After Eddie Van Halen Passed Away, His Ex-Wife Paid A Moving Tribute To The Rock Legend

“The Great American Guitar Player. I was hoping he might be President one day.” So said the legendary The Who guitarist Pete Townshend. But who were these words dedicated to? None other than the iconic Eddie Van Halen, who tragically passed away in October 2020 at the age of 65. Along with Townshend, many stars spoke about the loss, yet none did it quite so eloquently as Van Halen’s ex-wife, Valerie Bertinelli.

Bertinelli and Van Halen, who divorced in 2007 after separating six years earlier, were one of the star couples of the 1980s. With the band Van Halen riding high on the back of Eddie’s unique guitar work and Bertinelli starring in popular sitcom One Day at a Time, the pair were the epitome of 1980s glamour.

Van Halen met Bertinelli at a Van Halen concert in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1980. At that time, Bertinelli was already a successful actor, but she still needed her brother to bag access-all-areas passes for the gig. Another Bertinelli brother later recalled his sister’s objectives that night. “She had it in her mind, ‘I gotta meet this guy Eddie Van Halen,’” David Bertinelli told the Detroit Free Press in 2020. And meet him she did.

Despite the groupies who would throw themselves at her famous husband, the marriage between Van Halen and Bertinelli would last 26 years. After getting hitched in 1981 following a whirlwind romance, the pair welcomed a son – Wolfgang – into the world in 1991. And despite divorcing, their relationship remained strong. “Valerie and Eddie had some rough times, but their love for each other never wavered,” an unnamed insider told Us Weekly. So Bertinelli took her ex-husband’s death hard. “She’s truly heartbroken,” the source added. And her poignant words in the wake of his death would reveal just that.

Along with his brother Alex, Van Halen was a founder member and the legendary guitarist of the band that bore his family name. The group had a string of hits in the late 1970s and 1980s that firmly cemented them among the pantheon of rock greats. Yet Eddie Van Halen’s legend perhaps surpassed even that of the group as his virtuoso guitar style inspired a generation.

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As well as his band being members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Van Halen is widely considered to be one of the best guitarists in the history of music. Rolling Stone listed him as the eighth-greatest guitarist of all time in 2015. That list was voted for by experts and fellow musicians, including the likes of Carlos Santana and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.

Though considered a god of American music, Van Halen was actually born in Amsterdam, Holland. His family – mum, dad, brother Alex and Eddie – moved to the United States when Van Halen was only seven years old. They settled in Pasadena, California, and initially lived in a home with several families.

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Van Halen recalled his family’s arrival in the U.S. when speaking in 2015 to the Associated Press. “We showed up here with the equivalent of $50 and a piano,” the guitarist stated. “We came halfway around the world without money, without a set job, no place to live and couldn’t even speak the language.” But that didn’t hold the young Van Halen back.

Van Halen was close to his older brother Alex and the siblings always enjoyed music. It was important to the whole family, as their dad Jan was a jazz musician. The Van Halen boys followed in their father’s footsteps and before long both were showing talent. But despite the fact he’d become known as a guitar hero, Van Halen didn’t start out on the six-string.

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The young Van Halen’s first instrument was in fact the piano, even though he never actually learned to read music. That didn’t hold him back though, as the young musician went on to claim victory in a neighborhood piano-playing contest four years in succession. This kid clearly had something. Alex, meanwhile, had a guitar. And it wasn’t long before the younger of the Van Halen brothers, despite his talent on the ivories, moved on to a drumkit.

In the rock group Van Halen, of course, it was the younger Van Halen brother – Eddie – who became famed for his guitar playing. Older brother Alex was the one holding the sticks. So what happened? How did it come about that the siblings ended up swapping instruments? Eddie Van Halen revealed all at a talk at the Smithsonian during 2015.

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In his speech at the National Museum of American History, Van Halen said his older brother Alex had wanted the younger sibling’s drum-kit all along. The younger brother eventually had to give in to his big brother’s wishes. “I never wanted to play guitar. I said, ‘Go ahead, take my drums. I’ll play your damn guitar,’” Van Haled recalled. Many fans will be eternally grateful that he did.

Attending school in Pasadena, the Van Halens soon decided to form a band to showcase their talents. Their first group was named Mammoth, but they soon moved on to create Van Halen, recruiting singer David Lee Roth as well as bass player Michael Anthony along the way. And the band were soon turning heads in the LA music scene.

