All hail the King is dead. The Frankentstrat plays no more.
Eddie Van Halen had an indelible effect on rock music that will ripple for generations to come. He wasn't a flash in the pan player. He constantly tinkered with his instruments to extract the tone he had in his head and where we wanted to hit his pocket from. Eddie just did not happen to make finger tapping a game changing guitar technique on mistake, others had done it before him but what Eddie did was he tapped into generations of fans hearts and the minds of endless guitar players. When Eddie Van Halen hit the scene, everyone listened. Everyone who played guitar or wanted to, also freaked the fuck out. They could not believe their ears or his fingers. Now they had to play.
What it did was breed excitement. Every guitar player from coast to coast wanted to play just like Eddie Van Halen the second they heard the first song play on the radio or at a buddies house. The rest just rocked out.
First off, I should get this out of the way. I fucking love Van Halen. The original Van Halen line up is my favorite band of all time. Easily. No argument. The six pack of albums they did at the start of their career are all solid, even filler songs became life cannon. Take Big Bad Bill for instance with Clarinet played by Eddie Van Halen's dad himself, Jan Van Halen or the goof that turned into the classic Happy Trails.
I always like how they came off as a mix of the Three Stooges meets Led Zeppelin with a dash of Boogie-woogie. The Jazz influence clearly heard in the way Alex played. The way Alex played with Eddie. Add ringleader David Lee in, keeping the attention of the crowd that Eddie and company had already captured from the first chord played in the dark, before the lights went up and the striped Frankenstrat beautifully screaming anthems of fun, debauchery and maybe some things we shouldn't talk about without legal council readily available.
His sound was so identifiable. You could hear Eddie play one chord and you knew it was him. You did not have to hear anything else. HIs playing had its own personality. Many and I mean a metric fuck ton of guitar players have tried to reproduce only failing once they got there. Sure, people can cover to Van Halen songs, but they can never get all the way there. Like Tenacious D would say, they only make tribute to the alter of greatness.
It was not the pick of destiny that endeared Eddie Van Halen to the masses. Once you heard him heat up his guitar, it was his child like demeanor. Always smiling the little Dutch boy was. He may have been wasted but that didn’t matter. Rock and Roll was meant for people to gather and drink so when our heroes did, it was just par for the course. Some knew better and well the rest of us ignored it anyway. There was fun to be had.
Eddie was a tone chaser. The Brown Sound as it had come to be called changed the face of in your face rock and roll. The first number one rap song with a sample is Wild Thing by Tone Loc. Prime example of the cool factor. The Van Halen swagger came across as a sample from Eddie’s main riff from Jamie's Crying and backing up with the signature drum roll that makes the song from his lifelong musical partner and brother, Alex Van Halen.
What made Van Halen stand out so much from the rest of the band of their heyday? It was the Jazz and Motown influence Roth could get away with in his voice just add outstanding performance. David Lee Roth was never the best singer and that is self admitted. But what he was, was an incredible performer and front man. He is more of an old school entertainer than rock singer. The song and dance man. The pied piper of Pasadena. Dave was the guy who locked you in once they captured your attention, with no intention of letting you go.
The effect of Eddies death has had on musicians and fans today is that of being in an empty auditorium with that cord buzz sounding through the amps, filling the theater and suddenly it becomes silent. Only the sustain of history and the echo he leaves behind for others to hear.
Out of the blue there came the day the legendary Van Halen One arrived in the mail. Unbeknownst to me I had come home one day shortly after my brother Ray had received the shipment from Columbia House or something like it. You know that one penny for six albums mail order scam? Then must pay double the price for the next six choices? This is where most people bailed. Well, at least the four other people getting the penny for six album deals did. I do not know what happened to those people with made up names, but they did leave their albums behind. Hypothetically.
The first song I remember hearing from Van Halen was Atomic Punk, because that was playing out my brother's sound design stereo speakers at full blast when I walked up the stairs. That song blew my mind as I stood in the doorway of our bedroom mesmerized by the explosion of sound and attitude. Atomic was spot on. We were already the tainted Catholic family on the block (we went full Wo Wo in the late seventies), so this fit in perfectly with our new look. My entire life changed at that moment and with it everything that would follow. One song. Van Halen influenced me differently than my then favorite band as a kid, KISS. Different levels so to speak and that is nothing against the amazing Ace Frehley, whose sound blended perfectly with KISS Phase One.
The following Christmas I bought a Gibson SG copy from Sears with the $92 of Christmas money I received that year and a $35 amp from my saving from lawn mowing and helping my uncle and cousin as Chimney Sweeps on days off of school and help with the soot clean up.
