Somehow it seems both ironic and fitting to close my personal appreciation for Eddie Van Halen today, on what would be John Lennon‘s 80th birthday.
The mist of time and memory always color the lightning bolt moments of youth. Looking back on it now, Eddie‘s playing led me to seek out and study some of the great rock players that I would soon encounter – Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Eric Johnson rise to mind immediately. Each made their art in their unique intersection of virtuosity, innovation, tone and technique. Their influences would send me on my own journey mining hard rock and exploring creativity. But that, friend, is not the point of this story, and that story will have to wait for another time. Soon enough.
I had only had my stock '76 Stratocaster for a few months when Van Halen's Women and Children First was released. I didn't have a whammy bar, humbucker pickups, or Marshall amps, or a whole lot of speed or virtuosity anywhere near my fingers yet. I couldn't make those sounds, or hardly even figure out some of what he was doing, and teenage me was hungry and curious,
But 1980 was to be a reckoning with rock reality. I was learning that rock's dark side wasn't hard to find. A cocaine epidemic was starting to catch fire around home, and I knew a lot of good people who would soon be caught up in it, as well as the regular and easy hazards of booze. I was just in middle school when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down, just three weeks after they released Street Survivors with its tragic foreshadowing album cover of the band engulfed in flames. But most of rock’s tragic losses had happened before my time - Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. Those tragedies seemed like a rarity.
That year Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door really pulled me in their music for the first time, maybe because I was old enough to appreciate them properly. And suddenly John Bonham drowned in a deluge of vodka shots, and the flame went out. The dark dreary onset of winter brought the senseless murder of John Lennon two weeks before Christmas. To see two of rock's most epic creative forces suddenly cut down was sobering. I suppose it was the exclamation point on my coming of age; that there would never be any more music from those world-changing foursomes. It was real now, that death was permanent, tragedy (including self-inflicted) could take our musical heroes in any unexpected moment, and music was the legacy they'd leave for the rest of us.
In retrospect, knowing how hard Van Halen partied "back in the day," this week I am grateful that we got to experience EVH's gifts over these past four decades. And that he managed to eventually kick some of his demons to the curb and enjoy some of these last few years, especially performing with his son. Eddie's gone too soon, but he's left us an enormous inheritance for anyone who loves the guitar to enjoy and study. It's all too easy to inadvertently lose an hour on YouTube trying to decipher some new thing you notice in his playing.
But tonight, it's the teenage kid with a record player and a cassette recorder writing this appreciation, with the knowledge that my career over this past quarter century owes a great debt to a rock guitar pioneer with the perpetual smile and an ocean of talent. For all of it, I'm grateful. And still learning.
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Read the NPR tribute, "The Astonishing Techniques That Made Eddie Van Halen A Guitar God"