*Photo taken by your heartbroken blogger of the inside album sleeve from ‘Fair Warning’
I am simply gutted by the news that I heard today. Eddie Van Halen, guitar legend and band leader has died after a long battle with throat cancer at the tender age of 65. I was just sitting down to read a chapter in Ted Templeman’s autobiography about Van Halen recording Diver Down when I saw on Twitter we’d lost Eddie. Eyes full of tears I couldn’t possibly read that story at this moment so I put the book down. I love Van Halen and I always have. Van Halen was the ultimate party, good-time band and Eddie Van Halen was like a God to many of us… a Guitar God. For those of us who came of age in the late ’70s/early 80s, Eddie Van Halen is our Jimi Hendrix. My heart goes out to his whole family and all of his fans out there. I was literally thinking this weekend, I wish Eddie would put out some music.
My love of Van Halen – the band and the guitar player – dates as far back as my love of rock and roll. His playing is a part of the rock n roll DNA for me. I think their debut, Van Halen, was like the second or third album I ever purchased (Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40). It was the first time I bought a band’s debut album when it was actually debuting. I’ve been on the bandwagon ever since. Everybody loved David Lee Roth’s class clown act but the real reason we liked that album was the guitar. We’d never heard sounds like that before. I think every guy in my junior high school owned that first Van Halen record… and anybody who didn’t, well you didn’t want to know them anyhow. I listened to that album continuously. I was drawn in by “You Really Got Me” but let’s be honest, it was “Runnin’ With the Devil” that caused me to finally buy the album. The song that made the Eddie Van Halen legend was track 2, simply and appropriately titled “Eruption.” It is perhaps the greatest guitar solo ever recorded. The sound was otherworldly. Nobody played that fast. We had all heard the rumors that when Eddie played he didn’t face the crowd, he was hiding his technique (which turned out to be true, he didn’t want anybody to see his revolutionary method of “finger-tapping” up the neck of the guitar which literally changed how the instrument was played). The power and menace of his playing is palpable. Van Halen is the perfect guitar record.
I have so many memories… I didn’t buy their second album (until later) but I had Woman And Children First on cassette. I’d blast that album in the car. I never realized Eddie was playing keyboards on “And the Cradle Will Rock…” until years later. I’m not sure any of us knew that Eddie played keyboards until “Jump” came out. Van Halen was the perfect blend of Eddie’s guitar (and keyboard) sound and Roth’s sense of humor… “His folks aren’t overjoyed” has always been a favorite lyric. Oddly enough, when my girlfriend and I would go to the drive-in with beer and pizza, I’d always take a boom box and Woman And Children First was the cassette I always played. Fond memories of that…”In a Simple Rhyme” is an under appreciated gem. Years later, the Rock Chick and I would love cranking up “Everybody Wants Some” and just reveling in the “awesomeness.”
Fair Warning was for me, simply a masterpiece. Eddie’s guitar playing was perhaps at it’s most muscular and menacing. The tour in support of that album was the first time I saw Van Halen in concert. I think after that the only tour I missed was the one for OU812 because I was in exile in Arkansas. I can still close my eyes and see the band playing “Mean Street.” We had great seats off to the side of the stage. Roth was standing an elevated platform on the opposite side of the stage. He went into the rap at the end… “Now a gun is real easy, in this desperate part of town…” and when he gets to the end and says “Lord, Strike that poor boy DOWN,” Roth fell to the floor like he’d been hit. Suddenly a spotlight flashes on and Eddie Van Halen is standing on the platform on my side of the stage. His playing was incendiary. That guitar solo is etched in my mind like it was last night. What he did to that guitar that night may be illegal.
Diver Down is an album I have always associated with summer. It came out the year I went to college and it was the soundtrack to my post-high school summer. It was rightly on my ultimate summer LPs list (Memorial Day Kicks Off Summer: Go-To Summer LPs (Beach Boys Need Not Apply)). 1984 is the album they’re probably most remembered for and it was an absolute classic. “Jump” their foray into keyboards was a wildly popular track but I always preferred the other keyboard track “I’ll Wait.” Only Eddie Van Halen could conquer both guitar and keyboards. That was the first tour that I saw Van Halen twice, once in Wichita and once in Kansas City. While they’d reached new levels of popularity, alas tensions with in the band – that began when Roth objected to Eddie marrying actress Valerie Bertintelli – erupted into open conflict and Roth and VH split.
Van Halen continued on with Sammy Hagar on lead vocals – commonly referred to as Van Hagar. I still dug them, In Defense of Van Hagar, No Really… Complete With a B&V Van Hagar Playlist. I think they were fundamentally a different band, obviously, but still a great guitar sound. Eventually relations with Hagar soured as well and eventually Van Halen went silent. Now it appears the mighty guitar of Eddie Van Halen has been silenced forever. I saw them in 2012 on the reunion tour with Roth… Roth had mostly lost it but Eddie’s guitar was still razor sharp and worth the price of admission.
There will be debates about where he ranks in the pantheon of guitar greats. He’s top 2 or 3 to me. I never saw Hendrix but I did see Van Halen so I’m biased. Eddie absolutely changed the way lead guitar was played. Every rock and roll guitarist who came after him was influenced by Eddie Van Halen. There would have been no Randy Rhoads without him. Every guitar player in the 80s should be sending royalty checks to Eddie. Make no mistake the world has lost one of the greatest guitarists to ever play the instrument. Van Halen and Eddie’s guitar were and will always be a big part of my love of rock and roll. He brought great joy, excitement and beautiful noise into my life. So many beautiful notes… from “Spanish Fly” to “Cathedral” to the intro for “Little Guitars.” I am deeply saddened tonight, as I’m sure most rock fans are. The Rock n’ Roll flag will be at half mast here at B&V for quite a while… A part of my youth has died… As my friend Doug texted me, “Bummer… this feels really close.” I think we all feel that way.
It’s a dark ride folks, enjoy it while it lasts. RIP Eddie Van Halen, the greatest.