Eddie Van Halen died last week, another inevitable unthinkable event recalling the repeated line in Don McLean’s highly symbolic 1971 hit American Pie, “the day the music died.” During the late 1970s and 1980s, Van Halen’s music filled our home as our kids bought and played every record the band ever made. And it was good for many reasons, but mostly because spirits were lifted in spite of whatever else might be happening; you could simply not be sad while that band was playing its joyous, energizing, raucous music.
The commentary lauding Eddie Van Halen tells of his innovations, his technical prowess, his innate skill, but the over-riding truth of the greatness of his music lies in the pure joy he brought to his work. One writer in The New Yorker recalls that a video of Van Halen performing “Panama” is compelling because it is “so extravagant — so plainly dumb, so gorgeously jubilant.” She goes on to say, “Despite Eddie’s virtuosity, there’s something so innocent… about his music. It was so expert and strange, it made it seem as if the world was enormous, and anything was possible.’
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where Eddie Van Halen and his band are enshrined, Eddie is described as forever having changed the vocabulary of the electric guitar. “With blistering speed, control, and melodic feel, he perfected the art of shredding, unleashing two-handed finger tapping, dramatic whammy-bar moves, and other astonishing never-before-seen techniques. Eddie reimagined the sonic possibilities of the guitar and became an inspiration for an entire generation of musicians who worshiped his sound and style.”
In Vulture magazine, Craig Jenkins writes that Eddie Van Halen “threaded virtuosic excellence, earthen bombast, wiry locomotion into a singular, pliable style whose influences are vast, whose impact is immeasurable. He made complexity look and sound joyful and easy.” Jenkins goes on to say “Eddie Van Halen’s gone, but the seeds he planted are thriving. The sounds he made are timeless.”
But I think my favorite of the tributes came from Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, who summed up the brilliance of Eddie Van Halen by stating: “You were the Mozart of rock guitar.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed hundreds of works acknowledged as pinnacles of all kinds of music requiring technical mastery from those who perform it, advancing technical sophistication and emotional reach with his compositions. Eddie did that, too. And he did it all with such joy and relish, which is what makes his death seem such a searing loss.
The Van Halens emigrated from the Netherlands in 1962 when Eddie was 7, settling in Pasadena, California, where Eddie’s father, a struggling classical musician who played clarinet, saxophone, and piano, worked as a janitor while his Indonesian-born wife served as a maid. Eddie and his older brother Alex took music lessons, and Eddie excelled at piano in spite of a serious limitation — he never learned how to read music! He told Rolling Stone in 1995, “I fooled my teacher for six years. He never knew. I’d watch his fingers, and I’d play it.”
The Van Halen brothers formed their first band in 1964, eventually hired singer David Lee Roth and recruited bassist Michael Anthony and released their debut album in 1978, breaking into the Billboard Top 20 and reasserting the power of hard rock to the musical world. David Lee Roth was eventually replaced by Sammy Hagar; a third frontman Gary Cherone also performed with the band. Eddie’s son Wolfgang replaced Michael Anthony in 2007. Roth returned to the Van Halen tour in 2007 and sang on the group’s last hit album “A Different Kind of Truth,” which in 2012 reached number two on the Billboard hit lists. And their music lives on!
Despite the truth of my opening sentence, Eddie Van Halen’s music will not die, a truth beautifully stated in singer/songwriter Patti Smith’s tribute:
Eddie Van Halen,
howling at the stars,
combing the stratosphere,
howling for the children,
the burning fields,
straight into the celestial realm
where all is music.