I n 1983, when Eddie Van Halen first built his beloved 5150 home studio in the hills near Hollywood, he decorated its kitchen with a photograph of a squat old apartment building in a city more than 5,000 miles away. Every time he’d head to the fridge for a beer during his all-night recording sessions, which was often, he’d see the home where he spent most of his first seven years, at 59 Rozemarijnstraat in the city of Nijmegen, in the Gelderland province of the Netherlands, near the German border.
Eddie, the grinning, all-American guitar genius and musical mastermind for the most distinctly Southern Californian band since the Beach Boys, was a biracial immigrant who barely spoke a word of English until he was seven years old. His father was Dutch, and his mother was born in Indonesia, with Indonesian and Dutch ancestry. In the band’s early days, when Eddie and his older brother, Alex, Van Halen’s drummer, got into occasional screaming arguments, they would lapse into Dutch.
“It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen,” their onetime manager Noel Monk wrote. “These two ordinarily placid rockers, who usually spoke in a sort of pothead-surf patois, suddenly nose to nose, spitting and snarling and growling at each other in a foreign language, as if they had become possessed.”
Eddie, who died of cancer on October 6th, 2020, was, at his core, an eternally boyish, sweet-natured prodigy. The joy he conveyed onstage with guitar in hand was genuine and profound. But there were also darker currents in his emotional life he couldn’t express in words, even to those closest to him. He avoided the ups and downs of high school social life, and sometimes school itself, by holing up in his bedroom with his guitar and a six-pack. He went on to spend a good portion of his life in that realm of pure music, retreating into endless, meditative, alcohol-fueled jams in hotel rooms or in his studio. “It’s the universal vibration,” he told me in 2007. “It heals.”
“When he played,” his ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli wrote, “he disappeared into a world that was his. There he was most comfortable, and whatever he shared was of his own choosing. This interior world would confound, anger, and frustrate me to no end later on, but early on it was seductive.”
He tended to avoid confrontation, and let his frustrations build. He didn’t protest when frontman David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman used a funky synth riff Eddie had intended for an original song to anchor the band’s 1982 cover of “Dancing in the Street,” but then complained bitterly about the seemingly minor slight for decades.
You can, at times, hear anger and pain in his playing, alongside the ever-present mischief and unearthly virtuosity. It’s perhaps most evident on Van Halen’s heaviest album, 1981’s Fair Warning, but from early on, his own mother heard all of his bent high notes as “crying.”
There was a fair amount of self-loathing in his makeup. His mom pushed classical piano studies so hard that Eddie took to casually comparing his upbringing to the movie Shine, in which parental pressure drives a musical prodigy into a mental breakdown. “The whole time I was growing up, my mom used to call me a ‘nothing nut — just like your father,’” he told Guitar World. “When you grow up that way, it’s not conducive to self-esteem.”
At the same time, as chronicled in Greg Renoff’s indispensable early-years bio Van Halen Rising, the Van Halen parents were supportive enough to stretch their finances to buy Alex a drum kit and Eddie a Gibson Les Paul in 1969. Eddie was still living with his mom and dad at the age of 25, when he had already made multiple platinum albums. At that point, his mom was still convinced it wouldn’t last, and that he’d have to go back to school.
At the height of his early success, with “Jump” all over MTV, he confessed to fearing he was “stupid,” and in another interview the same year, called himself “selfish” and a “sick fuck.” “Ed – you are a good man,” Bertinelli wrote in her memoir’s dedications. “Believe it. When you do, you’ll be free.” Even as he was widely acclaimed as the most exciting guitar player alive, even as Templeman was comparing him to Bach and Charlie Parker in the same sentence, Eddie was plagued by insecurity, requiring liberal doses of alcohol and sometimes cocaine to overcome his anxiety. “Every time I walk into the studio it seems like the first time,” he said in 1996. “It’s like I’ve never written a song before. I am just as scared.”
Like his father and brother, he was an alcoholic. In the entire first decade of the band’s success, he didn’t have a single sober day. “I’m actually a shy, nervous person,” he said in 1998. “I used to be easily intimidated. That’s why I used to drink.” Despite years of struggle, he didn’t achieve lasting sobriety until 2008.
Van Halen changed the way electric guitarists played, the sounds they strove for, even the physical construction of the instruments they used, with multiple patents to his name (and other technical breakthroughs, he credibly maintained, that were ripped off and capitalized upon before he learned how to use the patent office). He single-handedly gave the electric guitar an extra decade or more of cultural prominence, even as he’d try to duck blame for a generation of teased-hair shredders who “played like typewriters.”
But he wasn’t just a guitar player. Eddie was an award-winning piano prodigy before he hit puberty, and there were periods when he abandoned guitar altogether for as long as a year, writing exclusively on piano and synthesizers. He took up the cello seriously in midlife, playing along to Yo Yo Ma recordings for hours late at night. Friends told tales of him picking up unexpected instruments — a saxophone, a harmonica — and playing them at a seemingly professional level.
His most unbreakable bonds were familial. He and Alex played together from their preteen years all the way up to the end of Eddie’s career; in their first band, the Broken Combs, Eddie was on piano and Alex played saxophone. They had an uncanny musical bond, following each other’s rhythmic twists as if they shared a single musical intelligence. “We were probably the only rhythm section in rock & roll that was guitar and drums, not bass and drums,” Eddie told me.
Early in their marriage, he told Bertinelli he’d like to have enough kids to form an entire band. When Bertinelli became pregnant with their only child, Wolfgang, Eddie played guitar for him in utero. His son turned out to be a gifted multi-instrumentalist from an early age. At 15, Wolfgang joined Van Halen on bass, and Eddie was overjoyed (displaced bassist Michael Anthony less so). “I pick him up from school every day,” Eddie told me, with obvious pride, “and we make music. The kid kicks ass.”
