A GUITAR GOD GETS HIS WINGS
“So,” my old pal Dave Wilson asked me the other day, “are you gonna write anything about EDDIE?”
To guys like us, there’s only one EDDIE — well, two, if you include Iron Maiden’s mascot (metal maven Eddie Trunk doesn’t count). But he's just Eddie. EDDIE’s earned the right to be known by only his forename; it was screamed in coliseums for 30-plus years and whispered reverently by multiple generations of hedonistic high school kids. He represented musicianship as sport with an unparalleled talent guitarists aped shamelessly but couldn’t dream of equaling. His opening salvo blew post-Hendrix minds and issued a volcanic challenge to all comers, screaming at volumes and speeds beyond mere fingered mortals.
Of course, we’re talking about Eddie Van Halen. Or Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, as he was known to us acolytes of
Circus and Hit Parader, which, during the man’s peak in the mid-1980s, ran weekly stories of his exploits, filling teenage walls with posters of his namesake quartet, Van Halen. He launched the group with his older brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, in 1972, when both were still in their teens. Eddie was already a virtuoso, slavishly devoted to learning the guitar after excelling at piano (another instrument he’d put to use in the band’s overall sound). Five years later, after burning a trail through L.A. clubs, the group landed a contract with Warner Bros. Records and released its titanic titular debut.
Eddie knew how to run with the devil. “Eruption” crashes into existence on Alex’s bludgeoning rumble, then Eddie takes it from there, wringing arpeggios at startling velocities and rebirthing heavy metal as death-defying precision atop brain-dusting volume. Vocalist David Lee Roth speaks not for a few minutes, but he doesn’t need to: Eddie’s already writing the band manifesto in a tap-technique fusillade of thunder and debauchery. Dave may eventually sing of bikinis, babes, fast cars, and fucking; Eddie paints it all in his own sonic language.
My dad introduced me to Van Halen. Van Halen II, specifically — like Chicago II, but way less pretentious and with way more breasts. There Eddie buzzsaws down the beachfront boulevards of “Beautiful Girls,” caresses the cowbell call of “Dance the Night Away,” plods and chews into the Roth-yelped urgency of “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” with bassist Michael Anthony backing on harmony vocals. Eddie earns a solo acoustic showcase on “Spanish Fly,” prickling hard flamenco tingles from his virtuosity, an act he repeats in the opening daybreak of “Women in Love.” It’s about as perfect as an album can get, with the obligatory upended cover, “You’re No Good,” and the descending, crushing “Bottoms Up!”
Most of their albums are must-owns, even the ones that didn’t exactly fly off shelves (Women and Children First and Fair Warning) as the ’80s reared their pointy head. Van Halen may have crashed head-first into the already established 1970s, but they would absolutely define the new decade.
Author George Orwell called his dystopian nightmare 1984, but this roving tribe of heathens saw the world differently on their 1984, cramming its crevices with bleached-blonde flesh and party-hearty good times. The album’s cover depicted a cherubic putto (not to be confused with a puto) sneaking a cigarette — the perfect imagery, in retrospect, for my generation, then hitting puberty and discovering the allure of smokes. The angel hung from most locker doors, in one case accompanied by the handwritten note: “Rockin’ this hard may be hazardous to your health.” That may be true, but Eddie had matured in this incarnation, layering Ted Templeman’s production with arresting, triumphant synthesizer blasts (“1984,” “Jump,” “I’ll Wait”) while sacrificing none of the music’s everpresent naughtiness. Exhibit A: ”Hot for Teacher,” galloping down strip-club catwalks in both sound and vision. Its accompanying video depicted band members as the baddest motherfuckers in middle school, their instructors gyrating for their pleasure like the Sunset Strip “Centerfold.” Naturally, it sold 10 million copies. How could it not? Shit was sublime to the fade, acknowledging the ’80s in structure while stroking its own genius.
When David Lee Roth left in 1985, the Van Halen brothers could have ended their trajectory with an enviable discography: six heavy LPs that defined their respective eras. Yet they continued, adding Red Rocker Sammy Hagar to the beast and “growing up,” so to speak. As a frontman, Dave was a disciple of the flamboyant Jim Dandy Mangrum of Black Oak Arkansas, studying at the older man’s hips. Sammy was a more mature, meat-and-potatoes force, a pontificating space explorer. Under him, the band expanded their palate to ballads and message songs. This union yielded a platinum-blasting five-disc streak into 1995, when Hagar left and Roth briefly rejoined before being curbed for ex-Extreme pipe-layer Gary Cherone.
Admittedly, I’d bailed on Van Halen by then, graduating to the gloomier maelstroms of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and the Afghan Whigs. The broken unit moved like an old god refusing to die, lost in a midlife icrisis. The Van Halens were in their 40s, no longer the high-octane young dukes yelling into the night, but rock stars of auld lang syne. In retrospect, I regret my dismissal of my once-vaunted heroes, yet I’ll never own Van Halen III.
I had the pleasure of working with Van Halen in the early 2000s at Rhino Entertainment Company. I served as editorial supervisor on a career-spanning collection, The Best of Both Worlds (backstage gossip: as I recall, the set was inadvertently named by Rolling Stone’s David Wild, who referenced the Hagar-era hit in his accompanying essay; upon encountering the passage, Sammy allegedly said, “That’s the title!”). I won’t go into specifics, but its production was both maddening and enervating, requiring approvals from the then-warring Van Halen and Roth camps. Eddie sequenced the track list with no interest in chronology, mixing the band’s eras into a disjointed sonic soup. For instance, “Eruption” was immediately followed by a newly recorded track, “It’s About Time,” and Van Halen III went unrecognized. But my God, that library.
The Hagar lineup went on tour to promote the album in 2004 and promptly disintegrated. We wouldn’t hear another peep from that camp for eight years, when Roth returned for a third time (Hagar gone for good) and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, replaced Michael Anthony for 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, the final studio album. Van Halen was, finally, three-quarters Van Halen with only a rusted Roth for variety. It wasn’t what it was, and now will never be.
Eddie passed away on Oct. 6, 2020, at the age of 65. Throat cancer silenced the giant. We knew he was sick, a near-lifelong smoker and drinker who was in and out of hospitals with various ailments for much of the mid-Millennium. Yet he seemed indestructible, an eternally playful sprite with the best hands in the business. He pulled whole galaxies from a single instrument, his legendary Frankenstrat, a stripe-lashed Gibson/Fender mutt he assembled from parts into rock ’n’ roll’s most iconic guitar. He was the mischievous uncle I never had, forever awed by the notes he coaxed from his chosen vessel of expression. Watching him create was a singular joy, and I’ll miss the thrill of discovery he shared with us all. (cf)