For a generation of rock fans, there was no greater guitarist to grace the concert stage, making it tough for so many of us to imagine a world without him
I’ll never forget the first SONY Walkman I ever got.
It was for my 11th birthday in the Summer of 1984, and I only owned two cassettes: Weird Al Yankovic In 3-D and Donna Summer’s She Works Hard For The Money. However, my Uncle Giorgio also included a tape with the Walkman: 1984 by Van Halen.
And it was that combination bestowment which began my lifelong affinity for the guitar mastery of Eddie Van Halen, who left us today at 65 following a long and valiant battle with tongue and throat cancer.
Words cannot explain just how much of a mindbomb Eddie’s musicianship has impacted me these last 35 years or so (which more accurately began when I first heard Jacko’s “Beat It” in 1982, on second thought). Moreso than any other guitar player shy of George Harrison and John Lennon, EVH was the genesis of my appreciation and understanding of rock ‘n’ roll guitar. More than Page. More than Prince. More than Clapton. For the middle school version of me, my guitar education began and ended with Eddie.
I have been listening to VH so consistently throughout my life through such classic albums as Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women & Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, the aforementioned 1984, 5150, OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and the vastly underrated DLR reunion LP A Different Kind of Truth (Balance and Van Halen III get hard passes to this day) it’s impossible to imagine a world without its chief creator walking among us. Even beyond the realms of electric guitar rock and Heavy AOR, Eddie’s untouched precision and inventiveness on his custom Frankenstein helped open my eyes to new forms of music even when my VH kick was on the back burner.
I could’ve never gotten into the likes of such giants of jazz fusion as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell without being mesmerized by the the way Eddie’s fingers danced across the fretboard on “Eruption” or the guitar solo from “Dreams”. Listening to “Spanish Fly” off Van Halen II surely assisted in helping me acquiesce into a deep appreciation the works of such classical guitar innovators as Andres Segovia and Julian Bream,(who we also lost this year) while his heavy use of synths on 1984, 5150 and OU812 opened skeptical hard rock ears to Van Halen’s English contemporaries on the Billboard Hot 100 like OMD, the Pet Shop Boys and Scritti Politti. In very recent years, the one aspect of Van Halen that seems to really capture my imagination are those amazing harmonies between Eddie and original bassist Michael Anthony that served as the sun by which all other elements revolved. They were the quintessential L.A. rock band, be it with Roth or Hagar (even Gary Cherone, tbh), and that seamless harmonizing from two men who never sang lead but very well could have was telling of the band’s roots in The Beach Boys, The Byrds and the Mamas & The Papas as much as Motorhead and Montrose.
I am so grateful to have grown up on Van Halen in real time as I evolved from a boy to a man. I was an elementary schooler listening to his uncle playing “Ice Cream Man” on acoustic guitar. I was the girl crazy nerd dedicating “Love Walks In” to the crush who has zero time for him on the local radio station like Ricky Schroeder in Silver Spoons. I was the high school freshman organizing the initial building blocks of a slow growing music collection around an unhealthy love for OU812. As a senior in high school, F.U.C.K. was as much of a staple on the car radio as Nevermind. Moreso even, come to think of it.
And getting to see Van Halen four times in my life, three with Sammy and once with Dave on the reunion tour in 2007, I just feel so blessed to have this man and his band in my life for all these years.
Yet as blessed I was to finally go see VH with David Lee Roth in 2007, it was so much more fun seeing Van Hagar in concert. Especially during the F.U.C.K. Tour, because they’d play Sammy’s solo hits “One Way To Rock” and “I Can’t Drive 55” regularly in the set. What’s more about seeing Van Halen with Sammy was that Hagar is an incredibly underrated guitar player himself, and you can see the joy on Eddie’s face in this bootleg video from Nassau Coliseum in the fall of 1991 (we saw the next show up in Albany at what was then called the Knickerbocker Arena) when he’s got his back against Hagar’s proverbial wrecking machine as they riff in unison. It was as though Van Halen was always meant to be a two-guitar band.
VIDEO: Van Halen at Nassau Coliseum 1991
It’s going to be tough imagining an America without Eddie Van Halen. Even in recent posts on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, there was such a warmth and sense of humor to his demeanor. His smile alone lit up countless arenas since the late 70s, and that joie de vive was what made us all believe he was going to beat cancer and return to the road for one more VH tour for old times sake.
My heart goes out to his only son Wolfgang Van Halen, whom I had the pleasure to see play alongside his dad on two occasions, and Valerie Bertinelli. She and Eddie were the coolest couple in rock outside Chris and Tina from Talking Heads.
It’s tough going through Twitter and Facebook and seeing the outpouring of sorrow and emotion over the loss of EVH this evening. So many familiar names offering their condolences.
As for me and the rest of us here at the Rock & Roll Globe, we remember Eddie Van Halen the best way we know how, with a mixtape.
In an extraordinarily cruel year, losing this guy on top of everything else feels like gratuitous salt in our collective wound.
We are gonna miss you, man.