Lead singers would come and go and come back, but Van Halen wasn’t the kind of group Eddie or Alex could or would leave (despite the occasional threat by Eddie during the original Roth years). It was their name, their band. Eddie’s tenure in Van Halen was temporary, he once joked: It would last “only as long as I live.”
Eddie and Alex’s father, Jan, was a hard-drinking, classically trained saxophonist and clarinetist who blew blazing solos in big bands. After fighting in the Dutch resistance in World War II, Jan traveled to Indonesia, in its last days as a Dutch colony, and married a woman he met there, Eugenia van Beers. When she and her husband returned to the Netherlands and started a family, they faced overt racism, even as Jan’s musical career was picking up. “My mom became a second-class citizen,” Eddie recalled, “because she was Indonesian.” With 75 guilders and a piano to their name, his parents, already in their forties, took Eddie and Alex on a nine-day boat journey to America.
Jan paid his way by playing in the boat’s band, and Eddie and Alex performed as well. Eddie never forgot that their performance earned them a place at the captain’s table for dinner. The boat landed in New York, and after a cross-country train trip, the family settled in Pasadena, California. Their new life in a new country was, at least at first, a complete disappointment. Eugenia cleaned houses, and Jan walked six miles each way to wash dishes at a hospital. Big bands were dead, but Jan rebuilt a semblance of a music career, playing in a polka band that would occasionally have Alex subbing on drums.
Eddie, meanwhile, was bullied in school, at least by the white kids. “I wasn’t able to speak English and used to get my ass kicked because I was a minority,” he said in 1998. “All my friends were black, and they stuck up for me.”
Even as Eddie and Alex endured piano lessons from an elderly Russian musician who slapped errant hands with a ruler, life in America finally started to show promise when they heard rock & roll. When Eddie encountered the snare-heavy beat of the Dave Clark Five’s fantastically noisy “Glad All Over,” he was convinced he had found his musical destiny: He’d become a rock & roll drummer like Clark.
“My brother and I used to build model cars,” Eddie told me, “and after we blew up the model cars with cherry bombs and lighter fluid, we’d stick all the plastic parts back in the box and pound on the box, trying to make it sound like their records.” He got a paper route to pay for a drum kit, even as Alex started taking flamenco guitar lessons. “And while I was out throwing papers, my brother started playing my drums; he got better than me, so I said, ‘OK, fuck you, I’ll play your guitar.’”
Eddie and Alex played together endlessly as kids, while other musicians came and went. Their first gigging band was the Trojan Rubber Company, and around 1971 they’d formed a power trio named Genesis, eventually adding a kid named Mark Stone on bass. Eddie served double duty as frontman. While he could pull it off — his harmonies with Michael Anthony would become a backbone of Van Halen’s sound — the vocals were mostly an afterthought.
In practically every interview he’d give later on, Eddie would tout Eric Clapton’s Cream-era playing as his sole influence. Entranced by what he heard as a saxophone-like tone and approach in Clapton’s playing at that time, he learned his solos note by note. On the wall of the bedroom Alex and Eddie shared were posters of Clapton and Ginger Baker. Cream, Eddie once told Guitar World, “made music exciting in a way I don’t think people really understood. It was almost as if the lyric and actual song structure were secondary. ‘Let’s get this shit over with so we can make music and see where we land tonight.’”
As he spent most of the Seventies playing with his brother in what became perhaps the greatest cover band in the state of California, Eddie also absorbed the style of just about every great hard-rock and metal guitar player, covering the Who’s Pete Townshend, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (whose part on “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” is notably proto-Van Halen-esque, from its chugging riff to a quick two-hands-on-the-fretboard moment in the solo), and countless others. (Later, he’d get into fusion-era Jeff Beck, and take particular inspiration from the fluid, harmonically adventurous playing of Allan Holdsworth.)
Early on, the sheer speed of the playing on two songs caught Eddie’s ear and transformed his sense of his instrument’s possibilities: Alvin Lee on Ten Years After’s “I’m Going Home” and the underrated Jim McCarty on Cactus’ frantic version of “Parchman Farm.” As his own hands picked up velocity, Eddie became a local legend by the age of 15, an unknown kid already outplaying any rock guitarist his audiences had ever heard, backed by a drummer who could follow him anywhere.
By 1972, Genesis became Mammoth, after realizing their old name was taken by a certain British prog act. Mammoth were the rowdiest and most talented band in Pasadena’s thriving, police-hounded backyard party scene, where hundreds of sunburnt kids would gather near the pool of any house that vacationing parents were foolish enough to leave in the custody of teenagers.
An ambitious, cocky, charismatic, off-puttingly motormouthed local kid named David Roth soon set his sights on the band, offering himself up as a new frontman. They considered it, until they determined that he could not, in fact, sing. Undeterred, Roth went off and started his own competing party band, working hard on his vocals. Eventually he made it into Mammoth, in part because the band was already renting the PA system purchased for him by his dad, a highly successful eye surgeon. The band began practicing in Roth’s spacious basement.
Roth had his sights on the Hollywood clubs and well beyond. He pushed the band into more concise, poppier, danceable territory, even getting them to cover K.C. and the Sunshine Band, James Brown, and the Isley Brothers (though their version of the Isleys’ “It’s Your Thing” somehow sounded like Black Sabbath). The Van Halen brothers were musical purists, stepping onstage in street clothes, aiming to impress with note-perfect covers of album sides. For Eddie, any frontman would always just be a “throat,” almost a necessary evil, and Roth, as Eddie once put it, was “no opera singer.” But it was his showmanship and sex appeal, along with his love of pop and R&B, that pushed the band out of backyards. It was Roth’s idea, in the end, to name the band Van Halen.
