Music fans around the world are mourning the loss of iconic Van Halen rock star Eddie Van Halen. And while many today honor his legacy as one of the all-time greatest guitarists, fans are also highlighting past interviews describing his encounters with painful racism and discrimination because of his mixed race in his early years.
Van Halen, who died Tuesday of throat cancer at 65, was the son of Dutch and Indonesian immigrants and spent his childhood in the Netherlands. His former bandmate David Lee Roth, a fellow rock superstar, once revealed on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” just how painful the experience was for the young Van Halen and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen.
In the 2019 interview, Roth described how poorly the Van Halens’ parents were treated because of their mixed-race relationship in the 1950s.
“It was a big deal. Those homeboys grew up in a horrifying racist environment to where they actually had to leave the country,” Roth said in the podcast.
He added that the brothers, who were often referred to as “half-breed” in the Netherlands, still met difficult circumstances after immigrating to the U.S.
“Then they came to America and did not speak English as a first language in the early ’60s. Wow,” Roth told Maron. “So that kind of sparking, that kind of stuff, that runs deep.”
The brothers’ mother, Eugenia, met their father, Jan, a traveling musician, in Indonesia when it was under Dutch rule. Shortly after World War II, the couple decided to move to the Netherlands, where the rock stars were born.
Eugenia was treated as a “second-class citizen,” Van Halen said in an interview in 2017 with music journalist Denise Quan for Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The family packed up and left for the U.S. in 1962, making the trek by boat for nine days, before settling in the Pasadena, California, area.
Their early days in the U.S. were difficult, Van Halen told Quan. The family lived in a house shared with two other families. While his mother worked as a maid, his father picked up a job as a janitor and also maintained a music career. The environment at the time wasn’t particularly inviting to the young immigrants, and Van Halen described his first day of school as “absolutely frightening.”
“We already went through that in Holland, you know, first day, first grade. Now, you’re in a whole other country where you can’t speak the language, and you know absolutely nothing about anything and it was beyond frightening,” he said. “I don’t even know how to explain but I think it made us stronger because you had to be.”
He told Quan that the school he attended at the time was still segregated and that because he couldn’t speak the language, he was considered a “minority” student.
“My first friends in America were Black,” Eddie told the journalist. “It was actually the white people that were the bullies. They would tear up my homework and papers, make me eat playground sand, all those things, and the Black kids stuck up for me.”
In spite of the racism and discrimination he faced, Van Halen told Quan that looking back on his life, he was grateful for his experience as an immigrant.
“Coming here with approximately $50 and a piano, not being able to speak the language, going through everything to get to where we are, if that’s not the American dream, I don’t know what is,” he said in the interview.
Indonesian social media users have paid tribute to Van Halen, who’s seen as a source of pride for many in the community.