Arts and Entertainment

Wolfgang Van Halen shares a famous name. His music is his own.

He joined Van Halen at 16. Now he’s going it alone, with a debut album that was in the making before his father’s death.

Wolfgang Van Halen shares a famous name. His music is his own.

He joined Van Halen at 16. Now he’s going it alone, with a debut album that was in the making before his father’s death.
Wolfgang Van Halen plays the last guitar his father, Eddie, went out on tour with, at the Los Angeles recording studio his dad built. (Damon Casarez for the Washington Post)

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.

Fans would go crazy, getting to relive the iconic band’s past with both the “Unchained” and “Why Can’t This Be Love” editions sharing a single stage. And Wolfgang, who had been sitting on his debut solo record, a driving hard pop album on which he played every instrument, would finally get a proper career launch of his own.

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 Oct. 6, 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.

Without covid-19, he reasons, maybe Pop flies to Germany for more radiation. Maybe in the summer of 2020, instead of standing outside the window of his father’s house to say hello, and instead of sitting by a hospital bed as he slips away, they are on the road together, one last time.

“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.”

Van Halen at 5150 Studios. (Damon Casarez for the Washington Post)

On a Monday night in April, Wolfgang Van Halen is wearing his standard uniform, a black hoodie and matching jeans. He sits behind a mixing board under a wall lined with guitars. This is 5150, the Studio City headquarters for Van Halen for more than three decades and now home base for Wolfgang.

He clicks through his phone to share demos of songs that landed on his first record. The jangly “Resolve” emerged during a 2015 stop in Buffalo, “Horribly Right” in a hotel room in New York City during that same tour. He also plays an early version of “Distance,” a song released in November with a heart-wrenching video that rose to No. 1. Stitching together home footage, the clip opens with Eddie, circa 1991, cradling a swathed Wolfie and ends with him eating ice cream next to his grown-up only child in a darkened cinema. That 2017 screening of “It” would be one of their last carefree outings.

“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.’ ”

Wolfgang Van Halen was about 8 when his father put a stack of magazines on the kitchen table and had him hammer out something that would approximate snare drum hits.

“If you can do this in time,” he told the boy, “this is what playing drums is.”

Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli walk young Wolfgang through Los Angeles International Airport in 1997. (Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images)

He got a kit for his 10th birthday and would sit at it, playing along to Van Halen’s 1996 compilation album, “Best of: Volume 1,” and Blink-182’s “Enema of the State.” He got a guitar somewhere around his 12th birthday.

“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.”

Music was always part of the Van Halen family. Jan, the patriarch, started on clarinet and saxophone in his native Netherlands. Eddie played drums and piano, winning competitions throughout his teens. He heard Cream and Jimmy Page and shifted his focus to guitar. Alex, the older brother by two years, played drums. In the early ’70s, they formed Mammoth, later renamed Van Halen.

“The brothers Van Halen, how do you compete against the brothers Van Halen?” says Matt Bruck, who started with Eddie in the early 1990s as a guitar tech before rising to help co-manage EVH Gear, the line of guitars designed by Van Halen. “It’s just not a fair fight. They’re so gifted. And Wolf is equally that gifted, but he is his own person.”

Which seems to bother some Van Halen fans.

“Wolf,” wrote a Twitter user named FoodieAcademy after the Van Halen scion played “Distance” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in February. “Don’t know your music well. … What I’ve heard … was a guitar solo that was one note. Boring & uninspired, and in a tribute to your legendary dad. I know he taught you better than that.”

Wolfgang, who is not one to ignore his trollers, fired back.

The solo for distance is ALL emotion,” he responded, “and at the emotional height of the song. It’s why Pop loved it.”

And then a follow that ends with a red heart emoji: “(So go f--- yourself)”

Father and son perform during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

There is something absurd about questioning Van Halen’s chops. It’s like blasting L.A. Angels slugger Mike Trout for taking a walk instead of waving wildly at a 3-0 slider in the dirt. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.

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 tour.

Michael “Elvis” Baskette, who produced “Mammoth WVH,” remembers the first time they worked together, in 2015. Mark Tremonti, the Creed guitarist, had recruited Wolfgang Van Halen to play bass in his solo band. During some studio downtime, the producer watched as Wolfgang casually wandered over to the drum kit and picked up the sticks.

“I’m like, ‘Holy crap,’ ” Baskette says. “Then the guy proceeds to pick up the guitar. Everybody, including Mark, was sitting there like, ‘Oh, my God, what do you not do?’ And then I heard the guy sing. Pitch perfect.”

On “Mammoth WVH,” Van Halen wasn’t looking to flaunt his finger work. Sometimes, as on “Distance,” that meant a solo built off a single, furiously picked note on the 22nd fret. On “Mammoth,” the title track, a melodic, three-note solo surges against a thick wall of sound. It feels full and wide-open, reminiscent of 1980s U2.

There’s also the guitar work on the album’s opener, “Mr. Ed,” where he offers enough searing licks and finger tapping to power a ’79 Camaro.

“There were times, I was like, ‘Dude, let’s push the envelope a little bit, show off,’ ” Baskette says. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not what the song’s about.’ ”

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.”

Van Halen works on his album with Michael “Elvis” Baskette in 2018. (Patrick Bertinelli)

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.

“The first thing I did when I heard the album is, I texted him and said, ‘You have no idea how this has moved me,’ ” Bertinelli says.

How did her son respond?

“He didn’t,” she says. “He’s just like, ‘Oh, thanks, Mom.’ ”

Van Halen joined Bertinelli in 2012 as she was honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

“Compliments go right through my ear,” Van Halen says. “There’s something wrong with me, I guess.”