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Kiss member Gene Simmons was an early admirer of the band, and soon Van Halen earned themselves a deal at Warner Bros. Their eponymous first album was released in 1978, and it launched them to stardom. The single “Runnin’ With the Devil” was a minor hit, while the combination of Eddie Van Halen’s adept guitar play and Roth’s front-man antics attracted plenty of attention.

Riding on the crest of the new MTV generation of music videos, Van Halen became rock giants in the 1980s. Hits such as “Hot for Teacher,” “Panama” and the all-conquering “Jump” followed – with all those songs appearing on their seminal 1984 album. Rolling Stone magazine later selected that record among the decade’s best 100 albums.

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Yet Eddie Van Halen’s achievements went beyond his output with the band named after him and his brother. He appeared on Michael Jackson song “Beat It”, adding the now-legendary guitar solo. Van Halen later admitted that he also decided to rearrange the song while they were in the studio together. “I didn’t know how he would react,” Van Halen confessed to CNN.

Van Halen’s appearance on the Michael Jackson record further enhanced the guitarist’s legend. But Van Halen wasn’t just a performer – he was an inventor, too. He put down a patent on a contraption that allowed musicians to fix their guitars in a horizontal position. He also produced a ground-breaking guitar head and even a new type of tuning device. So there wasn’t much Van Halen couldn’t do with a guitar.

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But perhaps unsurprisingly in light to his rock & roll lifestyle, Van Halen suffered with his health. While touring in support of the album Balance, he started experiencing severe hip pain as a result of failing to undergo much-needed surgery. The agony was so bad that the guitarist later nicknamed that sequence of gigs the “Ambulance tour”.

Van Halen finally relented and had his hip replaced in 1999. But just a year later the rocker was found to have cancer of the tongue. No less than a third of his tongue was removed during treatment, though he was declared free of cancer in 2002. And Van Halen had his own theories about what’d brought on his illness, which he shared with Billboard in 2015.

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“I used metal picks – they’re brass and copper – which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer,” Van Halen told Billboard. He also had another theory about his diagnosis. “Plus, I basically live in a recording studio that’s filled with electromagnetic energy,” he added.

In the same Billboard interview, Van Halen added a caveat to these hypotheses. “I mean, I was smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything,” he admitted. “But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it’s possible.”

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But Van Halen’s health issues were far from over. In 2012 he needed emergency surgery on a severe digestive condition. And then his cancer returned. It’s believed that the musician developed throat cancer in recent years, and tragically the disease spread. His health rapidly deteriorated, leading to his death on October 6, 2020.

Van Halen’s only son, Wolfgang, posted an emotional tribute to his father on Twitter. He wrote, “I can’t believe I’m having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long arduous battle with cancer this morning.” He then went on to mention the love he had for his father and the joy he’d shared with him.

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“He was the best father I could ever ask for,” Wolfgang continued. “Every moment I’ve shared with him on and off stage was a gift. My heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss. I love you so much, Pop.”

In an equally heartfelt tribute, Van Halen’s ex-wife Bertinelli took to social media to express her deep sorrow at the loss. To accompany her words, the actor posted a picture of her and her ex-husband along with Wolfgang, who was only a baby at the time. The picture must have been taken just a matter of weeks after his birth in 1991.

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Alongside the touching image were some equally moving words penned by Van Halen’s ex-wife. They were the thoughts of someone who’d clearly been profoundly affected by the loss of the guitarist. “F years ago my life changed forever when I met you,” Bertinelli began, addressing her words directly to the late Van Halen.

Bertinelli’s message continued with a glimpse into the family life she’d shared with her now-departed ex-husband. “You gave me the one true light in my life, our son, Wolfgang,” the actor added. Neither Van Halen nor Bertinelli have any other children despite the fact that both remarried after their 2007 divorce.

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Bertinelli then referenced Van Halen’s brave fight against the illness that finally claimed his life. “Through all your challenging treatments for lung cancer, you kept your gorgeous spirit and that impish grin,” she wrote on Instagram. They are words that must resonate with anyone who’s seen a loved one battle with disease.

