Dec 15, 2021 10:00am

A Chip Off the Old Rock: Wolfgang Van Halen’s Grammy Nomination Pays Tribute to His Late Father, Eddie

By Roy Trakin

“Pretty insane, huh?”

That was Wolfgang Van Halen’s reaction when he learned of his nomination for rock song at the 2022 Grammy Awards — for “Distance,” the tribute to his late father, Eddie — in a category alongside Paul McCartney, Foo Fighters, Weezer and Kings of Leon.

Indeed, it culminated a whirlwind year for the 30-year-old’s Mammoth WVH, which first released the song, along with a heart-wrenching video spliced together from home videos with his mother, Valerie Bertinelli, and her brother Patrick, just over a year ago. Eddie Van Halen died of cancer Oct. 6, 2020.

Wolfie, as he’s known, had been working on the song for a while, first playing it for his dad during the 2015 Van Halen tour in the back of his bus, where he began writing and recording the demos that would make up his debut album, “Mammoth WVH,” released last June.

“He cried when he first heard it,” he says. “It was a really special moment that I’ll never forget.”

Van Halen started writing the song “during a particularly bad bout of his [father’s] sickness,” he says.

“He did bounce back for a little bit, it was one of those dark periods, and the song was based on those feelings of what it would be like without someone as important in my life as my father or mother. That was my headspace at the time.”

The video was created a few weeks before the song was released.

As Van Halen recalls: “I wanted to show what an amazing father he was, and not just the guitar player everyone thought. I remember the first time watching it with my girlfriend, I was sobbing so much I had to hand her the phone.

It was important for me to show that human side, which no one could imagine after he’d reached this sort of deity status. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, man.”

Working on the track after his father’s death helped Van Halen channel all that sorrow and grief into something that he loved to do… make music.

“It was incredibly cathartic,” he says. “Otherwise, I’d just be lying in bed crying. It helped give me purpose and especially something involved with music.

Which is the closest I could feel to my father at that point … playing and writing. It was a really special, important thing to do to keep me going.”

Ironically, his dad was also 30 when he received his first Grammy nominations in 1985, with “Jump” up for rock performance by a duo or group with vocal (losing out to Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain” album) and a rock instrumental nod for “Donut City,” a track from the film “The Wild Life” (losing out to Yes’ “Cinema” from the band’s “90125” album).

The Van Halen band’s only Grammy win came in 1992 for hard rock performance for the album “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” while Eddie and Alex Van Halen received a nomination in 1997 in the rock instrumental category for “Respect the Wind,” from the “Twister” soundtrack (losing to “SRV Shuffle,” featuring Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and
Art Neville).

“It’s really exciting to follow in those same steps,” Van Halen says.

“If I somehow miraculously win this, I’ll have beaten Pop, and he might’ve thought that was funny.”

And while Van Halen played all the instruments on the track, and the subsequent album, naming it (and the band) Mammoth WVH after his father’s first, pre-Van Halen group, he is confident the outfit he formed — with guitarists Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, bassist Ronnie Ficarro and drummer Garrett Whitlock — is excited to be part of the honor.

“They are the vessel to get my material out there,” Wolfie says. “They have semi-ownership of the song, and I think they’re happy to be part of the family, because that’s what it is.”

Of his own upbringing, he insists his father never actually put a guitar or bass in his hands.

“I remember being in middle school and asking him how to play a power chord,” he says. “He never really taught me how to play. It just happened.

He exposed me to the world of music to see what I could do on my own. There are musicians out there who are so inspired by my dad that they do everything they can to sound like him. To me, that’s boring.

If I played and sounded like my dad, that would be really lame. Because then I’d be endlessly compared to him, which I am anyway. I developed my own style and I think that’s important.”

The Grammy nomination has helped reveal a true purpose.

“I’d be doing this either way because of my father. But it really is an incredible feeling of validation. It shows that I’m on the right path. I don’t need to play ‘Panama’ or ‘Jump’ the rest of my life. I don’t need to coast on Van Halen covers. It feels great, especially for all those naysayers that love to think that way. It’s an amazing thing to get the recognition, but regardless of the nomination, this is what I’ll be doing the rest of
my life.”

And what of the oft-condemned future of rock? “It’s slowly coming back,” he says. “There are plenty of rock guitars on the new albums by Lorde and Miley Cyrus. People may not be paying attention, but it’s sneaking up.”

Although the Grammy Awards on Jan. 31 will come in the middle of his upcoming Young Guns tour with Dirty Honey, which begins Jan. 21 at the House of Blues in Chicago, Wolfie promises he’ll be in attendance at L.A.’s Arena (formerly Staples Center) for the ceremony, whether his award is given out on the pre-telecast or the show broadcast on CBS.

“I still remember System of a Down playing ‘BYOB’ on the Grammys when I was a kid,” he says. “Today, the idea of a rock band performing on the show is so far from reality.

But I’ll be there, absolutely. And, even though I’m agnostic, I just know that dad is with me in everything I do, because everything I do is because of him.”