Insecurity runs in the family. If David Lee Roth was the sexy clown in leather chaps, Eddie was the silent, musical superhero with a lit cigarette in his headstock. He revolutionized the instrument with his creativity, dexterity and finger-tapping technique, posing with his duct-taped “Frankenstein” guitar in seemingly every issue of Circus, Creem or Rolling Stone.

But backstage was different. 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 — shrugged off in the days when a Jack Daniels bottle next to a Marshall stack was as standard to the rock star costume as a mane of feathered hair — 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.

Eddie, Wolfgang and legendary guitarist Les Paul backstage after a Van Halen show at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 2007. (Patrick Bertinelli)

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.

In 2015, in an appearance at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Eddie, now sober for good, was asked about what it meant to have Wolfgang join Van Halen.

“What father wouldn’t want to play with his son, especially one who is as talented as he is?” he said.

Then he spoke about getting sober during the 2007 tour.

“And I was so nervous, and every time I looked at my son, I’m going, ‘Okay, if my 16-year-old son can be kicking a-- like that, I better suck it up here,’ ” he said. “He gave me the strength to be able to do that.”

Eddie, Wolfgang and David Lee Roth perform in Los Angeles in 2012. (Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty Images)
Wolfgang and Eddie in Inglewood, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LEFT: Eddie, Wolfgang and David Lee Roth perform in Los Angeles in 2012. (Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty Images) RIGHT: Wolfgang and Eddie in Inglewood, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

In person, 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.”

There also is “Mammoth,” an uplifting theme song.

Over a swirl of guitars and pounding drums, Van Halen sings: “Anything is possible. You’re not the only one. Let ’em think you’re unremarkable and prove them wrong.”

Van Halen is not alone. He and Allsop, a software engineer from Utah, have been together for six years. He talks to or texts his mom and Uncle Alex virtually every day. He knows he can always call up former Van Halen manager Irving Azoff for advice. And he depends on the trio he calls “The Trusted Humans,” made up of Bruck, Uncle Pat (Bertinelli) and manager Tim Tournier.

“The awesome thing about our friendship and the way that the Trusted Humans work is, there’s nothing we can’t talk about,” Tournier says. “I talk with these guys the same way I talk with my wife.”

Wolfgang and his uncle Alex Van Halen perform in Las Vegas in 2012. (David Becker/Getty Images)

That can involve deciding how to handle a request from the Grammys that Wolfgang perform his father’s signature instrumental, “Eruption,” as a tribute. (A terrible idea, they all agreed.) It can be processing why a guitar magazine promises to write a story about him, then puts his father’s photo on the cover. And it can also be making the difficult decision to put off his debut album release and tour.

“At that point, with what was going on with Ed, we can be on the road for the next 18 months, or you could be here,” Tournier says he advised Van Halen. “The same goes for when we released ‘Distance.’ I had a plan, but it’s also about how Wolf feels.”

And plans can shift. Even before the terrible 2020, Van Halen struggled with anxiety and depression. Since his father’s death, there are still days when he struggles to get out bed.

“It’s a really weird, almost like PTSD-esque thing,” Van Halen says. “Now I feel like I can’t watch like an episode of ‘Family Guy’ without, like, Peter, the dad ending up in a hospital. And it’s like it just forces me to think. It just echoes back to everything, every little moment. Even sometimes if I just hear a cough, it’ll make me think of dad coughing and how bad those bad times were.”

During this stretch, 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,” Azoff says. “Either wait for [the band] Van Halen or go with Sammy. And he went with Sammy.”

When you walk around 5150 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.”

The last guitar Eddie Van Halen played on tour. (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post)
The album art for "Mammoth WVH" on a bass drum at 5150. (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post)
LEFT: The last guitar Eddie Van Halen played on tour. (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post) RIGHT: The album art for "Mammoth WVH" on a bass drum at 5150. (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post)

The last really good time may have been the Tool concert. It was a Monday in 2019 at the Staples Center, and Wolfgang, who has an ear for the preposterously comic, watched as a clueless dude in jean shorts asked Eddie whether he could snap a photo of him in front of the stage. No problem, said one of the greatest guitarists to walk the Earth.

The six weeks his dad’s doctor prognosticated had stretched into two years. Now he was out seeing one of his boy’s favorite bands, and Wolfgang captured the moment. He snapped a shot from behind and popped it on Instagram.

“A guy asked my dad if he could take a picture of him with the stage behind him, having no idea who he just asked, and that was my favorite moment from the #Tool show last night,” he wrote.

This is the magic of Wolfgang on social media. For a shy kid who prefers to stay home, Twitter and Instagram can be the best way to communicate with the outside world.

As early as 2017, he teased his debut on Instagram. Sometimes, there would be a generous clip showing him on drums or layering a guitar line. Other times, he preferred to play the prankster, promising a sneak peek and offering something approximating a half chord.

Online, Wolfgang also 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.”

Van Halen outside 5150 Studios. (Damon Casarez for the Washington Post)

This should be a triumphant time. There are already signs that “Mammoth WVH” is destined to be a hit. “Distance” topped the Billboard charts in December, and nearly 5 million people clicked on the video on YouTube. Terrie Carr, the program director at the influential WDHA-FM in New Jersey, said that as a potential radio artist, “Wolfgang checks all the boxes.”

“When you see a musician that is able to do the things he does, playing all the instruments but playing them so professionally, that’s sort of a rock-and-roll Prince,” says Carr. “He can appeal to a younger audience. Everyone knows Eddie, and now you’ve got this next generation of this wunderkind making music and people saying, ‘Wow, that apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ ”

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.”

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