October 9, 2020

Electric Warrior: Remembering Eddie Van Halen

There's a great moment during the song "Could This Be Magic," a calm acoustic island on the otherwise electrified, turbulent listen that is the 1980 Van Halen album Women and Children First:

David Lee Roth: "Edward? 

Eddie Van Halen wordlessly launches into a carefree, plucked solo.

Roth: "Thank you."

This little flash of friendship and cooperation is priceless. For a moment, Roth needs Eddie, and they're getting along, having fun, mixing it up. Personality-wise, Roth, a walking exclamation point, is somehow working with Eddie's parentheses. Given the legendarily fraught dynamic between these two rock stars, the whole thing also feels akin to fighting parents getting along on Christmas Day... you know, for the sake of the kids. There's tension underneath the surface, but despite competing temperaments, harmony wins out. 

Later, on the 1988 record OU812, singer Sammy Hagar tellingly belts these words out on "A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)," which was the detonative opening salvo of the band's sets on the "Monsters of Rock" tour:

Ninety days on the road is what I need/When my axe cuts me deep, I let it bleed/On the stage, off my strings, down my face/And all over me

Excessive, perhaps. But to Hagar, being in Van Halen was high-stakes stuff. It meant something. There was an imperative to going onstage and leaving it all on the table; how could he not feel that way, with one of history's most important and innovative guitarists on his left? At "Monsters of Rock," when Eddie ran out on stage, took his firing position, and started tapping out the fiery introductory notes of "A.F.U.," it put both Hagar and entire stadiums on notice. 

And so Eddie Van Halen was the great motivator, collaborator, and awe-inspirer. A composer, a virtuoso, a six-string maestro, naturally wired with God-given talent. In the end, a man who steadfastly fought and lost his long battle with cancer. 

What a gift this electric warrior was. An inspirational figure to a global legion of guitar players that bent the knee at his pyrotechnic altar, and surely an intimidating cat to be in a band with. Roth, Hagar and Gary Cherone were each seated at some point in the high-performance car that was Van Halen, but it's clear who was driving. (Roth reached down between his legs, and eased the passenger seat back.) Diamond Dave's brilliance was a shining star indeed, and his own achievements in this discography are staggering, but... when you're standing next to the sun, you go crazy from the heat. 

The genius of Eddie Van Halen needs no further embellishment or explanation; it's settled science (listen to "Eruption" or "Light up the Sky" if you somehow still need proof). Still, the musical/lyrical dualism of Van Halen's music is a fascinating thing. The Hagar era had some positive themes ("Right Now"), and touched on romance ("Love Walks In"), lust ("Poundcake") and life enjoyment ("Cabo Wabo"). By way of comparison, the Roth era feels like one endless bacchanalia, with few exceptions. As for Eddie's involvement, here's a Mozart-level musician spinning sonic gold out of guitar and keyboards... but in the service of songs of beer-soaked, adolescent debauchery, with lyrics like these:

Well, I'm a bum in the sun and I'm having fun/And I know you know I got no special plan - "Beautiful Girls"

I've been sitting here 'bout half the night/Oh, mama, fill my cup up/Said I came to waste some time/I think I'm gonna jump up - "Bottoms Up"

Everybody wants some/I want some too  - "Everybody Wants Some"

Drop dead legs, pretty smile/Hurts my head, gets me wild  - "Drop Dead Legs"

It's all quite a combination. Eddie's guitar fireworks conveyed a thrilling amount of feeling and attitude alongside words of fluctuating quality and sophistication, some of that due to Roth's tendency to put pen to paper at the very last minute (per ex-manager Noel Monk's 2017 book "Runnin' With the Devil"). Still, when it worked, and it worked more often than it did not, it was a ridiculous, exhilarating thrill. The hyperactive speed and overspilling confidence of "I'm the One" remains jaw-dropping, a joyride where these Pasadena boys mischievously work in a gleeful "Bop-ba-da, shooby-doo-wah" vocal interlude before the instruments rapidly fall back in and clobber your psyche once again. This was sharpshooting of the highest order; you can almost visualize cowboy Ed blowing smoke away from his gun barrels. Every up-and-coming hard rock band that heard this in February 1978 must have went home and cried. 

Van Halen was top-shelf party music, no doubt, but sensitivity and commentary did seep in at times, as evidenced on "Jamie's Cryin'"(Now Jamie's been in love before/And she knows what love is for/It should mean, a little, a little more/Than one-night stands); "Push Comes to Shove" (And then one night in sunny victory/She decides and you agree, she's leaving/Will you ever be the same?); and "Mean Street" (See, a gun is real easy/ In this desperate part of town/Turns you from hunted into hunter/You go an' hunt somebody down). Meanwhile, teenage rebellion was rarely more in-your-face than on these verses of "Romeo Delight": Wanna see my ID?/Try to clip my wings/Don't have to show you proof of anything/I know the law, friend. Given Van Halen's history of playing Southern California backyard parties and diving headlong into all manner of underage revelry, these guys often wrote what they knew, but in other cases they demonstrated a (gasp!) maturity beyond their years. 

Van Halen was one of the most popular and beloved rock acts of all time — and for better or worse, it was a group effort. If life teaches us anything, nobody reaches lofty heights alone. Eddie seemed superhuman, but alas, he was all too human, like the rest of us. For all his incandescent abilities, he needed Roth, Hagar and Cherone to fulfill his vision. He needed his drummer brother Alex, and his bassist Michael Anthony. He needed his wife Janie Liszewski, his ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli, and his son Wolfgang, who eventually went on to play bass in his dad's band. He needed all these people. And rock fans, we needed Eddie too, and felt reassured, despite the VH camp's radio silence of the past five years, that he was still out there somewhere, plotting another tour. In his greatness and vulnerability, we saw the potential in ourselves, and also our own humanity. He wasn't just a guitar player; he was a living rock god on the level of Jimi Hendrix that revolutionized the possibilities of his instrument.

No one here gets out alive, but losing Eddie Van Halen at the relatively young age of 65 on the heels of losing Neil Peart at age 67, Tom Petty at age 66, Prince at age 57, and David Bowie at age 69 is just a lot for a rock fan to bear. Guitarists much older than Eddie are mourning his loss, from Pete Townshend to Jimmy Page. It all seems backwards and wrong. 

Eddie Van Halen's legacy was effectively cemented with Van Halen's debut, and that's a hell of a thing, to be so talented upon arrival. The pressure must have been on, and he made good on impossible expectations, giving the world so much more as time went on. He toured the world, made albums, put up with Roth (good lord), installed two more singers, and battled illness. His ever-present smile, worn while summoning the most incredible sounds out a guitar, is a detail worth remembering forever.

Edward? Thank you.