The passing of iconic Van Halen guitarist/co-founder Eddie Van Halen last October sent a tidal wave of shock across rock communities the world over. Shortly after, Ed’s son (and most recent Van Halen bassist) Wolfgang dropped the emotionally-driven single “Distance,” a heartfelt track that served as a fitting tribute to his late father and resonated deeply with just about anyone who has ever experienced the lost of a loved one (present company included).
That first single was telling of what Wolfgang had been single-handedly putting together on his own for his debut solo album, which offers listeners a new prospective on the Van Halen legacy. Tracks like “Don’t Back Down,” “Stone,” and “Think It Over” feel as though they’d fit right in at the local watering hole on any given night of the week. That’s not to say there’s not a few weak spots, though; “Mammoth” and “The Big Picture” feel slightly forced, almost straining to sound modern while lacking much excitement.
No matter the caliber of song found here, there’s no denying the sheer talent and dedication put into this debut effort. One thing is apparent; this is only the start for Wolfgang Van Halen, who is sure to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.
When I spoke to Quiet Riot/Hookers & Blow guitarist Alex Grossi via phone from his Las Vegas home last week, one of the first things I mentioned was how our paths had already crossed previously back in 2006, when I saw him perform with Quiet Riot on a bill that also included Skid Row in Ormand Beach. To my surprise, he actually remembered the exact show; “Oh yeah, during one of those Bike Week events! I vividly remember going to a Waffle House afterwards with a bunch of bikers and meeting with some fans (laughs). That was a good show!”
While technically it was actually Biketoberfest and not Bike Week (though I won’t fault him for it too much, it does get confusing!), I was still impressed none-the-less for remembering, and knew it was primed to be a good conversation from then on out. So of course I tested his memory further and asked him to recall how exactly Hookers & Blow, his cover band he formed along with Guns N’ Roses keyboardist Dizzy Reed (one of two GN’R members Grossi has worked with extensively, the other being former drummer Steven Adler in Adler’s Appetite) around the same time he joined Quiet Riot (in 2004), originally came together. He tells me; “We met at a place on Sunset Blvd. that’s no longer there called the Cat Club. It was sort of like the local musicians watering hole, where they would have an open jam there every night. I approached him to see if he wanted to maybe do some cover gigs. We exchanged numbers, and a couple of days later he said, ‘yeah, let’s book some shows, but call the band Hookers & Blow.’ And I said, ‘sounds good to me,’ and we gave it a shot, and it sort of snowballed from there. Now seventeen years later we’re finally putting out a record (laughs).”
The band has seen it’s share of members come and go, and Grossi did his best to clarify; “We’ve had a bazillion guys in and out of the band over the years, but the ‘core’ as of right now is myself on guitar and Dizzy on vocals and keys, but we also have Mike Duda from W.A.S.P. on bass, and Johnny Kelly from Type O Negative/Danzig on drums. And as far as who also appears on the album, (late Quiet Riot drummer) Frankie Banali did a couple of songs, and so did Scott Griffin from L.A. Guns. And when it comes to the touring aspect, we’ve had everyone from Chip Z’Nuff from Enuff Z’ Nuff and Todd Kerns from Slash’s band play with us live. It’s been a rotating lineup, but like I said, the core is really myself, Dizzy, Duda, and Kelly, and also Dizzy’s wife, Nadja, on background vocals.”
Drummer Kelly has also been pulling double duty in Quiet Riot along with Grossi, taking over for the previously-mentioned late drummer Banali. I asked if this arrangement would be permanent or not, and he said; “When Frankie got sick, Johnny kind of fell into the spot. At first he was just keeping the seat warm, but now we need him to keep it warm for us every night. He’s been with Hookers & Blow for eight years now though, so it made sense for him to fill that (now unfortunately empty) seat for Quiet Riot. But he’s doing a great job, and he’s family, so I’m really glad it’s worked out the way it has.”
I also asked Grossi for some insight on how H&B chooses the songs for it’s sets, as well as for their upcoming full length album. He explained; “Well, when we initially got together we were only playing live shows, so we basically were sending master lists of the songs we all knew back and forth through emails to each other. And over the years we’ve since added and subtracted songs from the set. But as far as the record goes, I’d say it’s about fifty percent of our live set, and then the other half are songs we’ve always wanted to cover. For example, we cover Body Count’s “The Winner Loses,” and we’ve never played that live before. Then on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got a track like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” which is literally the first song we’ve ever played together and have played at every single show since.” But Grossi maintains that H&B doesn’t indulge too much when it comes to playing their respective bands’ music in their sets; “We’ll throw in the occasional Guns N’ Roses deep cut, but for the most part we like to keep it completely separate from our day jobs (laughs).”
I was also curious if a cover of Led Zepplin’s “Trampled Under Foot,” which featured the late Banali on drums, was a personal favorite of Frankie’s. He tells me; “That was a really special track. He was given 3-6 months to live in April of 2019, and he recorded that track in November of that same year after about a dozen rounds of chemo, and he still did it all in one take. He was definitely amazing though, just a monster. But we learned that, and “No Quarter” specifically for him, cause Zepplin was obviously Frankie’s favorite band. “Trampled…” we actually played live for years before we recorded it. In 2013 we got hired to do a residency at the Whiskey A Go-Go for a month, and Frankie wanted to come down and play, and asked if we could put some Zepplin in the set. We did, and it just turned out great.”
