Watch: Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s astonishing career
Eddie Van Halen, one of the greatest guitar players of all time and a founding member of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-inducted hard rock band Van Halen, has died of throat cancer, a disease he had battled off and on since 2000. He was 65.
The tragic news was confirmed Tuesday afternoon by his son and bandmate, Van Halen bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, via social media.
“I can’t believe I’m having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning,” Wolfgang posted. “He was the best father I could ever ask for. Every moment I share with him on and off stage was a gift. My heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss. I love you so much, Pop.”
According to TMZ, which first broke the news, the legendary guitarist’s condition suddenly and drastically worsened during the past 72 hours, with doctors discovering that his throat cancer had spread to his brain and other organs. TMZ reports that Eddie died at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., with his wife Janie, his brother and bandmate Alex Van Halen, and Wolfgang by his side.
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Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was born Jan. 26, 1955, in Amsterdam, and moved to America with his family in 1962, settling in Pasadena, Calif., where both he and his brother began studying piano.
Though he never fully learned to read music, Eddie won several piano competitions as a child, with judges noting his unusual knack for interpreting classical pieces. In 1964, Eddie switched to guitar while Alex bought a drum kit, and they formed their first band, the Broken Combs, at Hamilton Elementary School when Eddie was in 4th grade.
In 1972, the Van Halen brothers formed their eponymous band (originally called Genesis), solidifying the lineup with original bassist/backup vocalist Michael Anthony and charismatic frontman David Lee Roth by 1974.
By the mid-‘70s, the band had graduated from the local backyard-party circuit to become a fixture of the L.A. rock scene, gracing the stages of clubs like the Whisky a Go Go. In 1976, after seeing them play at another Sunset Strip hot spot, the now-defunct Gazzarri’s, KISS’s Gene Simmons approached them and offered to produce their demo tape. According to the Los Angeles Times, Simmons took that demo to KISS’s management, but was told that they “had no chance of making it.”
However, one year later, Van Halen signed to Warner Bros. Records after that label’s Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman were blown away by their performance at another famous Hollywood club, the Starwood.
Upon the 1978 release of Van Halen’s self-titled album — considered one of the greatest debuts in rock history— Eddie was immediately revered as a guitar god, notably due to that album’s explosive instrumental track, “Eruption” (voted No. 2 in Guitar World's reader’s poll of “100 Greatest Guitar Solos”), which showcased his signature finger-tapping technique using both hands on the guitar neck. Eddie went on to be recognised as one of the most important rock guitarists of all time, perhaps second only to Jimi Hendrix in terms of influence.
Greater success followed, and by the 1980s, Van Halen was on its way to becoming one of the top rock acts of all time. They charted 13 No. 1 hits on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart and sold more than 80 million albums worldwide over the course of their career; they now rank 20th on the RIAA list of best-selling artists in the U.S., with 56 million in album sales in the States alone.
After Roth’s departure, the band enjoyed an equally fruitful second career act well into the ‘90s with replacement frontman Sammy Hagar. They won their only Grammy in 1992 for Best Hard Rock Performance With Vocal for their ninth studio album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and their innovative video for one of that LP’s tracks, “Right Now,” picked up three honours at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards — including Video of the Year, beating out Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
In addition to his acclaimed guitar work with his own band, Eddie Van Halen was an in-demand player among his peers, collaborating with Roger Waters, members of Black Sabbath, Queen's Brian May, LL Cool J, and Toto’s Steve Lukather, and appearing on scores for such films as The Wild Life and Twister.
His most famous outside assignment was an uncredited but instantly recognisable solo on Michael Jackson's Thriller hit “Beat It”; at one time, Van Halen’s final album before Roth’s exit, the five-times-platinum 1984, was at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, right behind Thriller.
During his life, Eddie struggled with various health issues, including alcohol/drug abuse, though he entered rehab in 2007 and had been sober since 2008. He underwent hip-replacement surgery in 1999 and an emergency operation for diverticulitis in 2012. He had one-third of his tongue removed in the early 2000s as part of his cancer treatment, and was declared cancer-free in 2002, but in 2019, it was revealed that he had been secretly battling throat cancer again for the past five years.
Eddie Van Halen is survived by his second wife, Janie, whom he married in 2009; his son, Wolfgang, from his first marriage to actress Valerie Bertinelli; and his brother, Alex Van Halen. Upon hearing the news of his death, various musicians and celebrities — including Roth, Hagar, and Extreme’s Gary Cherone, who fronted Van Halen from 1996 to 1999 — took to social media to mourn and pay tribute: