Saturday, November 07, 2020

Rock 'N' Roll and the Cycle of Life : Farewell, Eddie Van Halen

So many musicians and public figures have passed away in the past ten years, especially since the 2016 triple whammy of Lemmy (Dec ‘15, actually), David Bowie, and Prince. Some people at that time blamed the year. If we just got out of 2016, no more old rock stars would die, as through old people would stop aging or getting sick in 2017.

 But time kept rambling on, and we saw more icons die, and not only Boomer ones - Tom Petty, Peter Tork, Chris Cornell, Dolores O’ Riordan, George Michael,  Fast Eddie Clarke, Vinnie Paul, Aretha Franklin, Paul Raymond, Pete Way, Paul Chapman, Kim Shattuck, Pete Shelley, Ginger Baker, etc.

 Someone asked me, "What future rock star death do you think will affect you the most?”

“Eddie Van Halen,” I said. “It’s all over after that.”

 Now of course I didn’t mean that the world or my life would be over. It would be the end of an era, a definitive sign that the younger Boomers/older Gen Xers needed to address their mortality, instead of mindlessly clamoring on like our music and pop culture still matter to the population at large. Rock music started to wither in mainstream culture in the late 90s, and was relegated to a genre for old people sometime in the ‘10s. Yeah, lots of kids are forming guitar-based bands and putting out new music, but now it’s just one of dozens of music genres on Spotify, not a rallying cry for a generation.


From 1978 to 1984, I must have listened to all the DLR-era Van Halen albums hundreds of times, read every magazine article, bought every poster, and listened to every radio/TV interview with the band I could find. Sure, my girlfriends and I spent an inordinate amount of time giggling about DLR’s latest antics, but every time we went to a VH show, we always sat (or stood) by Eddie’s side of the stage. It reminded me of an interview I saw a long time ago with some teen-age girls during the Beatles’ first tour of America. The interviewer asked them what they liked about the band, and three of the girls squealed about how cute and funny they were. The fourth girl said, “They have the most beautiful sound,” her voice almost drowned out by the other girls’ high-pitched giggles. 

 Dave was the face and voice of VH, but Eddie was the heart – and the soul.

   2015 Smithsonian interview

David Bowie’s death broke the internet for a week, but the news cycle is different now. Eddie’s passing floored people for a day or two, but politics kicked him off the social media and the usual bickering returned the next day. The only people who cared after that were people in Van Halen fan groups, musicians, or rock writers. Eddie may have been important to us, but, lets face it, he was a guitar hero from the ‘80s to most people, another nostalgic figure. To fans and musicians, he was much more. He was an innovator and a legend, younger Boomers’ Jimi Hendrix.

 Vernon Reid of Living Colour, wrote on Twitter

 "So you think the death of EVH is hitting you now. It’s not. Grief doesn’t work that way. Tomorrow is going to be worse than today. His passing is enormous. Exploitation will follow, like t shirts for Kobe. Don’t be too proud to cry. This is a sad time. Tears are appropriate." 

Eddie Van Halen passed away from throat cancer on Oct. 6. It’s a month later, and I’ve finally overcome the shock. I’d been doing pretty well on my new routine, avoiding Facebook and other social media for most of the day. Yay! More time to actually do work and be happy. You should try it sometime. I took a break for a mid-day check on Facebook. Wolf’s post about Eddie was at the top of my newsfeed. This can’t be real. I thought, and I stared at the post for a good 30 seconds. Finally, I accepted reality. Eddie was gone. I watched all the videos and interviews I could find, including clips with Eddie and Valerie Bertinelli from Entertainment Tonight that I hadn’t seen since 1982. I remembered every word and every gesture they made like I was watching it back in my childhood home 38 years ago. My friends and I were excited, and yes, a little jealous, when Valerie married Eddie, but we were big fans of Valerie’s since we first saw her on One Day at a Time. Better that Ed married a nice Italian girl (well, Italian/English) than some gold-digging blonde bimbo. 


After Eddie died, I said “Well, at least Dave will live to be 100. “Don’t say that -you'll jinx him! You said Pete Way would outlive Keith Richards, and look what happened there.” my friend responded. Way, UFO’s former bass player and leader of Waysted in the late ‘80s, survived decades of alcoholism, heroin and cocaine abuse, prostate cancer, and a heart attack, and then died after falling down the stairs in his home. He had been sober for years. He still hung on for weeks in the hospital, and was scheduled to return home the day he died. A world concert tour had been planned for 2021.

                                                        You Really Got Me Promo Video

  I first heard Van Halen on a TEAC turntable in our wood paneled basement. My brothers had commandeered the space. It  had a pool table, a silk Camaro banner. and a beer can collection.  One of my brothers grabbed an album from the shelf, in between the Ramones “Rocket to Russia” and D.O.A.’s “Bloodrock”. I didn’t even need to listen to the album right away – the photos on the front and back covers got your attention.  The photos were different than what I’d seen before. Instead of the usual posed group shot with band members in jeans and t-shirts, or some obscure conceptual art, the cover grabbed you and made you want to hear what was inside.

 Eddie looked fierce, and Dave, well, he had that Jim Dandy swagger, leather pants, and could do a backbend. Alex and Michael were obscured by lightning streak special effects, but still looked cool.

 It’s  a good thing the record company didn’t rush through the original new wave album cover. The cover was an example of the old-school thinktank record company mentality. Let’s do what the punk bands are doing - that’s the hot thing in England now. Yeah, let’s also shoot a cover that misrepresents the band’s music and their personalities. In the old days,  an album cover could be the difference between an impromptu purchase in a record store and a pass over.  

