Everyone has their “entry” Van Halen album, at least those of us that grew up in the late-70s and 80s. Oddly enough it wasn’t an older brother or that dude at the record shop that always looked tired and smelled like incense that got me into Van Halen at the age of 5. It was my parents. And while they did own Van Halen and VHII on 8-track, it was the latter that put those Whiskey-A-Go-Go legends permanently in my brain.
I can remember very clearly cranking my parents Pioneer stereo system to blistering levels when they would leave and put on shows in the living room. Tennis racket in hand and standing on the couch as David Lee Roth sang “She’s on fire, cause dancin’ gets her higher than uh Anything else she knows” and I’d jump as the “Ooohs” kicked in.
Van Halen II was my jam. And there were some seriously heavy songs on that, man. “Somebody Get Me A Doctor”, “Outta Love Again”, “Light Up The Sky”, and “DOA” were seriously heavy tunes with some of the dirtiest, grimiest guitar that had been committed to tape up to that point. Of course as a kid David Lee Roth was a draw. His yowl, his banshee bark, and his genuine animal magnetism mixed with good old fashioned entertainment value made him the guy you were drawn to. But by the time I was buying cassettes with my lunch money Diver Down came out and I was all in with Eddie Van Halen.
Eddie Van Halen is one of many guitarists that completely blew my mind and rewired my brain. Others came after and were far more influential to me, but Eddie Van Halen was the first. I can distinctly remember hearing “Eruption” for the first time. My older brother had Van Halen on cassette and as we drove into town to rent a movie he said “Hey, listen to this” and he proceeded to nearly blow his Pioneer Super Tuners in his ’77 Cutlass. The speakers survived, but my psyche didn’t. I heard that song and it felt like I was floating in space. Chills ran down my spine and it felt like my head was shrinking, compressing to the size of a nectarine as Eddie finger-tapped his way into my very DNA.
I wanted to do that. And I wanted to hear it again. And again.
If you were taking guitar lessons as a kid in the 80s then Eddie Van Halen was an influence on you. The finger-tapping, the dive bombs, the minor-key riffing into blues licks, and of course the heavy metal boogie were all prerequisites to being a proper guitar God. Sure, in middle school there were the Shrapnel Records cats and the Malmsteen speed monsters, but Eddie was still above them.
1984 was huge for me. Women and Children First was huge for me. Diver Down was huge for me. Nowadays I feel that Fair Warning is the dark horse in the VH canon. Eddie showed the most depth up to that point in his playing and songwriting. And it was the beginning of his deep dive into the synthesizer. “Sunday Afternoon In The Park” was unlike anything he’d done before. It was the dawn of a new Eddie, and in turn the dawn of a new Van Halen.
I can remember staying home from school when I was a junior in high school and sitting in my room listening to “Hot For Teacher” over and over again until I taught myself the opening guitar part. No transcriptions and no Youtube videos to watch. Just me, my Squier Strat, and 1984 on cassette. By the end of the day I had it down(or at least pretty damn close.) It felt like a triumph. Even though I hadn’t been listening to Van Halen for a couple years that song always stuck with me. Hell, it all stuck with me. Learning that song felt like moving on to another phase. And it sort of was I suppose.
For years Van Halen were off my radar. But in the last few years I’ve gone back to those old albums. The DLR years, that is. I’ve found a newfound love for those records. The musicianship, the gaudiness, the machismo, and those goddamn boogies. “Sinner’s Swing!”, “The Full Bug”, “Hot For Teacher”, and “Ice Cream Man” are songs I have no choice but to crank when they start playing. I love the fact that there was a new Van Halen album every year from 1978 to 1983. And pretty much every one of those albums was bulletproof. I even love Diver Down, easily the most disliked record of the Roth years. It was a great primer for what was to come with 1984.
Hearing that Eddie Van Halen succumbed to cancer today hit me hard. He was the guitar God of my generation, or at least the one right before me. He was reachable. I was alive in the time of Eddie Van Halen. I saw what he did as a player firsthand. I felt the changes and evolution of guitar playing that Eddie Van Halen put into motion. And beyond even guitar, Eddie Van Halen was a masterful songwriter. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, “Jamie’s Cryin”, “In A Simple Rhyme”, “Little Guitars”, “Unchained”, “I’ll Wait”, “Drop Dead Legs”, and those were just up until 1984. “When It’s Love”, “Dreams”, Finish What You Started”, “Right Now”, and “Why Can’t This Be Love” are even more saturated in pop radio vibes and haunted many middle and high school dances. He was one of the greatest guitarists to ever don a stage, but he was also a true innovator in the studio.
There were other guitar players in my life that I feel may have had a bigger impact on me as a fan of guitar playing and as a player myself. Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Frank Zappa, Adrian Belew, Jeff Beck, Kevin Shields, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Fripp all pushed me into new directions and guitar histrionics. But nothing compares to the first time hearing “Eruption” in my brother’s Cutlass. The chills, the floating in space, the shrinking head, the utter mind-blowing feeling of hearing something so alien yet so engaging. It was like listening to the future.
That was Eddie Van Halen.
RIP EVH, and thank you for everything.