I remember when I was in elementary school in the late 1970s, hearing Eddie Van Halen’s famous guitar solo “Eruption.” It was life changing. Word of his death earlier this week sent me down memory lane. The first Van Halen album was pure raw power and signaled the channeling of hard rock into something far more melodic than some of the hard rage of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s rock. It was clean and precise. I heard “Eruption” and their cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” when I was listening to 96.1 KLPX, my favorite hometown radio station. The station is still on the air and essentially hasn’t changed its format or playlist since 1987. It’s like a time machine every time I go home! From the opening explosive drums of Alex Van Halen and thunder of bassist Michael Anthony, to the cascade of guitar sounds from Eddie, I was hooked. By the time Eddie got to the finger-tapping section of the solo in which he plays a more classical type of riff, I had trouble comprehending how a guitarist could make those sounds. As the solo fades out in an echoed, distorted haze, there’s a brief pause, before the opening riffs of “You Really Got Me.” And, the rock continues….
I went out and got that album—which I still have today and is pictured here. I remember putting it on my parents’ record player and just staring at the art. Van Halen looked like the coolest guys in the world. Songs like “Atomic Punk” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” were just explosive. (The punk band, the Minutemen, have a stellar cover of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” on their classic “Double Nickels on the Dime.”) Van Halen band members were super confident, having fun, and playing really hard rock that pretty much every teenage boy in the late ‘70s and ‘80s loved. (Were their image and lyrics immature and of a different era? Yes—mea culpa—but they were on the radio constantly, and I was in middle school. Corporate rock may have been jamming this band down our throats, but their style and power resonated with American teenagers of that age.) Of course, this was when MTV emerged, and we also could see their outrageousness in music videos. Actually seeing Van Halen play cemented an image of a fun-loving band. They simply put on a show. And, Eddie was always smiling as he ripped with his guitar.
I followed Van Halen closely through middle and high school. Between 1978 and 1984, Van Halen released six albums and toured relentlessly. I loved “Mean Streets” from the album “Fair Warning.” It’s a song with an incredible riff and solo. “Unchained” was a “go to” song to get pumped up before a soccer game. My friends and I would listen to “And the Cradle Will Rock” and just crack up at the Roth line “Have you seen junior’s grades?” followed by Eddie taking his metal pick and driving on the strings making a monstrous growl. I saw them in person once with David Lee Roth and again with Sammy Hagar. David Lee Roth forgot the words of a song halfway through: “Dude, I forgot the words.” To which the audience screamed its approval. Before one of these shows, my friend locked his keys and the tickets in his car. We smashed his window with a rock to get out the tickets, as we didn’t want to miss any part of the concert while waiting for a locksmith!
From news stories I have read in the wake of his death, Eddie was incredibly humble for his level of talent. He was a caring father, who later brought his son into the band. Of course, there was drama in Van Halen. There were tensions and acrimony and sometimes petty arguments. David Lee Roth was replaced by Sammy Hagar, and another version of the band was born. Van Halen is one of only a handful bands to switch lead singers and remain relevant and commercially viable. (Email me if you want to compare lists.) The Hagar version of Van Halen had four number one albums. Even though some called them “Van Hagar” at that point, Eddie was clearly guiding this band musically through these changes. With the “1984” album, he introduced synthesizers into their music. I kind of lost interest there, but there is no denying that they matured musically and lyrically, and grew their fan base with more commercial music. Eddie struggled with substance abuse and became sober. It’s hard to imagine someone with so much going for him would need that outlet, but it speaks to the dangers and power of addiction. As some have noted, Eddie Van Halen was a series of contradictions: a musical genius who couldn’t read music, a guitar god who wanted to play synthesizers, an artist who claimed he didn’t like listening to music….
For the next several days, my mountain bike riding will be fueled by the Van Halen catalog. RIP, Eddie. You changed rock and roll, set a new bar for artistry, and brought joy to a lot of people.