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Arts & Culture

Thanks, Ed: Eddie Van Halen In Memoriam

Eddie_Van_Halen_at_the_New_Haven_Coliseum_2.jpg
Carl Lender / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

In an essay I recently submitted to WYSO about albums that affected the high school-aged me, I mentioned that, as a teenage guitar freak, my love for Eddie Van Halen blurred the lines between fandom, worship, and identity crisis. Now, just a few weeks later, Eddie is gone, after a long battle with throat cancer, and I’m gutted. He was the brightest torch and the coolest flame- effortless, autodidactic, tearing up the rule book and rewriting his own manual for the rest of the world to follow and never quite live up to.

His backstory is no secret but, to those who don’t know, here’s a primer: Ed and his older brother Alex were born in Holland to a Dutch musician father and an Indonesian mother. They immigrated to the States as small children. The family didn’t bring along much more than themselves and a piano. Ed and Al knew almost no English; all they had was Family and Music. I suspect that the immigrant experience gave Eddie his moxy, and I’m sure it had more than a little to do with the insular bond he and Al shared throughout their lives, sometimes to the detriment of inter-band relationships and public opinion in general (just ask Dave, Sammy, and Michael), but also one that engendered a musical language that only the blood-related can understand. Listen to the pre-chorus of “Unchained” or the free-form intro to “Girl Gone Bad” – there are syncopations in there you can only accomplish with family.

It’s easy to lose a sense of context with historical events. I was born in 1970 – I’ve never known a world without Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles and so, as much as I love them, I’ll never know the thrill and shock of hearing Are You Experienced? or Sgt. Pepper’s being released on an unsuspecting world, the sudden shift from black & white to Technicolor a la The Wizard of Oz, the utter newness those records introduced to the game. Similarly, it’s easy for someone to hear an early Van Halen album now and wonder what the big deal is, their point of view clouded by the legions of groups that followed with either watery, dumbed-down versions, or dour, clinical, virtuosic takes on the template VH established. My wife (who was born the year after VH I) once giggled her way through Women And Children First when I popped it in on a road trip. I tried to tell her that none of the stuff she was hearing was cliché at the time; that these guys INVENTED that stuff. (Incidentally: I’m not sure hearing that helped her appreciate it more, but I AM happy to say our marriage has survived, despite that shocking early stumbling block.)

As the years went by, and as Eddie’s influence spread throughout the guitar community, his style was copied relentlessly and many players pushed the envelope of athleticism far beyond the bar he set. The same thing happens in sports all the time; it’s just the natural evolution of things. But what will always separate what Eddie did from the hordes of guitar typists that followed in his wake (with the exception of a notable few) was JOY – a palpable sense of “God, isn’t this FUN?? I can’t even believe I’m DOING this!” It’s a pretty vital ingredient to music, that playfulness. It’s what draws non-musician listeners to you. Van Halen had that quality in abundance. It should also be mentioned that Eddie changed the guitar BUILDING game, as well. Necessity being the mother of invention, his early frustrations as a broke kid who couldn't get the sound he heard in his head on off-the-shelf instruments resulted in a series of late nights in the shed in the Van Halen backyard, committing various acts of vandalism on his guitars with chisels, soldering irons, and spray cans – some comical, but many that changed the way guitars were made. The single-pickup Superstrat? Thank Eddie for that one. The locking vibrato systems that took the guitar world by storm in the 80s? Inspired by Eddie's dare devil dive bombs and harmonic pig squeals. Only the great guitarist and inventor Les Paul tops Ed in that particular department.

Anyone who didn’t know me in the late 80s, who didn’t know the depths of my obsession with VH, would struggle to find much Eddie Van Halen influence in the music I play these days. But I know it’s there. Every time I’m playing with a band and kick on the boost to take a lead, there’s an adrenaline rush akin to jumping off a cliff into the unknown and, lurking somewhere in those endorphins, is Eddie, with his ever-present impish grin, reminding me of his favorite bit of advice: “If it sounds good, it IS good.” For me, and many others, this is a loss on par with the many titans who have checked out over the recent years: Prince, Bowie, Petty, Cohen...and on and on. I’m very sad and I’ll miss his spirit dearly, but what a gift it is that we got to grow up in a world with Eddie Van Halen. Thanks, Ed.

We asked Tod for some of his favorite Van Halen songs to list alongside this tribute, which he provided below:

Eruption (Van Halen I - 1978)

The cult of Eddie starts here. It’s impossible to overstate the shock waves this piece sent through the guitar community. 42 years later (!?!?), it still thrills. Oh, by the way – Ed always complained about a mistake he makes in the middle of it. We forgive you, buddy.

Ice Cream Man (Van Halen I - 1978)

A perfect example of the elusive aspect of “fun” Van Halen brought to the table: an nitro-burning dragster version of an old tune by John Brim, an obscure Chicago bluesman. None of their contemporaries were doing ANYTHING like this at the time, and few were able to pull it off after.

Secrets (Diver Down - 1982)

I mentioned this song in my original essay a month or so back. There’s a melodic sophistication here that- again- no one else on the hard rock arena circuit had in their arsenal. Van Halen weren’t afraid to dial the gain back and get pretty. And the SOLO! The note choices, the phrasing, the highwire balancing act of it all...it has more in common with a John Coltrane solo than a heavy metal guitar lead. One of my all-time favorites in their catalog.

Girl Gone Bad (1984 - 1984)

I had to include this one, since I mentioned it earlier: a glimpse at that rhythmic and compositional complexity between Eddie on guitar and his brother Alex on drums that only comes with blood relation. Notice that, like many Van Halen tracks, there are no extra guitar overdubs- they just went into the room together and blew through this live.

“5150” (5150 - 1986)

My sole pick from the post-David Lee Roth era, with Sammy Hagar on vocals. The “Dave vs. Sammy” debate is an ongoing battle that no one outside the VH community really cares about, but will dominate the message boards until the end of time. You didn’t ask for it, but my $.02? Sammy is clearly a gifted singer in terms of technique, but his lyrics tend to be a little too earnest for my tastes; I’ll take the lecherous, Tin-Pan Alley, smart aleck je ne sais quoi of Diamond Dave nine times out of ten.

The reason I chose this track is to acknowledge Eddie’s incredible rhythm guitar playing. His solos grab the majority of the spotlight, but his rhythm guitar parts are almost always fascinating, percolating and bubbling, taking unexpected turns with chord voicings and groove, adding a dimension to the music that simple two-note barre chord chugging just doesn’t provide. As a rhythm guitarist, Ed had few equals.

Listen to Tod every Thursday night from 8-11 PM on The Jewel Case.