Toto's Steve Lukather Says Eddie Van Halen's 'Greatest Pride' Was Performing on Stage with Son Wolfie
To the world, Eddie Van Halen was known as a guitar god. But those closest to the late musician say there was so much more to the man who changed rock forever.
In this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather opens up about the many sides of Eddie, his friend of more than 40 years who died at the age of 65 last week after battling cancer for years.
"He loved everybody, but he kept his cards to himself," Lukather says. "He was a family man. That was the only thing that mattered. He was all about his son Wolfie. And his wife Janie, when she came along."
Getting to perform onstage with his son Wolfie, 29 — whom Eddie shared with ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli — after he replaced Michael Anthony as Van Halen's bassist in 2006 was Eddie's "greatest pride and joy," says Lukather.
"I remember him telling me about it 'cause I've gotten to do it with my oldest son," he says. "I get a rush writing, recording and playing with my son. He could relate to that and what that felt like watching the two little s—s grow up and turn into fine, upstanding, talented young men."
Relating on that level was a full-circle moment for Lukather, 62, and Eddie, who have both come a long way since their early days of fame.
"We've been in the trenches together for a long time as friends, as real friends," Lukather says. "We didn't really talk about guitars and stuff, like people would think. We mostly talked about life and had a lot of laughs."
When he was "19 or 20 years old," Lukather got his first introduction to Eddie's music while listening to Van Halen's self-titled 1978 debut album.
"I heard the first album while I was making my first record thinking I was pretty good for a kid — then I f—ing heard Ed!" he says. "I went, 'Who the f— is this guy?! How’s he doing this?!' That’s how everybody felt. It was like an alien landed from another planet and showed us a new way. I said, 'Okay, first off, I'm going to find this guy and be his friend.' I just wanted to be a piece of somebody that brilliant."
Lukather's opportunity to befriend Eddie came along later that year, when Toto got booked to play the California World Music Festival alongside Van Halen, who were the headliners.
"Everybody wanted to stand on the side of the stage and watch Van Halen because they were the headliner of the night," Lukather says. "We [had already played] and Eddie goes, 'No, I want him to be on the side. I really like the way that guy plays. I liked that record, "Hold the Line." He could stay on the side of the stage.' They didn’t anybody else in the band on stage but me. I sat on the stage in the lotus position watching him with my jaw dropped. He kept smiling at me, and I just kept giving him the thumbs up."
"We hugged for a few seconds afterwards and then he called me on the phone and he said, 'Come on up to my house. We're going to hang out,'" he continues. "He was there with Don Landy, the original engineer for Van Halen, who was a friend of mine. We got together and it was like, man, I found a long lost friend. He goes, 'Do you want to go to the Rainbow [Bar] or something?' I said, 'I'd rather slit my throat with a box cutter.' He grabbed me and gave me a kiss on the lips. He goes, 'Thank God!” From that moment on, we were best friends."
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Years later, in 1982, Eddie played Lukather what would become Van Halen's 1984 hit single "Jump."
"He plays me this keyboard song, and I go, 'Is that you?'" Lukather says. "He goes, 'Yeah.' And I go, 'This is a f—ing No. 1 song, dude.' He goes, '[David Lee] Roth hates it because of the keyboard.' I go, 'Well, he really might want to rethink that on this particular piece. Plus, it sounds like you playing keyboard.' I'd never heard a guitar player sound like his guitar playing on the piano. He was one of those guys that could just make any instrument his own, and he never looked at it in the conventional way."
The friends often spent time together at Eddie's 5150 home studio in Los Angeles playing each other's music — but they also had more than their fair share of fun.
"Everything you read about rock and roll was true, and we did it all," Lukather says. "Honestly, we did tax the frame a little bit when we were younger. But at the same time, he was a family man. So was I. We weren't necessarily out chasing girls, we were just raging about the state of the world or whatever we were into at the time."
