Regardless of how you feel about their music, it’s undeniable that the first six albums by Van Halen had a massive impact on hard rock and heavy metal. Though they had catchy songs that rocked, and frontman David Lee Roth had much to do with their appeal, the influence of Van Halen is largely due to their guitarist, Eddie Van Halen. He not only wrote the group’s music, but his unique approach to his instrument inspired a generation of musicians. Unfortunately, many of them focused too much on Eddie’s technical prowess, seemingly failing to notice that his style has loads of personality, too. So, what if Eddie had died before Van Halen’s first album was even recorded? It’s interesting to ponder, especially as it nearly happened.
By spring 1976, Van Halen had been together for a couple of years. They were gigging regularly and had developed a following in the Los Angeles area, but a record contract had so far eluded them. They played all over Southern California, performing at house parties, high schools and colleges, as well as seedy nightclubs like Gazzarri’s. But there were also shows at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Golden West Ballroom in Norwalk, which were larger venues. Though Van Halen already had a number of original songs, their sets largely consisted of cover tunes—often at the assistance of club owners. For their May 9th appearance at the Golden West, in which they would open for popular English rock band UFO, they were told they could perform their own material. This marks the first time Van Halen would play a set of just their songs.
That night, after being introduced by early supporter Rodney Bingenheimer, Van Halen blew UFO off the stage of the Golden West. Their set off all originals went over so well that they were called back out for an encore, electing to perform the one cover they would do that evening, KISS’s “Rock and Roll All Nite.”
Afterwards, Eddie Van Halen hopped offstage and worked his way through the crowd of supporters towards the men’s room. His group had just played the biggest show of their young career, but nature called. Once in the bathroom, Eddie ran into a drug dealer he knew. This guy was so impressed with the performance he had just witnessed, that he freely offered what Eddie thought was cocaine, and that Ed could snort as much as he wanted—so the guitarist did just that. After thanking the man, Eddie left the bathroom and headed back towards the stage to fetch his gear. Once there, it wasn’t long before Eddie’s body started convulsing, and he soon collapsed to the floor. Turns out it wasn’t blow that he had snorted, but PCP.
In his essential book on the their formative years, Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, author Greg Renoff describes what happened next.
As his bandmates and crew huddled around him, Edward’s face was drawn taut, like a mask. His jaw was locked and his eyes fixed. Panicking, Alex [Van Halen, drummer] yelled in his ear and shook him, and yet his younger brother remained rigid and unresponsive. Edward Van Halen was dying.
At the hospital, Edward was quickly wheeled into the emergency room. The attending physician immediately placed a tube down his throat, while nurses checked his vital signs and started him on oxygen. By this time, Edward’s parents had gotten the awful news and had made their way to Norwalk. Later, the doctor would walk out of the ER and remark to Jan, Eugenia [his parents], and Alex, “If you got him here a few minutes later, you probably would have lost him.”
So, there you have it. If Eddie had died that night, the only existing documentation of Van Halen would be some photos, a few audio recordings, and the memories of those who witnessed their shows—certainly not enough to forever change the course of rock and metal.
I reached out to Greg Renoff about a recording of Van Halen’s May 9th gig, and he told me that, despite what bootleggers have claimed, there is no known tape of the performance (more on that in a moment). But there is circulating audio of a show they did just a few weeks later, with a setlist that is also nearly all originals. The recording is on YouTube in two parts:
Though bootlegs labeled May 9th, 1976, weren’t actually recorded on that day, they were taped during various, other Golden West gigs. It’s a venue the group played often in their early days. The following is taken from the boot dubbed Golden West Ballroom Deluxe:
A version of “Rock and Roll All Nite” is amongst the covers. As far as the originals, many would be recorded for their 1978 debut, and the band would continue to draw from these initial tunes and others for their succeeding LPs with David Lee Roth. That includes their 2012 reunion record with Roth, A Different Kind of Truth (which is really good, by the way). You’ll also hear songs that are still unreleased in any form.
We’ll end with the earliest known Van Halen TV interview. It was filmed in 1978 for the Australian show, Countdown.