I wasn't surprised this week when I heard the news that Eddie Van Halen had left our mortal realm. For one, 2020 has been such a parade of awful news that nothing terrible is shocking anymore. For another, I knew Eddie had been reckoning with cancer for a long time. And for yet another, we're all just visitors here, but Eddie was especially so. We were lucky to get him for as long as we did.
With the inordinate number of monumental musicians we've lost since David Bowie's death in January 2016, it feels like my music writing has been approximately 75% eulogies. These essays have developed a predictable formula wherein I detail my personal history with that person's music. I fear the familiarity of that risks diminishing their impact, so for Eddie I wanted to honor his sense of innovation with my own.
But there's a reason that formula came about. Ever since I was a teenager, the primary goal of my writing has been discovery. In the process of writing, I learn what I think - and what I think often surprises me. When it comes to Eddie's work, I need to know what I think. Outside of Weezer, there's not a band with whom I have a more complicated relationship than Van Halen
Writing about the band on this blog in 2004 I likened my Van Halen fandom to a doomed romance that burned bright and ended badly, but was still not fully over. That description is close, but even that level of complexity doesn't quite capture it. And of course 16 (!) years have passed since I wrote that, and things definitely not simplified in that time.
I love Van Halen, that much is true. It’s the why and how of that love that gets messy. They don't fit the typical criteria for the other bands I count among my all-time favorites: I don't especially admire any of the bands members as people, at least half of their albums I find difficult to listen to all the way through, and as much as I like many of their songs, I don't have a strong emotional connection to them.
And yet I love Van Halen.
Though I of course heard Eddie's solo on "Beat It," and "Jump" was inescapable on the car radio and at the swimming pool in the summer of 1984, the first time I became consciously aware I was listening to Eddie Van Halen was actually in 1985's Back to the Future. You may recall the scene where Marty has to scare his teenage father into helping him, so he visits George at night pretending to be an alien, and plays him a tape of Eddie's mad scientist guitar work. It strikes me know that there's isn't a better way to encapsulate Eddie's legacy than that scene. His work on the guitar (and the synthesizer, if we're being honest) was futuristic and otherworldly. He was the rare musician to be so innovative that his work belied no obvious indications of his influences.
And yet his work was the foundation of one of the most commercially popular bands of all time. How does that happen? Like my fandom of the band, it just doesn't make any sense.
Van Halen were there in the background all through my childhood and teen years, the Sammy Hagar era looming especially large on MTV and radio (high school Paul thought the "Right Now" video was the height of art), but I didn't actively seek to listen to the band until the 1996 release of Best Of Volume 1. I bought it at a Musicland or Sam Goody in the mall in Rock Island, Illinois the fall of my sophomore year, and I promptly became obsessed.
I definitely got into to the music on that disc - a combination of most of the band's biggest hits with both Hagar and original singer David Lee Roth - but I got even more into the drama that surrounded its release. The band's relationship with Hagar had started deteriorating in 1995, leading Van Halen to reunite with Roth for two new songs that appear on Best Of Volume 1. Hagar quit the band, and spent much of the next year bemoaning his fate to the music press. Eddie began responding with his own interviews, and I was enthralled by the whole thing, reading every scrap of info I could get ahold of (this was mostly pre-Internet, so it was all in magazines).
Soon I owned every single Van Halen album. I bought the Best Of Volume 1 VHS tape containing the band's videos, and watched it more often than was probably normal.
My fascination continued as the band brought in new singer Gary Cherone and began working on a new album. I had great anticipation and high hopes for Van Halen III (a title that only would have made sense if Van Halen II had been their first album with Hagar instead of their second album with Roth) and those hopes went largely unmet, largely because of Cherone's strained vocals and odd lyrics. Nonetheless, I went to see them in concert that spring. Tellingly, they only played four songs from the new album.
It had been an intense couple of years, but my fandom sort of dissipated for awhile after that.
Van Halen parted ways with Cherone in 1998, and other than occasional rumors, things went quiet in the world of Van Halen. No singer, no new music. Then came the 2004 reunion with Sammy Hagar and three new songs. None of them impressed me, and this is when I realized I didn't really like Sammy Hagar all that much.
If you had asked me in 1997 which Van Halen singer I liked best, the answer would have unequivocally been Sammy. The Van Hagar songs were catchier and more melodic, and Sammy himself was charming and earnest. I even loved his first post-VH solo disc Marching to Mars and went to see him on that tour. I sympathized more with Sammy in the whole break-up drama. Eddie and Alex both comported themselves as people who thought they had to act tougher than they really were, and that was frankly off-putting. And though I could never deny the power of the early Roth stuff, he always seemed like a superficial egomaniac.