I always had my imagination to keep me busy doing those odd jobs if I had batteries or an outside plug for my tape recorder that was always with me. I was always in other worlds doing things like that growing up. Drawing and listening to music while chaos reigned in other areas. I loved thinking up the what could be's and all the what ifs. This bashful kid, youngest of five was soon to be an extrovert thanks in part to the antics of Eddie Van Halen's bandmate David Lee Roth who would rip up any interview he was in clearly not giving a fuck in an educated way with his vaudeville inspired one liners and skat expression of references and innuendos letting you know we has well read and smarter than your average bear.
Van Halen the band always had a humor about them, they took the music serious but nothing outside of that. That is not an easy feat to pull off. To make it look that easy. These guys did pay their dues with years of playing multiple sets and self promotion locally and attracting attention the old fashion way, by playing live. The very thing bands are meant to do. Got a tent, they will bring the circus.
With there Three Stooges like antics and interactions like the bowery boys films, the goofiness of the Marks Brothers put in a band with players who all melted your face off in a three minute clip of life altering inner expression. At the time it was blistering. All the girls wanted the guys in Van Halen and all the guys wanted to be the guys in Van Halen with Eddie and Dave taking the lead. No other band was more impressive as a non-cohesive recording unit that although beautifully broken. Together though that alchemy in those broken pieces fit together and worked perfectly as a sonic team.
Eddie and the guys always had friction in the band. That is what made it what it was. That's where the dirt lives. This wasn't a peace and love music in the slightest. It was grab a drink, lets go get laid and have a good fucking time all the while waving to the uptight fuckers watching you do it with contempt rather than join in the party. That of course with the aid of legendary producer and lion tamer Ted Templeton, who unleashed them on the world.
Van Halen Two was quickly bought at the record store and Women and Children First came out with the following years order. With that album it had ratcheted up the personal interest from me when Dave bellowed “Have you seen juniors' grades?” following the explosive guitar phrasing immediately following the sarcastic spoken word. It is so distinctive you heard it when I described it. Before you knew it Diver Down was out and in my hands, The red and white cover. Where have all the good times, gone and a a few other cover songs filled that short running time album. What it was to me was a fun album. To me that album is Van Halen but Eddie didn't care for it. Go figure. But that wouldn't last for long.
Fast forward to the release of 1984. With a $750 budget they made the Jump Video and a MTV legend was born. BY that time everyone was boiling their guitar strings and following anything Eddie said he would do to achieve that sound that only Eddie could voice. Everyone began to shred on guitar. Doesn't mean it was all good, because it wasn't. Notes should sound good when combined in a string of them. Then before you knew it, it suddenly turned into a speed thing shit show rather than focus on melody or at least trying to match the song you are playing and not just drop it in like a bomb that makes no sense to the song. I know people who could play others songs but could not write a song or even a riff of their own. It happens. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone plays differently and for different reasons. That to me always seemed an odd choice. Most didn’t get it. Yes, they could play something note for note but they were not story tellers in the slightest. Songs must speak to people to grab them for the moment. Make it matter and keep them coming back. Slap them in the face.
From the way he used his whammy bar making space age sounds that only added to the songs and the raspy growls no one else had before him could belch out like a locomotive expressions he surprised us with time after time. The finger tapping that made him famous, and his understanding of rhythms. Eddie Van Halen may have the most memorable riffs in the history of rock and roll. Yes, all the greats have several, but Eddie has dozens. Is my opinion biased? Yes, as much as humanly fucking possible on this subject.
My First Concert at a ticketed event (I mean I saw Jim Neighbors and KC and The Sunshine Band at the Wisconsin State Fair when I was four or five but that didn’t count, we didn’t go there for that) was for Van Halen 1984. I went with my buddy Rob and my cousins wife who was cool enough to take us to get tickets and drive us there. IN a few short years I was working in the entertainment business helping make the magic that everyone enjoys. Not to mention the garage bands.
After this tour of course Van Halen Famously broke up due to Dave going off on his own and doing a fun four song EP that blew up into the biggest thing on the planet thanks to the popularity of their album 1984 the pervious year. Van Halen was on top of the music world when it came out. Dave thought he was bigger than Van Halen and Eddie thought he was full of shit. They broke up and did he said/he said thing. Whatever it was, the greatest rock band was no longer together. Enter Sammy Hagar, talented performer, and singer. Great band. To a lot of us it just was not Van Halen, it was something else. Still a great band just a different one. I still went to the shows and bought their CD’s. Eddie was doing his thing a bit different with some keys he could not do with Dave and that was cool too. Dave's voice and Eddies guitar combo will never be matched or exceeded. I mean if it happens I would love to be in the audience when it does.
