Sounding Board

We All Wanted To Be Eddie Van Halen

This was the ritual: From my preteen years all the way through the end of high school, I would return home from school in the afternoon and head straight to the basement to shred. For reasons related to both love of music and social climbing, I spent countless hours attempting to emulate famous rock songs, write my own, and master the art of the high-speed guitar solo — preferably with liberal finger tapping, pinch harmonics, and whatever other kinds of gaudy theatrics I could think of. I got good enough at it that I liked to go to Sam Ash sometimes and show off, a source of deep embarrassment in hindsight, but one that speaks to my personal conception of cool at the time. If you’d asked me in seventh grade, I would have told you I wanted to be Kirk Hammett. In eighth grade, I’d have said Dimebag Darrell or (gulp) Joe Satriani. By freshman year the obvious answer was Jimi. Yet in hindsight the platonic ideal I was chasing is clear: I just wanted very badly to be Eddie Van Halen.

I wasn’t yet born when Van Halen’s stone cold classic debut album dropped in 1978. I could have been the baby on the cover of 1984. By the time I started to become aware of pop culture as the ’80s bled over to the ’90s, Eddie Van Halen was thoroughly established as the definitive guitar hero of my lifetime. Van Halen the band was well into its bloated Sammy Hagar era by then, but the archetype of the god-level shredder was alive and well, and it was well understood that Eddie was the most godlike of them all. I can’t remember where I first encountered him: Was it the worshipful namecheck in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? The “Jump” video still circulating years later on VH1? The “Right Now” needle drop in the ads for Crystal Pepsi?

What I’m saying is I missed the heyday, but by no means did I miss the hype. This made my first few years of Van Halen fandom a bit confusing. Sadly, I didn’t hop aboard the VH train in earnest until “Can’t Stop Loving You” was popping off at Top 40 radio in 1995 in the twilight of the Hagar era. The first album they released after I became a fan was 1998’s godforsaken Gary Cherone ordeal. But I bought that terrible CD, and I tried very hard to like it. Such was the extent of my fealty to our six-string overlord. The man made “Eruption.” I owed him this.

“Eruption,” y’all. I mean, shit. I mean, goddamn. Where were you the first time you heard it? I distinctly remember playing it for my family on the boombox in my living room, gobsmacked by the existence of a song that amounted to nothing more than the raddest guitar solo in recorded history. How could this be real? They just skipped to the best part of the song and made it the whole song? So much of what made Eddie Van Halen great was on display in that 102-second outburst: the extreme virtuosity, the absurd dexterity, the magnificent showmanship, a savvy compositional impulse that turned less than two minutes of rapid-fire guitar notes into an epic poem. Channeling Mozart and Hendrix in equal measure, he made an unbelievable feat of writing and performance look easy. The man understood the difference between masterful and masturbatory.

To actually do what this guy did required not just hours of perfectionist woodshedding but also a preternatural grasp on music as both an art and a science. Operating on the peerless plane to which Eddie attained required him to take his craft extremely seriously and himself not seriously at all. Lots of wannabe guitar deities learned to mimic the guy’s skills and leaping, grinning stage antics — some even memorized his solos — but how many of them infused their wankery with the wild, electric joy that coursed through Van Halen songs? Lots of rock stars veered between vastly different styles within the same song just to show off, but how many could execute “Hot For Teacher”‘s toggle from neo-classical finger tapping to breathless chicken-shack country-blues with such pizzazz? How many would even think to do that? He consistently wrapped his mastery into the context of great songs, making sure his brilliant flourishes became part of a greater whole. So many of his peers and adherents were like Harlem Globetrotters pulling off trick shots for their own sake, ostentatiously playing up the degree of difficulty, whereas Eddie was Michael Jordan pulling off breathtaking feats in the context of an elimination game.

His talents extended far beyond the reality-reordering lead guitar work that made him famous, and he always deployed them to serve the song. Think about how many of Van Halen’s most iconic singles are based on a gnarly, bluesy Keith Richards chord-based riff, or, as in the case of “Panama” or “Why Can’t This Be Love” or “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” blurred the line between that kind of foundational grit and his signature high-wire theatrics. Eddie was not above bashing out a few chunky power chords when his songs demanded it, which was often. (David Lee Roth required ample space to preen.) His fingers were nearly as magical on the keys as on the strings, whether pounding out massive synth chords or cascading dramatically across the piano. He was also gifted as a writer and arranger; he famously transformed “Beat It” while Michael Jackson stepped out of the studio for a few hours, much to MJ’s delight. Music was like a video game wherein he kept unlocking higher and higher levels. Yet no matter how good he got at this stuff, he never seemed to stop having fun with it.

Even if many my age couldn’t grasp just how much of an innovator he’d been, no perspective was necessary to be blown away. EVH had an undeniable spark that helped him to win over everyone from suburban parents to the punks who might otherwise sneer at such latex-clad excess. Maybe the greatness of forebears like Clapton, Page, and Iommi was plainly evident, but Van Halen’s genius jumped out of the speakers and the television screen. Not only could he rapturously careen across the fretboard, he was as hammy as Roth and twice as likable, flashing smiles and launching his body skyward without a shred of self-consciousness. It was like if Queen’s Brian May, maybe the only classic rock guitar legend whose playing approached Van Halen’s larger-than-life immediacy and mind-boggling flair, was bringing the same levels of charisma as Freddie Mercury.

This is something several generations of basement hacks just like me often failed to grasp. No matter how many times you ran through your scales or how dramatically you deployed your whammy bar, technical prowess alone wasn’t going to put you in Eddie Van Halen’s league. Even killer songwriting wasn’t going to do it. His combination of God-given instinct and ability, meticulous hard work, mad-scientist inventiveness, and affable magnetism was one of a kind. The journeyman indie and alt-rock guitarist Matt Sweeney summed it up succinctly in the space of a tweet yesterday: “The greatest thing I say about anyone is that they are the Eddie Van Halen of their field. Breaks my heart to hear the world’s one and only Eddie Van Halen is gone. RIP to the greatest.”

The impossibility of the task did not stop me from spending most of my formative years trying to replicate Eddie Van Halen’s splendor. Eventually I gravitated away from the shredder persona and got into indie rock, rap, and pop, genres where virtuosic guitar was the exception and not the rule. I developed that common hipster allergy to instrumental wizardry and mostly moved on from heavy metal and arena rock outside the circle of the critically acclaimed. Ostentatious guitar heroism for its own sake still strikes me as obnoxious and overbearing, and I’m thankful that obligatory solos have mostly gone extinct. But press play on “Eruption” and the thrill comes rushing back. Revisiting Van Halen’s sonic fireworks in the wake of Eddie’s death, I’m instantly reminded why this stuff once struck me as incomprehensibly rad, and why I spent so many afternoons trying to wring the same kind of magic from some coiled metal and a block of wood.