But listening to Sammy's lyrics with another seven years of life experience laid bare some of their shortcomings, the superficial philosophy, the bludgeoning attitude toward sex, the easy rhymes. As a result, listening to albums like OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, or Live: Right Here, Right Now, over half of the Van Hagar discography, became a chore.
I didn't bother to see Van Hagar on their tour.
The Hagar reunion was short-lived, and the band went dormant again until a 2007 re-reunion with Roth and the ousting of affable bassist Michael Anthony in favor of a teenaged Wolfgang Van Halen, the latter a development I found almost unforgivable. No offense to Wolfie, but how can you have Van Halen without that stocky bearded guy reeling off the high harmonies while playing a bass shaped like a Jack Daniels bottle? Out of protest, I didn't go to their show at the Target Center that fall.
In 2011 I picked up Sammy's memoir Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, and though the book didn't improve my personal opinion of him, I was riveted by the details about the inner workings of Van Halen and his relationship with Eddie, including depictions of Eddie living like a vampire in a decaying mansion. Around this same time I came across Ian Christie's 2007 tome Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga, and devoured it. That was when I realized that Van Halen are the only band I enjoy reading about as much or more as I enjoy listening to.
Then in 2012 came something I had given up on: A new album. A Different Kind of Truth had a profound affect on my Van Halen fandom. Not only was it the band's first album in 20 years that I truly loved, it made me realize how much I like David Lee Roth. Yes, he's a motormouth egomaniac, but he's also a truly original thinker with a great heart. If you don't believe me, read 1997's Crazy From the Heat, one of the all-time great rock memoirs.
I also realized that Roth is a genuinely funny and clever lyricist, and that totally changed how I looked at the early Van Halen records.
But even as much as I enjoyed this new Van Halen resurgence and the life it breathed into my fandom, I didn't go see the band. Why not? One of your all-time favorites comes to town you go and see them, right? Well, frankly, I was afraid of it being awful. I think I was also wary of putting too much emotional stock in a band that had burned me so many times.
Coincidentally - and a bit eerily - just a few weeks ago, I rewatched that video compilation (now upgraded from VHS to DVD) I had been so obsessed with in college. I was transported back to the height of my fandom, and realized that when I watched those videos my focus was not on the lead singers, but always on Eddie.
And it occurs to me now that this is the key to my love of Van Halen. As much as I tried to position myself as above the usual arguments over singers, like so many others I got caught up in the drama and missed the damn point. It was about Eddie the whole time. Maybe that seems like a "duh" thing not to realize sooner, but sometimes we don't see what's right in front of us.
And now I think that my relationship with Van Halen was complicated because Eddie was complicated. He didn't make loving him easy. He was by turns thrilling and frustrating, relatable and alien, joyful and angry.
People say nice things when someone dies, but an overwhelming number of people have talked about Eddie's wonderful soul and spirit. He also had demons. He struggled with addiction. Relationships (romantic and working) were clearly difficult for him, though Wolfgang says he was an amazing father, which I believe and admire.
And the music Eddie made was more complicated than we give it credit for. He teamed with singers who put melodies and words over the top of what he'd created and made them into pop hits, but there was crazy stuff going on underneath that never overwhelmed enough to make it unpalatable. A person can be a genius and make something that no one else will understand; Eddie was next level, a genius who could make something truly innovative that people could also groove to.
Instead of focusing on who was singing on those songs, I really should have been paying more attention to Eddie and his playing. The guitar stuff is, of course, insanely good. But his synth and piano work was something we took for granted. Go back and listen to the instrumental melodic joy underlying songs like "Feels So Good," "Dreams," and "Dancing in the Streets." Check out the minor key moodiness of "I'll Wait" and "Right Now." Even without vocals over top of them, they're mini-masterpieces.
This revelation is going to inevitably send me back to some of those songs and albums I'd dismissed and to listen for what Eddie was trying to tell us. I almost wish I could hear them without the vocals, a sort of inverse of the viral audio that went around a few years ago of Roth's isolated vocals from "Runnin' With the Devil."
I believe now that somewhere around the mid-1990s Eddie lost interest in making pop songs, and that this is what makes large portions of OU812, F.U.C.K., Balance, and Van Halen III difficult to listen to. Eddie was trying to break free, and the producers and singers were trying to reign that in and form it into something resembling conventional rock songs, with mixed results. All artists need editors, and their work is almost always better for that editing, but those later albums are a rare case where I think the work suffered for it.
There have been rumors for years that despite Van Halen's lack of activity, Eddie never stopped playing and recording, and thus has tapes and tapes full of unreleased riffs and instrumentals. I can only hope we're allowed to hear some of them. If we do, I have a feeling they're going to sound like messages from the future.
One of the few gifts that come with the death of someone you care about is the gift of clarity. You're suddenly able to see the big picture, to put everything in its proper place. That definitely happened here. I now know that I love Van Halen because I loved Eddie.
And that's not complicated.