In 1974, the band recruited a new bassist, Michael Anthony, a good-humored guy whose sturdy physique reflected his playing style. He had been the lead singer in another popular party band, and his powerhouse background vocals, in harmony with Eddie’s, helped create a new signature sound for Van Halen, bringing in a hint of sunshiny pop that few other hard-rock or metal acts of the era would even attempt.
When Eddie was 12, his dad gave him his first drink and cigarette, in a misguided effort to calm his nerves (young Eddie was either upset after an attack by a German shepherd or nervous before a musical performance, depending on the account). By the mid-Seventies, Eddie’s drinking was starting to ramp up, and he was already using cocaine. By 1977, the drug was enough of a staple of the band’s daily lives that they had a pet name for it, “Krell.” There were some early warning signs of trouble: One day in 1972, Eddie snorted PCP he thought was coke and suffered a near-fatal overdose, ending up in the hospital.
As the band began working original songs into their set, moving up in the club world from the sleazy, unhip Gazzarri’s to the more desirable Starwood, the prospect of a record deal loomed. After a false start with Gene Simmons of Kiss that ran afoul of that band’s internal politics, they signed with Warner Bros. in February 1977. Templeman, a Warner exec, became their producer, and his commercial instincts and deep regard for Eddie’s musicianship served them well.
In an evolutionary leap that required true genius, Eddie’s already spectacular playing suddenly transformed in 1977. It started late the previous year, when he assembled a Stratocaster copy, gutted it, and stuck in a humbucking pickup, the kind usually reserved for Gibson guitars. He’d eventually douse the thing in spray paint — black paint on a white body at first, later to become red.
“I said, ‘Eh, I’m gonna put some masking tape on it, paint it black, take it off, and see what it looks like,’” he told me. “Went to the bicycle store, bought some spray-paint cans, went to my backyard, just hung it up with a coat hanger, and painted it.” The Frankenstrat would become one of the most famous instruments in rock history, ending up on display in the Museum of Modern Art. It looked like Van Halen sounded: “barely controlled chaos,” as Eddie put it to me.
Armed with the Frankenstrat, Eddie began making extensive and inventive use of the note-warping whammy bar, teasing out elephant roars, horse whinnies, rocket-engine bursts of noise, and disorienting octave jumps. He could make it sound like his guitar was laughing in disbelief at his own virtuosity. Many post-Hendrix guitarists had avoided the whammy bar, because it knocked guitars out of tune. Eddie, never a Hendrix devotee, had long admired Ritchie Blackmore’s use of it on 1970’s Deep Purple in Rock, apparently filing the technique away for seven years.
Eddie’s other 1977 transformation was a true paradigm shift: He started two-hand tapping. Eddie was far from the first player to use his right hand along with his left to fret and pull off notes (Steve Hackett of Genesis was one of many predecessors), but no one else had employed the technique anywhere near as extensively or effectively. Now, his solos were spiked with hornlike note flurries and liquid neoclassical arpeggios.
It didn’t hurt that he already had one of the best guitar tones in rock, thanks in part to the brilliant innovation of using a Variac voltage limiter to allow himself to crank his amp to creamy — or Cream-y — levels of tube-melting distortion without excessive volume. Star Wars hit theaters that same summer, and the bursts of impossible speed that the two-hand technique brought to his playing were the sonic equivalent of the Millennium Falcon blazing through hyperspace.
Van Halen seems to have gotten immediate inspiration for the move from guitarists Harvey Mandel and Rick Derringer, according to Renoff. But Eddie told me, in an anecdote he often repeated, that he’d started pondering the possibilities of two hands on the fretboard in the early Seventies, after watching Jimmy Page do one-handed pull-offs on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” (Eddie maintained that he’d been actually using the trick since 1972, but no one seems to have witnessed that, and there’s no evidence of it on bootlegs and demos. Even geniuses can be unreliable narrators.)
“Basically all it is, is, you get an extra finger on this hand,” Eddie told me, indicating his left. “And you can put it anywhere you want and you can add other fingers. Yeah, I was watching Jimmy Page go” — he sang a hammer-on riff — “and I was going, ‘Oh, OK. I can play like that.’ You wouldn’t know if I was using this finger or this one. But you just kind of move it around, and it’s like you got one big hand there, buddy. That’s a hell of a spread!”
In May 1978, Eddie Van Halen sat in a Parisian hotel room, weeping. His band had a hit debut album, had just played their first European headlining dates, and would soon embark on a tour opening for Black Sabbath, where they would routinely blow the older band off the stage. But Eddie was done. “I want to go back to L.A.,” he told his then-tour manager, Noel Monk, according to Monk’s memoir, Running With the Devil. “I don’t want to do this anymore.… Fucking David — that asshole — he wants to be a big rock star.… I don’t want to be a rock star. I hate this bullshit!” Monk reminded Eddie how many people were counting on him, and that if the success continued, he’d be able to buy his parents a house. The crisis was averted.
Once Van Halen finally managed to get signed, there had only been a few other speed bumps. Templeman, unimpressed with David Lee Roth’s vocal skills, briefly considered having the band bring in sturdy former Montrose frontman Sammy Hagar. But Roth kept working on his singing, even taking vocal lessons, and Templeman came to appreciate Roth’s gift as a stylist and lyricist. With Eddie on guitar, there was already so much music in Van Halen that Roth’s frequent jive-y detours into talk-singing and just plain talking were as clever as they were necessary, making room for the band’s other assets.
The band began recording their still-astonishing self-titled debut album in late August 1977. Proving the value of a prolonged party-band apprenticeship, they knocked the whole thing out in two weeks, capturing near-perfect live takes in the studio. (Roth and Templeman quietly worked together for hours afterward to capture acceptable lead vocals.) They spent only $54,000 in the process, according to Renoff, a pittance even for the time. Along the way, engineer Donn Landee was savvy enough to hit “record” while Eddie was running through his stage guitar solo, which became the epochal instrumental “Eruption.” Even as generations of guitarists risked tendinitis trying to master the piece, Eddie always maintained that he could’ve played it better.
