Sigh. I guess every generation hits a period where their heroes start to leave this mortal coil. The last five years or so have not been kind to mine. Sadly, to undisputed guitar god Eddie Van Halen, we said goodbye on October 6.
Edward Lodewijk van Halen arrived in his new home of Pasadena, California from Amsterdam in 1962 at the age of 7. His father, Jan, was a multi-instrumentalist who immediately put both Eddie and brother Alex into piano lessons. Both brothers excelled at the instrument, until Eddie, unchallenged by the piano, took up the drums and Alex picked up the guitar. Both found their slots when they swapped and eventually formed a band together with Eddie as the vocalist. Playing a show with a local band from whom the brothers rented a PA, they were dazzled by the lead singer. Adding David Lee Roth and his PA gave Eddie the space he wanted for playing. Poaching from another opening band, bassist Michael Anthony was recruited from Snake, the band he fronted. As a quartet composed of 2 former lead singers (who unfairly stand unrecognized as a pair of rock’s great backup singers) and one of the greatest rock frontmen of all time, Van Halen was born in 1975. Inspired by the playing of Eric Clapton, Eddie began writing some of the most powerful and accessible rock music framed by the bones of the blues. Four years and a thousand gigs later, the band was playing stadiums in support of their thunderous and instantly classic eponymous first album. Van Halen, the album contained many songs that not only became immediate fan favourites, but Runnin’ with the Devil, Eruption, the cover of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me, Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love and Jamie’s Cryin became canonical tracks of the band’s. While the sashaying delivery of Roth, the bombastical playing of Alex and the steady-pedaling bass of Anthony stood out, no band that ever had been or would ever be had Eddie Van Halen, his thousand-watt smile and his enormous bag of tricks. Calling Eddie Van Halen an innovator doesn’t quite hit the bullseye to explain this uncommon talent.
Speaking of his technical skills, it was EVH who brought tapping (using both hands to quickly tap notes on the guitar’s fretboard), dive bombing whammy barred solos and rapid-fire arpeggio runs to rock music. Back in the 70s, there was no one who compared to his melodic, virtuosic playing. Unique as his playing was, even his Frankenstrat guitar that he built from various Gibson and Fender guitars and clad in red bicycle paint himself was a one of a kind and often copied but never duplicated. Perhaps his playing was introduced to the wide world through his action-packed solo on Michael Jackson’s Beat It – a gig reportedly connected via Pete Townshend. The band’s five-times platinum album, 1984‘s (and Eddie’s biggest) hit, Jump shamelessly structured itself around, gasp, a synthesizer line. The following tour’s end saw the departure of David Lee Roth and soon, entered Sammy Hagar to not only cover lead vocals but also to play guitar alongside Ed. The 1990s and 2000s weren’t creatively prolific times for the band, but Eddie made the best, working within Van Halen’s ups and downs and lineup changes through various movie soundtracks. Personally, his 15 year marriage to Valerie Bertinelli ended and his health declined as decades on the road caught up with his age. After a life of drug and alcohol dependency, Eddie found sobriety in 2008. Remarried and doing well, the band reformed to an almost original state with David Lee Roth in 2007 for a world tour and a new album. Van Halen the band played their final show on October 4, 2015. Reports on Eddie’s throat cancer diagnosis indicate that he may well have known of his illness at this time.
The outpouring of remembrances following the death announcement made by his son Wolfgang are no surprise. Nor are all the famous guitarists, from John Mayer to Jason Isbell to Slash to Keith Urban who cited Eddie Van Halen’s deep-rooted influence on their playing. My social media feeds quickly filled with photos of Eddie smiling away and playing his Frankenstrat. Friends whom I made more recently than 1984, friends who didn’t seem to be fans of classic rock typed out their memories of the band and the guitarist.
My introduction to Eddie’s playing came from a dubbed tape my brother had with Van Halen on one side and Diver Down on the other. Cathedral off the latter album was one track that I couldn’t wrap my eleven year-old head around. We played and flipped that tape over and over again. We added more VH albums to the collection, marvelling at each. The density and thrust of the rhythm section was unlike any other. The wind the band pushed out sonically was staggering but the sweetness of the melodies and the harmonies made their music so easily accessible. Van Halen was one of those bands that even among a disparate group of music lovers as my gang were, they pleased everyone. It didn’t take much to dig in to a listen and be taken back to whatever a cool breeze on a Pasadena night in the 70s felt like. Deep and thoughtful, the band could never be accused of being. But to look for a soundtrack to good times and dumb fun, there was no better band’s catalogue in which to search. And no better guitarist to punctuate a song with a soaring solo.
Eddie Van Halen, happy trails to you.
Enjoy some videos of Eddie’s playing.
Header photo by Carl Lender. The crop was edited for size.