Ode to Eddie Van Halen

In the beginning, in 1978 when Eddie Van Halen changed everything, I wasn’t there. At the time I was living in a particularly radio-starved area of upstate New York and found the music in my own collection far more interesting than the insubstantial stuff playing over those airwaves.

Then I moved to the DC area in 1982 and THERE WERE RADIO STATIONS – PLURAL!!!! – THAT PLAYED BLACK MUSIC!!! And a public station played jazz and blues. I was in a musical paradise where great artists were coming at me from all over the radio dial. What finally got me clued in were the persistent efforts of an IBM college intern and fellow music junkie I worked with who had a fascination with the Van Halen band and a massive crush on David Lee Roth, in particular.[1].

Eventually, Van Halen became inescapable and made a lot more people than me start paying attention. Jump became a massive hit. Eddie’s guitar made Michael Jackson’s Beat It such an ear-wormy all-time classic. He married every-guy-wishes-she-was-their-girlfriend Valerie Bertinelli. And despite the breakup with David Lee Roth, the band kept on putting out hits with their new singer, rock veteran Sammy Hagar.

But it didn’t really become personal until sometime in the mid-2000’s. According to my daughters, every summer I would get obsessively into the catalogue of some artist for driving music[2]. One such summer was The Summer of Van Halen. I wrote about that summer in a blog post: “And my girls got into the spirit that summer by frequently requesting Ice Cream Man which immediately evokes thoughts of summer ice cream trucks, along with hysterical and likely inappropriate images of David Lee Roth doing the salacious serving – ‘always aiming to satisfy’”. The girls also loved singing along to Jamie’s Cryin’.

Then on a late Saturday night, My Daughter Diandra (MDD) – in high school at the time and exploring 60’s-70’s rock – and I found ourselves coming upon a block of Van Halen videos on VH1. Panama; Hot for Teacher; Jump; The Cradle Will Rock. Come for David Lee Roth’s outsized persona. Stay for the guitar licks. Upon seeing the videos that went with the songs she already knew so well, MDD declared that seeing Van Halen was on her bucket list. Bucket list wish was fulfilled in May 2008 with a great show in Baltimore.

In a social media thread where people were sharing their thoughts about Eddie, a very music knowledgeable friend of mine said that his favorite song was Mean Streets. A great song for sure but I was more struck by his having a single, definitive favorite Van Halen song. I can’t do that. I have many “favorites.”

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, you know I love my lists. So, here’s mine. The criteria? Quite simply, these are the ones I go to the most on my iTunes or YouTube. Yes, there’s all those deep, technical guitar wizardry cuts throughout the catalogue. Like the works of a master artisan, I admire them. But when I come to Van Halen, I’m coming to rock.

As always, in no particular order:

  • Panama[3]
  • Poundcake – this performance at the 1991 VMAs is righteous.
  • Runnin’ With the Devil
  • Why Can’t This Be Love?
  • Unchained[4]
  • You Really Got Me
  • And the Cradle Will Rock[5]

Rest in Power.

P.S. One of my favorite celebratory pieces on Eddie was by James Parker in The Atlantic. Here’s a few choice excerpts.

  • How to salute him? As a musical seeker, a restless innovator perpetually at the boundaries of the possible? As a writer of gorgeous, gas-guzzling hits? As the grinning incarnation of American party time?
  • His noises, his phrases, came rainbowing out of an electric abyss: something out of nothing, creativity at its origin . . . His most idiosyncratic zoomings arose, blissfully, playfully, from the void. That’s how it feels to listen to Eddie Van Halen.
  • Eddie could be heavy, super heavy, but it was heaviness aestheticized, heaviness joyfully experiencing its own heaviness.

[1] She also used to talk my ear off about some little Irish band named U2.

[2] One year it was Joe Satriani. Another was Pat Benatar. There was The Late Summer/Early Fall of Lenny Kravitz. And a months long obsession with Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor. My daughters got such a well-rounded education riding around with me.

[3] “She’s runnin’/I’m flyin’/Right behind in the rearview mirror now/Got the fearin’, power steerin’/Pistons poppin’/ain’t no stoppin’ now/Panama”

[4] “Blue-eyed murder in a size five dress” – what a great lyric.

[5] “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” – what a classic line.

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