October 8, 2020
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.
This was long before the days of YouTube Guitar Tutorials that gave you a string-by-string, fret-by-fret guitar how-to on every song you could think of. This was an era where hopeful guitarists would sit idly by their record players and absorb each note as it echoed out of the speaker, and hone and sharpen their ear until they could find it amid the maze of frets and strings that made up the instrument.
It was 1974 when, with the addition of frontman David Lee Roth on vocals and Michael Anthony on bass, Van Halen officially became a band. But as the eponymous name suggests, Van Halen’s sound and the music and the image were largely the product of Eddie Van Halen himself. Not even the departure of their first frontman stymied the group, as they rode on with Sammie Hagar, continuing to score hits on the charts.
One could argue Van Halen didn’t need a vocalist or a backing band. His titular debut album, Van Halen, featured one of the most famous rock instrumentals of all time, “Eruption” – and the follow-up featured the less widely known, but equally impressive acoustic piece, “Spanish Fly.” It’s a two-minute visceral, unadulterated guitar solo that’s etched into every budding guitarist’s mind from an early age as a rite of passage into the world of rock and roll.
In contrast to Europe and the UK, American rock music has largely been defined and influenced more by its solo acts than its bands, or the key individuals in bands. While the British doled out The Beatles, America had Elvis; when the British had the Rolling Stones, America had Bob Dylan; and even later, in the 1980s while the UK boasted The Police and Genesis and Queen, in America, Eddie Van Halen was the man. A true testament to America’s founding virtue of individual achievement.
The appeal of Van Halen’s music has always been its accessibility. Despite all his musical deftness and virtuosity, Eddie was, at heart, a good-old American rock-and-roll entertainer. He didn’t vie for assuaging the rock critics with pretentious lyrical depth or avant-garde experimentation. He wrote music to entertain and regale reams of audiences with timeless hits like “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin Bout Live,” “Jump,” or “Panama.”
There is no better example of Van Halen’s universality than his famed appearance on Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit single, “Beat It.” Van Halen recorded the solo in just one take, crafting one of the earliest cross-genre collaborations between his own world of hard-rock and Michael Jackson’s domain of hip-hop. Demonstrating that music isn’t doomed to being pigeon-holed into a tidy box titled “rock” or “R&B,” Van Halen paved the way for other acts like Aerosmith and Run-DMC to collaborate on “Walk This Way.”
The concept of the “guitar hero” is, in part, as American as baseball. It is an identity created by the guitarist to define their unique individualism as an instrumental maestro; by definition, no two can be the same. Throughout rock music every one has left a lasting mark on our pop culture. The progenitor of this phenomenon, Chuck Berry, gave us the duckwalk. Jimi Hendrix played his Stratocaster with his teeth. And Eddie Van Halen, amongst many things, popularized the two-handed tapping technique and made it a household name with every teenager who’d just bought their very first guitar, and for generations to come gave them someone to look up to.
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