Even the most casual readers of this column know I’ve always been a big fan of Van Halen, evident in the number of articles written about them since taking over Rock Music Menu a decade and a half ago. It would be an understatement then to say how much of a shock it came when band namesake Eddie Van Halen passed away Tuesday at the age of 65 after a protracted cancer battle.
There were rumors the guitarist was sick in recent years, that he had been dealing with throat or lung cancer after being declared free of the disease in 2002 following treatment for tongue cancer. One thing known for sure is a planned reunion last summer with the original lineup of Van Halen, performing together for the first time since 1984, was scuttled at the last minute, likely due to Eddie’s health issues. The run would’ve seen them make a return to stadiums across North America.
Formed in the early 70s in Southern California, Van Halen changed the face of rock music with their self-titled 1978 debut, due in no small part to the revolutionary manner which Eddie played guitar. His lightning quick fretwork, liberal use of the whammy bar and a then unconventional use of the tapping technique was like nothing anyone had heard before. In fact, it was his one minute and 42-second-long, otherworldly sounding solo “Eruption” from the LP that inspired an entire generation of EVH wannabes and influenced legions of some of today’s top guitarists.
Joined by his brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and singer David Lee Roth, Eddie led the band through six muscular albums full of soon-to-be hard rock staples like “Unchained,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and their biggest hit, “Jump.” He also managed to squeeze in a guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” which ended up becoming one of the top-selling singles of all time, no doubt buoyed by the improvised guitar solo which was not only done in two takes, but for free as a favor to producer Quincy Jones.
Roth would leave the band in 1985, leading to the onset of one of the more substantial soap operas in music. His replacement, Sammy Hagar, had a successful decade long run before being ousted, opening a revolving door that saw Roth come back, Extreme’s Gary Cherone appear for one album cycle, Roth return for secret rehearsals, Hagar take part in a disastrous 2004 tour and finally Roth again in 2006 with one additional wrinkle; Anthony was swapped out for Eddie’s 17-year-old son Wolfgang on bass.
I was first introduced to Van Halen at a young age by an uncle a few years my senior who played me their 1980 album Women and Children First. The tribal drumbeats courtesy of Alex along with Roth’s Tarzan-like howls on “Everybody Wants Some!!” mesmerized me right away. But it was the searing guitars that rose above it all, bringing that track and all the rest into the stratosphere. Suffice to say, I was in for life.
It wasn’t hard to find friends who felt the same way. We’d spend hours dissecting songs, seeking out audio and video concert bootlegs and hypothesizing about what might happen next in the behind the scenes drama. When Roth came back at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, it was like watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Then a few days later, when it all turned out to have gone south immediately after the appearance, it felt like most years when the Eagles fell apart in the playoffs.
I did get to encounter Eddie in person very briefly in 1998 at the Spectrum when the band came to Philly in support of the sole LP with Cherone at the mic, Van Halen III. The band had extended extra thanks to those who were members of the fan generated Van Halen Mailing List, an e-mail digest where devotees would communicate with one another in the late-90s, by offering them free passes for a meet and greet. It was a typical cattle call; line up, say hello, shake hands, take a group picture with the bandmembers and a bunch of people you don’t know, then get out. It was still very cool and fun to look back on.
A much more meaningful and exhilarating time came 14 years later. Van Halen were set to release their first album with Roth at the helm in nearly 30 years and revealed they’d be doing an intimate show for industry and select local media at the 220 person capacity Cafe Wha? in New York City to promote it and the ensuing tour. The gig had been announced just two days prior, and I immediately began trying to get on the list for it – a surely futile endeavor if there ever was one even though I was officially a music journalist at the time.
There was an “in” though; I had become a bit friendly with Eddie’s wife, Janie, who was also handling his press. In the middle of the afternoon the day of the show, she sent me a message which read, “Ok my friend, we will see you this evening.”
I jumped on the first Amtrak Acela available and made it to the Greenwich Village club in record time, planting myself directly in front of the thigh-high stage while people like John McEnroe and Jimmy Fallon mingled nearby. There’s no backstage at the tiny venue, and the band came right in the front door, down the steps, made their way through the packed audience and beelined toward the middle of the room.
The first person I saw was Alex Van Halen, who asked me for a shoulder to leverage himself onto the stage riser, with Eddie following his lead and doing the same. Wolfgang and Dave bounded up on their own. I didn’t move from that spot the entire night, mere feet from Edward as he effortlessly ripped through “Hot for Teacher,” “Dance the Night Away” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.”
It remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Eddie Van Halen will go down as one of the greatest guitarists ever to strap on the instrument, without question. Yes, the history of Van Halen the band is full of infighting, back and forth squabbling between ex-members, but thankfully some timeless songs too. And none of them would’ve been possible without the musician David Lee Roth like to call, “The king of 10 fingers and six strings.” May he rest in peace.
Featured photo by the author.