Now into the 1990's. One day unexpectedly as I am driving down a side street in West L.A. and I am not really paying attention because I am looking at my fucking Thomas Guide map book (pre-GPS) of where I had to go that day. Over the speakers I hear Eddie playing but I didn’t recognize the song. I figured he might be guesting on someone's song, but Alex was playing with him and then Dave starts singing as I was more than happy. I cranked it up and listened proudly. That didn’t last long though. Eddie and Dave have always been dicks to each other, so that was that. They rubbed each other the wrong way. I still held out hope that these guys could put the bullshit behind them and give us some more great music. That is of course selfish on our part but that is what fans are for. That same friction though was why those songs are classic and memorable. They brought the fire to the song.
The album Van Halen Three with Gary Charone was good, just not Van Halen. Seems Eddie was getting caught up in some things happening off stage and interfering with his on-stage life. At that point he should have done project bands, or one offs. He should have at last done a solo album. I like to think that he has ten of them recorded.
He needed a break is what he really needed. Maybe he needed time to not be Eddie Van Halen, Legend for a while. Something tells me that he did not really enjoy being famous but being famous was part of the deal of being a rock star guitar god. Many times, using it for great causes and giving back to others. Eddie had to run with the devil to be able to take his whisky home. He just wanted to be a human being while enjoying the magic that was his connection to the sounds that came out of his hands and through the speakers and into our ears and hearts.
It is weird for me to think we live in a world without Eddie Van Halen in it; just playing the fuck out of his guitar with that shit eating grin on his face, rolling out the rowdy sound of his electrified chug, chug, chug and the sound bouncing off the rafters of any given auditorium and into your ability to sing along at the top of your lungs, while shaking your ass. Van Halen was a fun band. Despite any darkness behind the music, Eddie gave us more than we currently understand. We will know more in the future when we are looking back historically and admiring his sophisticated modifications of the sounds we hear by the artist, inventor and electrical engineer that was Eddie Van Halen.
Even my kids First Concert naturally was the David Lee Roth Band. Van Halen was not active (0f course) at the time. The youngest on my shoulders, and the oldest at six years old happily dancing with three college girls as Dave sang the hits. Welcome to the world of Van Halen, where we all loved to celebrate at their shows. It was always the best keg party around, even just to hear those songs.
When Dave and Eddie reunited as Van Halen on stage after a twenty-seven-year hiatus, I was there and all over it. I had an extra ticket and invited by friend Jeanine to come with me. She just posted the Van Halen panties she bought at the show. I still have the piece of Mylar confetti that hit me during the encore. Upon asking if she could have it and I said “Hell, no.” She paused for a second looking at me and totally understood. She was able to grab a piece for herself. Van Halen with Dave back was a big deal for me, and we didn’t know if it would ever happen again.
The tension made for a great show. The mammoth sound of Van Halen was back. For how long we didn’t know and frankly didn’t care. The Lions were out of their cage and Eddie and Dave commanding the stage every second of the show along with the memories attached to those songs. Van Halen's stage was bare, it was the backdrop and the band. Not too much stage design on purpose. It was all about the music and they came ready to play. They delivered even at moments that were off. It is rock and roll after all. It was not singing to tape. It was an old school monolith, known as Van Halen just ripping your face off. From the first bass notes of Running with the Devil to the final note of Jump. I was a happy man and for that brief moment in time there was world peace.
Every tour since I have been there to see Eddie and the gang bring their thunderous fun to the stage. My youngest Seth just happened to go with me the last two tours and having a blast watching the band of course and the added benefit of his Dad losing his shit in a fun and rowdy way. Enjoying the band that has been engrained into the soundtrack of my life from 1979 on. Van Halen no longer is, it is just a memory we all share. Never again will we see Eddie's trademark scissor kick. I hope Wolfie continues to carry the stripes. If he doesn't I get that too.
Eddie, we the fans, the ones you made into Atomic Punks worldwide and across generations, we thank you for all your music, your innovation, and your unique voice.
Demons he had, as all geniuses do. Eddie Van Halen was able to not just change rock music through all of that, but it was through innovations in engineering with his line of amplification, effects and shaping guitar sound for those who followed him knowingly or not. Eddie changed the soundscape of music across all genres. Eddie was always learning and was happier to tinker in a workshop than to be on a stage in his later years. That was his jam. Maybe he had to return the genie to its bottle.
In the end Eddie Van Halen had nothing to prove, still striving strived for that perfect tone. That thing he had chased all his life, his muse. I feel good knowing that I believe he did finally find it. It could be that the tone he was chasing had nothing to do in the way that he played, but in the way he lived. In the end balance could no longer be reached, as he lost his battle with cancer on a day I wont soon forget. He passed away with his wife Janie and his son Wolfgang by his side, without intrusion of the media. IN todays world one could not ask for more than that.
Like Dr. Seuss once said, "Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened." I don’t think there is another musician of my generation that was universally loved and respected as much by all walks of people and musicians alike than the imperfect genius that was Eddie Van Halen. ...now real quick, how does that one part go again?