In the wildly productive years between 1976 and ’78, Van Halen had amassed so much material that they were able to draw on the stockpile during the entire Roth era. Which is fortunate, because they released an album a year five years in a row under increasing commercial pressure from Warner Bros., while maintaining a brutal touring schedule. A lot of their evolution had already happened: Even some songs that seemed like giant leaps ahead, such as 1980’s impressive, Who-like multipart suite “In a Simple Rhyme,” actually predated their record deal.
The band rarely had enough time in the studio, and on 1981’s Fair Warning, Eddie began staying up all night with engineer Landee, lacing the songs with overdubs and some of the most unhinged solos he’d ever play. It was also, in his mind, a way of pulling the album away from Roth and Templeman without face-to-face conflict. As Eddie saw it, Templeman and Roth started to fear he was “out of control.”
“He sat there with his engineer and tinkered with ideas until he either got them the way he wanted,” Bertinelli wrote, “or ran out of booze, coke, energy, or inspiration, or all of the above.” Eddie felt endless pressure, she continued, to come up with “something better, something catchier, something Dave approved of, something the record company liked.” Around that time, Eddie revealed later, he was so frustrated with Roth that he actually contemplated quitting the band. As a rule, Eddie wrote riffs and instrumental tracks, not finished songs. He needed his singer to write vocal melodies and lyrics, which only added to his continual frustration.
On April 11th, 1981, 18 days before the release of Fair Warning, Eddie married Bertinelli, then a 20-year-old TV actress. He had met her only eight months earlier. No one in the band was particularly happy about it, least of all Roth, who already resented the level of attention Eddie was getting. (Rather churlishly, Roth wrote in his memoir that he had “no interest” in Bertinelli when she’d first come backstage to meet the band the year before.) Bertinelli wrote in her memoir that Eddie claimed to have overheard Roth saying, “That fucking little prick, not only is he winning all the guitar awards, he’s also the first to marry a movie star.”
Van Halen and Bertinelli fell in love on the road, while the band supported 1980’s Women and Children First. A Van Halen tour was, to say the least, a strange place to start a monogamous relationship. It was Roth and Alex who took close interpersonal contact with fans to new levels, with the singer inventing a system of rewards for roadies who wrangled attractive young women backstage. But the only member who avoided road hookups altogether was long-married Michael Anthony.
“We were punch-drunk in love,” Bertinelli wrote. “And just plain punch-drunk. We drank Southern Comfort and vodka tonics. He also drank his Schlitz malt liquor.… He was almost nocturnal, and if I hadn’t stayed up drinking and doing coke with him, we would have been on completely different schedules.” After the tour, they moved in together and started planning a wedding, filling out forms for the priest while each held their own vial of cocaine. The wedding day was a near-disaster, with Eddie getting so wasted that he threw up before the ceremony even started.
Fair Warning became a favorite of serious Van Halen fans, and the VH album of choice for Nineties alt-rock stars including Billy Corgan and Dave Navarro. It was also the slowest-selling LP of the Roth era. Band members decided they needed to stop rushing through their albums, so they came up with a plan that would entirely backfire. They recorded a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” as a standalone single, figuring it would be their only release of 1982. Instead, it became a pop hit so big that Warner Bros. demanded an accompanying album, immediately. They had to bang out an LP in 12 days, and Eddie was particularly unhappy about it.
Diver Down included no fewer than five cover songs, plus two guitar instrumentals, including the remarkable “Cathedral,” on which Eddie uses his volume knob to create organ-like swells, turning it so fast and hard that he ruined the mechanism. There was a lot of that kind of destructive friction in Van Halen at the time: Eddie hated cover songs; Roth despised Roth-free guitar instrumentals. (“Fuck the guitar-hero shit,” Roth would say, according to Eddie. “We’re a band!”) Roth was a gifted narcissist who grated on almost everyone but his fans; Eddie was a quiet-to-a-fault virtuoso who was drinking too much and doing too much coke. Alex was taking in so much alcohol that, within a couple of years, he’d complain of hallucinations.
In the summer of 1982, Eddie received a phone call from Quincy Jones, who was working on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. They had a hot R&B-rock song called “Beat It,” with a riff and rhythm guitar from Eddie’s friend Steve Lukather, and they needed a guitar solo to match. Eddie shrugged and said sure. He came into Westlake Studio, suggested a few changes in the song’s arrangement, and then laid down a 30-second solo that would become the most-heard bit of music he’d ever make, a growling, dive-bombing, squalling mini-masterpiece that concluded with a blast of finger-tapping, a speed-picked trill, and one last show-off-y tug on his whammy bar. The fresh context was a reminder of how exciting Eddie’s playing could be, as dazzling as the moonwalk Jackson would soon debut.
Eddie didn’t tell his bandmates about his work that day. And for reasons he had trouble articulating, he didn’t accept any payment or royalties for his work on “Beat It.” Instead, if you believe Roth’s account, Eddie would end up paying a heavy price. Roth learned of the collaboration the following year, when he heard “Beat It” blasting out of a car parked outside an L.A. convenience store. By that time, Eddie had also recorded a couple of instrumentals for one of Bertinelli’s TV movies, and was contributing solo tracks for the soundtrack of the Cameron Crowe-penned film The Wild Life.
In his memoir, Roth described that moment as a turning point in his thinking: “It was at that time, I said to myself, ‘How many solo projects will he do while I stand guard at the gate of dreams worth dying for here?’ Saying, ‘No, no, I’m not going to act, I’m not going to write, I’m not going to be on television.…’ It was at that point I said maybe I’ll do something on the side as well.” Within two years after the release of “Beat It,” that decision would lead to the end of the original band.