We put the record on. The first notes of “Runnin’ with the Devil” grabbed you like an alien life force. What was that sound? Where did it come from?  We couldn’t breeze through the usual comparisons to other bands or guitar players. Did the guitar remind us of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, UFO? Nah, this was something else.

 As loud as it was on normal volume, we turned the volume up until the windows rattled and you could visualize the power, the force of the music shattering the glass until it rained shards on the neatly landscaped front lawn.

 The first copy of Guitar Player I ever bought had an interview with Eddie in it. But my girlfriends and I still hung up cute pics of Eddie from Circus and Hit Parader, and some of us even raided our younger sisters' 16 magazines for pin-ups.

Like a dummy, I gave away my ticket to see Black Sabbath before I knew Van Halen was opening for them. I made up for it in 1979, when I saw VH headline at the Arrogant Brawlroom (aka Aragon Ballroom) in Chicago. I took two buses and two subway lines all the way to Uptown to see the show. In those days, everybody partied in the alley behind the venue while they waited to get in the building. You didn’t really need booze or pot, the music got you high enough, but sharing pot and booze with the kids next to you was a social thing. It was a great way to meet people and make friends.

The kids at the sold-out Aragon show were true music nerds, Van Halen II had just been released so the “normal” kids hadn’t heard of them yet. We didn’t need to compete with drunken jocks and their bored girlfriends for space by the front of the stage.

 Eddie wore a striped jacket and velour-type pants. He looked cute as hell, the grinning genius to David’s bravado. Even on the Aragon stage without mountains of amps and video screens behind them, they were larger than life. The show was hot, sweaty and primal. You could feel the notes from Eddie’s guitar, not just hear them. There were no barricades between the band and the kids crammed up in front like there are today. I could almost touch Eddie's white sneakers.   


                                      Here’s an 8mm clip from the Fresno show on that tour.


The next year, a girlfriend and I had the International Amphitheatre’s main floor to ourselves as we watched the band rehearse. Eddie, Alex, and Michael were there but Dave was off doing Dave things.  In 1981, another friend and I hung out backstage  -that is, until I insisted on going out to watch the show. We couldn’t get backstage again. My friend was mad about that. But that’s what I get for wanting to watch the actual concert.  In ’82, we were back in the 20th row.

 After the first two years or so, a Van Halen concert turned into a circus, with Dave as the ringmaster. Everyone else pitched in - Michael had a Jack Daniels bass, Eddie, always smiling, leapt in the air, or took a break to puff on a cigarette during solos. Alex poured beer on himself after playing a solo, and inflatable love dolls, groupies, etc. filled the venues. 

 I’ve seen hundreds of concerts, but I’ve never had more fun than I did at a Van Halen show.

 US Festival

 Naturally, my most memorable Van Halen concert was also their most infamous - the US Festival in 1983. I’d just moved to California, and didn’t know many people, but that didn’t stop me from going to the desert to see the mighty Van Halen headline Heavy Metal Day. My vision of the band was slightly obscured by barriers and a million dollar set up, but with a bit of neck-craning I could see ‘em.  Once again, I stood right up in front on Eddie’s side of the stage as he played his iconic solo.

At one point in the show, Dave pointed out that this metal day attracted 200,000 people, (the highest of the four day fest). An endless horizon of people stretched out as far as the eyes could see, with the spotlights illuminating the stoned throngs.

 I made my way out to the chartered bus after the show, and sat next to a shaggy-haired entrepreneur who made studded leather wristbands. I bought one, and wore it proudly to  shows and clubs that summer (along with my Union Jack shirt and leather pants.)

 Last Show

I bought a cassette of 5150 at Tower Records on Sunset Strip in 1986. I'd watch videos and interviews with the band on MTV in the late '80s and '90s, and I may have even bought a few cassingles (remember those?) However, that was the extent of my history with Sammy-era Van Halen. 

I didn’t see Van Halen again until their last show in 2015 at Hollywood Bowl. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would be their last show ever.) This time we sat in the cheap seats. But the cheap seats were rocking with vociferous fans. "Just sing the song, Dave", one woman kept screaming when Dave went into his between song novellas. “But when did Dave ever just “sing the song”?, I said. The highlights for me were Eddie’s solo and even Alex’s drum solo. It brought me back to my carefree college days. I didn’t want the concert to end. Eddie still had the same boyish grin as he did what he was born to do. I felt like I was 19 again.

We held out hope that VH would return one more time with Michael Anthony as bass player. The official word was that a tour with Dave and Mike was scheduled for 2019, but was canceled due to Ed’s health.


 Those days or nights spent listening to music on headphones, or blasting the stereo while enjoying a joint or a beer (or Pepsi and bag of chips for the junk food junkies among us ) are precious memories now.  There were no streaming services, Playstations, or DVDs back then, and an MTV fix wasn't enough. When you listened to music, it was the main course, not a blip in the background. You immersed yourself in every song, every album, over and over again until they were ingrained in your consciousness. 

 I wish I could remember more from that first show. But every time I hear Van Halen II or see the few clips from 1979 shows, I get the same flutter of excitement I had when the band first took the stage that night at the Aragon.

Maya Angelou once said, “You may not remember what people said, you may not remember what people did, but you always remember how they made you feel.” Well, Eddie, we remember what you did, but we also remember the utter joy of hearing you play and watching you perform.

Thanks for everything. We love you.