Before our conversation ended, Grossi clarified that Quiet Riot will still go on, and confirmed some upcoming show dates with both them and H&B; “We’re still going full steam ahead, that’s what Frankie wanted. His wife has taken over as manager and is doing a great job, and it’s nice to be able to still carry on his legacy, and it’s like having him here still in a way. But both bands actually have shows booked for the year already; Quiet Riot has a show March 6 at the Landis Theater in Vineland, NJ. And Hookers & Blow actually have four shows in Texas the following week, in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Eagles Pass. They’re reduced capacity shows of course, but thing’s are slowly opening up, and wherever it makes sense for us, we’re going to do some shows here and there.”
One final thing I wanted to ask Grossi, was his thoughts on the late, great guitar legend Eddie Van Halen’s recent passing. Grossi tells me; “I was such a HUGE fan of Eddie’s, but I never aspired to play like him, because I knew I never could! There was Eddie, and then there was everybody else. It’s almost surreal that he’s not here with us anymore.”
It’s easy to throw out cliche phrases like “legend” or “pioneer” when talking about the loss of a fallen rock hero. But few have come and gone that have been more deserving of such terms than Eddie Van Halen. And while it’s not always easy to put into words exactly why we grieve so much for a person we may have never even met, I can only do the best I can to try to explain how and why the loss of a titan like Eddie Van Halen and his music effected us all so deeply and personally, while remembering the life of a man who forever changed the face of rock music as we know it.
Van Halen were originally formed in Pasadena, CA in 1972 by classically trained Dutch brothers Alex and Eddie Van Halen, who added high school friend Mark Stone (who ironically passed away last month as well, just days before Eddie) on bass, and eventually vocalist David Lee Roth. Originally calling themselves both Genesis and Mammoth before settling on the name Van Halen in 1974, the “classic” lineup was finally solidified by the addition of bassist Michael Anthony.
In 1976, shortly after seeing them perform, KISS mastermind Gene Simmons produced the band’s first demo recording and rallied for a record deal for the group. Despite little coming from Simmons’ assistance, it didn’t take long for the band to land a deal with Warner Bros. and release their massive self-titled debut album by 1978, quickly becoming apparent this new act would soon dominate the rock world, led by this “new” guitarist, who almost instantly earned the rightful title of “guitar god.”
By the time I came into this world in 1981, Van Halen were already on their fourth album, and I had four older siblings to each introduce me to various bands, including Van Halen. My oldest sister, Tammy, owned a copy of the band’s 1982 effort Diver Down that was in our collection of vinyl records right alongside to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Journey’s Escape (and I still own each one of these to this very day). These early albums all left permanent imprints on me, and instilled a lifelong association between music, and historical moments in my own life.
More albums from the band’s catalogue were soon to make it into my collection; a cassette copy of 1984 (where Eddie re-invented the wheel again by incorporating synth in the band’s sound) was gifted to me as a birthday present one year from my grandmother, Mary (R.I.P.). A hand-me-down tape of 5150, the band’s first effort with frontman Sammy Hagar from 1986, was given to me by another older sister of mine, Wendy. And when it was still their “new” album, 1991’s For Unlawful CarnalKnowledge became the first album on CD format I ever bought. Again, I still own each and everyone of these to this day.
By the time I took up playing bass around the age of 14, several of the band’s tracks became standard practice for me (what bassist didn’t start off honing their craft by playing “Runnin’ with the Devil” endlessly?!). And even though I was not a guitarist like Eddie, his dedication to being the best rubbed off on me, and I began taking practicing more seriously than school work itself (I even briefly took bass lessons from a guy named Ken who was the biggest Van Halen fan I have ever met).
Then, years later, I was a single father by the time Christmas of 2007 rolled around. My father Terry surprised me with two tickets to see Van Halen at the old Amway Center in Orlando that following February, on their first tour with singer David Lee Roth since 1985. It was honestly one of the best things I have ever been gifted, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to share my other ticket with then my big sis who started me on this journey to begin with, Tammy.
I remember that 2008 concert like it was yesterday; we arrived fashionably late, and I could hear the sounds of “I’m the One” echoing from inside the arena as we approached the front gates. From then on, it was a night full of not only the usual expected classics, but many favorites like “Little Dreamer,” “I’ll Wait,” and “Atomic Punk” also found their way in the set. And although I was initially disappointed that longtime bassist Michael Anthony was not included on this tour, it gave me a certain hope seeing Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen playing alongside his father on stage. But most importantly, witnessing Eddie play his solo that night was unmatched by any guitarist I have seen live before, or since.
By the time the band released their first new album (and what would ultimately prove to be their last) for some time, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, I had already been a freelance music journalist for a number of years. I gave the album a mediocre review in a local, now-defunct magazine at the time, and in hindsight, I’d rather have a dozen less-than-stellar Van Halen albums albums than none at all.
I was standing in the middle of a store with my wife and son when I looked down at my phone this past Tuesday afternoon and learned that Eddie had passed away. It was a time-stopping moment that hit as hard as though someone in my own family had actually died. The music of Van Halen was deeply engrained in me at an early age as much as anything from The Beatles or The Rolling Stones had been, and realizing that we’re now living in a world without Eddie Van Halen still in it was a heartbreaking revelation. But Eddie will never really be gone. He created a legacy that will truly live on for generations to come; how lucky we all were to be able to walk the Earth as the same time as him, even if only for a short time.