 million albums on the strength of ubiquitous classic-rock jams like “Jump,” “Unchained,” and “Dance the Night Away.” It lasted from 1974 until Roth quit in 1985 to try to become a film star (he failed) and solo artist (moderate success). If you include the two new songs Roth contributed to 1996’s Best of Van Halen, Volume 1 and a trainwreck reunion at the MTV Video Music Awards the same year, this period marks Roth’s third stint in the band.
Still, Eddie and Roth have never gotten along. For the many years Roth wasn’t in the band, Eddie often wouldn’t even mention him by name, instead referring to “the previous guy,” “a certain person” or, every once in a while, “Cubic Zirconia,” an unsubtle jab at Roth’s “Diamond Dave” sobriquet. An equally mature Roth once said he was tasked with replacing three members from his “last band” for his first solo album.
Other than Roth, Eddie’s other nemeses have been alcohol, cigarettes, and cancer. He started smoking and drinking heavily early in his career as a way to “treat” his performance anxiety and, despite many attempts to quit, he just couldn’t. He made a gallant effort around the time Wolf joined the band, but fell off the wagon again just before the 2007 tour. Shows were canceled and Ed returned to rehab. Now, finally, after years of relapses, he’s clean and sober.
Amid all of that, in 2000, Eddie learned he had tongue cancer, which spread to his esophagus; two years later, a third of his tongue was removed, after which he was deemed cancer-free.
Considering all the real Eddie Van Halen has endured — and on the off chance this is actually him — it may be time to soften my tone.
“Damn, OK . . . didn’t mean to get you all riled up,” I respond 21 minutes after the sender’s most recent email. “Maybe Mike was mad b/c VH wasn’t doing anything for years… I mean it took, what, 15 years to do Truth? Just sayin’ . . .”
It works. After saying this would be the “last thing I’m going to say,” the writer says much, much more — enough to more or less confirm that it’s indeed the real Eddie Van Halen. (A representative for Van Halen said the band and Eddie’s family declined to comment on the correspondence. A representative for Wolfgang also declined comment.)
That same day, he tells me he “gets riled up because I’m always the one who gets blamed for everything.” Then he eviscerates Roth, or at least that’s how I see it at the time. It’ll prove tame by future standards.
“The reason it took that long for Truth is Roth, including all the rehashed demos,” he begins. That’s the same reason, he says, the band has “nothing but a live record [2015’s Tokyo Dome Live in Concert] to show for three years downtime.” Roth, he explains, only wants to be onstage doing his “Vaudeville shtick!!” He then says that “Roth is out of his mind” and not at all interested in rock & roll, which makes recording new music a near impossibility. He says Roth only likes “dance music” and “hates bands like AC/DC,” adding that Roth calls that band’s fans “culturally illiterate.”
“Well, I guess that makes me one of them ’cause I love AC/DC and its simplicity,” he continues, saying the band inspired many Van Halen songs he’d written, including “Panama,” “Drop Dead Legs,” and “Good Enough.” But because Roth doesn’t like their music, he says, “I have no outlet. It’s very frustrating. If people only knew the truth, they wouldn’t believe some of the shit that goes on and what we put up with. Probably not much longer though. I’m too old for this shit!! I really wish things were different, but they’re not!! All the best man!!”
I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. For this not to be Eddie Van Halen, you’d have to believe a weapons-grade EVH doppelgänger was just lying in wait in hopes that some internet troll would mysteriously acquire his email address and then use it to bombard him with fanboy questions. That’s some QAnon-level crazy. But, then again, why? And why me? So, almost exactly 48 hours after my initial email, I just ask.
“You know, I asked myself the same question and there are actually a few reasons,” begins the response. “For one, whenever we do interviews we can’t really tell the whole truth because if I said in an interview what I have said to you certain people would get pissed.” And since the band at least appears from the outside to be working together, “it wouldn’t do much good to say that I think our own lead singer sucks and is a complete mental case pre-Madonna.” The other reason? “It’s almost a strange kind of therapy to tell the truth to someone you don’t even know!! Make any sense to you??!!”
He had me at “pre-Madonna.”
Fairly convinced now that I’m talking with Eddie Van Halen, I decide to offer up my name. And my journalism credentials, too. I say that I’m a huge Van Halen fan, and that I hope to meet him when the band plays in Tinley Park, about 60 miles southeast of my suburban Chicago home, the next month.
“Well hi Blair!! I had a feelin’ but that’s neither here nor there,” probably-Eddie Van Halen writes back. “Are you a male or female?? I know a Blair that’s a chick and 2 that are guys!! Ed.”
Ed. For the first time, he signs off as “Ed.” I feel like a mobster who just got made: I get to call him “Ed.”
Van Halen were the first band I liked that was undeniably cool. I was 12 years old and weaning myself off Air Supply, Christopher Cross, and other early-Eighties, Casey Kasem American Top 40 drek for what I thought was much cooler shit — like Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey. Then one day in the school cafeteria, a friend popped Van Halen’s eponymous debut into a GE cassette player and pressed play. And Jesus fuckin’ Christ. Even on a low-grade, three-and-a-half-inch speaker, it was a mindfuck.
Of the original four band members, Ed always seemed like the biggest mystery. Mostly it’s those unduplicable legato notes he makes flow from his custom-made red, white, and black Frankenstrat guitar. Or the whammy-bar dives and sorcerous two-handed finger tapping he popularized, which unintentionally helped inspire the birth of hair metal. In any rock & roll era, past, present, or future, Ed was and will always be ahead of his time.
Unlike his musicianship, his words are generally tame and, at times, seem almost scripted. It’s as if he never knows how to answer boilerplate questions about how it feels to be some sort of rock god, telling MTV in 1988, “It’s nice, ya know, but I’m just some punk kid who plays guitar.” He’s usually careful not to bash Roth in interviews, too.
As far back as 1982, Ed was biting his tongue. During an interview with Guitar Player magazine to help promote the release of Diver Down, he was asked why there were so few guitar solos on the album. Ed responded, “Dave said, ‘No more fucking guitar solos,’ ” which is a little like Dennis Rodman telling Michael Jordan “No more dunks.” “He’s on an ego trip,” Ed continued, before deciding to muzzle himself. “He’s always been, whatever …” Then he added: “And if you print this, I’m gonna fuckin’ come to your house and blow your ass away.”
He probably should have kept his mouth shut, too, when it came to his tongue cancer. Instead of blaming it on his nicotine addiction, he claimed it was the result of resting brass and copper guitar picks between his lips while performing. He later told Howard Stern, “I cured my cancer in a way that’s not exactly legal in this country. I’d tell you, but I don’t want to go to jail.” Hagar offered more details in his autobiography. “[Ed] told me he cured himself by having pieces of his tongue liquefied and injected into his body,” Hagar wrote. “He also told me when he had his hip replacement, he stayed awake through the operation and helped the doctors drill the hole. What a fruitcake.”
While Ed hasn’t told me anything that outrageous, that he’s been so open and available to me probably qualifies. We’ve been emailing and texting several times a week since my snarky overture, and now I feel like a contestant on a dating reality show: Time to see if this’ll work in real reality. Van Halen is gearing up for their first tour in two years, where they’ll be playing to about 15,000 rabid fans every night. It’s on the 10th stop of their 41-date summer tour where Ed and I are scheduled to finally meet.
Leading up to our meet-and-greet, Ed tells me that, following an endoscopy and biopsies of his esophagus, he’s cancer-free. “Yippee!!” he emails me. “That is more important than anything. If you don’t have your health, you got nothin’!!”
Truthfully, I had just assumed he was well. I’m no oncologist, but I know there’s no way a 60-year-old vaper is performing two-hour shows for 41 nights in the dead of summer if he’s in any real danger.
As the show gets closer, Ed also confirms what we already assumed was true — he and Roth do not get along.
Up until recently, Ed says, Roth at least spoke to Alex, but now the brothers have no communication with him at all. He continues, “I don’t know what I ever did to him, but so it goes,” adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he somehow implodes onstage or does something really, really stupid.”
Not only are Ed and Roth incommunicado, Ed says leading up to the July 5 tour opener in Auburn, Washington, that “I have a feeling Roth will not sing any of the deep cuts. I think we should play them with or without him, what do you think??”
