I’m not sure when it happened, or exactly where. But I remember my reaction, in 1978, as a high school senior, when I first heard Van Halen blasting out of a radio.
It was “HOLY ***K!” – or words to that effect.
It was “big rock,” as singer David Lee Roth called it. That term proved as good as any, because Van Halen fit none of the existing descriptions.
Van Halen was heavy, but clean and crisp. At the center of the hurricane was this amazing guitar sound. I’m a fan of music, hardly an expert, but it was the mainstream debut of the widdly-widdly finger-tapping style that so many copied but couldn’t quite nail, because this had tone, thickness and feel that so few of the imitators could master.
Eddie Van Halen invented a style and perfected it, all in one fell swoop. Then he kept getting better.
Eddie died at 65, losing a battle to cancer that had been hinted at but never confirmed ‘til yesterday. He leaves behind his wife, Janie; his ex, Valerie; his son, Wolfgang; his brother, Alex; and all of us.
The never-ending debate among Van Halen fans is which version of the group was better: With Roth singing or Sammy Hagar at the mic. I liked both, but that’s because I listened to (and went to see) Van Halen to hear Eddie play.
Vocals were the side dish. Guitar was the main course. The songs were amazing, too.
Eddie wrote most of them. For him, a throwaway riff was something you could use to cut glass. Check out “The Wild Life,” a mostly forgotten 1984 Cameron Crowe teen rom-com. Eddie and producer Donn Landee did the musical score. It was the best part of the movie. It rocked – so much so that Eddie recycled some of that work to write a few Hagar-era hits.
Eddie had dozens of cassettes strewn about his home studio, 5150. Van Halen’s final LP, 2012’s “A Different Kind of Truth,” mined those tapes and came up with a great album.
Eddie took his job very seriously. As Van Halen’s tour in support of 1981’s “Fair Warning” was titled, “W.D.F.A.” – We Don’t ***k Around. Eddie had his flaws, but his musicianship and dedication to his craft were never to be doubted.
I consider Eddie Van Halen to be the greatest American guitarist ever. (He was born in Holland, but moved to Pasadena, Calif., at 7.)
I consider Van Halen one of America’s three greatest rock bands ever: Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Van Halen, in any order you’d like.
I have every Van Halen record and listen often. I saw Van Halen live a dozen times or so. The last time was Sept. 25, 2015 in Houston. (I saw Skynyrd the next night. That was a fun trip.) Eddie was great. I never saw him have a bad show. As his own worst critic, Eddie would say different. But, as a fan, you never lost sight of who he was and what he’d done.
As Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx tweeted yesterday, “You were the Mozart of rock guitar.” I can’t think of a more apt description.
Eddie raised his son to be a musician, and being onstage with Wolfgang in the last version of Van Halen produced a glow in Eddie that was evident even in the cheap seats. With all due respect to longtime bassist Michael Anthony, it made what turned out to be Van Halen’s wrap-up very special. Wolf more than earned his keep. He’s definitely his father’s son.
I don’t know how to conclude this. I hate the finality that goes with that. I’m 59. My heroes were always going to start dying, but that inevitability does nothing to stem the tears.
It’s clichéd to say, but the music lives forever. But video doesn’t do justice to Van Halen live, or Eddie’s onstage virtuosity.
So if you were lucky enough to attend a Van Halen show, as I did many times – here’s hoping your attention was rapt, your ears were wide open and you focused on the Dutch guy with the Frankenstrat: Edward Lodewijk Van Halen.
Because they only made one.
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