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 he 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-19 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 Van Halen 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 surrounding 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,” Van Halen said. “That would have been the end-all dream.
“I will forever loathe COVID and how it was handled,” he added in an unusually sharp political rebuke, “because they stole that moment from me.”
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 December 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 an 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,” said Valerie Bertinelli, his mother, who was Eddie 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.”
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 said. “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)”
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 Van Halen 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.”