WOLFGANG VAN HALEN DISCUSSES HIS FORTHCOMING DEBUT ALBUM, PLAYING IN VAN HALEN, HIS FATHER, THE HATERS, AND SAYS, “MY WHOLE LIFE, I’VE WORKED SO HARD TO BE MY OWN MUSICIAN…I’M NOT MY DAD”
Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post wrote a feature article on Wolfgang Van Halen. Highlights from the column appear below.
The master plan, as Wolfgang Van Halen told his dad late in 2019, would please everyone.
One last Van Halen tour.
Eddie, the guitar hero, and brother Alex, the drummer, would bring back both original singer David Lee Roth and his replacement, Sammy Hagar. They would also recruit Michael Anthony, the bassist replaced by a teenage Wolfgang in 2007.
To top it all off, the opening act would be none other than Wolfgang Van Halen…
…Looking back, Wolfgang wonders whether it was all just wishful thinking.
In late 2017, doctors had diagnosed Eddie Van Halen with Stage 4 lung cancer and told him he might not make it through the year. But Eddie didn’t listen. He flew to Germany for treatments and seemed to stabilize, which allowed him to drop by the studio as his son recorded his first album. Eventually, when the cancer spread to the guitarist’s spine and brain, the trips to St. John’s Hospital became more frequent.
Then, in spring of 2020, covid hit, bringing what remained of normal life to a halt. Touring, like everything else, shut down. And it was just a few months later, on October 6th, that the great Eddie Van Halen died of cancer at 65.
Now 30, Wolfgang Van Halen struggles with his father’s death even as he is about to release his debut, Mammoth WVH, and spend the summer opening stadiums for Guns N’ Roses. It’s an exciting time for Wolfie, as he is known to family and friends. But he remains sad and more than a little angry as he considers how the pandemic altered what should have been his dad’s final encore…
…“The way we figured it, if I were to open for Van Halen, he would come out and play a solo for a song,” Wolfgang says. “That would have been the end-all dream.”
“I will forever loathe covid and how it was handled,” he adds in an unusually sharp political rebuke, “because they stole that moment from me…”
…Mammoth WVH could have come out three years ago. It was done. Except that in late 2017, at that showing of “It,” Eddie couldn’t stop coughing. He went to the doctor soon after and received his dire diagnosis. That’s when Wolfgang’s career went on hold.
“Ed was encouraging him to put [the record] out,” says Valerie Bertinelli, his mother and Van Halen’s wife from 1981 until their divorce in 2007. “But he just shut down everything when Ed got diagnosed. He said, ‘I am not going anywhere. I’m going to be here for my dad…’ ”
“…In the beginning, when Ed and I were still together and Wolfie showed an aptitude for music, Ed would beam,” Bertinelli says. “That’s all he ever wanted. He wanted somebody to play with…”
…With some reluctance — “I don’t want to sound like an a–hole” — Van Halen admits that he never really played bass until he started rehearsals for that 2007 [Van Halen] tour…
…Eddie heard everything on Mammoth WVH. He would stop by at the studio to say hello during sessions. He and Bertinelli watched his son’s band rehearse in 2018, and she remembers him turning to her to say, in his distinctive growl, “Can you believe this kid?”
But one of rock’s greatest guitarists didn’t play a note on his son’s debut. And neither did anyone else. Wolfgang played every instrument and sang every vocal. He also wrote all of the songs. This was by design. After years of working for the family business, he wanted to establish his own voice. And if Mammoth WVH contains shades of his many influences, from AC/DC to Foo Fighters to Jimmy Eat World, there is one band it doesn’t sound much like: Van Halen.
“When I first started hearing it, the first thing I did was send little love notes saying, ‘Hey, I’m so proud of you,’ ” says Sammy Hagar, Van Halen’s singer from 1986’s 5150 through 1995’s Balance. “Some of the fans were giving him s— because they wanted it to sound like Van Halen. I told him, f— these people. You have the right to be your own man, your own musician.”
Wolfgang has never been good about taking compliments.
“I think he’s had those [musical] skills and that talent for so long, he doesn’t realize that, dude, that’s not normal,” says Andraia Allsop, his girlfriend…
…“Compliments go right through my ear,” Van Halen says. “There’s something wrong with me, I guess.”
Insecurity runs in the family…
…Bertinelli recalls her husband crying, inconsolable, after receiving an award in the early 1980s and worrying how it would affect his relationship with Roth. She watched as his drinking…began to change his behavior. The shy artist grew temperamental; the perfectionist began to forget solos. There are clips all over the Internet of Eddie Van Halen, glassy eyed and rambling at instrument conventions or backyard jams. The drinking eventually ruined his marriage. It is unclear how much of his career it cost, but his son had a front-row seat to the worst of it.
The tipping point, for Wolfgang, came in Florida during the 2007 reunion tour with Roth. He was disgusted to see his father so out of his mind onstage and refused to grab his hand for the final bow.
“The only person who could actually get through Ed’s head was Wolf,” says Pat Bertinelli, Valerie’s brother, who traveled on that tour.
