Eddie Van Halen has died. He was 65. Cancer finally took him after 15-20 years of on/off battling. He had recovered. He was back. And then he wasn’t. In recent times it’s clear he was ‘hidden’ from public, the band’s run over. Their final album arriving some years ago now.
It was Wednesday morning, NZ time, when I heard the news. And there have been so many tributes and you’ll have all read all that you need to no doubt. But I’m still thinking about this one. A lot.
Let’s go back to when it happened. As with everything now there was no news, you go about your day, and then the news hits – and it’s everywhere. And that’s that. The world is changed. I read the tweet. I shared the news with a close friend. And then back and forth the messages started. The articles flooded. I was on the side of the road reading – also thinking about what to play in the car. I went for the instrumental pieces and cued up 316 and Cathedral and Eruption and Spanish Fly and the Little Guitars (Intro). Why have words – when Eddie Van Halen spoke without using them? His voice was in his guitar, his guitar was his voice. My line – and I’m not saying I made it up, but it’s the one I have always stuck with – is that he invented a whole new lexicon for the guitar. How many people can you say that about? There was Hendrix. And then a decade on there was Eddie. And for all the other great players that are around so many are following suit.
Just as Hendrix reinvented the rock guitar and so many people fell under the sway of his power and influence, it’s true too for Eddie. He revolutionised the instrument. And you could argue that even the no-frills and punk players that were never interested at all in shred were in some way influenced by Eddie and what he did. They were reacting. They were choosing – consciously – to not follow. That’s how ubiquitous Eddie – and his famous “Brown Sound” – became. He was The Guitarist of The 1980s.
So, I made it home with the instrumentals whetting my appetite. And I played bits and pieces from the first album before settling down to re-watch Without A Net for the 400th time.
That concert film was what made me a convert. I’d heard Van Halen before then but this was the thing that made me reach back for all the albums.
Van Halen is one of the bands that reminds me – always and instantly – of my teenage years. I mean I kept listening to them. I didn’t see them in concert until I was 22. I was about 27 when I would have the chance to interview Eddie’s brother, drummer Alex Van Halen. Around that time I was paid about the most money I’ve ever been offered as a freelancer to write a huge article summarising the band’s catalogue and their musical worth.
Since then I’ve been reading books and listening to podcasts and continuing on with the music. Always returning to the music.
What made Eddie so special? Well to me it’s three things: Talent, Taste and Tone. He had his sound. He found it, developed it. He knew the music – loved the classics, listened widely and was always searching. He understood the theatrics of solos and soloing and knew the place for them; as hype-builders, as emotional placeholders, as storytelling components; as the fireworks display. He was a magician so often with his guitar work. But he also played rhythm guitar better than nearly anyone. That’s what made Van Halen work. His ideas carrying the songs. The songwriting carrying the band. You couldn’t have all that wild and wonderful energy and all that vital and astonishing showmanship and virtuosity without songs to be the bones holding up the body of any album or show.
The TV1 news crew called. They came to my house mid-afternoon that day. I was still absorbing the news, still thinking about what all of this meant when I was asked to provide a couple of quick soundbites.
After that it was back to Without A Net – and some conversations with one of my mates that loved Eddie and Van Halen at least as much as I do.
I thought of so many great songs I loved. And moments buying particular albums, connecting with the double live record that was released in the early 90s – actually one of the first compact discs I bought. Re-connecting with the first six albums when they were reissued and I was writing the big contextual/catalogue article. Seeing the man play live. Seeing a version of the band play live. Was it the best version of Van Halen? Not at all. Was it the only one available to me? Yes indeed. As I said on the TV news, I got to see the Greatest Guitarist In My Lifetime. I saw him play. I heard him live.
A family friend first played me the 5150 album when it was released and it flipped the switch in me. This was the band I needed to follow. Another mate had the Without A Net VHS tape – that really did change me. I became obsessed. I tried to make my own copy of the tape and when the sound failed I kept it anyway. When it was finally released on DVD so many years later I almost wept as I opened the mail when receiving my copy. It was like finding an old photograph, rekindling a friendship.
This is silly right? This is daft. It’s just music. Hell no. Music is the thing that makes us remember other moments in our lives. Music is the soundtrack. Music is about bringing and spreading joy. And there was always that great grin on Eddie’s face. He was in on the joke. I think he knew guitar solos could be a bit silly. I’m sure he knew he was so very good at them. He was smiling for both reasons. He was putting on a show. He was so deeply in the know. He was a musician through and through. And a magician too. His magic pixie dust was a part of my life. And though he is gone the music – and all that he influenced – is still here for us. I have such gratitude for all that he gave and all that he did. I tried to write about it in a poem. I’m not sure it worked at all. But it was some immediate thoughts from my position of fandom. It wasn’t even the first poem I wrote about Eddie Van Halen.
He’s been huge in my life. So huge. Towering. And I know so many people have their own version of these feelings.
Thanks for the music. The inspiration. The memories.
It’s not a competition. You knew that more than most, I think. But you were The Greatest Guitarist In My Lifetime.
R.I.P. Eddie Van Halen