During the Diver Down sessions, Eddie tried to interest his collaborators in a synthesizer piece he was particularly excited about, built around a catchy sequence of ascending chords. It was quickly tossed aside. Eddie played that initial version of what became “Jump” over the phone for journalist Jas Obrecht in 1982, and judging from the leaked audio of that conversation, it was still undeveloped, with the main chord progression almost buried amid frantic, trippy keyboard noodling.
Ever brand-conscious, Roth was wary of synths, fearing sounds associated with New Wave would offend Van Halen fans’ tribal loyalties. “We had intentionally stayed away from keyboards,” he said in 2004, “because up till then, what instruments you used indicated which neighborhood you were part of.” Templeman, meanwhile, felt that if Van Halen had to use keyboards, they should be as ferocious as Eddie’s guitars, as in Women and Children First’s “And the Cradle Will Rock,” built around a heavily distorted Wurlitzer part.
So when sessions began in 1983 for what would become 1984, and Eddie again presented a version of the “Jump” track to the band, there was again a distinct lack of excitement. But by that point, Eddie had a secret weapon. On his property off Coldwater Canyon, he had recently broken ground on what, as far as the city zoning commission was concerned, was supposed to be a racquetball court. It was, instead, the first incarnation of his 5150 Studios, a clubhouse where he could record all night — or for days on end — while maintaining complete control.
In an overnight session at 5150 early on, Eddie and Alex laid down a basic track for “Jump” that suddenly made the song undeniable. As Templeman recalls in his recent memoir, Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, he disliked the clean, bright sound Eddie settled upon for the main chordal riff, comparing it to an organ in a baseball stadium. But in the track Alex and Eddie created, “Jump” drew its hard-rock power almost entirely from a fierce drum performance (on an electronic Simmons kit) that offset any synth cheesiness. Roth took a cassette into his 1951 Mercury convertible and blasted the recording over and over for an hour while he wrote lyrics and came up with a melody. It took about an hour, and when Roth was done, Van Halen had officially written their biggest-ever song.
The rest of the album did not go as smoothly. Eddie and engineer Donn Landee were in a deep mind-meld, avoiding Roth and Templeman. The pair would record for days straight and then crash. (Eddie once called Landee, with deep admiration, “a man-child genius on the edge of insanity,” though it was unclear which of the two men he was really describing.) In the end, the situation deteriorated to the point where Roth and Templeman were mixing one version of the album, while Landee and Eddie finished another entirely separate mix, using master tapes they were literally hiding from their producer.
In the end, the album was, for the most part, brilliant, with an effervescent air and youthful energy that betrayed zero signs of its ugly birth. “Panama,” based around a sparkling monster of a riff, was a perfect Van Halen song, with one of Roth’s greatest vocal performances. The shuffle “Hot for Teacher” featured a startling drum performance by Alex, pummeling his digital kit with the same disconcerting speed his brother mustered on his fretboard.
The tour featured a band that was hitting its peak, and about to fall off a cliff. Eddie and Roth, never exactly pals, had begun avoiding each other as much as possible offstage. “By mid-1984, Van Halen was a glossy but depressed replica of its former self,” wrote Monk, who was in his final days as the band’s manager by that point. Eddie, for one, had a personal cocaine dealer following him around the world, kept lines of coke on one of his onstage amps, and took to chugging vodka straight from the bottle, according to Monk.
Roth was increasingly imperious, and always in character, even in private rehearsals. He banned band wives from a Life Magazine shoot, hired two little people as his backstage bodyguards for what he intended as comic effect, and held court after shows, chiding the crew and his bandmates for mistakes, as if possessed by the Van Halens’ old piano teacher. “I was domineering,” Roth acknowledged in 2004. “I was demanding. I was exacting.”
Midway through, Roth and the Van Halens found something to agree upon, according to Monk: Unhappy with Anthony’s lack of songwriting input, they asked him to sign a document retroactively revoking his writing and publishing royalties from 1984. In the end, he signed it, to Monk’s horror.
In August 1984, as the band prepared for the final leg of the 1984 tour, Roth informed his bandmates that he had already recorded a solo cover of “California Girls,” and planned to release it as part of a solo EP that January. They were not thrilled. Things only got worse when Roth practically took over MTV early the next year with the garish hit videos for that song and his “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” medley. Roth became convinced he was destined for multimedia superstardom, and began writing a script for a movie he planned to star in, imagining that Van Halen could do the score. Eddie found the idea insulting.
In early 1985, the band attempted rehearsals for what was supposed to be Van Halen’s next album, without much progress. “There were constant delays and screaming,” Roth wrote. “The chemistry had turned rotten.” Eddie later said that Roth didn’t want to make the album (though the singer had told David Letterman he was looking forward to it that January); Roth, in turn, claimed the brothers didn’t want to tour anymore, though it seems more likely that they just didn’t like Roth’s idea of going back on tour before they had completed the new album.
Either way, Roth quit. The singer recalls warning Eddie about his brother’s drinking; Eddie remembers Roth suggesting he might come back after his movie, which was never actually made. As inevitable as the split may have seemed, Eddie was shell-shocked. “He really hurt me,” Eddie told journalist Steve Rosen in 1986. “At the height of our career, when you work at something that long, and someone just pulls the plug on you? That’s, y’know, kind of cruel.”
The second incarnation of Van Halen began, appropriately enough, at a repair shop for ultra-luxury sports cars. A former Ferrari test-driver named Claudio Zampolli in Van Nuys was the go-to mechanic and sales broker for temperamental Italian cars and the rich L.A. guys who owned them, and his clients included both Eddie Van Halen and the journeyman rock singer Sammy Hagar, of “I Can’t Drive 55” fame. The Van Halens had always admired Hagar’s work in his first band, Montrose, whose debut album had been co-produced by Templeman.
At Zampolli’s shop, Eddie admired a rare Ferrari that turned out to belong to Hagar. Zampolli, who knew of the Van Halens’ dilemma, handed over the singer’s number and urged him to call, which he did, right from the shop’s phone. Hagar showed up at 5150 in a pressed Armani jacket, only to encounter two drunk brothers in a filthy studio that “smelled like the worst bar on the planet,” as he wrote in his memoir. Beer cans, cigarette ashes, and old pizza boxes were everywhere.
Hagar, who was eight years older, didn’t know what to make of it all. But when he stepped to the microphone and started improvising over what would become the song “Summer Nights,” they all realized they had, at the very least, a viable product. Or as Warner Bros. exec Mo Ostin put it after he heard the conglomeration, which he thought they should rename Van Hagar: “I smell money.”
The band had considered other possibilities for a singer, including at least one woman, Scandal singer Patty Smyth (a friend Bertinelli feared Eddie was in love with, though Smyth always insisted their relationship was platonic). Eddie had talked to Pete Townshend about some kind of collaboration, before literally losing the Who maestro’s phone number. That discussion was apparently separate from another abandoned idea: an all-star Van Halen album where singers from Joe Cocker to Phil Collins would appear. Former Journey singer Steve Perry also recently told Rolling Stone that he got a call from Eddie during this period, but nothing came of that either.
Hagar was a hard-working, unpretentious dude, a naturally melodic songwriter with a likable manner and an undeniably powerful singing voice, a contained howl that always sounded thoroughly commercial, radio-ready. He was armed with some of the best business instincts in rock, but unlike Roth, he was no intellectual — his subtext-free lyrics were often as undercooked as they were crass. (“Wham, bam, oh, Amsterdam,” he would sing, in a dubious celebration of Eddie’s birthplace.)
The new lineup quickly recorded its first album together, 5150, and it charted higher than any release of the Roth era, hitting Number One. The follow-up, 1988’s OU812, also topped the charts. The eccentricity and experimentation of the best of the Roth era was increasingly hard to find in Eddie’s songwriting, which was leaning toward sleek, concise constructions, with more and more keyboards.
The band still managed some pleasingly unhinged hard-rock songs. But on other tracks, Eddie’s newly streamlined tendencies — combined with Hagar’s polished voice — pushed Van Halen toward the gleaming corporate-rock of Journey, a band the wild, old Van Halen mocked. Even so, Van Halen had survived a lead-singer transplant, an all-but-impossible feat, and it was Eddie’s talent that made it possible.
With Hagar, Van Halen went from “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” to howling about the subject repeatedly. On 5150 alone there was “Why Can’t This Be Love,” with the fantastically insipid line “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time,” and “Love Walks In,” followed on later albums by “When It’s Love” and “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.” (At least “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do),” which attempted to address the death of Kurt Cobain, took a slightly different tack, at the Van Halen brothers’ insistence.)
In December 1986, with the new band fresh off the road from its first tour together, Jan Van Halen died, after suffering a heart attack earlier that year. Told by his doctors that alcoholism had weakened his health, Jan asked his sons to stop drinking in his last days. Alex, always an even heavier drinker than Eddie, managed to get sober by the following spring. Eddie just wasn’t ready. If anything, his alcohol and coke intake ramped up as he mourned.
In the fall of 1987, Bertinelli left him for the first time, and the couple was separated for three weeks. She returned and staged a tearful intervention for Eddie, who shipped off to Betty Ford for his first attempt at rehab. It didn’t take. “After I got out of Betty Ford,” Eddie told Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond in 1998, “I immediately went on a drinking binge, and I got a fucking drunk-driving ticket on my motorcycle.”
Meanwhile, OU812 ended up selling less than 5150, and the band’s attempt to move up to stadiums didn’t quite work. Eddie and Alex again teamed up on Anthony, reducing his share in the band’s partnership to 10 percent. Incredibly, according to Hagar’s book, the singer was the only member of the band who voted against the move — Anthony, who knew he mostly played what Eddie told him to, came out in favor of reducing his own stake.
The night the Eighties ended, Eddie was with Bertinelli’s family in Malibu. Perhaps fearing the end of the decade he’d help define, he was downing Jägermeister and turning belligerent. When he decided he’d drive away, he and his wife tussled over the car keys. Bertinelli’s dad, a boxer in his youth, punched Eddie in the face, shattering his cheekbone. Eddie ended up in rehab again, for 28 days. As 1990 went on, Eddie and his wife reconnected, and by June, Bertinelli was pregnant. Wolfgang Van Halen was born on March 16th, 1991. “Sometimes I caught Ed staring at Wolfie with a look of disbelief,” Bertinelli wrote, “as if he couldn’t have helped create something that miraculous.”
Eddie had curtailed his drinking during the beginning of the pregnancy, but the pressure of writing for what became Van Halen’s third album with Hagar, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, ramped his intake back up. The album was the most ferocious of the Hagar era, with Alex returning to a real drum kit, and Eddie taking a power drill to his guitar on the fantastic single “Poundcake.” But Eddie was losing it. Around September 1991, when Wolfie was still six months old, Eddie visited Bertinelli in North Carolina, where she was shooting a TV show, and went on a drunken rampage, shattering the window of a rental car in front of Bertinelli’s mom.
The biggest MTV hit off of F.U.C.K. (the title was at least superior to the original idea, Fuck Censorship) was the portentous tune “Right Now,” based around a piano piece Eddie wrote years earlier. Incredibly, the high-concept video for the song (which spawned a lucrative if deeply uncool ad for the short-lived Crystal Pepsi) won Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992, beating Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The very success of Nirvana was perceived as a rebuke to the hair-metal era Van Halen helped spawn, but Eddie was a fan of Kurt Cobain. “It was just his feel that moved me,” he said. “There’s no particular technical proficiency, but it didn’t matter. I loved his voice and his songs. It came from his heart. It was real.” Eddie showed up, incredibly wasted, at a 1993 show by the band, and asked to jam, which was never going to happen — even before Eddie directed a racist remark at guitarist Pat Smear.
