This tribute to Eddie Van Halen is going to seem silly to most readers, considering I never met the man, but the fact remains that I am absolutely devasted by the news of his passing today. His music – and in my goofy mind – Eddie himself has been a large part of my life, almost on a daily basis, for nearly 4 decades.
My extremely patient and accommodating wife, Reese, allowed me to name our first-born child after him (Luke’s middle name is Edward) when Luke was born in 2013, but my infatuation with Eddie Van Halen began almost 30 years prior to that.
I was saddened to move to Southern California when I was 8 years old and leave my best friend, our next-door neighbor, in 1983. But the move was brightened by the fact that the new house came with MTV. I spent the entire summer glued to the music channel – Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, and Quiet Riot, not to mention Madonna and Michael Jackson, were delivered directly into my family room through this new and exciting medium that allowed artists to connect with their fans. My parents let my sister and I waste money every week dialing in and voting for our favorite video on Friday Night Fights (“Come on Feel the Noize” won for something like two months straight!).
And then Van Halen’s album “1984” was released in January, and the band spun out videos for Jump, Panama, and Hot for Teacher. I will fight anyone in the streets that tries to tell me there was a better video ever made for MTV than Hot for Teacher (Thriller was great, but no 9-year old wanted to sit through a 13-minute music video!). I rode my bike to the mall and the first cassette tape I bought with my own money, saved up from washing cars every weekend, was 1984. In subsequent trips to the mall, I slowly bought each of their original albums and began devouring Hit Parader and Circus magazines, cutting out pictures featuring Eddie’s iconic red and white striped guitars and plastering them to my bedroom walls. Like every kid in the ‘80s, I would spend countless hours daydreaming and doodling the band’s iconic logo on my Pee Chee folders ever day at school.
I never comprehended the age-old debate of David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar, because Eddie Van Halen was in both bands, and he single-handedly wrote every song. Sammy Hagar did not ruin Van Halen, as so many rock fans attest – Eddie’s musical tastes changed over time, which they are allowed to do. Comparing Sammy Hagar albums to David Lee Roth albums was as silly as comparing Joe Montana to Joe Namath – they never suited up against each other because they were from completely different eras.
Van Halen (with David Lee Roth) changed the landscape of rock and roll with the release of their debut album in 1978 – Eddie’s pyrotechnics on the guitar fretboard, coupled with his amazing (and often overlooked) rhythm playing, paired with David Lee Roth’s shrieks and howls (not to mention his swagger, which was tailor-made for MTV), coupled with Alex’s locked-in drumming and Michael Anthony’s unbelievable (and often overlooked) background vocals, was the best thing to happen to rock and roll since Led Zeppelin. Go back and listen to “Van Halen I” and remind yourself that when that album came out, disco was all the rage. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of that album, especially when you consider that 1978’s top songs were “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibb, “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, and “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone. Imagine the Bee Gees reaction when they heard “Eruption” for the first time! Like all of us, they must have thought they were hearing something from outer space!
But the stone cold truth is, Sammy Hagar’s incarnation of Van Halen blew the socks off of every other band from 1986 to 1995 (sit down, Guns N’ Roses fans!), not because of Sammy Hagar’s lyrics or the band’s hair and makeup, but because of Eddie’s music. Yes, Eddie introduced synthesizer to Van Halen songs (gasp!), but he was still the guitar player among all other guitar players trying desperately to emulate him during that time period. And I loved every note of every song. His playing technique, along with the many innovations he made to the instrument itself (he owns several patents related to the instrumentation of the guitar), re-shaped guitar playing forever — but the fact that he had a knack for writing hits on piano as well, was something I admired — not despised — like so many other fans. Some of those Sammy Hagar songs are all-out rockers, while others were pop heavy, and dominated the airwaves for a decade. There wasn’t a junior high or high school assembly in the early 90’s that didn’t play “Right Now” as an inspirational pick me up, trying desperately to connect with the youth of the day.
My sister took me to see Van Halen for the first time in 1991. I subsequently saw them live 8 more times, usually twice per tour.
Their concert on May 1st, 1992 at the Great Western Forum was postponed two weeks due to the L.A. riots that year – as a 17 year old, it took an unbelievable amount of begging to convince my mom to let me drive my friends to that show, traveling past burned out buildings to get there. But she knew just how much it meant to me, so she reluctantly allowed me to go.
I was at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater on October 15th, 1995, which wound up being their final mainland U.S. show with Sammy Hagar before he quit (or was he fired???) a few months later.
I spent my 4th of July 1998 seeing them perform with Gary Cherone as lead singer – not something every fan was willing to do. But again, if Eddie was there, I needed to see him. He played amazingly well that night, covering hits from all eras of the band.
I spent a ridiculous amount of money for a VIP package to see them from the 2nd row and attend their sound check when they reunited with Sammy Hagar in 2004.
