Light Up the Sky
Eddie Van Halen, 1955-2020

I have been trying to remember the first time I heard Eddie Van Halen play.

I’m not quite of the generation that made him famous. I was four years old when the first Van Halen album came out, and I missed the golden years, not quite being conscious of music yet. Even though their hits, like “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Dance the Night Away” and “Everybody Wants Some,” were all over the radio during my formative years, I can’t remember hearing any of them. But I was ten years old when 1984 was released, and that was just old enough to think that “Jump” was the greatest song ever written by humans.

I’m pretty sure I first heard Eddie Van Halen the way a lot of suburban kids my age did: on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Even though I was eight when it came out, I can vividly remember that song being absolutely everywhere, and Van Halen’s blistering solo is seared into my brain. I can hum it, still, from memory. “Beat It” is one of the earliest songs I can remember fully responding to, one of the songs that ignited my lifelong love of music.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I literally do not remember my life without Eddie Van Halen’s playing in it. You simply could not be a teenage boy in the ‘80s and not hear Van Halen. And yet, if you asked me when I first heard Van Halen II, for example, I’m not sure I could tell you. It’s just always been an album I’ve had, in one way or another, like the rest of the David Lee Roth era. I’m pretty sure 1984 came first. I do remember reading a Rolling Stone cover story on the band while waiting for an orthodontist appointment, and probably asking for the album on cassette not long after that.

I have no doubt, though, that I did not understand the significance of Eddie Van Halen until much later. Now I know the truth: you can cleanly divide rock guitar playing into eras, and one of those dividing lines is “Eruption.” Sequenced as the second song on the band’s self-titled debut, “Eruption” is less than two minutes long and consists of almost nothing but Eddie tapping away on the fretboard, but it sparked a revolution. Guitar solos before “Eruption” sounded nothing like it. But once it dropped, everyone wanted to sound like that.

Some guitar players have fans. Eddie Van Halen had disciples. The ‘80s were chock full of glammy guitar-rock bands, and every one of them had a lead player who wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Guys like Vito Bratta and Nuno Bettencourt built on what Van Halen had brought to the table, but his work was still the foundation. He was the first guitar god of my lifetime, and remained one of the best.

To say there is some dispute about the best era of Van Halen is to understate things by miles. I’m not sure how long it took me to become familiar with the David Lee Roth era – I do know that by the time Tone Loc sampled “Jamie’s Cryin’” on “Wild Thing,” I could recognize the riff, and that was 1989. I missed the entire era doing things like learning to read and do long division, but it still feels like a part of my life. While some players with Eddie Van Halen’s talent would have been self-serious and pretentious about it, early Van Halen had just one objective: fun.

The first six Van Halen albums are just full-on fun, winking double entendres and all. David Lee Roth was a perfect frontman. He couldn’t sing well, but that didn’t matter. His personality carried the day. He was a wisecracking ball of energy, an inexhaustible showman, and he brought out the best in the band. Eddie’s finest riffs can be found here, from the immortal stomp of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” to the great “And the Cradle Will Rock.” I like so many of the tunes from this era, even overlooked ones like the intricate “Little Guitars” and the delightful “Beautiful Girls,” but I think they hit their apex on “Panama.” Every bit of this song works, still, 36 years later.

But I definitely came of age in the Van Hagar years, and they will always hold a special place in my heart. For one thing, I cannot overstate how much Eddie Van Halen did to make keyboards seem cool to an impressionable young kid. “Jump” was certainly one thing, but “Dreams” and “Love Walks In” were my jams. “Dreams” is still, I think, an incredible song, just a beautifully structured thing, and Hagar’s vocals work so well on it. Hagar can actually sing, meaning he can hit the notes and hold them, even if his persona was a lot more straightforward in the band than Roth’s. Roth was adamant that he wasn’t talking about love, but Hagar didn’t talk about anything else, really. It was a transformation for the band, but they handled it with aplomb.

5150 is a great little record, but OU812 was really my first new Van Halen album. Here’s a memory I have: perusing the cassettes a friend brought to Christian camp when I was 14, spotting the new Van Halen and reading the lyrics. I’m sure I had no idea what “Black and Blue” and “Finish What You Started” really meant, but I found them thrilling, subversive. (I was a sheltered kid.) OU812 knocked me sideways with its varied songwriting, extraordinary playing and sense of fun. It was a hair metal album, but it felt like more than that, like elder statesmen showing the kids how it was done.

From then on, Van Halen has never really left my consciousness. “When It’s Love” was one of those songs I tried to learn to play with sheet music, but ended up figuring out by ear, a skill I didn’t really know at the time that I had. My high school band recorded a jokey version of Van Halen’s take on “Happy Trails.” I was about ready to graduate high school when the band scored a massive hit with “Right Now,” and it became something of an anthem. My sister chose “Love Walks In” as the entrance music for her wedding. I was working at a music magazine in Portland, Maine when Van Halen III – the band’s ill-fated outing with Extreme singer Gary Cherone – was released, and I wrote a passionate defense of it. I still stand by most of it, though the album hasn’t aged as well as I would have hoped.

And I rejoiced when A Different Kind of Truth came out in 2012, and it was actually kind of awesome. Eddie had revealed his health struggles by this point, and had overcome tongue cancer, but would soon be diagnosed with throat cancer. I didn’t know this would be the last Van Halen album, but it felt like a strong return to form, bringing Roth back into the fold one last time, and in retrospect it’s a good way for the band to go out. After some attempts at deeper and more experimental music, this one felt old school. It just wanted you to have a good time, and it certainly seemed like Eddie was having fun playing this stuff. Just listen to “As Is.” That song rips, man. Eddie sounds like he’s 25 again.

Sometime in 2019 Eddie Van Halen was hospitalized, his battle with throat cancer having taken a turn. He died at the age of 65 on October 6, another lousy turn in a lousy year. This long and rambling reminiscence is my way of saying goodbye to someone whose extraordinary talent has been in my life for as long as I can remember, literally, and of saying thank you. Van Halen music has soundtracked my life, served as touchpoints along my growth as a player and appreciator, and brought me an uncountable amount of joy. Rest in peace, Eddie. You were taken much too soon.

See you in line Tuesday morning.