My friend Chewie and I have been close friends for over half our respective lives. We talk all the time and practically share the same brain. Similar loves, similar hobbies, same corrupt sense of humor… and that list endlessly continues. On the morning of Tuesday, October 6th I was driving with my wife from Phoenix to Sedona traveling on our 10th anniversary. I received a text on my watch from Chewie with one simple world… “Fuck”. Now these days, when I get that kind of text from him, I assume a wrestler has died (see aforementioned “shared hobbies”). I couldn’t check my messages because I was driving, so I asked my wife to read it for me, wondering who it was this time. She then said “Oh, Eddie Van Halen died”. I instantly went blank, every goose bump with real estate on my body stood to full attention as I tried to process the words that had just been uttered. My mouth hung open for the next 10 miles as a million thoughts and memories went through my brain. It was a wonder I didn’t make a local headline… “Vacationing Indiana Couple Mysteriously Spearhead Large Cactus”.
It’s only appropriate that Chewie was the first one to tell me the tragic news, as he was the gateway drug that eventually became my Van Halen addiction. He was the first person I called in 1996 to see if he heard Sammy left/was asked to leave the band. I think his mom was pretty weirded out by that, rightfully so. Mind you, this was before social media and after I came to terms that my fandom for the band could only be likened to a 12-year-old girl going to her first NKOTB concert in 1988. I got hooked right away with the Balance album, immediately entranced by the immense sound of the record. Not a lot of VH fans have that one in their Top 3 albums, but it was my first and remains high on the list. I worked my way backwards and absorbed all of Sammy’s discography with the band, then worked my way back to 1978 to hear how that magical “brown sound” began. Pretty soon I had every album, but had never seen them live.
Fast forward a couple years… after a shameful attempted public reunion fell through with Dave, the word hits the Mean Streets that they hired Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone for their new album and will tour in support. I was excited for two reasons, the first being I like (note: present tense) Gary Cherone and think he’s a fantastic vocalist. The second, and most important, was that I would get to see Eddie Van Halen live in concert. While the album didn’t live up to most fans’ expectations, the promise of seeing them for the first time was worth the mediocre album if it got them on the road. That dream came true on July 22, 1998 at Deer Creek Music Center when the blistering sound of a fiery, two-handed tapping intro to Unchained came screaming through those 5150 amps, bringing light to an otherwise darkened band introduction. I was both frozen with amazement while jumping up and down uncontrollably in my hand-made (thanks, Mom) striped shoes. I could finally die happy knowing I was within 300 yards of the King himself. That’s all it took.
The next 3 shows I would see with them would be the ill-fated 2004 reunion with Sammy Hagar, my favorite of the VH frontmen. I didn’t care that they were legitimately terrible shows, I was seeing the 4 guys on stage that were responsible for the magic dust that I had mainlined about a decade previous. But like the first go ’round with Sammy, this one ended much the same. The band went their separate ways, and fans were left wondering what was next. Sammy’s tenure (I hate the term “Van Hagar” and refuse to use it) fell flat for a second time, and there was no chance a new singer would be allowed another shot. That absolutely wasn’t on table, the fans would make sure of that. Most older VH fans never accepted Sam in the group anyway, sadly making it the most polarizing fanbase in all of rock and roll. So there was really only one option left…
In 2007 Eddie and Alex would update their Facebook relationship status with Dave as “frenemies forever”, and the band set forth to remind everyone how they set the world on fire in the beginning. This time they would be joined by Eddie’s son Wolfgang, who was more than a competent bass player; however, fans would pine for Michael Anthony. I would go on to see them 3 more times, and honestly the shows only got better each time. Yeah, Dave’s voice was shot, but I was hearing some of the all-time VH classics that hadn’t been played in 25-30 years. Songs like “Light Up The Sky”, “Romeo Delight” and “In A Simple Rhyme” were B-sides that had the dust blasted right off with a bazooka on September 2, 2015 in Indianapolis. And I can say, with only a metric shit-ton of bias, that Eddie sounded great. Really great. And he was smiling the whole time, of course. Have you ever seen a picture of him playing guitar when he isn’t smiling? In hindsight, I guess I’m glad I didn’t know, as I was walking out, that it would be the last I would ever see Eddie. I likely wouldn’t have left.
The news of Eddie’s death was a complete gut punch. At least, that’s what I told the 25 people who reached out to me when they heard the news. I couldn’t think of anything but how bad I felt for Wolfgang and the rest of his family and friends for the rest of my drive. Despite all the rumors of his cancer that all us fans figured were true, I always thought that guy would live forever. Cancer couldn’t hurt him, that bastard was never human to begin with. Whether you like his music, or hate the drones of imitators that followed, anyone who respects rock and roll must agree that he was (objectively) THE most influential guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. You can’t give those accolades to anyone. The idea that we’ve heard and seen the last of his gift is something I always knew would happen, but never allowed myself to believe.
As with any tragedy, there’s always a silver lining. Or in this case, 3. The first, and arguably most important to me, is that word of a rekindling between him and Sammy had happened earlier in the year. For someone who genuinely loved them both, I just wanted them to be friends again. I can honestly say I didn’t care whether there would ever be another “reunion”, new music or tour. I’d had all that by this point. They were best friends and neighbors in the height of Sammy’s time with the boys, but that all fell away when they split. I’m thankful they both received that closure. The second, was that Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt said in his Facebook tribute that Eddie was “super excited about reaching out to Michael Anthony to finally put the original VH lineup back together”. After what seemed like an unceremonious departure from the lineup, it was heartwarming to see Mikey get his comeuppance. Sadly, the tour never fully took shape when Ed’s health worsened in 2019. And finally, and least important (but maybe most cool), Alex Winter (Bill S. Preston, Esquire) told Rolling Stone that they had offered a part for Eddie in all 3 of the Bill and Ted movies. I often wondered aloud to friends why they never tried to work him in, but turns out they did try. They had even written an entire scene for him in the most recent outing, “Bill and Ted Face The Music”. Unfortunately, he turned them all down (the last one being for “personal” reasons). I’d like to think he would’ve been in the movie had he not been sick. Who better to help save the world?
So, I guess that’s it. Everything that is Eddie Van Halen is now but a memory, with no new ones to be made. But those are some pretty amazing memories. I know, it’s goofy to have such an emotional reaction to someone that you’ve never even met. I don’t care. In his own way, he’s been there for me longer than many of my friends, he just didn’t know it. His music has been the soundtrack of my high times, picked me up during the low times and made its place all the spaces between. I proudly air guitar every lick that comes on the radio, and will continue to do so until arthritis finally sets in. Someone once asked me what I would do if I ever had the chance to meet Edward Van Halen, and the answer to me was always easy. I wouldn’t belabor him with why “Outta Love Again” is my favorite solo of his, ask for a selfie or speculate how many times he put Icy Hot in Dave’s stage pants. I would simply say… “thanks Eddie”. That’s it, just thanks. Because nothing I could ever say would ever begin to cover how important his legacy was to me as a fan, a guitar player and a lover of music.
Rest in Peace, Sir Edward Van Halen. Tell Mom I said hi.