In 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the rock-obsessed duo played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves worship Eddie Van Halen and fantasize that one day he’ll join the band. In real life, the film’s writers hoped to cast the guitar god as a major role in the movie. We spoke to Alex Winter about the moment he discovered Van Halen as a teenager and the impact he had on the film series.
My awakening to Van Halen came in ‘78. I had moved to New York City from the Midwest. Two albums for me in the rock world really defined that year: the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and Van Halen, Van Halen.
The Stones were the band to be at that time. I say it was their greatest for that era. God knows they kept going. [Laughs]. But they’d been around a while by then, and it was a really seminal album and it had a really specific style. It was very rooted in both the streets of London and the streets of Manhattan. And then out of left field came this Van Halen record.
For me, it was the beginning of this sort of rivalry between one style of music and another that would then creep into rap through the back end of the Eighties and the Nineties — West Coast versus East Coast. But I’d never heard a virtuosic rock guitar player playing anthemic pop songs before. Ever. I grew up in the Seventies largely in the Midwest. Hard rock was really hard. I liked it a lot, but it was very hard. I was really into Kiss when I was young — I know that Gene Simmons is one of the people who helped Van Halen in the early days — but nobody in Kiss could play like Eddie Van Halen. Not even close. So they’re not really similar in that way.
I think “Running with the Devil” was the first song… I just love that song. I know that “Eruption” is the one that’s got the massive solo on it, but “Running With the Devil” was uplifting and powerful and innovative and very, very accessible. I think that’s what I really responded to. To be fair to David Lee Roth, I think the combination of the huge anthemic nature of his vocals in blend with Eddie’s guitar did a lot there. I think it would be unfair to dismiss that, because I think the whole package was just like, “Wow, you have to listen to this.”
I think the reason everyone’s grieving so much is there was just so much emotionality in Van Halen’s playing! It wasn’t just noodling. It wasn’t like some guy who could play the guitar really fast. There was a really beautiful quality to what he would play that I think really impacted people profoundly. I hate to keep it to this California thing, but, to me, it’s connected a lot to the Beach Boys and what made Brian Wilson so great. There was depth and intelligence and craft within these accessible pop songs.
The image that Eddie had runs through all of our movies. Bill and Ted are supposed to be into hard rock. But were these sunny, optimistic California guys. And that’s really embodied by Eddie Van Halen. We talk about Iron Maiden a lot, but I think we would have come up listening to Van Halen and the positivity that was infused in the music.
I can’t speak for Keanu, but speaking for myself, the air guitar came completely from Eddie’s playing. I’m a huge Who fan and I’m a huge Townshend fan, but there’s a kind of street punk violence to Townshend that is not to be found anywhere in Bill & Ted. And I always thought of Eddie’s incredible physicality with the air guitar stuff, and just the way these guys would have seen him and how that would have impacted them.
We tried to get Van Halen into each one of the movies. [Laughs]. We asked him, but he said no. A very Spinal Tap moment. [Laughs]. He was a famously private person and he wasn’t, you know, the front man. He was extremely charismatic and he was always very genteel, but he always turned us down. And then the third movie [2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music], the guys wrote a whole scene around him. We spoke at length to the Van Halen people, and he declined and said it was for personal reasons. We didn’t obviously have any idea what that was, but it was pretty clear now what it was. It’s just devastating. Completely aside from any of our goofy stuff, it’s just a really sad, sad loss.