The Eddie Van Halen I knew, by Gene Simmons

Eddie Van Halen with guitar and (inset) Gene Simmons throwing the horns
(Image credit: Eddie Van Halen: Jon Sievert | Gene Simmons: Kevin Nixon)

"When I was told that Eddie Van Halen had died, it hit me like a punch in the face. He was such a kind and beautiful soul, a genuinely nice person. He was so non-judgmental. It’s impossible to think of him without remembering that ever-present smile of his, or the way that his fingers always flew across the guitar. 

“He made it all look so effortless, but that’s absolutely the last thing it was. And it’s strange to think that Eddie began as the drummer of Van Halen. His brother Alex was the guitarist until they swapped instruments. Ed had been a classically trained pianist which is why none of the other rockers could touch his musicality. 

“I first met Eddie on the night that I saw Van Halen playing at the Starwood, a small club in Hollywood, in 1976. I’ve been credited as the man that discovered Van Halen. No, I didn’t. I did no such thing. I just happened to be there and witness their greatness at what was still a very early stage. 

“I saw them that night and was left incredulous. I stood at the front of the stage and couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. This was one man making all of these sounds with his bare human hands? Everybody in the band was singing and playing live and Eddie was a complete guitar symphony in his own right. In those early days Ed would sometimes stand with his back to the audiences because he didn’t want to give his tracks away. But even if you saw how he played those licks, how could you possibly emulate them? 

“So I signed the band to my production company, Man Of 1,000 Faces, flew them to New York and produced a demo for them at Electric Lady Studios. If you Google the words ‘Gene Simmons Van Halen demo’ you can hear the song that I consider to be Edward’s defining moment. Not to be confused with the re-make from the album 1984, the version of House Of Pain they recorded with me is the most powerful thing they ever did. It erupts from zero to 60mph in a second. Play it loud; it’s like a steamroller over your face and the band performed it completely live in the studio."

“But despite the quality of those tracks that we recorded together, I could not get interest from my manager at the time, Bill Aucoin, who has since passed away. Paul Stanley wasn’t interested either, and of course Ace Frehley and Peter Criss had bigger thing on their minds, they were too busy making bad decisions about life. 

“I had wanted to take Van Halen under the wings of Kiss. We should have signed them and taken them out on tour with us. Sadly, nobody else in our organisation saw it and of course months later Warner Brothers came by and scooped them up. And by the time Kiss went out on tour again they had taken The KinksYou Really Got Me and made it into something that Ray Davies could never have imagined. They became superstars. And when that happened I was able to go back to my own band and say: ‘I told you so, you morons’. 

“But the songwriting was just as important as the music, and David Lee Roth deserves his share of credit. Nevertheless, possibly due to Roth’s swagger and acrobatics onstage, Van Halen’s songs are often overlooked. That’s a shame as at their absolute peak nobody could touch them. When they went out on tour with Black Sabbath in 1978, Van Halen destroyed that band. Tony Iommi admitted it, and so did Ozzy."

“What really intrigued me about Van Halen was that they came out of nowhere, it seemed like they had no lineage. The big lips and blues-laden songs meant that you could trace the relationship between Aerosmith and the Stones, but to this day I’ve no clue where Van Halen came from. Edward has talked about being a fan of Clapton. I’m sorry, I don’t see that. Where other guitarists were inspired by B.B. King or Albert King, Edward was playing majors and minors and flat-thirds. What he did was closer to classical music.

“My friendship with him is something that I will always treasure. In the beginning we saw one another a lot, but less so as the years passed by. Our final meeting was in Los Angeles, we bumped into each other on Sunset Boulevard. He was already deeply affected by cancer. I had read that he blamed his condition on using a metal guitar pick, putting it in his mouth. In my view that wasn’t the case. Ed smoked all the time. 

“All the same, when I heard that familiar voice calling my name on the street – ‘Hey, Gene!’ – I wasn’t sure what to say. His condition was wellknown at that point. He brought it up at the start of the conversation: ‘Hey, man, how you doing? I’ve got cancer’. I was embarrassed and wanted to reach out and hug him, but standing there on the street with a cigarette in his hand he opened his mouth and smiled: ‘Check this out’, inviting me to look at the space where his upper palette should have been. He just shrugged: ‘I’ve got this disease, watcha gonna do? I’ll see you around’. It was typical Ed; happy-go-lucky. 

“Those that had the honour of having met Eddie Van Halen will know that he never said a bad word about others. Eddie didn’t bad-mouth rival bands. He conducted himself with a shrug of the shoulders. He reminded me of Charlie Chaplin; at the end of a movie he could be left with nothing, tattered and torn, and he’d walk off down the road with nonchalance. 

“That part of his character was always a bitchslap to me, with my big ego. I’m full of myself and I love the sound of my own voice. Spending time in the presence of Edward made me think: ‘I should probably stop this’. You know, give up the airs and stupid stuff and just concentrate on being a human being. 

“Eddie was all about the music, not just the chicks or the rock‘n’roll lifestyle. That’s something I always admired about him. He was a lover of life. Whenever you met him he smiled from ear to ear. 

“As much as his death was upsetting, it also made me a little furious that so many of our so-called ‘younger generation’ remain unaware of his talents. For fuck’s sake, parents should be slapping mobile phones out of their kids’ hands and telling them to check out this guy. Our millennials need to know about the most important musician since Jimi Hendrix. There will never be another like him."

Gene Simmons was speaking with Dave Ling

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.