In October 1993, Ed Leffler, who had gone from being Hagar’s manager to managing the latter-day Van Halen, died of thyroid cancer. He was a gruff, sometimes threatening presence to outsiders, but had kept the band close. Without him, yet another Van Halen lineup would start to unravel.
The Van Halen brothers were sick of Hagar, barely getting through the recording process for what turned out to be their final album with him, 1995’s Balance. “Lead singers are hell,” Eddie said that year, in a conversation with Slash of Guns N’ Roses, who was deeply sympathetic to that point of view. “You gotta be a prick to be a lead singer — that’s half the deal.”
Just as they finished Balance, in October 1994, Eddie took his most serious stab at sobriety yet. “The last time I got hammered, I did an all-nighter, and I stumbled in about 8 a.m.,” he told Rolling Stone the next year. “And my son looks at me and goes, ‘Are you all right, Daddy? What happened?’ When your kid knows, it’s time to give it up.”
Eddie was drinking again by the end of the Balance tour, but stayed sober long enough to realize that his substance use had been hiding severe pain in his hip. He hobbled through the shows on painkillers, and soon learned he had avascular necrosis, a condition often aggravated by alcoholism (though he blamed it on years of feeling-no-pain stage antics), and would require a full hip replacement. Alex, meanwhile, wore a neck brace for the entire tour after damaging his spine. Barely 10 years past their youthful peak, the Van Halens were in rough shape, not unlike the prematurely aged Black Sabbath they had met back in 1978.
After a ludicrous blowup over the lyrics and logistics of soundtrack work for the 1996 movie Twister, Hagar was out of the band. And amazingly enough, after 12 years, Roth was back in. Sort of. They enlisted Roth — somewhat humbled in the wake of a foundering solo career — to record two new songs for a greatest-hits package, while simultaneously exploring other options for singers.
In what must stand as one of the most bafflingly self-destructive PR moves in the history of show business, the band agreed to appear with Roth at the 1996 Video Music Awards. They were, at most, lightly considering a true reunion with their old singer, but the world assumed otherwise. When the foursome stepped onstage to present an award for Best Male Video (it went to Beck), the crowd leaped into a prolonged standing ovation. Eddie looked genuinely nauseated. Roth milked the moment, all but tap-dancing across the stage. Eddie told reporters that the band hadn’t committed to a new singer and that he was more focused on his planned hip replacement. Backstage, he and Roth got into a screaming argument, and the reunion imploded.
Van Halen soon announced their third singer: the Freddie Mercury disciple Gary Cherone, of the Nineties hard-rock band Extreme, best-known for their 1991 hit “More Than Words.” Hagar and Roth had been, at least, equals to the rest of the band; Cherone, as if to emphasize his subordinate position in the group, took up residence in Eddie’s guest house.
Eddie, once again talking up a temporary period of sobriety, told journalists that his longtime therapist had helped him finally learn how to write songs without getting drunk first. Alcohol, he was now convinced, had been blotting out “the light” of his talent. For the album that became Van Halen III, Eddie seized control of the band, taking over for Anthony on bass on all but three tracks, and even doing some of the drumming himself. On the Roger Waters-esque ballad “How Many Say I,” he croaked out lead vocals, not unappealingly.
Though it had its moments, Van Halen III became a notorious critical and commercial flop, and Cherone was out of the band by 1999. It turned out that a lead singer was more than just a “throat.” Eddie never talked about it directly, but it must have been agonizing to face the rejection of the only set of songs he ever wrote sober, and his most experimental and wide-ranging compositions at that. He would live for another 23 years, but would never release another album of new songs; Van Halen’s only other album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, was almost entirely revamped Roth-era demos.
“When people see Van Halen … it conjures up a certain image in their minds,” Eddie said in a bitter moment in 2013. “If there’s just one albino pubic hair outside of that image, they won’t accept it. And if we do put something out, the first thing people are going to say is that it isn’t as good as the classics.”
For Van Halen, there really was only one path left: go back to Roth. They gave it another try around the turn of the century, managing to write and record a few still-unreleased songs that Roth always maintained were fantastic. But legal issues between Roth and the band seem to have gotten in the way, and yet another reunion fizzled.
In January of 2000, Eddie learned that a bump he felt on his tongue was cancer. Contrary to later claims, he went through conventional therapy, including chemo. He came up with a theory that his cancer stemmed from electromagnetic radiation after holding a metal guitar pick in that spot in his mouth. His doctors pointed, instead, to his mammoth intake of cigarettes. “Ed, you are never to smoke again,” his doctor told him, after he had one-third of his tongue removed.
For the first time in 33 years, Eddie Van Halen quit smoking. For about a month. As the habit returned, he hid his cigarettes at first, but was soon puffing away in front of his family. After 20 years of marriage, this blithely suicidal behavior was the breaking point for Bertinelli, who had hung around for years of alcoholism and a series of infidelities. A few weeks later, when she caught Eddie with cocaine that he’d brought on a plane while traveling with a 10-year-old Wolfgang, Bertinelli was thoroughly done. The couple separated, and officially divorced six years later.
Over the next six years, Eddie spiraled into the bleakest period of his life. He drank wine straight from the bottle, pulled his own teeth, became terrifyingly thin, and wore ragged clothes and boots covered with tape. He jammed with Limp Bizkit and then supposedly threatened Fred Durst with a gun.
He and Alex reunited with Hagar for one last tour in 2004, and Eddie had sunk so far that those around him told Bertinelli they “feared for his life.” For the first time, his substance use was truly damaging his vaunted musicianship, and sound engineers actually turned him down in the mix. He was so wasted that his very personality seemed altered, He turned angry and violent, at one point smashing a wine bottle against the window of a private jet.