Bertinelli’s final words about her ex-husband Van Halen were truly heartbreaking. “I’m so grateful Wolfie and I were able to hold you in your last moments. I will see you in our next life my love,” she concluded. It was an incredibly poignant and heartfelt ode to her ex-husband that must have brought tears to the eyes of many who read it.

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Remarkably, despite their divorce, Bertinelli and Van Halen remained on great terms. She helped him through the addictions he suffered, and the pair even supported each other when they both tied the knot again. Bertinelli was in attendance at Van Halen’s marriage to Janie Liszewski in 2009, while the rocker returned the favor at Bertinelli’s wedding to Tom Vitale in 2011.

As well as those moving tributes from his son and ex-wife, Van Halen’s passing brought eulogies from a host of music legends. They included Gene Simmons from the rock band Kiss. As we heard earlier, Simmons had been one of the first to spot the potential of Van Halen and his band. “My heart is broken. Eddie was not only a Guitar God, but a genuinely beautiful soul. Rest in peace, Eddie!” Simmons wrote on Twitter.

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“I am devastated at the news of the passing of my friend Eddie Van Halen,” wrote American country star Kenny Chesney in a simple post on Instagram. “Rest in peace guitar legend Eddie Van Halen. We will miss you,” Billy Idol tweeted. And Pete Townshend of The Who added more to his “Van Halen for President” address. “It’s completely tragic that we have lost him,” Townshend mourned to Rolling Stone.

Modern-day guitar hero John Mayer also penned a moving elegy to Van Halen, citing the musician as a huge influence. “Eddie Van Halen was a guitar superhero. A true virtuoso. A stunningly good musician and composer. Looking up to him as a young kid was one of the driving forces in my needing to pick up a guitar. I was blown away watching him exert such control and expression over his instrument,” Mayer wrote. He ended his post with the words “EVH FOREVER”.

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It wasn’t just musicians who were affected by the loss of Van Halen, either. “Two of the best hours of my life were spent chatting with Eddie van Halen. A great musician, yes – also a funny and lovely guy who will be missed terribly. Sending love to Janie, Wolf, Alex and all those who love him,” TV host Kimmy Kimmel tweeted.

The public were clearly moved by Van Halen’s death as well. After all, his music meant as much to normal folk as it did to any star. Floods of tributes appeared on social media, and Van Halen’s childhood home in Pasadena also served as a physical location at which fans could pay their respects. Another was a nearby liquor store where – legend has it – the Van Halen brothers carved their names in the concrete the night they settled on the band’s name.

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And then there was Van Halen’s brother Alex. Not only his older sibling, Alex was of course a founder member and constant bandmate in the group that defined the guitarist’s life. “Hey, Ed. Love you,” the simple message – posted to the Van Halen News Desk – began. “See you on the other side. Your brother, Al.”

Despite the band Van Halen having their heyday more than 30 years ago, they’re still far from forgotten. That fact was underlined after Eddie Van Halen’s passing. In the days following his death, the Van Halen back catalogue was being streamed like never before: up by a remarkable 1,300 percent according to Billboard.

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The band Van Halen will live on forever, of course, thanks in part to their entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. But Eddie Van Halen perhaps has an even stronger legacy. In remembering the performer, Rolling Stone magazine’s Kory Grow tried to summarize what made Van Halen’s guitar playing different.

In the piece, which was headlined “How Eddie Van Halen Reshaped Rock Guitar,” Grow was effusive in his praise for the icon. “Eddie confounded rock fans with what became known as ‘finger tapping,’ playing the guitar with two hands, kind of like a piano, on ‘Eruption’ and other songs,” Grow stated.

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Grow then offered up an anecdote detailing how different Van Halen’s playing was. “The approach was so revolutionary that Alex (Van Halen’s brother and bandmate) encouraged him to play gigs with his back to audiences so aspiring axe men wouldn’t steal it before the band had a record deal,” Grow recalled. Happily, no one did.

Perhaps the last word on Van Halen should go to Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, who profiled the legend for Rolling Stone in the magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists” piece. “When I was 11, I was at my guitar teacher’s place, and he put on ‘Eruption.’ It sounded like it came from another planet,” McCready wrote. “I was just learning basic chords, stuff like AC/DC and Deep Purple. ‘Eruption’ really didn’t make sense to me, but it was glorious, like hearing Mozart for the first time.” The “rock and roll Mozart” seems a very fitting epitaph.

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