Van Halen’s music has always been driven by an interesting tension: a bad-ass hard rock side, typified by songs like “Mean Street,” and a romantic, even sappy pop side, typified by songs like “Little Guitars.” My personal favorite is one that manages to weave both strands together into a seamless whole: “Jamie’s Cryin’.”
Here, an omniscient if somewhat cynical spectator observes the depredations of a heartless guy, along with the effects of his caddish behavior on the hapless, sentimental girl, Jamie, who is that bad-ass guy’s too-trusting and innocent victim.
The aesthetic genius of the song arises from the fact that you can’t quite discern the moral perspective of the song’s “narrator”: Is he making cruel fun of Jamie? Or is he making an acerbic commentary on the mean guy who ditches her? Or a little bit of both? Could the singer be the suppressed superego of the cold-hearted guy himself, crooning to us from within his divided self over Eddie’s syncopated riffs and golden guitar tone? Of course, you risk overthinking these literary questions at the price of missing the sheer musical wizardry going on in this song, as in so many others. But I couldn’t help it. The material was there.
It’s become a cliche to say that Eddie Van Halen was a pioneer of the electric guitar. But it’s a cliche because it’s true: you couldn’t have heard “Eruption” when it first came out in 1978, and not be blown away by it. And no, it doesn’t matter that Eddie wasn’t the first guitarist to use the two-handed tapping technique long associated with him (a pointless argument that consumed huge gobs of time in my youth). What matters is that he indisputably put the “hero” in guitar hero.
Less often noticed than Eddie’s guitar virtuosity was his skill as a song-writer. Van Halen was the first band to put melody (and harmony, for that matter) at the center of hard rock. They are more hard rock’s heirs to the Great American Songbook than they are, say, the heirs of Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. And that, I suspect, is how they’ll be remembered.
Ultimately, Van Halen were sui generis, mostly because Eddie Van Halen was the musical genius at their center. RIP, man. You were a hell of a lot more than “just some new sensation.” You’re immortal now. And you’ve earned it.