Eddie Van Halen and the Loss of the Last True Rock God [OPINION]
Arguably the most important musician of our time. Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, the iconic heavy metal guitarist and rock star passed away on Tuesday, October 6 surrounded by his family.
Sheet music (tablature) for the guitar is literally written differently now because of the way EVH played.
An immigrant from Holland along with his father Jan, mother Eugenia, and brother Alex, the Van Halens came over on a cruise ship on which Jan, a trained saxophonist and clarinet player, performed onboard in order to pay for the voyage here to the United States. They began their new lives in Pasadena, California in 1962. The family had entered America to chase the American Dream with a piano and $50.
Eugenia insisted that the boys remained in classical music lessons. She worked as a maid and Jan worked as a custodian and took some weekend music gigs as well. When Eddie was seven years old and Alex was nine, the Van Halen brothers began to enter regional talent contests at local colleges.
They played the piano and realized they were exceptionally good musicians, Eddie somehow became quite accomplished despite a big issue he had: he never learned how to read sheet music. He fooled his music teacher for five years by simply watching how the teacher played it and then faked reading while he played it from memory.
Then the Van Halen brothers started listening to the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five and wanted to be rock and rollers. The piano lessons stopped. Eddie wanted a drum kit so he got a job delivering newspapers and purchased a St. George kit for $125.
Eventually, every time Eddie got home from school or from wherever he was coming from, he found Alex on his drum kit. He objected as any kid would, but soon conceded that Alex was just better than he was, so he reluctantly picked up Alex's "stupid guitar," as he put it in an interview.
In Pasadena, Eddie and Alex founded the band Mammoth in 1972 with David Lee Roth and bassist Mark Stone. They changed the name to Van Halen two years later and began playing important rock rooms around the Los Angeles area like the Whiskey a Go Go. It was at that juncture that Stone was out on bass and Michael Anthony was in.
Both Alex and Eddie were recorded with Kiss for the demo of the song "Christine Sixteen." Gene Simmons insisted that Ace Frehley play the solo exactly as Eddie recorded it.
In 1977 Warner Bros signed them to a recording contract, and by 1981, Van Halen was the biggest rock and roll band in the world in terms of popularity, respect, ticket sales and record sales.
It was a bittersweet changing of the guard for legendary iconic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, The Who, Black Sabbath and others. This new in-your-face, high-flying rock of Van Halen was clearly the direction music was heading, just as when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana brought the 80s hair metal to a crashing halt with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991.
If Jimmy Page inspired millions of guitar sales, Eddie Van Halen inspired at least that much in bass guitar and drum sales because after "Eruption" was heard, many of those would-be-guitarists realized just how far the bar had just been raised to guitar god status and went with other instruments instead.
One of the appeals that made me a die-hard fan of EVH is that I never saw anyone, in any profession, appear to love their work as much as him while he performed. His joy for playing was contagious to those listening and watching, and even more so because he made it look so damn easy; but the stuff he was playing was so ridiculously complicated for anyone else and impossible for most.
The David Lee Roth era of Van Halen, which included six albums, all of which are multi-platinum, was synonymous with fun. They could play as heavy as anyone out there and there were bands trying to be strictly heavier, darker and more "dangerous," but that inventory of bands at the time could only envy the Van Halen brand.
With David Lee Roth's influence, they would argue against some selections but were not afraid to experiment, to tip their hats by covering The Kinks and Roy Orbison as well as unlikely artists like Martha and the Vandellas and Dee Dee Warwick on their records.
Roth left on bad terms until he returned to the VH roster in 2007 where he remained as Eddie's frontman until the end. Veteran rocker Sammy Hagar filled in and quite well in the years between. Hagar and Van Halen enjoyed quite a bit of success in that time.
For me, the only debate about who was the greatest guitar player was between Eddie Van Halen as a lead guitarist or Eddie Van Halen as a rhythm guitarist.
Now without Chuck Berry, there is no Jimi Hendrix. Without Jimi Hendrix, there is no Jimmy Page. Without Jimmy Page, there is no Eddie Van Halen per se. Each was a pioneer, pushing and exploring the sounds, techniques and wonders of the guitar so that those who followed would learn in months what took their idols years to perfect, and each picked up the progress where the one before him left off.
The music of Van Halen was my closest companion for so many countless hours of driving, studying, exercising or training, beach days, partying and the source for so much happiness in my life.
That source was removed from the universe yesterday and, strange as it seems, a part of me went with the man I had (sadly) never met but who inspired me, was a hero of mine and helped me to keep music as one of the great loves of my life.
My own guitar player Ethan Brosh – one of the few who can do almost all the things Eddie could do on the frets – was crushed by the devastating news of Eddie's passing. He wrote:
"Every religion has its god, Today the 'god' of my religion died. The chosen one, the one who invented everything that's cool in rock music and on the electric guitar. The true pioneer guitar players like me owe a big debt of gratitude to...To me, Eddie Van Halen represented American culture, everything that I liked and that is good about American culture. To say Eddie was a genius would be a major understatement, The amount of things Eddie has created or invented would be a never-ending list. I am cringing at the thought of everything that is coming, all the tributes by all the wrong people in an attempt to go viral. I hope I'm wrong about this...I am beyond sad, This is the final nail of the rock n roll coffin. It is officially dead now. Nothing positive about this and no way to sugar coat this...I'm trying to come to terms with the passing of someone who seemed so immortal."
I could leave on any one of a hundred Van Halen songs or videos, but for some reason, this one seems to encapsulate the wizardry of Edward Lodewijk Van Halen.
Happy trails to you, Ed. May God greet you warmly.
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.