All images courtesy of Getty Images
By Andrew Daly
“There are many great guitar players worldwide, but very few true innovators. Players who seem to have arrived from a distant planet bring a completely new color to the rainbow. Eddie Van Halen was this and so much more. Even without the finger tapping, you had a player with extraordinary touch, tone, and a rhythmic pocket and bounce that floated like Ali in the ring. He was a master of complex solos that spoke to non-musicians… THAT IS HARD TO DO. The reason was the exquisite melody in his heart and the joy in his soul of playing FOR people – and it came through like a ray of sun we ALL felt.” – Keith Urban
2020 was a challenging year marked by death. At times, it felt as if the world was in free fall, with no end in sight. And I often wondered, what would that even look like if the end does come? If it all came crashing down, is there a net to catch us when we finally reach the bottom of this black hole? And while 2020 was challenging on many levels, Eddie Van Halen’s death may have hit me the hardest.
With all that being said, when I heard the news of Eddie Van Halen’s passing, I could feel my heart burst through my chest, cracking bones and ripping flesh. To say this affected me would be an understatement, but to fully understand, I’ll have to go back to the beginning…
Growing up, Van Halen was not my favorite band, but they were always one of my favorites. I loved their music from the moment I heard them. My introduction was the Dave records, and the Sammy stuff came later. I loved both then, and I love both now. To say Van Halen, more specifically, Eddie Van Halen has significantly impacted my musical journey would be an understatement.
I first discovered Van Halen, or rather, I was shown Van Halen around 8 or 9 years old. My dad felt it was his fatherly duty to school me in the ways of “real music,” as he was generally disgusted with the pop music that was flooding the airwaves at the time. My dad exposed me to Elvis, Boston, KISS, Billy Joel, Rush, and of course, Van Halen. My dad made it a point to tell me that I needed to listen closely to Van Halen, though, as he felt their guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, “Is the greatest ever to pick up the instrument.”
In retrospect, I can’t say that he was wrong. At this point, I probably would agree. As far as rock music goes, I don’t believe anyone has ever bettered him. The man was and is transcendent.
I remember the first time I heard Van Halen. Track one, off of the self-titled record. It’s a song that we all know well, “Eruption.” The famous instrumental guitar solo blew the minds of many a-kid sitting in their bedroom in the late ’70s. I was one of those kids, except it was the late ’90s. I still remember the shit-eating grin on my dad’s face as he played the CD for me.
Although I may agree now, growing up, my dad and I would bicker or “debate” over who truly was “the best.” I was firmly in the corner of one Ace Frehley, who was closely followed by Jimmy Page. My dad, well, he was steadfast in his belief that Eddie Van Halen was the best. This debate raged on for well over twenty years.
As I mentioned, I was always firmly in the corner of Ace Frehley and Jimmy Page. Why though? The answer is simple – I was obsessed with KISS as a kid, and I still love them. Yes, it’s true, Ace is a fantastic guitar player, but honestly, comparing him to Eddie Van Halen is akin to comparing apples and oranges. And if I’m being honest, I never felt Jimmy Page was better than Eddie Van Halen. I was just saying so to contradict my dad. Isn’t that what all teenagers do?
Circling back to my initial feelings of despair when I heard that Eddie had passed now. Initially, I was stoic, and as the night wore on, the feeling didn’t relent. I suppose I can only liken it to the feeling of a family member dying. So, on that dreadful evening, I remember that I was talking with a friend through text, and he commented, “Maybe it’s just me; celebrity deaths don’t affect me. I don’t understand why they affect others, like; I never knew these people personally. They don’t give a shit about me or even know I exist.”
I read this, and my heart and mind filled with resentment and rage, “Maybe it’s just me?” Yes, actually, it is just you. Some of us are mourning over here. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, and perhaps it was, but so many memories, both good and bad, were brought up when Eddie Van Halen died. Memories of my friend Joe and I making mixed tapes and burning CDs loaded with Van Halen songs. Memories of us trying to play drums along to my Van Halen records in my basement. And, of course, memories of my dad shaping my musical trajectory.
This begs the question: why do some of us become so upset when these people die? Yes, it’s true; as my friend said, Eddie Van Halen did not know me personally, but it was never about that, was it? The music he created had an indelible impact on me. My life and personal history would not be as it is without Eddie Van Halen. And maybe these types of things are meaningless to some, but for some of us, it’s everything.
So, I thought about it, and I came to this conclusion: maybe you don’t have to know someone personally to have love for them and cherish what they do. In my life, music has often been my surrogate family, and when these strangers die, it’s not just TMZ fodder; no, it’s like a member of my family has died. Now, I know a great many of you will read this and feel my sentiment is utterly ridiculous, and that’s fine. But for those who do get it, know you’re not alone.
All of that aside, the fact remains we lost Eddie Van Halen on October 6th, 2020. One of the most singular talents in music history is gone, never to blow apart our consciousness again. Throughout history, there have been many great guitar players, but there was only one Eddie Van Halen. The way I see it, once every generation, we are gifted with a unique talent. A talent so different, so otherworldly, and so innovative that they completely upend things, changing them forever. And once that happens, there is no going back; it’s impossible. Eddie Van Halen was that someone.
So, yeah, Eddie Van Halen’s music has meant a lot to me. I think it meant a lot to many of you as well. Say what you want about Eddie being an alcoholic or impossible to work with; Eddie wasn’t perfect. He was as flawed as he was talented, just as many of us are, and he was a human being in the truest sense of the word. Eddie Van Halen lived out his wildest dreams and darkest embarrassments in the public eye, so when you think of Eddie, don’t focus on the negative; give the guy a break.
Yes, I am sad that I’ll never hear one of the most gifted musicians in history make the guitar sing as only he could again. His legacy lives on in the songs, the solos, and all the smiling faces left in his body of work’s wake; enjoy and appreciate them. Every time you hear “Everybody Wants Some!!” on your radio during your commute to work, smile. When you hear “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” on the jukebox at your favorite bar or restaurant, smile. And next time you’re at a sporting event, and “Jump” plays over the loudspeakers, smile. Eddie would have wanted it that way. Appreciate the talent. Smile like Eddie always did when he had that “Frankenstat” guitar in his hands.
Eddie, I never knew you personally, but I do miss you. And hope that wherever you are, there is at least one guitar there and that you can make all of your new friends happy in the ways you did for us here on Earth. Rest In Power, Legend.
“I’m not a rock star. Sure, I am, to a certain extent, because of the situation, but when kids ask me how it feels to be a rock star, I say, ‘leave me alone; I’m not a rock star.’ I’m not in it for the fame. I’m in it because I like to play. It makes me feel kind of weird, but obviously, I’ve been given something, and it touches people, and for that, I’m just so blessed.” – Eddie Van Halen.