What I’m about to say might shock my three Loyal Readers, but I’m afraid it’s true: I’ve always been more of a casual Van Halen fan than a true devotee. A “greatest hits” kind of fan, if you take my meaning. I don’t even have a particular preference for the Diamond Dave or Van Hagar eras of the band. I like ’em both. I guess what I’m saying is that, while I always liked Van Halen, I wasn’t deeply invested in them like many of my peers. Even so, hearing this afternoon that Eddie Van Halen, the virtuoso guitar wizard who (along with his brother Alex) was the band’s namesake, had died of throat cancer was like a kick in the gut.
While the band had formed in 1972 and hit the big time in 1978, I was only vaguely aware of them until their biggest single “Jump” reached the charts in early 1984. I was fourteen. I remember seeing the “Jump” clip on Friday Night Videos — it seems like it played on the show every week for months and months — and thinking that Eddie looked like a cocky punk with that smirk of his, while Alex didn’t make much impression at all. David Lee Roth was entertaining in his outrageousness, but honestly the one I was most drawn to was Michael Anthony, the bassist. His style was the closest to my own, and he just struck me as a good guy, someone you’d enjoy hanging out with (in as much as you can tell from a music video). These guys just weren’t cool to me the way somebody like, say, ZZ Top was. I loved the song, though, and its follow-up “I’ll Wait,” and its follow-up “Panama.” I loved them so much that when I finally got the album these songs were coming from, 1984, it was something of a disappointment, as it turned out that I hated half the songs on it as much as I loved the other half. I had that experience again and again as I explored Van Halen’s catalog, both their older work and then the post-1984 era when Sammy Hagar — who I knew from his solo record Three Lock Box — replaced Roth as the band’s lead singer. As it happened, the stuff I didn’t like was almost always the songs where Eddie indulged himself with long solos that I understood were technically impressive, but just tended to irritate me. I much preferred the more radio-friendly tunes where melody dominated over show-off shredding.
However, given enough time, it’s not unusual for things that formerly annoyed you to become familiar, then comfortable, and then sometimes even beloved, and that’s what happened with me and Eddie Van Halen. His music and his sound were so ubiquitous during my coming-of-age years, such an enormous part of the soundtrack of my youth, that I gradually found myself warming to them, coming to understand what he was doing and why it mattered. (I underwent a similar process with Prince, another GenX icon I just didn’t “get” when he was in his prime.)
And then one day, five years ago, I found myself at an outdoor concert venue on a sticky summer night, clapping and screaming along with everyone else as Eddie and Diamond Dave stalked each other on an enormous stage during one of their occasional reunion tours. If I remember correctly, they didn’t finish that tour; tensions between Eddie and Dave tore them apart before the end, just as they had all those years before. I think my city was one of their last stops before it all went south. But whatever happened after they played Salt Lake, the motors were ticking along like clockwork that night at Usana Amphitheater. Eddie was 60 years old at the time. He looked trim and healthy. He looked happy, a handsome man in a plain white shirt whose youthful arrogance and pretension and rock-star bullshit had long ago been burned away by experience. He was an elder statesman in full control of his skills and his instrument, his fingers moving across the strings and frets seemingly without effort, simply a joy to behold.