That’s insane is what I think. Roth can’t sing for shit at this point, and everyone knows it — but Van Halen karaoke?
Ed attempts to clarify. “I’m talking about asking the audience to just sing along and tell them Roth doesn’t want to sing them,” he begins. “And if they go nuts, then tell them we’re gonna spend the next 15 to 20 minutes just you and us, without Roth. I think it’s gonna force Roth to come around and it can be kinda fun without him.”
Mercifully, somehow, Roth comes around, and, far as I can tell, sings on every song at every show, including the one I attend on July 24 at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, Illinois, where I finally get to meet Ed. I’m with my plus-one, friend and rock photographer Barry Brecheisen, who’ll be photographing the show.
We’re leaning against the white pockmarked concrete wall that snakes around the backstage corridor, staring at the cement-gray double doors that serve to demarcate dressing rooms and business offices from security areas and craft services. That’s the one Ed walks through. Prior to this moment, the closest I’d ever been to him was 27 years earlier, when, as a college freshman, I sat third-row center on the OU812 tour. I even caught a guitar pick Hagar side-armed into the crowd.
Some still see Eddie Van Halen as the trim, suspenders-wearing spark plug with long, tousled brown hair and an impish, thousand-watt grin. You know, the smiley guy in the “Jump” video, who always looks like he knows something you don’t.
On this day, only some of that is still true: He’s still thin, but so, too, is his short, gray hair. He walks slowly, slightly hunched, cradling his Pomeranian, Kody, as if he’s handling a nuclear football. Still, he seems peaceful, without a care in the world.
Shortly after Ed slips into his dressing room, we’re told to follow suit. We slowly walk toward the door just as he opens it slightly and peeks through.
“Which one is Blair?” he asks eagerly.
“Me,” I respond, now just inches away.
He sizes me up quickly, flashes that famous grin, and then pulls me in for a giant hug. “You’re not how I pictured you,” he says with a big smile. I don’t think to ask what he expected. Probably taller.
It’s just the three of us in this dimly lit, cavernous dressing room. Some guitars lean against the wall, though none I immediately recognize from Creem or Van Halen’s many music videos. There’s a rolling wardrobe rack tucked into a corner, too, but there isn’t anything on it. We all flop onto a fraying black leather couch and, almost immediately, Ed picks up right where we left off.
“Fuckin’ Roth,” he fumes, shaking his head.
As he rants about Roth’s vocals, his surfer-dude parlance matches what I’ve heard in countless interviews, as if it were cryogenically frozen from the Seventies, only now with a little more Camel-stained gravel. After about 15 minutes of bullshitting, we’re told it’s time to go, just as a small group of kids is ushered in. We don’t know why they’re there, but it becomes apparent they’re sick and this is something akin to their Make-A-Wish. It’s touching, and throws me a bit off my game, so much so that I forget to get a photo of us together. Ed does, however, give me a guitar pick and signs my Fair Warning CD.
Before we depart, he tells me to text him later to tell him what we thought of the show, and we hug one last time. Next time, I think, I’ll bring my son with me to meet him.
After the tour, I implore Ed to reconsider bringing back Hagar, mostly because he can still sing, unlike Roth. He texts me that Mike would be part of the package if Hagar were to rejoin the band and that he doesn’t “think I’d be able to play with him after Wolf!!”
When Roth left Van Halen, Hagar filled his shoes admirably. After all, he was the original frontman for the Seventies hard-rock outfit Montrose, an early Van Halen influence. The new lineup — known colloquially as “Van Hagar” — released four more albums and racked up 27 million more in album sales behind “love” songs like “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Love Walks In,” and “When It’s Love.”
In the years that followed, Hagar was fired (if you believe Hagar’s version) or quit (if you believe Ed’s), and briefly replaced by Roth, before Van Halen turned to its third lead singer, ex-Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. He was ousted after only one shit-sandwich-y album. Then came a chaotic reunion tour with Hagar, the last to feature either Hagar or Anthony.
