Eddie Van Halen, the Hall of Fame guitarist whose indelible career, lined with 56-million album sales and 11 consecutive top-ten albums (including two diamond records), defined the direction of hard rock in the 1980s, died from throat cancer this week. He was 65.
Born to a family of jazz and classical musicians in the Netherlands, Eddie was in the second grade of elementary school when his family set out for America with next to nothing in search of a new beginning. They arrived at the sun-basked fabled region of South California with little more than fifty dollars and an out-of-tune piano. Over the next three decades, Van Halen would become one of the most influential figures in Rock and Roll history.
Growing up like many new immigrants, penniless and destitute, Eddie spent his childhood days going dumpster-diving for scrap metal to hawk for change at scrap yards and sharing just one room with his brother and parents, as he explained in a 2015 Washington Times interview.
Despite the hardship, Eddie understood that the freedoms and possibilities afforded to him in America were worth more than all the languid comforts of the European welfare state. When asked what it meant to him to be an American, Eddie extolled the American tenet of individual liberty.
“Obviously freedom. That is the biggest,” he said. “I still think this is the one country in the world where you can pursue your dream and accomplish what you set out to do.”
And pursue his dream he did. Eddie showed musical promise from an early age. He had a naturally shrewd ear for music and an acumen for sound. Starting off playing classical piano, he was uninterested in theory and never bothered to learn how to read sheet music. He relied on sheer instinct to improvise his way through recitals. Soon after, the two brothers shed their baroque beginnings and took up the rock-and-roll instruments of their musical heroes: Alex played the drums, and Eddie, the guitar.
In a 1980 Rolling Stone interview, Eddie said, “I don’t know sh*t about scales or music theory… I don’t want to be seen as the fastest guitar in town, ready and willing to gun down the competition. All I know is that rock & roll guitar, like blues guitar, should be melody, speed, and taste, but more important, it should have emotion. I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something: happy, sad, even horny.”
Armed with an unyielding work ethic and raw musical talent, Eddie toiled away at the guitar. His mind walled off by the thick padding of his headphones, Eddie listened endlessly to his favorite artist, Eric Clapton’s records until his ears could discern each note. And he played each note until the skin of his fingers molded into the fibers of his guitar’s fretboard and intertwined with the coiled copper in its strings. He played until the guitar became an extension of himself, a natural extension of his soul and his creativity.