In his memoir, Hagar describes a horrifying failed intervention on that tour. “I will kill the first motherfucker that tries to take this bottle away from me,” Eddie said, if you believe Hagar’s version. “I left my family for this shit. You think I’m going to fucking do this for you guys?”
In the end, Eddie Van Halen somehow found his way out of the darkness. First, he bottomed out in 2006, a year that included an unhinged interview with Howard Stern (Eddie claimed, among other things, to have come up with an illegal cure for cancer) and a collaboration with a porn director named Michael Ninn, whose visual skills Eddie compared to Steven Spielberg, adding, “Everybody masturbates.”
In his only output of the decade, besides three bonus tracks with Hagar, Eddie recorded two instrumental soundtrack songs for Ninn in 2006. One of them, “Catherine,” featured some of the most blatantly anguished-sounding playing of his career; the other, the slightly cheesy “Rise,” had a triumphant air, as if to suggest a rebirth in progress.
Something was, in fact, changing: Wolfgang Van Halen, now 15, had started playing with the family band, and in the process, seemed to be bringing his father back to life. Eddie had long been fed up with Michael Anthony; he and Alex had tried to keep him off of the 2004 Hagar tour, and when he came along at Hagar’s insistence, they forced the beleaguered bassist to sign away his remaining interest in the band. And when Anthony started playing live with Hagar, with the pair sometimes billing themselves as the Other Half, Eddie took it as an official resignation. “You can’t be in two bands,” Eddie told me, cheerfully enough.
Wolfgang filled the hole, and the three Van Halens began jamming daily in 5150. When I spoke to Eddie and Alex in early 2007, they were rehearsing for a planned tour and celebrating their impending induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (to which only Hagar and Anthony actually showed up). At that point, they didn’t officially have a singer, but everyone assumed it had to be Roth. “The most interesting thing,” Alex told me, “is that whoever is singing is going to be surrounded by Van Halens.”
It was Roth. The band announced a 40-date tour, and the singer called up Rolling Stone for his first interview about the reunion. “It was the most obvious phone call ever,” Roth told me of his invitation back to 5150, adding, with a laugh, “It was sort of like they were having a Van Halen family basketball game, and the devil showed up in a pair of sweats looking to throw the ball around. It was very easy. The politics were not fragile at all. … I just showed up, and 20 minutes later, it was the usual: ‘How’s the wife, how’s the kids, let’s play.’” Roth seemed confident that this time the whole thing wouldn’t fall apart, which it soon did. The tour was canceled, with Eddie headed back to rehab at the urging of Alex and Wolfgang.
But it took only a few months for the band to revive itself one more time. On September 27th, 2007, David Lee Roth rejoined Van Halen for their first show together since 1984, kicking off a tour that would run through the following year. (The show led off with “You Really Got Me,“ with Roth singing the line “I only wanna be by your side” directly to Eddie.) Technically sober, Eddie soon realized he was now addicted to the Klonopin doctors gave him at rehab the year before. After a couple of rocky shows, the tour paused in the spring of 2008 for what seemed to be one last stop in rehab. This time, it stuck, though Eddie later said the withdrawal from Klonopin and the antidepressants doctors prescribed in its stead left him feeling “catatonic” for months, as an Esquire profile put it. In 2008, he married his second wife, Janie Liszewski, a stuntwoman-turned-publicist.
Though Roth and Eddie never managed to become friends, the band got through two more tours, and the solid A Different Kind of Truth album in 2012. That year, Eddie revealed that he’d had a recent recurrence of cancer, which had spread to his throat; a number of dates on that tour were canceled. Van Halen played their final tour in 2015, with a gleeful, high-jumping Eddie continuing to perform at a high level. After a show-ending “Jump” at their last concert, on October 4th, 2015, Wolfie, Alex, Eddie, and Roth walked to the front of the stage together, and took what turned out to be a final bow.
As the decade progressed, the cancer returned, spreading to his lungs. Eddie’s family and friends maintained silence around his illness. “I don’t know why people want to know what only my wife and son and maybe my best friends have a right to know,” he said in 2001, during his initial diagnosis.
In Eddie’s final months, he heard from many old friends, and some erstwhile enemies. Earlier this year, Sammy Hagar reached out to him, and the two men reconciled. His old engineer and producer stayed in touch as well. “Donn Landee and I would call him up when he was at the hospital at Cedars and try to make him laugh the best we could,” Ted Templeman told Rolling Stone. “Then it got to where they took him home and stuff I don’t want to talk about. The misery he was going through is really hard to relate to or think about, so I blocked that out.”
Eddie Van Halen died on the morning of October 6th, 2020, with his family around him. “I’m so grateful Wolfie and I were able to hold you in your last moments,” Valerie Bertinelli wrote.
His illness was, by all accounts, not an easy one. And he left with work unfinished, with archives full of music. “I’ve got tons of music,” he told me in December 2008. “Close to a million CDs, cassettes, boxes and boxes and boxes.” The styles ranged from classical to world music, Janie chimed in on the phone. “The stuff is gonna come out,” Eddie promised. “Hopefully people will enjoy the many sides of me. I trip on it myself.”
At the time of that conversation, he was looking forward to his impending wedding to Janie and to planned recording sessions with Roth. He was overwhelmingly proud of Wolfgang, who, in his eyes, was not only carrying on his legacy, but surpassing it. “My son is the most insanely gifted person I’ve ever fucking met,” Eddie said. “I never thought my own son is the one to kick my ass.”
After 30 years, Eddie had beaten his addictions.”I feel like it’s just the beginning,” he said. “Sounds like it’s going to be a good year,” I replied. You could almost see Eddie Van Halen break into that smile of his over the phone. “It’s a good life, man,” he said.