Rest in Peace to the Atomic Punk: Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

Everyone has a story about the first time they heard him.  The first time they heard it.  That tone…that indescribable sound…seemingly impossible runs of notes pouring forth in a torrent that would ignite the imagination of thousands of kids to pick up the guitar and figure out what they could do, if they could only play like him.

There are hundreds, thousands of great guitar players…amazing guitar players.  But players that changed the landscape of music?  Hendrix, certainly.  Iommi?  You can make the argument for sure.  But there’s something about the way Eddie Van Halen threw out so many rules and simply made the guitar fly that reaches out and touches everyone who came after him.  There may be many giants in the field, but so few legends, and the Earth reverberates with the passing of one so large.

Everyone has a story…and so many of them revolve around the first time they heard “Eruption” off of Van Halen.  I’m listening to it now and it still sends chills down my spine, as does the entire album.  As does almost the entirety of their first five albums.  There are so many moments that have become burned into my brain, from the opening riff of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” to the opening solo and riff of “Mean Street” (my vote for the best opening on a Van Halen record) and the sinister keyboard of “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” into the four on the floor frenzy of “One Foot Out the Door” to the celestial beauty of “Cathedral,” a song that for years I thought was done on keyboards until I learned how he used the volume knob to achieve the effect. Not to mention the ceiling breaking pyrotechnics found all over Van Halen II, particularly in the sequence from “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” all the way to “Light Up the Sky” – it’s a master class in riffing and solos.  You want heavy? How about almost the entirety of Women and Children First, from the flange attack of opener “And the Cradle Will Rock…” to the jungle rhythmic attack of “Everybody Wants Some!!” Or even the brief massive riffing of “Growth” – the abandoned, isolated monster found at the end of closer “In a Simple Rhyme”? The evidence of Eddie’s genius was everywhere…

Everyone has a story…and mine starts with the video for “Jump” off of the band’s final album with David Lee Roth, 1984. Whenever I think of Eddie Van Halen, it’s this video: the smile, the effortless soloing and keyboard playing, the look of someone who is so damn happy to be making music it infects everyone else in the band. Roth was the acrobatic ringleader, but for all his bravado and showmanship it was Eddie’s smile and virtuosity that mesmerized me every time that video came on. And it came on A LOT back in the day. I was hooked, and the hooks only got deeper as I heard and saw “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” played again and again.

So for me it started in 1984…and worked its way backwards until I finally got my own cassette of the debut and could replay “Eruption” again and again mimicking the solo on a busted tennis racket in front of a mirror for more of my teen-age years than I care to admit. Listening now, almost 35 years later, it’s incredible that a band that typified the raucous rock and roll lifestyle of the early 80s still sounds so timeless now.

And though we tend to glorify the DLR era, there are so many pockets of wonder that came after: 5150 was Eddie’s chance to finally indulge his penchant for keyboards and more structured pop songwriting to his heart’s content, and I remember just how great it was the first time I heard “Dreams” or “Why Can’t This Be Love.” OU812 might have been mired in slower fare like “Finish What Ya Started” and the soporific “When It’s Love” but it also had “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)” and “Source of Infection” to show Eddie still had more tricks up his sleeve than most players have in their entire career. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge brought the rock back with Eddie using a drill to bring new noise to opener “Poundcake” but as a young guitarist just starting out it was the gentle instrumental “316” that occupied most of my time.

And that was one of the many, many wonders of Eddie Van Halen. As brilliant as he was a soloist, he was capable of beautiful, poignant passages that belied a master melodist at heart. Everyone has a story, and every one is different.

But every one is also the same, in that they heard the sound, and recognized here was something new, something different, and something that would not soon come again. Rest in Peace, Eddie. Although millions will imitate you, none will equal you.

Though it would probably please you to no end to know we’ll keep trying, anyway.


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