“Hey, it lasts forever.” – Van Halen
The last time I wrote a post featuring my favorite band of all-time was 2018 when I wrote about messy relationships. Now, two plus years later, I find myself paying tribute once again while reflecting upon the life and death of the great musical virtuoso, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen.
Passing away at the age of 65 from cancer, I’ve spent the past few days reflecting and reading what others have been saying and writing about this talented man. It’s left me with questions though like why does it matter so much? To clarify, why does it matter so much to someone like me (and the thousands of others) who wasn’t family or a friend or even an acquaintance? Why does his life and legacy mean so much to so many people who knew him only as a legendary guitar player for one of the best rock bands of all-time? Did we learn anything from him besides imitating his finger-tapping techniques, his pick slides, or his use of the whammy bar?
I don’t think Eddie’s life matters so much because he was a great guitar player or because of those 15-30 second bursts of fingertip magic. It’s really because of how those riffs and melodies and lyrics and how that collective sound of Van Halen music made us feel. His music penetrated many of us to our very core. Eddie’s talent transcended music in the same way that Michael Jordan’s artistry transcended basketball. You didn’t have to know anything about basketball to know that you were witnessing a rare form of greatness with Jordan. Just the same, you didn’t need to understand scales or chords or guitar types to know you were witnessing another form of artistic greatness when Eddie Van Halen held that musical axe in his hands. The sounds had meaning whether we understood it on a technical level or whether it just somehow made sense. The music he created caused us to act, sometimes reflect, or sometimes it just made us more aware of the moment we were in. And that’s what the best music does – it causes you to feel something.
Eddie was the pride of many as the son of Dutch and Indonesian immigrants. Knowing very little English when the family located to Pasadena, CA in 1962, the Van Halen brothers lived an American success story. Eddie was bullied as a child because of his mixed-race appearance, because of his low socio-economic status, and because he sounded different and wasn’t fluent in English. So instead of becoming bitter and angry, bullied child pours his time into music thanks to the love of music his parents possessed. Bullied child then becomes a guitar maestro and along with his brother Alex banging away on the skins form a few different variations of Van Halen until the they come across a young Jewish teen named David Lee Roth in 1972 who was nearly the vocal version of Eddie’s guitar riffs. It was Roth who suggested they change the name of their band from Mammoth to Van Halen in 1974.
Of course, many are familiar with the variations of Van Halen through the years – with David Lee Roth on vocals until 1985, then with Sammy Hagar until 1996, back to Dave briefly in 1996, then Gary Cherone from 1996 to 1999. Back to Sammy from ’03 to ’05, and then finally back to Dave in 2006. And oh yeah, bassist Michael Anthony being replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen in 2006 just added to the dysfunction of the Van Halen band family. But families are messy and one could argue that family dysfunction is just another normal when it comes to any kind of family definition.
My first taste of Van Halen was as a pre-teen when I lived in Seminole, Oklahoma. My first Van Halen tape was actually 1982’s “Diver Down.” I knew very little of VH I, II, Fair Warning, or Women and Children First albums. I purchased the “Diver Down” cassette as part of one of those Columbia House 6 tapes for 1 penny promotions that suckered you into paying full price for four more over the next year or two. So for the longest time, the only Van Halen music I owned was “Diver Down,” which was the album that was rushed and included five covers out of the 12 songs. Vintage Van Halen it was not, but nonetheless, 12 year old Kyle was still hooked by the Van Halen sound even if I knew very little of the glorious riches I was to hear in the coming days, weeks, and years.
For my claim to Van Halen being my all-time favorite band, I only saw them perform live one measly time. That stat alone will probably disqualify me from being some sort of super fan like a few of my friends that have seen Van Halen 10’s of 20’s of times, own VH memorabilia, and know every lyric to every David Lee Roth fronted Van Halen song. For whatever reason – timing, finances, location, etc., I never saw the original four play together, and like I mentioned, was only able to see the band one time – on their 2012 “Different Kind of Truth” tour. David Lee Roth was back in as lead singer, but young Wolfgang Van Halen was playing bass instead of Michael Anthony. So like everyone since pre-1985, I was left with viewing 3/4 of the original Van Halen lineup. Even though the war will always rage of Dave vs. Sammy, everyone knows that the heart of Van Halen was truly Eddie and to some extent his underrated big brother, Alex.
I paid $150 for a ticket to that concert in 2012. Kool and the Gang (another band I love) opened for Van Halen that night at the BOK Center in Tulsa, and I still have a few videos stored away including this one of Eddie and a partial portion of his legendary solo “Eruption.”
“You look at every face in a crowd. Some shine and some keep you guessin.'”
In 1988, Van Halen’s second album with lead singer Sammy Hagar called “OU812” was released. The album wasn’t as good as 1986’s “5150,” which completed the transformation from hard rock Van Halen into pop rock superstardom, but Eddie said in an interview one time that the band was more comfortable with each other by this time and the album came out easier than “5150” did.
By this time, Eddie Van Halen had been married to actress Valerie Bertinelli for about seven years and had downshifted slightly from a balls-out, wailing gunslinger to a more refined and controlled master of his craft. If he needed to shred, he just need open that box back up, but by the mid to late 80’s, Van Halen had morphed into a more well-rounded Billboard hit-making machine thanks largely to Eddie’s creativeness as well as the stronger vocal chops by frontman Sammy Hagar who had replaced David Lee Roth in 1985. The keyboard sound of the 80’s resonated through many a Van Halen lick while Eddie still managed to find time to showcase his guitar talent.
“Waiting for someone to come into focus. Teach you your final love lesson”
I chose this video not because it’s my all-time favorite Van Halen song (it’s not even in my top 10), nor is it a favorite Eddie solo of mine. I basically chose it because of the message the song conveys and the fact that it showcases a wide range of Eddie’s immense talent. Sure, there’s a nice guitar riff per usual Eddie, but there’s also the beautiful keyboard arrangement he performs, as well as his complimentary backing vocals, which are typically credited more to bassist Michael Anthony. Nonetheless, Eddie’s voice always blended nicely with Michael Anthony’s and together they helped create the Van Halen backing vocals, another key component in their timeless music.
Growing up, this song was always just this rock ballad to me about finding your soulmate and the lifelong love that would accompany it. However, just watching the video again for the first time in 30+ years, reading the lyrics, and thinking about the bigger picture in life, this song is much more. In a way, the music of Eddie Van Halen is love. It’s his love that he gifted to generations of fans around the world.
Many of us that longed for a reunion of the original four members plus Sammy for one big Van Halen tour were pissed that Eddie never seemed to acquiesce to the idea. And mind you if Eddie wanted it to happen, it would have happened. We thought ‘quit being selfish! Get it together Eddie, and give the fans what they want!’ Well, in hindsight, Eddie was anything but selfish. He gave us his soul. He gave us his heart and he gave us his love until he had nothing left.
So, I’ll ask again – did we learn anything from Edward Van Halen? If anything, I would say Eddie’s music reminds us to give, to share, to love, and to never take for granted the artistic talent that surrounds us everyday. Because when it’s love that you’re giving, when it’s Eddie’s love and Eddie’s gift to the world, it will definitely last forever.
Hitting #1 on the Mainstream Rock charts, #5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and music that will last forever, here is “When It’s Love”…
R.I.P. Eddie, and thank you.