After that, weeks of shows were canceled so Eddie could go to rehab…
…Wolfgang Van Halen speaks softly and is polite. He does not drink or smoke and admits that the pandemic shutdown, in some ways, hasn’t been as hard on him as others. He’s always been an introvert. He shies away from parties, preferring virtual, video game hangs with buddies he’s had since kindergarten.
He has dealt with betrayal in the most millennial sense. He says a high school sweetheart, whom he dated for years, cheated on him and then, after they broke up, kept charging his credit card for her Amazon purchases. Another former confidant allegedly stole his laptop. Those breaches of trust, he says, did drive some of his writing on Mammoth WVH, with songs like Don’t Back Down and You’re to Blame...
…some of the least supportive people have been Van Halen fans. Toughen up, they write. You wouldn’t be anything without your dad.
They continue to blame him for replacing Anthony, which prevented a full reunion of the glorious Jump-era Van Halen. Those who insist that the band’s original bassist should have been in the room in 2012 working on their final studio album don’t realize what might have happened had Wolfgang Van Halen not been there, Bertinelli says.
By the time Eddie asked his son to pick up the bass, the band was 11 years removed from its last No. 1 album. Bertinelli had moved out in 2002, and there had been a disastrous, drunken tour with Hagar in 2004.
In 2006, Eddie got clean and wanted to go back on the road.
“That’s when we started jamming,” his son says. “I hadn’t seen him that happy in a while, and being fresh sober, he was like an alien to the world again. Trying to figure out who he was.”
And while there is some debate about why Anthony wasn’t included in the 2007 reunion tour with Roth (both he and the singer declined to comment for this story), Azoff, the band’s longtime manager, said that it came after Anthony and Hagar started playing together.
“Ed told Michael he needed to make a choice,” [manager Irving] Azoff says. “Either wait for [the band] Van Halen or go with Sammy. And he went with Sammy.”
When you walk around [the] 5150 [studios] with Wolfgang, you immediately understand the central role he played in that last incarnation of Van Halen — even if he won’t take credit. A set list from the 2015 tour is tacked to the wall, handwritten by Wolfgang and including rarely played tracks (Light Up the Sky, Dirty Movies) that he pushed the brothers to add to shows. A wax board, still unwashed, features notes for A Different Kind of Truth. Wolfgang scoured old tapes and had his father listen to unfinished songs dating to the 1970s. He wanted him to embrace a sound he had been moving steadily away from.
“He knew where the pearls were buried,” says John Shanks, who helped produce that final album. “Wolfie is the historian of their catalogue. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have someone who’s in the club but objective to say, ‘Dad, you know what people really want to hear?’ ”
Valerie Bertinelli is more direct in her message to fans.
“Van Halen does not make a final record without Wolfie,” she says. “They got three extra tours out of Van Halen because of Wolf…”
…Online, Wolfgang…has found it easier to deal directly with the shameless stream of rumors and address fan questions.
Whom did he like better, Sammy or Dave?
“They both kick a–,” he wrote. “The war is dumb. Enjoy whatever you want and don’t hate somebody else if they don’t like what you like.”
Was he really Eddie’s biological son? JokersWild45 noted that “he has none of Eddie’s facial features and absolutely zero hint of Asian blood in his DNA.”
“I’m super curious how homeboy got a sample of my dna to test these ‘theories’?” Van Halen wrote.
He blasted the YouTube psychic who claimed to have spoken to his father from beyond. He also responded to the most common criticism he faces. That he is “talented for sure, but not genius level talent IMO.”
“Like if I’m not on par with a f—ing legend then I’m not worth a s— lol,” Wolfgang wrote.
Wolfgang appreciates that there are also many who defend him and shower him with support. But he doesn’t plan on changing the way he interacts online. It feels good to face down the haters.
“Whenever I respond to, like, comments, people are always like, why do you do that? If you ignore it, it’ll go away,” he says. “And it’s like, that is not true. I’ve been receiving this hate for 14 years now, and if you ignore it, it’s still there, which is why I’m just enjoying myself…”
…For Van Halen, the battle remains how to move forward in his own career while protecting and promoting his father’s. Money won’t be an issue. Eddie Van Halen left a quarter of his estate to the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which donates instruments to students who need them. Most of the rest went to his son. Van Halen also owns his father’s likeness and decision-making rights. Alex controls the Van Halen recordings, but Wolfgang says the two will work together to preserve the band’s legacy.
That isn’t going to be easy. Wolfgang doesn’t feel emotionally ready to start going through the walls of tapes Eddie left behind at 5150. There may be tributes to Eddie Van Halen down the road, but don’t expect Wolfgang and the other band members to hit the road. He and Uncle Alex are close, but his relationship with the others, he says, is little more than cordial. And this summer, you won’t hear Wolfgang Van Halen in an arena throwing Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love or Poundcake into the set list.
It is the same reason he turned down the Grammy request for Eruption in March.
“My whole life, I’ve worked so hard to be my own musician, and even my dad would be like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” says Van Halen. ” ‘Do your own s—. Stop pretending to be me.’ That’s why I said no. Because I’m not my dad.”
Read more at The Washington Post.