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Remembering Eddie Van Halen

| Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

The year is 1985 — or is it 1955? Marty McFly stands over his sleeping father, dressed in a hazmat suit and armed with a Walkman. He’s Darth Vader from planet Vulcan, and he has one chance to prove that he’s from outer space. The name on his cassette is all he needs, music so futuristic and alien that it could only have come from outside the Milky Way. Marty presses play, sending his father on the same journey countless music fans have experienced since 1979 — all thanks to one Edward Van Halen. 

Born in Amsterdam and raised in Pasadena, Eddie Van Halen was groomed to be a concert pianist until a chance encounter with Cream’s version of “I’m So Glad” inspired him to pick up the electric guitar. Along with his drummer brother, Alex, Eddie bounced around the Los Angeles music scene from his adolescent years before settling into what would become Van Halen in the early ‘70s. From there, Van Halen (the guitarist and the band) rocketed into the stratosphere, becoming the premiere stadium rock act of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, even while switching lead singers and sounds. Eddie — who died last week at 65 after a prolonged struggle with throat cancer — was the band’s one constant, an enigmatic guitar god who reshaped the sound of an entire genre in his own grinning image.

Even if he’s not the full-stop greatest rock guitarist of all time — general opinion points to Jimi Hendrix; my vote would be for Jimmy Page — Eddie is probably the most imitated. Which isn’t to say he was ever truly replicated; the droves of guitarists on YouTube who can play “Eruption” note-for-note still can’t hope to duplicate the exact feeling of that song. Running a mere 105 seconds, “Eruption” is the most significant rock guitar solo in history, introducing the finger-tapping technique — with origins in flamenco guitar and violin methods — to millions of fans and copycats worldwide. Coming on Van Halen’s eponymous 1978 debut album, the song’s footprint is so massive that the Billboard Charts can’t do it justice; only the Richter Scale could measure the impact of “Eruption.” 

That same album basically functions as a greatest hits compilation, opening with “Runnin’ With The Devil” and burning through “Eruption,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and a handful of other classics in short order. It’s tempting to look at the LP as the summation of Van Halen’s appeal; the opening of “You Really Got Me” is to guitar riffs what “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is to novels, so simple and so obvious as to mask its genius.

The hallmarks of the band’s first iteration are all here: Eddie’s revolutionary technique, Alex’s metalhead-with-swing drumming, bassist Michael Anthony’s golden backing vocals and, most of all, frontman David Lee Roth’s inimitable drawl, blending Buddy Holly squeaks with Rat Pack louche. The tracks themselves are timeless, whether it’s the onomatopoetic guitar wails on “Jamie’s Cryin’” or the problematic, propulsive “Feel Your Love Tonight.” The band could have retired after “Van Halen” and still made a name for themselves in the annals of rock history; an album released only a year later, though, shows that Eddie and the crew had loftier goals in mind. 

1979’s “Van Halen II” is one of those sequels — like “The Empire Strikes Back” or the New Testament — that improves in every way upon its already-legendary predecessor. The harsh, angular singles of the first album are replaced here with the eternal-summer feel of “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls”; these are Pantheon songs in the classical sense, as if Zeus condemned Atlas to do a keg stand for eternity instead of holding up the heavens. Opening with an unrecognizable take on Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” is “Van Halen II” in a nutshell; you’ve heard these kinds of songs before, but you’ve never heard them quite like this. 

The group’s next three albums — 1980’s “Women and Children First,” 1981’s “Fair Warning” and 1982’s “Diver Down” — all carry the same reputation: middling LPs with moments of effortless brilliance like the tribal sparseness of “Everybody Wants Some!!” or the way Roth asks “have you seen Junior’s grades?” on “And the Cradle Will Rock.” Two years later, Eddie’s burgeoning interest in keyboards led to the album that cemented the band’s place in the mainstream while ensuring the demise of its original lineup. “1984” finds Eddie playing the rudimentary opening chords of number-one hit “Jump” with one hand while pushing Roth out the back door with the other, the group’s increasingly synthesizer-laden sound alienating their proudly retro frontman. 

The behind-the-scenes strife is nowhere to be found on the album itself, though; in retrospect, it may be the band’s most complete effort. “Hot For Teacher” isn’t the best Van Halen song, but it may the “most” Van Halen song, especially when it comes to Roth; while his tales of childhood crushes and backseat trysts were always tongue-in-cheek, “Hot For Teacher” finally tells us whose tongue is in whose cheek. “Panama” is immortal, and with good reason: the beginning of the song should come up when you look for “riff” in Merriam-Webster. 

Roth’s departure cleared the way for radio-rock mainstay Sammy Hagar, whose sleek, anthemic albums with the band have always left me a little cold. Van Halen’s popularity only increased with Hagar at the helm, though, and tracks like “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Finish What Ya Started” retain much of the original lineup’s charm. The group wasn’t immune to the shifting tides of pop music, and the dual waves of grunge and rap rendered hard-rock bands like Van Halen obsolete in the eyes of pop radio. They continued to tour, though, and occasionally turned out a solid single (2012’s “Stay Frosty” is what “Ice Cream Man” would be if the latter song was as funny as Eddie and Roth obviously thought). At the time of Eddie’s death, the group was debating the merits of taking on a new tour with both lead singers — true to form, most of the discussion seemed to be happening in public interviews.

Van Halen wasn’t originally named after its lead guitarist; instead, the band initially went by Genesis, unaware of the British group with the same name. It was as Genesis that Eddie first began performing “Eruption” live, working through the song before audiences in real time. Eddie whittled down those ten-minute-plus performances piece by piece until it became the tight, 1:45 solo that would make Van Halen (née Genesis) famous. The band’s original name wouldn’t have fit anyway — it took God seven whole days to make the world, but it only took Eddie Van Halen a minute and a half to change it.

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