Eddie Van Halen Detaches From Terra Firma With One Final Jump
Edward Van Halen has left terra firma (was he ever really attached? See pictures) at such a weird and dark time which makes his passing even sadder for me. Although Van Halen were a huge international band, they were quintessentially an American one, back when we thought we knew what that meant. With all the excess, fun, and brashness that conjures up, but also the generosity of spirit that used to go along with being American. The reason Jeff Spicoli hired them for his birthday when he came into the reward money in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was that Van Halen was a party that never ended, even if after a couple of whiskeys, in the right mood…and if there weren’t any chicks at the party he wanted to leave with, Uncle Dave would delve into the meaning of life for the youngins still awake, but I digress…
Edward Van Halen changed music, and I am grateful I was the right age and in the perfect place to witness it. Before Van Halen, I was solely a British rock snob. Sure, we invented rock n’ roll over here, but the Brits perfected it, as seen in examples a, b, c, d, etc. That was my mantra and I wasn’t straying.
But even then, there were rumblings…. My friend Laurie danced to a Van Halen song at a school talent show and it sounded like nothing I had ever heard. I was still very much an eleven-year-old girl, so I was a bit red faced at the lyrical content but also intrigued. What was that? And especially, WHO is that guitar player?
By junior high I was well versed in their tour de force debut album. Who doesn’t remember the first time they heard the intro to “Running with the Devil “or heard “Eruption” and thought what the holy f*ck was that? “Eruption” alone spurred on an entire generation of guitar players as well as a new style of playing. Eddie changed the rules, the game and the expectations of what a rock composer could be. Van Halen made hard rock exciting again at a time when its first heroes had gotten bloated and jaded. It’s hard to illustrate for young people how mind-blowing Eddie was when you can pull-up any guitar solo on YouTube and learn it these days, but Van Halen and Eddie especially blew the doors right off.
Growing up in Arcadia (Team Anthony!) the older kids would speak of a time of mythic backyard parties in Pasadena and surrounds when Van Halen played. One senior girl brought some grainy snapshots her sister had taken at a kegger in a friend’s backyard of the band Mammoth – soon to be Van Halen. I remember being impressed that her sister had the presence of mind to take photos and a bit jealous too, since even at the dawn of the ‘80’s I already believed I had missed my era… little did I know the universe had a surprise in store.
My friend Michelle breathlessly ran up to me one day before school with an unbelievable tale. The night before, her doctor Dad had been chatting with his colleague on a break at the hospital about their kids. Dr. Abend mentioned that his daughter was getting into music these days. Dr. Roth replied that his son had too and was in a band that was starting to do pretty well. Around the dinner table that night, Dr. Abend mentioned the conversation but stalled on the band’s name, “Van, Van, Van something” “VAN HALEN? You work with DAVID LEE ROTH’S DAD?” Michelle practically screamed. Dr. Abend, surprised Michelle knew of Nate’s son’s band responded with, “Yes, and by the way, he offered you and your friends tickets when they play at The Forum.”
On the appointed night, from the third row, Michelle, Jill and I watched in awe as Eddie did all things previously thought impossible on guitar and I fell, hard. This was no aimless noodling; all fretboard pyrotechnics served the songs. And what songs they were! That’s a canon I’ll put up against my most beloved British bands. There was a moment during his featured solo where he looked up at all of the lighters in the arena lit for him, and I swear I saw him crying and saying thank you to his fans. I held my pick aloft to be blessed by our humble king. I was a convert.
The after-show party was in The Lakers’ dressing room, deep under the stage. I had drilled my compatriots beforehand; no asking for autographs, as that would be completely uncool. And in the days before camera phones, no one even thought to bring a camera, but I would have deemed that uncool at the time too. Introduced to us by his Dad, Roth was charming and polite. I saw Alex and Michael laughing it up with some friends across the crowded room, but I was scanning the place for Eddie. Where was he? I had this mystical experience with him out there and he had just vanished. Not wanting to linger too long after the show with three 15-year-old girls in tow, Dr. Abend thought we should make our way home. I was disappointed though, because as cool as it was to meet DLR, I was really there for Eddie. Rounding the corner on our way out, I saw him talking to a friend outside of the party. Our eyes met for a second, but I was too shy to say anything and that was that. And what to say anyhow? Thank you for revolutionizing the guitar, Sir! I think not.
Over the years it was hard to be a VH fan sometimes. Dave took the cartoon antics so far over the top it became a bit much and then he was gone, but the party left with him. Sammy can sing his ass off and hasn’t aged a day in 40 years, but for me between Roth’s exit and the firing of Michael Anthony, the band’s not so secret vocal weapon and rock’s most amiable dude, much of what made that band tick was lost. And then there’s Gary Cherone, poor Gary, I tend to forget about him, but that was the problem. Van Halen became, dare I say, predictable and lost their danger, except of course for Ed. His guitar work continued to be otherworldly.
He did worry us through. Before the cancer we thought we’d lose him a few times to other demons. A decade back LA Weekly published a sad account of a writer/fan who ran into him at a gas station in The Valley and at first thought he was a homeless man. There are wild tales of booze, drugs and even guns when he was well out there, but by all accounts, over the last years he’d gotten it together and was playing at top level Ed again.
Living with a guitar player, I’ve learned more about his other innovations too. His building of guitars and equipment, of “The Brown Sound” that sent an entire industry chasing after the EVH tone, as if attaining that through mere wiring was even possible. I also read yesterday that in the end he and Sammy were speaking again. I really hope that DLR and Michael are as well: too much history to be left unspoken.
So thank you Eddie, for everything. Rock greatness didn’t have to come from the UK, but could be found in my own backyard. I think it’s important to remember especially at a time like this, that Ed and Alex were immigrants. Indonesian/Dutch immigrants who moved here not speaking English and grew up to be bonafide rock stars, and we in turn grew up wanting to be just like them. Ain’t nothing more American than that. He achieved his dream and got us all dreaming in kind, but in the end no one could ever be as great as Eddie Van Halen.