The hostility Ed has for Hagar is arguably more dug in than it is for Roth, and totally different. When it comes to Roth, Ed’s rants are about his abysmal singing and rock-star egomania, while his Hagar slams boil down to claims of greed (“it’s all about money with Hagar,” he says at one point, adding in a seeming reference to Hagar’s successful tequila brand, “He used the band to elevate himself!!”) and a relentless drive for publicity. As Ed saw it, Hagar “just can’t open his mouth without saying Van Halen.” Even when Hagar had just formed his band Chickenfoot, Ed texts me, “instead of talking about his new band, all he did was basically say how much better they were than Van Halen. So, he’s actually our biggest promo man.” (Representatives for both Roth and Hagar declined comment to Rolling Stone.)
On Jan. 26, 2016, Ed turns 61 years old. I wish him a happy birthday. Soon after, I send him a screen grab: It’s of Hagar wishing him one, too, on Facebook; Hagar does the same on Twitter. The message includes a photo of Hagar and Ed onstage together. Ed seems genuinely surprised. He decides to respond, knowing, he says, it’ll “stir up some shit!!”
Ed is right — he stirs up shit. He thanks Hagar for the wishes on Twitter and, almost immediately, sends the blogosphere into a tizzy. Everyone everywhere with even a passing interest in Van Halen begins conjecturing that Hagar is back in the band. Hagar himself is shocked Ed responds to the message, and goes as far as reaching out to the Van Halen camp to confirm it’s really him who responded, Ed tells me later.
Months later, rumors of an impending reunion with Hagar persist. On Oct. 13, five months after we’d begun our correspondence, I tell Ed it’s Hagar’s birthday, but that if he wishes him a happy one on Twitter everyone will assume the rumors are true.
“I guess I won’t be then!!” he responds.
“Maybe we get the whole shebang up there. Wolf opens, Roth and Hagar swap every other song, and we squeeze Mike in somewhere!! Stranger things have happened!!”
In August 2017, in preparation for stem-cell shots, doctors do an MRI of Ed’s neck and back and discover swollen lymph nodes. He gets a CT scan which shows a mass in his lung. But they do an invasive search and find nothing.
His doctor is stumped. He tells Ed that whatever he saw on his CT scan, 70 percent of the time turns out to be cancer. But not this time.
“All I know,” he texts me, “is I’m one blessed, lucky motherfucker!!”
Twenty days later, I check in just to make sure everything is still OK. I don’t get a response that evening, which is unlike him — but I don’t pay it much mind. He always gets back to me. The next day, I’m in my home office, listening to R.E.M. and scrolling through Facebook on my laptop when I feel my phone vibrate. I pull it out of my pocket — it’s Ed. All I expect to read when I ask how he’s doing is something along the lines of, “I’m doing well, buddy, how are you??” That’s pretty standard, and it always makes me feel good. Buddy. But not this time. Instead, he tells me, “I have lung cancer.” It’s stage 3. Feeling faint, I reread it, just to make sure.
In October 2017, Ed begins what will be frequent trips to Europe for treatments not available in the States. No one, other than I’m assuming family and close friends, knows. I wish him well, wanting so bad to hear, once again, that it was all a big mistake. He gives me impossibly thorough updates, using terminology I need my wife, a physician assistant, to dumb down for me. And off he goes to Germany and Switzerland to make himself a guinea pig in a desperate attempt to prolong his life. One procedure, he says, “felt like two hands digging a 44-magnum bullet out of my chest.”
I try my hardest to keep things light, never knowing how or if I should even address his health. It’s not always about Roth or Hagar or that infamous tour-rider demand that prohibited promoters from including any brown M&M’s in backstage bowls of the candy during 1982’s global Hide Your Sheep Tour. (“They would actually hire a bunch of old ladies with hair nets and gloves to [remove them],” Ed texts me. “It was a pretty funny sight — like a small assembly line!!”)
Often, it’s just small talk. Ed binge-watched House of Cards before me, in June 2017, and the next year, I return the favor. “Are there new episodes without what’s his name??” he asks, referencing disgraced star Kevin Spacey.
Another time I’m sitting out back on a hot summer day when I get a reminder from Facebook that’s it been exactly three years since Ed and I met in Tinley Park. I text him a photo of him and Wolf from the show. It makes me wonder what he looks like now, so I ask if he uses a VIP entrance to avoid getting recognized at any of the myriad hospitals he frequents.
