I’m pretty sure the first time I heard Eddie Van Halen play guitar was on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” - although I didn’t know it at the time. I had the Thriller cassette like so many kids at the time and I remember 2 things...1) Vincent Price’s monologue on the song “Thriller” scared the piss out of me and 2) the guitar solo on Beat It was beyond comprehension for my 6 year old brain.
Fast forward a few years later when my best friend Jim & I would sneak cassettes out of his older brother Erik’s room while he was working and blast them in the backyard. I discovered Gun’s & Roses, The Police & Jane’s Addiction that way, but it was OU812 by a group called Van Halen that I remember being mesmerized by, and there again was THAT guitar sound. I remember the day I convinced my mom to buy me that OU812 cassette at Target and for lack of a better term, I wore it the fuck out. At the time, I had no idea Van Halen were arguably the biggest band in the world. I had no idea about Dave vs Sammy. Didn’t know “Jump” or “Panama”, still didn’t know it was Eddie Van Halen scorching my 6 year old brain on Beat It... I just thought that’s what kick ass guitar sounded like...until I realized it didn’t. Eddie was his own thing.
Pre-internet, you really had to dig for information on your favorite bands, so trying to figure out about the bands you liked was pretty damn near impossible. I couldn’t just download songs from Napster or scour message boards for the latest news & rumors...you basically sat by your radio or MTV all day waiting, hoping your favorite band would pop up...ecstatic when they did, and crushed when they didn’t. One summer day, post swim practice, I can recall Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” being played on MTV for the 2,310,075 time. Before the I could change the channel, the video ended, and next up was Van Halen’s “When it’s Love” from the aforementioned OU812. I was stoked! Hey “that’s Van Halen!” I proclaimed. I was still naive to the fact that they were rock gods. They were just my thing. I remember that video. That smokey bar they were in, Sammy’s red leather jumpsuit, Eddie’s red & white striped guitar, Mike’s Mickey Mouse shirt, Alex’s headband and wild hair and THOSE VOCAL HARMONIES AT THE END OF THE SONG. I loved every moment of it. However, as soon as that video ended, the now famous drum intro from “Hot for Teacher” started. The little graphic in the corner said “Van Halen” I thought to myself, “what song is this? This isn’t on OU812!” Then Eddie's guitar started - that incredible 2-handed tapping run that is still impossible to totally comprehend - and I was shaken to the core. THEN Diamond David Lee Roth popped on screen and started singing like the goddamn rock & roll unicorn he was. “Who the FUCK is that” I wondered out loud. ( I’d seen Revenge of the Nerds by that point. I was well on my way to being a world class wordsmith) “That’s NOT Sammy Hagar!” Jim tried to explain to me the situation, but I couldn’t comprehend that Van Halen actually existed prior to my tiny brain discovering them. A whole new world had just been opened to me. I now understood that Van Halen was THE thing, not just my thing.
I BEGGED. I wanted a drum set SOOOO bad. Thinking back on it I have no idea why. After all of my fawning about Eddie Van Halen, WHY did I want a drum set? I don't know. I believe the conversation went something like “Drums? Fuck no”. But on that Christmas of 1990, under the tree, waiting for me was a gorgeous black electric guitar & amp (and the red equivalent for my brother). As part of the deal, we HAD to take guitar lessons. I remember we walked into the little community center a few miles from our house and promptly told the instructor that “I love Van Halen”. I had no idea that this guy had probably heard a million little jagoffs tell him the same thing. He kind of just sighed and said “ok”. At the next lesson, he tried to teach us the opening riff of “Ain’t Talkin ‘bout Love”. And other than my brother DESTROYING the community center bathroom after a batch of my mom’s green chili, I don't remember much about guitar lessons. But I do remember thinking “Eddie never took lessons, why should I?!” What I didn't know at the time was that Eddie had played piano at an expert level for years before picking up a guitar.
Eddie was a literal virtuoso. He had a connection with music that most of us could only dream of having. It took me a few years, but the realization eventually hit me that I’d NEVER be Eddie, no matter how much I practiced (I take solace in that fact that I'm not alone in that realization). He had a way of wringing every last bit of life out of his guitar. He could say more in 5 notes than most guys could say in 50. You just KNOW it’s him. NOBODY sounded like Eddie and NOBODY played like Eddie. The way he and his brother Alex (drums) would just lock together somehow made them the tightest AND loosest band at the same time. In some ways, Eddie’s rhythm guitar playing was MORE jaw dropping than his blistering solos. While Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony is, in my opinion, CRIMINALLY underrated for his playing, Eddie & Alex WERE the glue that kept Van Halen together. In Much the way it’s almost impossible to imagine AC/DC without both Angus & Malcolm Young, Van Halen WAS Eddie AND Alex. They spoke a musical language only brothers would truly understand. Eddie could play almost any style. All one needs to do is dig into a few Van Halen albums to get touches of Jazz, Country, Flamenco & Pop guitar on top of his blazing fast guitar work. He was as adept at writing Beach Boy-esque melodies as he was Led Zepplin-esque riffs. He got it, plain and simple.
Van Halen ARE in my opinion the greatest American rock band. People will argue that with me, and that’s OK. It’s kind of become easy to forget just how important Van Halen were in the pantheon of rock and roll. In the last few years, Eddie & Alex hadn’t done much to preserve their legacy. Eddie has most likely been sick far longer than anyone knew or was willing to admit. While the world has spent the last few years celebrating bands like Queen, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi & Guns & Roses, Van Halen has quietly drifted into semi-obscurity. Eddie Van Halen never actively sought the spotlight. While he certainly indulged the rock and roll lifestyle, he, by all accounts would have been fine spending his evenings alone with his guitar, setting his bedroom on fire. Always the tinkerer, you could make the argument that other than Leo Fender & Les Paul, nobody did more for the electric guitar industry that Eddie. Getting an endorsement deal with Eddie could make your company, and losing one could break it. Dozens upon dozens of companies exist solely because they’re trying to capture a little piece of that Van Halen Magic. But Eddie wasn’t ever going to put out ANYTHING he wasn’t 110% sure of. Whether it was an album, guitar, amp or effects pedal, if it had Eddie’s name on it, it was going to be 110% kick ass.
I could literally write 10 more paragraphs on Eddie and his influence on me and the world in general. I didn’t even get into how learning to draw a perfect =VH= logo on my notebook most likely piqued my interest in graphic design, but I digress. I’ll finish by saying this, Eddie was the king of 10 fingers & six strings. He was the epitome of the American dream. A little kid from Holland that came to America and, for a time, became the biggest rockstar in the world. He’d slay you with his guitar, charm you with his trademark grin and always, ALWAYS leave you wanting more. Godspeed Ed.