All images courtesy of Getty Images
By Andrew Daly
2020 has been a difficult year. There has been a lot of death. At times, it feels as if the world is in a free fall, with no end in sight. I often wonder, if the end of those all does finally come, what would that even look like? Is there a net to catch us when we finally reach the bottom of this black hole we call 2020? We’ve seen a great many musicians pass this year. Some from COVID-19, some from other illnesses or age. On October, 7th, 2020, we lost Eddie Van Halen.
Growing up, Van Halen was not my favorite band, but they were always one of my favorites. Easily top three. I absolutely 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 had a large impact on my own personal musical journey would be an understatement.
I first discovered Van Halen, or rather, I was shown Van Halen around the age of eight or nine 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 showed me 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, as he felt their guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, was the greatest to ever pick up the instrument. In retrospect, I can’t say he was wrong. At this point, I actually, probably, would agree. As far as Rock music goes, I don’t truly believe anyone has ever bettered him. The man was and is truly transcendent.
I remember the first time I heard Van Halen. Track one, off of the self-titled first record. The song was “Eruption.” Yes, you all know it well, I’m sure. The famous instrumental guitar solo, that blew the minds of many a-kid sitting in their bedroom in the late 1970s. I was one of those kids, except that it was the late 1990s. 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 over twenty years.
As I mentioned before, I was always firmly in the corner of Ace Frehley, and Jimmy Page. Why though? Well, the answer is simple– I was obsessed with KISS as a kid, and I still love them to this day. Yes, it’s true, Ace is a wonderful 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?
When I heard the news of Eddie Van Halen’s death, I literally could feel my heart burst through my ribs, cracking the bones and ripping the flesh as it sunk into my stomach. Well, maybe not literally, but it felt that way. It upset me.
Anyway, as the night wore on, it began to feel as if a family member had died. I was talking to various friends through text, and one 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 maybe it was, but so many memories, both good and bad were brought up when Eddie died. Memories of my friend Joe and I making mixed tapes, and burning CDs loaded with Van Halen songs. Memories of trying to play drums along to my Van Halen records in my basement. And memories of my Dad.
So, why do some of us become so upset when these people die. Yes, it’s true, Eddie Van Halen did not know me from a hole in a wall, but it was never about that, was it? The music he created and gave to us has had an indelible effect on my life. My life and my history would not be the same without it. Maybe, to some, this is all meaningless, but for some of us, it’s everything. Maybe, you don’t have to personally know someone to have a certain kind of love for them and cherish what they do. In my life, oftentimes, music has been my surrogate family, and when these people die, it’s not just some celebrity passing away, no, it’s like a member of my family has died. I know. I know. There are a great many of you that will read this and feel that my sentiment is utterly ridiculous, and that’s fine. This isn’t for you anyway. For those of you that do get it, just know you’re not alone, and that there are those of us here that do understand.
Growing up, my Dad was the one that showed me so much of the early music I loved. The music that would change my life, and my path forever. From the first time I heard The Who, KISS, Aerosmith, and Van Halen, my life was never the same. He shepherded me down this path. And so, when Eddie died, it felt like a huge piece of the history with my Dad died too. At first, I wasn’t sure if that was something to be sad about, or happy about. I guess, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I can be thankful for the music he showed me, as without it, who knows who, or what I would be today, and for that, I am thankful.
All of that aside, the fact remains, we lost Eddie Van Halen. One of the most singular talents in the history of music.
Throughout history, there have been, and there will be many more great guitar players, but there was only one Eddie Van Halen. You see, once every generation or so, we are gifted with a special talent. Someone so different, so otherworldly, so innovative that they completely upend things, and change them forever. Once that happens, there is no going back. It’s impossible. In Eddie Van Halen, for the last forty-plus years, we found that someone.
There are those that like to proclaim and insist that Eddie was “overrated” or that he was “too flashy” or “had no soul,” but in reality that is all bullshit. You can have your favorites. You have your preference, but the cold hard fact is Eddie Van Halen was the best. He’s the best until someone comes along to change the game as he did. Simply put– no one can touch him. Eddie was perpetually imitated but never remotely duplicated. Seriously, how many musicians in general, can you identify by hearing a split second of a note? Yeah. Eddie Van Halen was one of those guys. Maybe the only one of those guys.
So, Eddie Van Halen’s music has meant a lot to me. I think it meant a lot to a great many of you as well. This year, we’ve lost far too many special musicians. Seriously, it feels as if we lose at least one per month lately. We can only hope that we don’t lose anymore before 2020 is done with us. For the last five or so years, Van Halen has been inactive, and I am guilty of being one of the people who assumed their notorious infighting and generally moody behavior were to blame. I assumed that at some point, they would hit the road with either Sammy or Dave and maybe even throw down for another album. Little did I know that Eddie had been battling throat cancer in secrecy for those five years.
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. He was a human being, in the truest sense of the word. He lived out both his wildest dreams, and darkest embarrassments in the public spotlight, and that can’t ever be easy. So, when you think of Eddie, don’t focus on the negative. Give the guy a break. I personally am thankful for the music Eddie gave us. Yes, that includes both the Dave and Sammy eras and even the Gary Cherone era! Seriously, the “who was the better singer” debate has to end! It’s trivial and generally unimportant. Let’s just decide to call it a draw. Dave brought the party, and Sammy brought the maturity. It’s all about balance, and oddly enough, Van Halen had that in spades.
I am thankful I chose to go see Van Halen by myself at MSG, in 2012, when no one else wanted to go with me. This time, when it comes to Eddie, I have no regrets. Today, spin your Van Halen records. Remember the legend. Appreciate the talent. And smile. Smile the same way Eddie always did when he had that “Frankenstat” guitar in his hands.
Yes, I am sad that I’ll never hear one of the most gifted musicians in history make the guitar sing like only he could again, but at the same time, I’m truly happy and appreciative of what Eddie left us with. His legacy lives on in the songs, the solos, and all the smiling faces left in his body of work’s wake. So, enjoy and appreciate them. Every time you hear “Everybody Wants Some!!” on your radio during your commute to work– smile. Each time you hear “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” on the jukebox at your favorite bar or restaurant– smile. And next time you’re at a baseball or basketball game, and “Jump” plays over the loudspeakers– smile! That’s what Eddie would have wanted.
No, I never knew you personally, but I’ll miss you, Eddie. I truly hope that wherever you are, there is at least one guitar there and that you are able to make all of your new friends happy, just like you made all of us here happy for all of these years. Rest In Power, Legend.