When Billie Joe Armstrong went to watch Van Halen as an aspiring 12-year-old and started crying because of the sheer majesty of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing, he probably had no idea he’d be the one reducing his hero to tears decades later.
But that’s exactly what happened: during a recent interview with Howard Stern, the Green Day frontman recalled how the late electric guitar great literally cried when he met Armstrong backstage.
When asked about his affinity for Van Halen, the Gibson signature artist reflected on how he himself burst into tears when he witnessed EVH’s wizardry first-hand during a gig in 1984.
“They were my favorite band, and I cried,” he said. “Because Eddie was so… it’s like his guitar playing came from a different place. Like, he reinvented how to play guitar.”
But it wasn’t just Van Halen’s guitar playing that struck a chord with Armstrong. The aspiring musician was equally moved by the Frankenstein mastermind’s musical sensibilities and songwriting chops.
“I think that’s the main thing I took away from Van Halen,” he asserted. “The songs were just so fucking great.”
Fast-forward through the years, and Armstrong embarked on a trip with his friends to see Van Halen at Kansas City. The group purposely skipped the California show – “It just seemed a lot of people were there hobnobbing and it was like, you know, a lot more celebrity and rockstars and things like that backstage” – and instead ventured to “the heart of where rock fans are”.
It was around the time Van Halen had reformed with David Lee Roth, and at the gig he attended Armstrong was given the opportunity to meet the group personally. Little did he know it would end up being a deeply moving encounter.
“It was kind of an emotional thing,” Armstrong reflected. “First we went back and I met Wolfie, who was super-cool, and then they were like, ‘Do you want to meet Eddie?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god.’
“So he's back there and he's got his guitar on, he’s plugged in and he’s just… it’s like he’s talking to me and shredding at the same time. And I don’t know if anybody really knows this, but the size of his hands are gigantic.
“I grabbed his hands and I looked at them, I was like, ‘Dude, your hands are so…’ He’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got arthritis now,’ and blah blah blah.
“And then this really insane thing happened where he kind of started crying, and he looked at me, and he put his hand behind my neck, and he goes, ‘You’re the only one that understands me,’ and he just had tears coming down his eyes.”
As it turns out, emotion hit Van Halen because he knew the Green Day frontman saw him as more than just a guitar player, and appreciated him for so much more than just his ahead-of-its-time chops.
“I didn’t really know what to say. I was like, ‘Man, you have no idea how much you’ve meant to me as a musician and as a songwriter.’ He was like, ‘People think I’m an alien because of the way I play,’ and I'm like, ‘It’s all about your songs.’ And he goes, ‘Exactly. Exactly.’”
Armstrong was also witness to another impactful exchange, which this time took place between Eddie and his son, Wolfgang.
He continued, “It was this really heavy experience and then the crazy thing is – it was this really sweet thing that happened – Wolfgang came in, and Eddie’s shredding, and he’s going, ‘Dad… Dad… Dad!” He was like, ‘We have to tune.’
“So they both had their guitar and bass. They weren’t using a tuner. Then Eddie said the coolest thing – it was a father-son moment – he goes, ‘Do you want to tune to me, or do you want me to tune to you?’
“That kind of bond that a father and son had as musicians I thought was just… it always stuck with me as this beautiful thing.”
Armstrong isn't the only guitarist to have had an emotional meeting with Van Halen. Last year, Vito Bratta recalled to Guitar World how he too was reduced to tears upon meeting his hero.