Edward Van Halen, RIP (1955-2020)

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. 

5 thoughts on “Edward Van Halen, RIP (1955-2020)

  1. You could never overstate the magnitude of Eddie Van Halen’s influence. He was so influential that there were thousands of guitarists in the decades after him who emulated his style and chops, and a handful who approached his ability to blow minds and capture imaginations. It got to the point where people got jaded to it. But if you go back and listen to that first VH album, and then you listen to what other guitar players were doing in 1978, even legends like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore and Eric Clapton, it really is like that scene in “Back to the Future” where Marty McFly impersonates a space alien using a tape of “Eruption” as a prop: It’s like the guy was from another planet. He elevated rock lead guitar to heights where by the mid-1980s every also-ran metal band in the world had an EVH clone on lead guitar doing things that 15 years earlier only Hendrix could touch. But if you were around when he pioneered the art form, there was this crazy mystique about him, like people were incredulous about the fact that a human could actually do the stuff he did. Guys would sit around with copies of Circus magazine and Hit Parader and talk about how he played his solos live with his back to the crowd so no one could see what he was doing and steal his secrets. Beyond his technical influence, his playing style was the lynchpin of VH’s cultural impact as the band whose sound and ethos have basically defined the unique archetype of the “American kid”: the aggression and hyperactivity of the heavy metal headbanger, the rakish brashness of the California surfer, the offhand wryness of the class clown, the rebelliousness of a punk, minus the self-importance. While we often put an artist like Springsteen out there as the essence of Americana in rock, the fact is that the ethos of real American people is far better captured by the virtuosic ridiculousness of songs like “And The Cradle Will Rock” and “Beautiful Girls.” Rock critics and tastemakers have always placed an undue emphasis on artists they consider “important” – which too often is a bullshit word for “artists who reinforce the importance of us, the critics and tastemakers, to tell everyone what art is.” But the fact is, rock is pointless if we can’t put on a song like “Unchained,” loud, and let our inner child out.

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    • Yeah, I agree with that. I particularly agree with the point about Americanness. I don’t think there needs to be one single band that captures the Essence of American Music. There can be a group of them, but if so, Van Halen certainly belongs to the group. That’s why I brought up the Great American Songbook. Van Halen is the late twentieth century continuation of the Great American Songbook.

      The two bands whose influences are strongest in Van Halen are the Kinks and AC/DC. The Kinks influence is obvious, but some of Van Halen is souped up, musically sophisticated AC/DC. The riff to “Drop Dead Legs” is modeled on “Back in Black.” The finger-picking in “Little Guitars” is influenced by what Angus Young was doing in those days. The central riff in “Panama” is reminiscent of “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It.” But EVH “Van Halenized” those riffs–they’re not necessarily better, but they’re rhythmically and technically more sophisticated. Otherwise, the clearest influences are old American standards–Roy Orbison, Motown, etc. And to state the obvious but hard for some to admit: one strong influence is the Beach Boys.

      But the overall vibe is, I think, distinctively American.

      I didn’t have room to say this in the post, but one of the single best concert experiences I ever had was watching Van Halen play “Dance the Night Away” at Madison Square Garden in 2009, And my second-favorite song after “Jamie’s Crying” is the very first VH song I ever heard, care of our cousin Waseem:

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