I stupidly stayed away from the reunion tour with David Lee Roth in 2007 because they didn’t allow their original bassist, Michael Anthony, to partake in the reunion (but Eddie was going to be there – I should have gone!). But when they put out a new album with Dave in 2012, their first with him in 28 years, my then-girlfriend, now wife, somehow got us tickets to a private “friends and family” show at the Forum the night before the tour kicked off. I decided that night I was going to marry her! (How could I not – a private show at The Forum???)
When they came back to Los Angeles later in that tour, it was a great honor for me to take my 13-year-old volunteer little brother to his first concert. He made me so proud on the way home when he excitedly said, “They just don’t make music like that anymore!”
Why have I been so obsessed with this man and his music for so long? Why was “Van Halen” the very first term I searched when I first logged onto the internet in 1995? Why was it so vital to me that both our children heard Van Halen music before any other? (Yes, I had a pre-determined playlist and speakers with me in the hospital!) Why have I created a seven-year-old son who walks around the house mumbling under his breath, “Oh man, I think the clock is slow! I don’t feel tardy!”?
Music, and art in general, is hard to describe. Can anyone put into words why certain forms of art latch onto your soul and others don’t? Of all the “hair metal” bands I was consuming at the time, Eddie’s guitar tone, which he famously dubbed “the brown sound,” stopped me dead in my tracks. His tone was amazing, his playing was fast and furious, which appealed to a 9 year old (Eddie described his approach to playing guitar as “Falling down the stairs and hoping to land on my feet”), but he could play soulfully and bluesy as well. As I studied him more and more deeply, I realized he was the furthest thing from a guitar god — he simply viewed himself as a musician. His father was a professional musician (he actually played flute on Van Halen’s Diver Down album), and he and Eddie’s brother, Alex, followed in their dad’s footsteps. When David Lee Roth got in Eddie’s face and fought him for bringing synthesizer into the band, Eddie responded, “If I want to play tuba or Bavarian cheese whistle, I’ll do it.” (And he could!)
As a kid, shortly after immigrating to the United States from the Netherlands and not knowing how to speak English, he studied classical piano at his mother’s insistence. Eddie never learned to read music – he simply memorized his teacher’s fingers and copied the notes. He won recital after recital for his “interpretation” of classical pieces by Bach and Mozart, etc. He would say, “I wasn’t trying to put my own spin on the music, I meant to play it exactly as it was written, but I couldn’t memorize every note!”
When the band was up-and-coming and playing cover tunes on the Sunset Strip in the mid ‘70s, people would compliment Eddie for his “interpretation” of the various hit songs they were playing on stage, and he’d get embarrassed and say, “I thought I played it exactly as it sounded on the record!”
Eddie always provided his own unique approach to music. Rock bands in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s grimaced and frowned on stage and in band photos, hoping to appear tough and menacing. Even though Eddie was rockin’ harder than anyone, he smiled ear-to-ear while on stage because, “I’m doing what I love to do!” I can’t remember which musician said it, but MTV asked a rival band, “Why do you think Eddie Van Halen smiles so much?” and he looked right into the camera and said, “Because he’s Eddie F’ing Van Halen, that’s why!”
Van Halen was rarely placed in the “Heavy Metal” category, even though Eddie’s guitar hero acrobatics inspired most, if not all, heavy metal bands of the ‘80s. Many categorized Van Halen as “Party Rock” because of their high energy, huge smiles, and over-the-top antics, both on and off the stage. And while they came across as laid back California boys looking for a good time, David Lee Roth famously (and correctly) warned, “If you put a Van Halen album in your record collection, it will melt all the rest of your records!” Buyer beware, indeed!
When legendary producer Quincy Jones called Eddie and asked if he could help out on a new Michael Jackson song (“Beat It”), Eddie grabbed a six-pack of beer and drove to the studio within minutes of hanging up the phone (this, of course, after he hung up on Quincy two times because he assumed it was a prank call!). He sat down, listened to the song, re-arranged some of the middle section, then recorded two solos over the top of it and left in less than two hours. He never thought to ask for writing credit on the song, which became one of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits. The only album that kept Van Halen’s 1984 from going #1 on the Billboard charts was Thriller, and Eddie forgot to get paid for his work!
When he was asked to perform “Beat It” on stage at a Michael Jackson concert, he showed up to sound check that afternoon wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt. Michael’s minions scurried up to Eddie and asked to see his “stage attire” that he would be wearing later in the evening. Eddie stared at them blankly, lit a cigarette, and said, “What you see is what you get!” Sure enough, he performed that night in his street clothes.
Most will only remember him for his hair, his smirk, and his bright yellow jacket he wore in the “Jump” video; but for me, Eddie Van Halen was a musical genius that provided inspiration and joy to my life for nearly 40 years. I used his music to celebrate the good times and turned to his music to get me through the bad times. Knowing he had demons (he suffered with alcohol and drugs for most of his life) made him that much more real to me. He was incredibly shy and shunned the spotlight as much as possible, but when he took the stage and ran his guitar pick across those strings, he held 17,000 people in the palm of his hand. What an incredible gift he gave to the world.
Rest in peace, Eddie.