Visitors to the Beverly Hills home office of Gene Simmons have often been treated to the KISS frontman pressing play on a favorite musical artifact: a cassette copy of demo recordings he produced in 1976 for a young band called Van Halen.
He discovered the hard-rock quartet from Pasadena by accident one night at the legendary, now-defunct West Hollywood rock dive the Starwood. Decades later, he still took pleasure in sharing a sampling from the 15 songs he helmed, including early versions of “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “On Fire.”
“Your jaw will drop when you hear that demo and all that music coming out of four guys,” Simmons says now, following the news that guitarist Eddie Van Halen died Tuesday from throat cancer at age 65. “He knew the greatness in his fingertips. You could feel the confidence as soon as he picked up a guitar, but there was none of this ego and bullying that a lot of talented people seem to have. I'm no stranger to that myself.”
The guitarist was barely out of his teens when Simmons first met the band, and the news of Van Halen's death seemed to land hard for the sturdy 71-year-old KISS co-founder. Simmons posted a brief, tearful video to Twitter: “I’m heartbroken. He wasn't just a guitar god. ... He was a gentle soul. What can I say? Rest in peace, Eddie.”
At the invitation of scene-maker and impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, Simmons, in the midst of peak KISS stardom, was at the Starwood in 1976 to see a band called the Boyz, and arrived with model (and rock muse) Bebe Buell on his arm.
“In those days, the L.A. music scene was so vibrant,” Simmons says. “Everybody would go out seven days a week to see all the new bands.”
Simmons was upstairs in the VIP area, chatting with peers and admirers, when he heard Van Halen erupt for the first time. Onstage were singer David Lee Roth, drummer Alex Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony and a smiling young dude playing a hot-rodded guitar he called “Frankenstein.”
“The lead singer, long hair down to his butt, looked like a wild horse, no shirt on top, doing splits and all that,” says Simmons. “He was the predominant visual representation of that band. Musically, clearly it was Edward.”
The songs played were mostly original, and all of them ignited with a guitar sound that was speedy and melodic, all bright colors and no trace of gloom.
“Everybody's head just turned around like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’: What is that?” says Simmons. “When the solo came up, you couldn't believe your ears because all this music was symphonic, the melodies and the runs and the speed, all coming out of one guitar.”
Before Van Halen’s half-hour set was over, Simmons was backstage waiting to meet them. He ultimately signed the quartet to a contract with his production company, instantly sold on what he’d witnessed and anxious to get the band into a recording studio.
After some sessions in Los Angeles, Simmons flew the band to New York to continue work at Electric Lady Studios, fittingly the studio built by guitarist Jimi Hendrix, another singular sound-scientist. Simmons and engineer Dave Wittman guided the 24-track sessions.
“Some of the arrangements were mine, but mostly it was the guys playing their hearts out live in the studio," Simmons says. “The great bands have a fingerprint that is unique. Even today, nobody sounds like Van Halen.”
The recordings that emerged were never officially released but have been widely bootlegged and posted online under the title “Zero Demos.”
Simmons says he wanted KISS and its management to nurture the young quartet, bring them on the road as an opening act, and help guide Van Halen’s career. No one else in the organization saw what Simmons was so excited about, he recalls, and KISS was about to begin a major tour. They passed, and Simmons let Van Halen out of its contract.
Not long after that, Van Halen would redefine heavy metal with the release of its 1978 self-titled debut on Warner Bros., which went on to achieve Diamond status (10 million copies sold).
“It didn't surprise me at all,” says Simmons now. “Who are they going to compete against? Nobody.”
Simmons would see Eddie only occasionally in the years after, but in the mid-’80s, they were both backstage at a Metallica show in Long Beach. Simmons arrived in a limo, but Van Halen offered him a ride back home to L.A.
After sending the limo away, Simmons saw what the guitarist was driving that night. Van Halen had left his Lamborghini at home. “There was this old, beat-up Jeep that looks like something you'd fly over the sand dunes in Death Valley,” Simmons says. “There were no doors on this thing. It was like a roller-coaster ride of death.
“He was weaving in and out of traffic — in my mind, at a hundred miles an hour — smoking a cigarette in one hand and the wind blowing through our hair. And I'm screaming, ‘Eddie slow down!' And I'll never forget his answer: ‘Why?’ And he started laughing. That was Eddie Van Halen — live life to the fullest.”
Not all his memories of the guitarist are as spirited. A half-dozen years ago Simmons bumped into Van Halen on the Sunset Strip. By then, Van Halen’s cancer fight had led to the removal of part of his tongue.
“We were talking: ‘Oh, Eddie, I heard you had, uh ...,’” Simmons recalls, and Eddie replied, “'Yeah, it's cancer, what are you going to do?’ He's smoking a cigarette like it was oxygen. And then he turned to me and said, ‘Check this out...’”
As he told the story, Simmons paused, voice shaking. “And Eddie opened his mouth,” Simmons says, and matter-of-factly presented the ghastly damage from his throat cancer. All the while, “he was still smoking that cigarette.”
Understandably, Simmons prefers to remember Eddie Van Halen as he was back in 1976, making noise and melody collide onstage as few ever have.
“What am I going to do for the rest of the day? I'm going to put on some Van Halen and celebrate Eddie’s legacy,” Simmons says. “Stop talking and just listen to what he did.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.