Like all rock fans, I was stunned when the news broke of Eddie Van Halen’s death. We knew he was battling cancer, and there were ominous signs over the past few months: there were the bottom-feeding gossip sites who don’t know, or care, about rock and roll, breathlessly reported that he was getting experimental treatments. A more reliable source was David Lee Roth, who cryptically told the New York Times when asked about the chances of another Van Halen tour, “I don’t know that Eddie is ever really going to rally for the rigors of the road again… I don’t know that he’s going to be coming back out on the road.”
So his passing wasn’t unexpected, but to a generation who grew up with Van Halen as the premier rock band, the one that all others that followed drew inspiration from, it’s still a shock. No more wondering if Van Halen and David Lee Roth will record again. No more wondering if there will ever be a reconciliation with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. And no more seeing that exuberant smile while his fingers breakdance up and down the fretboard, blowing minds again and again.
In the ’80s, when Van Halen was the baddest — and most fun — band in the land, there were tons of six-stringers who tried to play as fast or as loud as Eddie. A lot of those guitarists had a lot of fans… and they all subscribed to guitar magazines. They were players who mostly impressed other players.
But for all of Eddie’s technical guitar playing ability, you could sing along to his solos. Fans who never picked up a six-string of their own know “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly” by heart. Even without vocals, they were songs, they were beloved classics. And when you listen to them — or really, any Van Halen song, you could almost hear Eddie smiling as he played them. You could picture the excitement and sheer joy on his face as he was hearing the sounds that were coming from his fingers.
As many fans do at times like this, I went to Twitter soon after hearing about his passing to see what other people were saying about the man. Social media can be a hell pit (particularly right now), but when someone like Eddie Van Halen dies, it’s actually a good place to share your feelings and to console other fans.
Joel Hodgson, formerly of the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, had a great story that sheds light on what made Eddie stand out from the other guitar wizards of his era. “I first met Eddie Van Halen when I was consulting on Jon Stewarts’ talk show and he was a guest,” he said. “I was introduced to him and I said ‘Hi Eddie, I dig your work.’ He smiled and shook his finger at me saying, ‘Thanks man, but, It’s not work, it’s play!’ Lesson learned.”
Even more insightful was a tweet by David St. Hubbins himself, actor Micahel McKean.
“Apart from his technical brilliance, Eddie Van Halen was the antidote to a lot of hyper-serious, grimacing guitarists who made playing look painful. Eddie shared the joy with us instead.”
He took his playing seriously, but he was always fun to listen to. The first six Van Halen albums — 1978’s Van Halen, 1979’s Van Halen II, 1980’s Women and Children First, 1981’s Fair Warning, 1982’s Diver Down and 1984’s 1984 — is one of the most bulletproof, airtight album streaks in rock and roll history. It’s no secret that Eddie and Dave were often at odds, but even if they weren’t, they might have split up over artistic differences. Eddie wanted to evolve, and it probably couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened with David Lee Roth in the band.
With Sammy Hagar on the mic, Van Halen became one of the few bands to move into middle age gracefully. Sure, fans were always clamoring for the Diamond Dave years, but everyone looks back at their youth with nostalgia. Van Halen didn’t just bring you back to your high school days; Van Halen was actually able to grow up with you. 1986’s 5150 showed that the band could still rock the party jams (particularly on “Summer Nights” and “Best Of Both Worlds”) but they could never have created “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Love Walks In” and “Dreams” in their original incarnation. Ditto for later jams like “When It’s Love,” “Feels So Good” and “Right Now,” which went on to become some of their hugest hits. It’s worth mentioning that all of the “Van Hagar” albums — 5150, 1988’s OU812, 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and 1995’s Balance — each topped the Billboard charts (and weirdly, none of the Roth-era albums did).
David Lee Roth rejoined the band in 2007 for a reunion tour, followed by an actual new album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth., which sparked another tour. In 2015 they toured again, for what would prove to be the last time.
I saw the tours in 2007 and 2015; the first one was explosive. The fans had been waiting for over twenty years for this; many of us had never seen a Van Halen concert with Dave on the mic. Eddie looked radiant on stage; he clearly enjoyed having his old sparring partner back with him (as well as his son Wolfgang, on bass, replacing Michael Anthony). By 2015, rumors swirled that things were strained between Ed and Dave.
But what I saw on the 2015 tour was two guys who knew that for all of their superpowers, they were always stronger together. In the above photo, Roth is “playing” an inflatable guitar that a fan threw up onto the stage. And he and Ed had a blast mimicking a dual guitar attack; of course, Van Halen would never need a second guitarist.
I’ve seen bands perform and it’s clear that some of the members weren’t on speaking terms. I didn’t feel that that was the case with Van Halen. Perhaps, like Jagger and Richards or Townshend and Daltrey, they’ve said all they need to say to each other, they have totally separate lives. But their telepathic communication and on-stage bond were undeniable.
Life, as we’ve always known, and as we’ve learned more harshly in 2020, doesn’t go as you planned it. It would have been nice if Ed had reconciled with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, both of whom were clearly shaken by the news, but didn’t seem to have the words to express how they felt. Or, perhaps, they kept it to themselves. It can’t be easy to lose someone like that when you ended things on bad terms. It’s a good reminder to not let resentments and grudges with the people you love to go on for too long.
But I’m glad that Ed’s last tour was with Roth. The shows — while not perfect — were a lot of fun, and the setlist was as bulletproof as any setlist of any band you’ve ever seen. If and when the world goes back to normal, Dave will be back with his solo band; in a full-circle twist, he’ll be opening for KISS; Gene Simmons will be the first to tell you that he produced Van Halen’s demo. I’m not making fun of Gene; who wouldn’t brag about that? Sammy and Michael will surely keep the songs from the Van Hagar era alive, and we’re still awaiting Wolfgang Van Halen’s solo debut; maybe he’ll throw in some VH classics when he plays live. But whoever is playing those songs, it’ll never be the same without those flying fingers and that electric smile.
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