What Eddie Van Halen Meant to Me
I thought I was fine when the news hit yesterday. Eddie wasn’t well, we were expecting this. Sure, it was a shock to the system, but my obligation as a writer to handle deaths as work has sadly robbed me of the ability to experience much of the emotion that usually comes with this kind of loss. So I WAS fine… until the work day ended and I retreated to the kitchen to make dinner, where I promptly instructed Alexa to “play Van Halen.”
And then I lost it. Couldn’t stop crying. This man and his music have meant SO MUCH to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized Van Halen have been a constant in my life ever since I discovered them.
My story is just like those told by so many others over the past 24 hours since learning of Eddie’s death. One day after school at the ripe age of ten I flipped the television to that channel I dared not touch when my parents were around: MTV. I don’t recall what other videos I saw that fateful 1992 afternoon other than “Jump” and “Beat It,” but I was sufficiently impressed by those two to scribble them down on a post-it note. That guitar playing! So fast, so incredible, I’d never seen anything like it! This, THIS, was the music for me. My parents later found that post-it note and, thankfully, supported my burgeoning interest rather than scorning it: they bought me a copy of 1984 on cassette (they thought Michael Jackson was too gross, I suppose, and didn’t buy me that one). This was well after what most people would consider to be Van Halen’s prime years, mind you — flashy guitar music was OUT, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were IN — the music just struck me in that special way.
I was OBSESSED with that tape. I remember pouring over the liner notes, folded unequally in that special cassette tape way, to the point where the parts almost separated, probably did. I was shook by the iconic cover — a baby smoking! — but scared in that special pre-teen way that only makes you more fascinated with something.
I remember arriving at sleepaway camp that summer, away from home for an extended period for the first time, and cueing up the tape in my Walkman the very first night for some comfort, in my top bunk, all alone. I noticed that the tempo of “Jump” slowed down after the keyboard intro and wondered whether my Walkman was broken, the batteries were bad, or perhaps the tape had stretched.
Not long after, I discovered For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge — “F.U.C.K.” (pre-teen giggles ensued) — and learned about the division between DLR and Sammy Hagar-era VH. “Right Now” was everywhere during that period, EVERYWHERE — Crystal Pepsi, anyone? — and I attempted to teach it to myself on piano (I failed).
Speaking of piano, I made my instructor teach me “Jump” — a much simpler endeavor — and performed it at a recital with my friend Jesse (our teacher played the solo). It wasn’t long before I lost interest in piano and jettisoned that mundane instrument in favor of the guitar — THAT, clearly, was where all the action was.
I drew the “VH” logo all over my school notebooks. I stood in front of the mirror, guitar slung across my shoulder, posing like Eddie and trying to jump like he did, legs outstretched. I tried to teach myself the tapping intro from “Hot for Teacher” (I failed), and I spent hours searching for that sound on my solid state Fender combo amp (I failed). Axl and I — we’ve known each other since kindergarten — sat together at our school cafeteria’s lunch tables and argued about who was better: Eddie or Slash. Classic young boy argument! When the discussion turned to dreaming up all-star band lineups, both men inevitably occupied the guitar slots.
Balance was the first Van Halen album I remember coming out in real time. I’d sit by the radio for hours waiting for “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” to come on because it was the only way I could hear it (pop stations like Z100 played Van Halen at the time… hard to imagine now). I did the same thing the next year when “Humans Being” landed from the Twister soundtrack, and I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a direct-from-radio tape recording of that somewhere. I gave Van Halen III the same treatment when it came out in 1998, and I remember digging on “Without You,” but man, even 16-year-old me knew that album was a total dud. Not Gary Cherone’s fault; he did his best with what he was given.
In high school, during the prime nu-metal years, I rebelled against all of that and went further down the VH rabbit hole, familiarizing myself with the band’s back catalogue and making a few converts along the way out of my friends who viewed VH as some dated old person crap. It felt like a giant victory getting someone who thought Korn was the pinnacle of music to appreciate the inarguable prowess of EVH.
My love of Van Halen continued with me into adulthood. I met MetalGF (now my wife) in 2007, and I can’t remember a time when we weren’t dancing to my Van Halen vinyl collection while making dinner. She hardly knew Van Halen when we met, but now she’s a fan, “Unchained” having become synonymous with sautéing zucchini and “And the Cradle Will Rock” with chopping garlic.
In 2007, Axl and I went to see Van Halen, reunited with David Lee Roth, at Madison Square Garden, my very first time seeing the band live in any capacity. The moment they hit the stage, I lost it, tears streaming down my face, the first time that had ever happened to me at a show (now that I’ve broken that seal, I seem to cry EVERY time I see a great band). I’d been waiting 15 years for that moment and it totally delivered… we sprung for GOOD seats on the floor, too. We saw them again in 2012; it was less special, probably because we’d seen basically the same show already, but it was still great.
MetalGF is currently gone from the house for a couple of days due to pandemic-related work demands and I felt that absence last night even more than usual, after EVH’s death, as I prepared dinner for me and our five-year-old son. I made him dance with me instead, and we watched a couple of live videos; I teared up and my voice cracked when I pointed to Eddie and told him “that’s the best guitarist who ever lived.” “Is he still alive?” he asked. I had to break the news, yet again, in a year in which we’ve lost so many both throughout the world and within this family. This poor kid has been surrounded by death. He’s constantly upbeat in spite of it; kids are amazing that way. I think he connected with “Jump,” but I’m not sure.
Van Halen will continue to be ever-present in my life, yours, and everyone’s. At sports stadiums, on the radio, at bars, in pre-teen mirrors, at middle school cafeterias, and in our kitchens. My story is hardly unique; folks often speak in hyperbole when we say a person changed the world, but Eddie Van Halen literally changed the world, and he did it drastically. Metal as we know it wouldn’t exist without him, and our lives would be immeasurably different.