"The thing with all of us, we were very young when we made our first record and then had success," he adds. "We never really had to grow up, per se, and we were allowed to get away with s— that most normal people wouldn’t. So that just stayed with us."
As Eddie's friend Thomas Dolby, who enlisted Eddie's help on two tracks of his 1992 Astronauts & Heretics album, recalls of one studio session at 5150, "the whole experience was like a discarded scene from [the film] This Is Spinal Tap."
"It was a Saturday night, and it was quite hot," he says. "We worked in his control room, and he left the door open. We came out to go down to the house to get a bite to eat, and we suddenly heard all the honking horns and lights flashing, and up on Mulholland Drive there were a bunch of Eddie fans, like they were parked up there on the vista shoulder trying to get a glimpse of Eddie. They not only got a glimpse, but they must have heard his guitar coming out of the pool room."
"I remember he also said, 'Should we walk or drive to the house?'" he continues. "The house was about a hundred feet away down the hill from the studio and I said, 'Oh, we can walk.' And he said, 'I never walk anywhere, man.' And he disappeared around the corner and came out with a golf cart, painted in the colors of his Frankenstrat, you know, like the red and white stripes. So we drove around the side of the hill for about a minute to get to his house, which was only about a hundred feet away."
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Eventually, Lukather says he and Eddie both "grew up and got it together."
"At one point you go, 'Okay, we gotta stop being idiots here, man. We're too old for this s—!'" he says with a laugh. "Ed was healthy until he got the cancer. We all straightened our s— out and were living happily and in good graces with the family and everything was cool and he was playing better than ever. And then it just kicked his ass, man."
"He just kept telling me, 'I'm going to beat this. I'm going to beat this. I'm going to beat the cycle,'" he continues. "And he did! Again and again and again. Until he didn't. I do believe in God, and I do believe in an afterlife. I'm sure he was greeted in the grandest way, and we will all see each other again. Knowing him, he'll have a place for me at the bar there and we'll carry on."
Lukather says he was texting with Eddie back and forth just a few weeks ago, but "then it stopped."
"I'd worry because when it would stop before, I knew he was getting treatments and I would worry about him," he says. "He'd been fighting this for a long time, but Ed liked to keep his personal life, especially with his illness, really super private. He was determined to beat it. I thought, 'If anybody's going to beat it, it's going to be him. He was a pitbull."
Lukather found out that Eddie had died on Twitter, "of all places."
"The first thing I did was text [his brother Alex] and say, 'Say it isn't true,'" he says. "And then he told me that it was, and I basically went into a black hole for a while because it just didn't seem like it was possible. It was a punch in the chest."
Now, Lukather says he's "worried" Eddie's brother and bandmate Alex will never play again.
"I've tried to get Alex to play with me, and he'd be like, 'Luke, I love you. You know if I was ever going to play with anybody it’d be you, but I don't play with anybody but my brother, and I never have,'" he says. "He's just that loyal. That family is so loyal — it's just the way they grew up and how they came over here. I know a lot of stuff about the hardships of their youth and that made them who they are today."
One thing that's for sure is that Eddie's legacy will live on in the hearts of his family, friends and fans across the world.
"The world lost one of the greatest of all time," Lukather says. "Somebody that will never be repeated and somebody who will be revered for all eternity. Ed could make anybody feel like a friend. He had such deep respect and humility and kindness that he would welcome any guitar player and make them feel like he was their best friend. He had a dark side too, but hey, don't we all? My side was so dark we could travel in it together."
"I'm glad that the music is going to be there, and it sounds every bit as good today as it did the first time I laid the needle down on Van Halen and got my ass blown into smithereens," he adds. "Of course he was the greatest rock and roll guitar player of all time — that's like stating why apple pie tastes good. But as a man, as my friend, somebody who helped me through tough times, he was always right here. If I needed that guy, he was here. I miss him terribly."
For all the details on Eddie Van Halen's life and legacy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
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