I was done crying and trying to get my head around Eddie Van Halen’s death, when my mom called me and offered condolences for “the most loved person in your life.” Which I kind of laughed at, because I’m a grown man with kids.
But … yeah.
I wouldn’t have played music; I wouldn’t have become a music writer; I wouldn’t have loved the music that, for me, has outlived marriages, jobs, friends and everything else, without Edward Van Halen, who died at 65 on Tuesday from the cancer many suspected would take him without a final record or tour.
I don’t know what to say.
Not only is Edward Van Halen the reason I’m writing this … Edward Van Halen is the reason I can write this.
He was the greatest musician of our lifetime. He was one of the greatest songwriters. He was certainly the greatest guitarist. He re-defined everything about guitar playing. He probably had the greatest stage presence. He certainly was the coolest guy who ever strapped on a guitar.
EVH, his music—his magic is the best way to put it—were there the first time I met most of my lifelong friends. He was there when I fell in, and out, of love. Repeatedly. He was there, on my wall, my stereo, the bumper of my car, and in my dreams of being a rock star. I didn’t give my high school girlfriend a ring or a letterman’s jacket. I gave her my favorite Eddie Van Halen pin.
And when she dumped me, it was no accident she stuck it right into my chest. She knew how to hurt me.
I took up guitar because of Edward Van Halen. And when I broke it, someone suggested I take up drums like Alex Van Halen.
Close enough for me.
When someone “larger than life” dies, there’s usually a competition to see who loved them best. Maybe it’s for sympathy or attention. I don’t know … I don’t care.
I was asked to write a tribute to EVH, but to try encompassing what he meant to me–as a kid who discovered Van Halen at 12 years old, when someone’s lifelong taste in music is really being forged–just isn’t possible.
Imagine being 12 and hearing “Eruption” for the first time. It was like being violently run over by a magical Star Destroyer. That was before the opening chords to “You Really Got Me.”
Then you get to start the songs over, and over … and pretty soon it’s been 40 years, and it still feels like being run over.
It was better than anything.
How do you sum up most of a lifetime of memories that all somehow related to someone you never met? Though, I did get a Christmas card from him and his wife once, and it must’ve been like watching a grown man have 10 Christmas mornings explode from one envelope.
Eddie Van Halen was fierce and fearless and smart and funny and everything a teen boy in the ’80s wanted to be. I’ll leave it to historians to discuss the band’s place in history, other than to say it was the best American rock band in history.
If you don’t believe that, then you weren’t there.
EVH was more than the musical fuel. He was the one who would’ve made history without the others. He played like no one before him, and no one since. He didn’t just re-imagine the most important instrument in rock music, he reinvented it.
Eddie Van Halen could use the guitar as a vicious weapon or as a conduit for the most beautiful sounds you could imagine. He projected bad-assery like no other guitarist, and–for most of us–the focal point of the greatest rock band of its generation.
And remember, he managed that with David Lee Roth just a few feet away, doing everything short of lighting himself on fire for attention.
EVH was so important, he pushed away as many from his style as he attracted. He was our Jimi Hendrix. He was our Mozart. He changed music with his playing and his presence like no one I’ve ever seen. He did things people still can’t explain. He amazed millions for more than 42 years and–get this–he still hasn’t been surpassed. That is something no other guitarist can reasonably say.
How does the force that moved so many like no one else just die?
I don’t know. He had cancer for years. He battled alcoholism (and the stories were bad, even worse than what the general public knows). He beat it (sing it), got the band (mostly) back together, and left us with a couple final tours with Roth–something we weren’t supposed to see again. They were rock’s galactic odd couple, its yin and yang, the definition of a love-hate affair spanning nearly a half century.
I’m so glad we got to see them together again.
Van Halen embodied a rock and roll spirit that comes as close to religion as possible for some of us. The concerts–of which I attended 16 (I think), spanning the 1981 Fair Warning tour in Oakland when I was just days out of eighth grade, to the final Bay Area swing in 2015 at the Concord Pavilion.
My friend Phil–who was in my first band with me–just told me, “We saw the modern-day Amadeus and Beethoven in real life, multiple times. How lucky are we? We got to see him in his prime. And then again when he had his rebirth, clean and sober, and he was even better!”
Indeed. The last show may have been the most gratifying. Because we knew about his health. Because we remembered how bad his alcoholism got during the last tour with Sammy Hagar, when his drinking was so bad it finally affected his playing.
We knew it was the end of the tour and, perhaps, the last time we’d see him play for us. He looked happy, maybe happier than I’d ever seen him. The whole band was just on. During the guitar solo–always the zenith of a VH show for the music geeks–he was just blazing. Then–I will never forget the moment–just as he began the “Little Guitars” portion of the solo, a light rain began falling … in California … in July.
It was truly wonderful. He smiled and just played on.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.