Eddie Van Halen no more: When the guitar legend just wanted a case of beer in exchange for Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ solo
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

One of rock 'n' roll's singular and most gifted guitarists, Eddie Van Halen, has passed away aged 65.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Van Halen died "battling cancer". His son, Wolfgang, shared the news on Twitter.

"I can't believe I'm having to write this, but my father, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, has lost his long and arduous battle with cancer this morning," he wrote.

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

The guitarist and bandleader had been the subject of near-death rumours for many years, some due to his documented substance-abuse issues but most stemming from the news of tongue cancer in 2000 -- which caused doctors to remove a third of his tongue, though Van Halen was declared cancer-free two years later.

In recent months, however, reports stated that he was battling throat cancer and flying to Germany for specialised treatments.

The ‘Beat It’ Solo

Van Halen, the guitar virtuoso whose blinding speed, control and innovation propelled his band Van Halen into one of hard rock's biggest groups, fuelled the unmistakable fiery solo in Michael Jackson's 1982 hit "Beat It" in the album “Thriller”, and became elevated to the status of rock god.

But there’s an interesting story behind this collaboration.

In an interview with CNN, Van Halen revealed that he did the 20-second bit for free, as a favour to producer Quincy Jones.

He said that he didn’t want to be credited either, because he signed up for it without consulting other members of the Van Halen band, and didn’t want them to find out about it.

However, he did ask for a case of chilled beer, and dance lessons from Jackson.

"Beat It" was released in 1983 and peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for three weeks.

It received the 1984 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, as well as two American Music Awards.

The song was also ranked number 81 on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.

Guitar God Van Halen

Van Halen was born on January 26, 1955, in the Netherlands. His father, Jan Van Halen, was a classically trained clarinettist, saxophonist, and pianist. "Music was a common thread throughout our lives ... ever since we were young," Van Halen said at the Smithsonian, adding, presciently, "We always liked things loud."

In 1962, the family moved to Pasadena, where Van Halen and his older brother Al took piano lessons and became contest-winning youth players - despite Eddie's inability to read music.

But enamoured by rock 'n' roll and, specifically, the Dave Clark Five's 'Glad All Over,' the younger Van Halen took up drums. "I never wanted to play the guitar," he said at the Smithsonian. But hearing Alex play his drum kit and realizing his brother was better, "I said, 'Go ahead, take my drums and I'll play your damn guitar ...'"

By the time Van Halen's debut album came out in 1978, Eddie had become an accomplished and innovative player as well as an avowed gearhead who experimented with instruments, amplifiers, and effects.

With the Van Halen instrumental 'Eruption,' meanwhile, popularised the tapping technique that had been introduced by predecessors, advancing it by using both hands to on the guitar neck to blend percussive and melodic elements.

Van Halen told 'Guitar World' during a concert at the Los Angeles Forum, "I think I got the idea of tapping watching Jimmy Page do his 'Heartbreaker' solo back in 1971. He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought, 'Wait a minute, open string...pull off, I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around?' I just kind of took it and ran with it."

Acknowledging at the Smithsonian that he did not invent tapping, Van Halen added that, "I never really heard anybody do with it what I really did, which was actual pieces of music. The main reason I squeeze so many, you call them tricks, whatever, out of a guitar is out of necessity. I couldn't afford the pedals, the fuzz box, and all the toys everybody else had. So, I did all I could to get all the sound I could out of my fingers."

The run included a dozen studio albums during the Van Halen band's on-and-off run, adding synthesizers to the mix for hits such as 'Jump' and 'I'll Wait.'

He also made guest contributions to albums by onetime Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, Queen's Brian May, Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and LL Cool J and David Garfield.

Meanwhile, Van Halen's inventive streak led to a number of patents for guitar body technologies. Van Halen noted, "More is always better. The main thing is I always ask myself, 'What if I do this? What'll happen if I do this?'...through trial and error."

A perpetual winner of guitar polls -- he was voted No. 1 by readers of 'Guitar World' in 2012 -- Van Halen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, though he did not attend the ceremony.

The band also won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal in 1992. The group has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide, the last of which, 'A Different Kind of Truth', came out in 2012, with 'Tokyo Dome Live in Concert' following three years later.

Van Halen was married twice -- to actor Valerie Bertinelli from 1981-2007, and to Jane Liszewski since 2008. Wolfgang Van Halen, meanwhile, played bass in Van Halen from its 2006 reunion with original frontman David Lee Roth.

The memorial arrangements for Van Halen are pending.

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