It took me a while to start loving rock music. I heard a lot of it as a kid (benefits of having an older sister, which I did not appreciate at the time because there are things you need years to figure out, especially when you’re a not-terribly-smart nine-year-old), but for various reasons none of it really captured my attention until the early-to-mid 1980s. Part of it might have been a kind of peer-pressure, as I did tire of being the kid who had no idea what all of my friends were talking about when they started discussing music. Another part of it was the arrival of MTV, which even I, as a geeky kid, thought was pretty cool.
We didn’t have MTV at our house for a while, because it took several years before the cable company ran the lines out our road to where we lived. But I would watch a lot of MTV at a couple friends’ houses, when I did sleepovers and the like. There’s a lot of nostalgic hay to mine in the music videos of those first few years, but I’ll keep it to just one group here, for what are probably obvious reasons.
There was one very strange video I enjoyed in particular. It actually had a filmed introduction; the music didn’t start for a minute or two. Our opening scene has a spectacularly nerdy kid being put on the school bus by his mother. This dude is so nerdy that when his mother flattens his hair with her fingers, it squeaks. She’s giving him the standard spiel about making friends and having a good year and whatnot, but our boy–named “Waldo”–is not having in, replying to her in a voice that can’t possibly be his: “Awww, Mom, you know I’m not like the other guys! I’m nervous and my socks are too loose.” No dice; off to school goes Waldo, after discovering that the bus is loaded with what the 1980s held to be the standard “degenerate” types of kid.
Then our music starts, with some wild drums, and then the most blazing electric guitar work I had heard to that point in my life. And that guitar work remains the most blazing guitar work I’ve ever heard. The song, and video, were called “Hot For Teacher”, and the band was a hard rock group called “Van Halen”. That astonishing guitar playing? That was a guy named Eddie Van Halen.
That song, and the others from the album 1984 were my introduction to Van Halen. I would learn not long after that while I’d just discovered these guys, Van Halen had actually been around in a big way since the late 1970s after toiling in obscurity for several years before that, and that 1984 was their sixth studio album. Soon after that album came out, some internal drama happened with the band that led to their lead singer, a charismatic but troublesome guy named David Lee Roth, to leave the group; luckily there was another lead singer available by the name of Sammy Hagar who was between bands at the moment, so he slid right in and the band accommodated him, making new music in new styles to reflect the style of their new lead man, all the while maintaining the focus on the hard-but-fun rock.
And through all of that was the guitar work of Eddie Van Halen.
The music of Van Halen was a big part of my teen years, and I’ve never lost my love of it, though eventually I didn’t buy the albums anymore. 5150, the first Van Halen album with Hagar aboard, was the first rock album that I played almost literally to death, to the point where I knew each and every song on that album backward and forward. I’d quickly get up to speed on all of the Roth-era albums as well, each of which is full of great rock music (well, Diver Down is really kinda meh, isn’t it?), but I am probably one of the only people around who can honestly say that I don’t have a genuine preference between the DLR and Sammy eras…or, as some people phrase it, “Do you prefer Van Halen, of Van Hagar?”
In all honesty, though, if you put a gun to my head and said “Play the first Van Halen song that jumps into your head!” I will probably wind up selecting “Dreams” from 5150 or “Right Now” from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge before I choose any DLR song. That might not be a “preference”, but there it is.
Of course, Van Halen’s history got even more convoluted later on, when I had kind-of moved on from listening to them on a regular basis. Hagar was out, Roth was back in; Roth was out, and a guy named Gary Cherrone was in (for one album, that most people speak of in the same hushed tones as the Star Wars Holiday Special). Hagar was back! Hagar was gone again! Roth was back! Roth was out! Roth was back again! And so on.
Eventually Eddie Van Halen’s years of hard living started catching up with him, with news and rumors of his various health troubles, winding up in the end with cancer…and that’s what finally took him away from the world, at the age of 65.
What to say about Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing? Well…yes, he could play fast and he could do astonishing things with the guitar. But what always got me was the tone of his playing. There was often a sense of cheer behind it, of happiness, of warmth. A lot of great rock guitar playing often seems obsessed with speed for the sake of speed, and the electric guitar can sound almost angry and snarling in a lot of guitar solos, especially in 1980s-era “hair band” hard rock. Eddie’s tone was always clean and pure, and there was almost always melody there, even in the midst of his virtuosic displays of pure skill and talent. Eddie Van Halen made music with the guitar, and his solos always blend into the songs and seem a part of the song. Many guitar solos of the era sound like what they are: rhythmic cadenzas stuck in the middle of the song, where the singer stops singing but the bassist and drummer keep on going.
Eddie Van Halen made the guitar sing and laugh, and in a few songs he even made it seem like it was about to cry. The man wasn’t just a guitar god, he was a musician. Eddie Van Halen was to the guitar, for me, as Vladimir Horowitz was to the piano or as Hillary Hahn is to the violin or as Tine Thing Helseth is to the trumpet. In his best work, he isn’t just “shredding”, he’s making music. And that’s what I’m going to remember Eddie Van Halen for: the music.
Thanks for the music, Eddie. It was always good, and quite a lot of it was great.
A word about this last one, the live performance of “Best of Both Worlds”. My paternal grandmother died in 1986, when I was just about to turn 15, on the morning that this performance was recorded. It was a deeply sad day; she was the first significant loss of my life. It was a Friday. After making the arrangements that morning, my father drove all the way home from Philadelphia, where Grammy lived, and then I remember my parents going out to hang out with their friends on what was a difficult night. I stayed home, as I typically did. Grammy’s passing didn’t really hit me until my father told me, after he got home, that she had remembered me during her brief hospital stay; apparently someone had said something that had triggered her memory of me. I lost it after that, and I remember being deeply sad for the next several hours, until I idly turned on the teevee and channel-flipped to MTV, which had the Video Music Awards (MTV’s big awards show–do they still have the VMAs anymore?), and not long after I tuned in, MTV went to a live segment of none other than Van Halen, in New Haven, CT. They were on their big tour for the 5150 album, their first big tour with Sammy Hagar. This performance is the one to which MTV cut. Maybe it seems weird, but watching them do “Best of Both Worlds”–which is one of the best songs on that album–jolted me out of my funk. It was still a sad time, and Grammy’s death was just the start of what was a generally godawful sophomore year of high school for me, but…at least there was Van Halen. Always Van Halen. To this day, I can rely on Van Halen to cheer me up when I’m stuck in the mud.
So, yeah. Thanks again, Eddie. (And Sammy, and Dave, and Michael, and Alex. And heck, you too, Gary.)