“People really don’t recognize me like in the ’80s or ’90s,” he responds. “They might look at me like it might be me and sometimes they ask.” Other times he hears them say as they walk away, “Fuck, that was Eddie Van Halen!!”
In December 2018, Roth does an interview with Vulture in which he more than hints at a Van Halen summer reunion tour featuring the original classic lineup (so, Anthony instead of Wolf). He specifically mentions Yankee Stadium as a tour stop, as well as a bunch of bands that may join Van Halen at the Bronx show, including Metallica, Foo Fighters, and Guns N’ Roses. My gut feeling is it’s the type of overwrought rumor typically started by some bored Reddit troll. Ed never said a thing to me about this, and he’s in no condition to perform. Quickly, Ed ends the speculation — at least on my end. Roth, he says, has recklessly jumped the gun.
“I told [Roth] it ain’t happening ’til I’m healthy enough to make it through a show!!” he texts me. “That is not now!!”
I can only imagine the crossfire of emotions. As if Ed didn’t have enough on his plate already, now he needs damage control and a muzzle for Roth on top of a clean bill of health. None of that is forthcoming. Ed is just barely hanging on.
“I feel like shit!!” he tells me. “Low hemoglobin and jet lag!! Not a good combo!!”
No matter how bad things get, though, Ed never seems to lose hope. It’s humbling to see someone so close to the finish line behave like they’re still at the starting gate. A couple of years ago, before the cancer came back, he’d told me that his number-one priority was for “Wolf to finish his [solo] record,” adding, “Everything else is secondary!!” I’d shrugged it off. But now here he is, frail, tattered, his scissor-kicking days done — and he’s raring to go.
He tells me film composer Hans Zimmer just asked him to do the theme song to Top Gun: Maverick. Keanu Reeves wants him to do something for one of his John Wick films, and his friend, Bryan Adams, wants to collaborate, too.
“For me, this is fucking exciting times,” Ed texts me on Sept. 22, 2019. “It ain’t the end of anything — it’s a whole new beginning!!”
Meanwhile, Roth violates the band’s omertà — once again — and publicly alludes to Ed’s health situation. That same month, he does an interview to support an upcoming Las Vegas residency. In it, Roth says, “I’m the face of Van Halen from this point on, most likely. I’m not sure what’s happening with Ed, but he’s probably not gonna answer the bell this time.”
The next month Roth ups the ante and tells another interviewer Van Halen is, for all intents and purposes, finished. “Van Halen is NEVER finish[ed]!!” Ed tells me in response. “He is and was finished A LONG TIME AGO!!”
Perhaps the biggest reveal is that Ed is at least considering a tour featuring Roth, Anthony, and — wait for it — Hagar.
“Maybe we can catch it in time, before both wack jobs lose it completely and get the whole shebang up there,” he tells me. “Wolf opens, Roth and Hagar swap every other song, and we squeeze Mike in somewhere!! I just don’t think Al’s gonna go for it!! But you never know — stranger things have happened!!”
In March 2020, Covid hits and the world is in lockdown. With too much time on my hands, I wonder more and more about how Ed’s doing. I try to text him at least every couple of weeks, and let the seconds between send-and-response eat away at me.
“Doing OK buddy, you??” he responds on March 15, 2020. He sends me a jokey viral video of a street dealer selling toilet paper as if it were contraband. I respond with an “LOL,” but there are no laughs left in me. I just can’t help but think Ed may not be around to see the end of the pandemic.
I consider calling him, but that just feels too intimate. So I text him and tell him that when he returns to form it’ll “make the comeback all the more impressive.”
“Hoping so!!” he writes back.
The days drag on. Ed is becoming less and less available. Often texts go unanswered or are met with brief responses and sometimes only emojis.
It’s not like him.
There was a time when his texts were so long that I’d simply skim them. There were times when I had to cut him off and tell him I was headed for bed. Now I’d do anything for one of those unwieldy missives of him ragging on Roth or, shit, just chatting about our dogs.
