Gene Simmons Recalls Running into Eddie Van Halen After Cancer Diagnosis: He 'Wasn't Looking for Sympathy'
To the public, Eddie Van Halen was known for his extraordinary guitar playing abilities — but to his friends, the late icon was an all-around inspiration.
Gene Simmons — who first spotted Eddie and the Van Halen band in 1976 during a performance at Starwood Club in Los Angeles — tells PEOPLE about the time he ran into the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who died of cancer at age 65 on Oct. 6.
The chance happening took place in Beverly Hills circa 2014, and what stood out to Simmons most was that Van Halen managed to smile through his pain.
"Years later, I ran into Eddie on Sunset Blvd. This was after he caught the disease and I didn't know what to say to him," Simmons, 71, admits. "I didn't want to bring up the subject. Should I grab him and hug him and tell him how sorry I am? Should I put my hand on his shoulder?"
But the renowned guitarist knew exactly what to do. "He brought it up. He said, 'Hey man, I got cancer. What are you gonna do?' and he smiled," the Kiss frontman recounts.
"He just sort of shrugged. He was like, 'Hey, wanna get a hot dog or something?' And he just walked off — not looking for sympathy or anything," says the star. "He really seemed to enjoy life."
Simmons recalls the moment he learned of Van Halen's death.
"When I was shocked to find out Eddie had passed, the first image that hit me — so help me God — was Eddie Van Halen grinning from ear to ear with that big, huge, million-dollar smile."
"He always had that on, whether he was onstage playing for packed houses or in videos or meeting a stranger. He just smiles and says, 'Hey, how you doing?'" Simmons tells PEOPLE.
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"He would smile and his eyes would disappear. His cheeks would shoot up and they would take his whole face, like a little 12-year-old kid smiling when you're not trying to impress anybody or you're not aware of what you look like," Simmons vividly remembers. "It was a full-face smile. It was catchy. It grabs you off-guard."
Eddie is also remembered as the virtuoso who handled the iconic guitar solo in Michael Jackson's hit song "Beat It" after fellow music legend Quincy Jones tapped him to do it. But to those who knew him personally, the superstar goes down in history for being a standout individual.
"He was unabashed and just comfortable in his own skin," says Simmons. "I was not just amazed by his talent, but I admire him so much as a human being."
"Eddie was aware that he had this God-given talent, but I never saw him push that in anybody's face," Simmons tells PEOPLE. "At the core, Eddie just seems to be a happy guy."
"Every once in a while, God gets it right," says Simmons. "He did a good job with Eddie Van Halen, I'll tell you that. He was a far better man than I'll ever be, that’s the truth."
For more on Eddie Van Halen's legacy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
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