In July, he tells me he’s in the hospital for a back operation. I’m thrilled to hear this, thinking no man on his last legs would endure this kind of procedure. On Aug. 11, 2020, we exchange texts, not knowing it would be for the final time.
“Hope the back operation went OK,” I say.
Four hours later, he responds. “Excellent!! It was hell but I’m a new guy!!”
Two months later, it’s early afternoon on an unseasonably warm and sunny fall day, which I’m staring at from my office window. Work is picking up, but it’s nowhere near what it was, and I’m nowhere near where I was, either. The pandemic is taking a mental toll. I’m scrolling through Facebook and I see a post that’s vague, but seems to indicate something about Eddie Van Halen. As fast as I can, I go to TMZ. The headline hits me like a freight train: “Eddie Van Halen Dead at 65 From Cancer.”
I can’t even read beyond those eight words. I close the door to my office, collapse on the love seat that only the dogs use, bury my hands in my face, and cry.
I’ve lost my childhood hero and a gentle soul I came to call a friend.
A few months before Ed was told the cancer was back, he was helping care for an aging member of his wife Janie’s family. It was a tremendously stressful time. Ed knew even the most Herculean efforts wouldn’t heal him. And he could easily imagine the roles reversed. “When I go,” he told me, “I hope I go quick!! I don’t wanna be a burden on anyone!!”
Ed didn’t go quick — he died more than three years after he first told me he had lung cancer. But I’m sure he wasn’t a burden on anyone, either. He pounced on gut-wrenching treatments and sought every solution possible to remain in his family’s life.
He kept his mouth shut about his illness, seemingly saving his fans from worry and foreclosing any possibility of a pity party he had no interest in hosting. He never gave up and never wanted anyone to send the wrong signal to the world that he had.
Within weeks of Ed’s death, more details about his final years begin to trickle out — many that I already knew, but some that I did not. The most surprising was that Ed and Hagar had apparently buried the hatchet over text messages beginning earlier in the year, in what Hagar referred to as a “love fest.”
We heard from Wolf, too. Previously, he’d been a bit like Teller to Hagar’s Penn. Now, promoting his new band Mammoth WVH, he went on Howard Stern. Then Entertainment Tonight. Then Today. He said Van Halen had indeed been planning a reunion tour, not with just Roth and Anthony but also with Hagar and possibly even Cherone. Both Anthony and Hagar confirmed they’d have been on board, while Roth, Cherone, and Alex kept mum on the subject.
The timing of what Wolf dubbed the “Kitchen Sink Tour” didn’t quite jibe with what Ed had told me, but I guess it doesn’t matter now. All I know is it would have been epic — and it would have meant that Ed conquered cancer.
For me, and for anyone who ever heard Van Halen’s first album, Ed’s musical legacy was sealed before the end of Side One. He was the guitar hero’s guitar hero, back when there was such a thing. But he never seemed to crave the spotlight like others in his echelon and only stepped in it when he had something exceptional to share. That’s why he rarely traded barbs with Roth or Hagar, I think — he didn’t want to engage in all the infighting. He just wanted to play.
Had my initial, smartass email languished in Ed’s spam folder, I’d have cried the same tears upon learning he died. Concert photos of Eddie Van Halen torn from Circus and Hit Parader covered my boyhood walls. I’d gaze at his electric smile, as he lurched his tricolored Frankenstrat into his bare chest. I’d imagine what song he was playing in that frozen moment. I envied the photographers, too, because they got so much closer to Eddie Van Halen than I’d ever be.
I don’t regret never telling Ed how much he meant to me, because I’m certain that’s a big reason we bonded. Nearly his whole life, he was showered with praise, treated like he was something more than mortal. But, for me, he’d become just a regular guy full of the same contradictions and paradoxes, the same beauty and demons, as the rest of us. Watching Ed bravely face the end of his life gave me a new appreciation for my own. Now, I do my best to hang on a little tighter when things get tough, knowing Ed had it tougher.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Ed because not a day goes by when I don’t hear Van Halen’s music. I’m still sad to have lost my friend, the person who gave me so much over the years and asked so little of me. And sometimes I’ll send a text that ends in double-exclamation points, just to let him know I was listening.
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