Archive for October, 2020

eddie van halen, 1955-2020

Eddie Van Halen.

What becomes a celebrity most? For Eddie Van Halen, and pretty much everyone who passed through the vanguard rock troupe that bore his name, the answer was the prime building block of rock ‘n’ roll: attitude.

The guitarist, possibly the most imitated and influential player of his kind since Jimi Hendrix, had attitude to spare. We’ll get to his monstrous instrumental command in a moment. But think back to any time you may have seen Van Halen in performance or, better yet, any of the music videos that blanketed America in the wake of MTV’s ‘80s reign. Behind every fearsome, warp-speed lick, was ol’ Eddie grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. To many, that was as much a trademark of his performance persona as his playing. In reality, the electric smiles were simply an extension of his musicianship.

Van Halen came to stardom during the late ‘70s, addressing a mainstream audience as uninterested in joining a mounting post-punk movement as it was in rehashing the Cream/Hendrix blues-hued psychedelia of the previous decade. Van Halen celebrated its own youthful machismo to full celebrity excess, turned up the amps and laid its sound on thick. Sometimes it came with a disarming pop coating (“Dance the Night Away”). In other instances, it flirted with the icier thud of metal without sounding overly weighty (“Runnin’ with the Devil”). At then there were times when Eddie stood front and center and opened his back of pyrotechnic tricks (“Eruption”).

With singer David Lee Roth, the band had a carnival barker – an assured, purposely over-the-top, yet audience friendly focal point for the band’s hi-jinx. But in Eddie Van Halen the band had the power source to back up the bragging. He had technique for miles – most notably in a tapping style that gave the band’s songs remarkable dexterity and stylistic appeal. Van Halen could wield a power chord like a jack hammer, but he could also churn out one dizzying solo rich in harmony and almost orchestral texture after another.

Van Halen the guitarist was never a slave to his abilities any more than Van Halen the quartet was a jam band. The group seldom let songs dwindle. Their compositions blew in like a cyclone, merrily disturbed the peace and promptly left town. How did the old saying go? Leave them hungry for more? That’s what Van Halen did time and time again.

Sadly, Van Halen as a band was already a closed book when the announcement of Eddie’s death at age 65 came Tuesday afternoon. He had been battling cancer for years, choosing to reveal few details about his condition along the way. The band’s last concert tour concluded in 2015. Van Halen’s last visit to Rupp Arena came in 1995, when Sammy Hagar was serving as vocalist.

“Eddie Van Halen’s guitar style took the hard rock he inherited from Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the Who and revved it up with something akin to attention deficit disorder and Tourette’s syndrome,” wrote Jon Parales of the New York Times in a review of a 2007 Van Halen concert. “Those eruptions continually buttonholed a listener; they also mirrored the volatility of adolescent moods.”

We’ll miss the licks, for sure. More than that, we’ll miss the spirit. Van Halen schooled a legion of would be guitar heroes, whether they were eager disciples diligently dissecting every solo or air guitar revelers celebrating the glory of the almighty riff in front of a mirror.

Eddie Van Halen happily taught all them and more. For an entire generation, he was, quite simply, the life of the party.

the social distancing playlist 161-170

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 151. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “A One Story Town” (1982). Posted 8/12/2020 — In the storied career of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the “Long After Dark” album is something of a footnote with its leadoff track, “A One Story Town,” sitting as a forgotten classic. I’m not even sure how much mileage Petty got out the song after the initial tour behind the album was completed. But over the course of three rapid fire minutes, “A One Story Town” reminds us of everything that made Petty great – specifically, pop savvy singing with a touch of a sneer and an ensemble lyricism that bowed to the Heartbreakers’ most obvious influence, The Byrds. I’ll put this one up against any hit Petty took to the airwaves.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 152. Van Morrison, “Gloria” (1964/1974). Posted 8/13/2020 — “Gloria” started on the road to becoming a rock/soul staple in 1964 when Van Morrison penned the tune as a single for his band Them. An entire generation of acts, from The Doors to AC/DC, would cover it in the years to come, but none more gallantly than Morrison himself. A full decade later, he rewired “Gloria” into a soul-funk carnival on the 1974 live album “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.” The entire record is a document of Morrison in his prime, but it was the reborn “Gloria,” complete with a wild, James Brown-savvy horn breakdown, that truly made Van the Man.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 153. Yes, “Going for the One” (1976). Posted 8/14/2020 — By the summer of 1977, the clock was ticking on the behemoth known as prog rock. Having been kicked in the shins by punk, its stylistic opposite, the music’s vanguard bands began to fracture and fade. Yes countered the revolution by reconvening one its most acclaimed lineups (Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Chris Squire and Alan White), retreating to Switzerland and cutting a killer album, “Going for the One.” Its sound was surprisingly relaxed, whether through the light elegance of “Awaken” or the atypically loose title tune where Howe uncorks some of his finest playing.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 154. Santana, “Soul Sacrifice” (1969/1970). Posted 8/15/2020 — Woodstock weekend. On Saturday afternoon, 51 years ago, Santana went from little-known Latin blues unit to international sensation. It took roughly 10 minutes for that to happen – the time span of the set-closing avalanche jam known as “Soul Sacrifice.” What occurs in the last half of this instrumental outburst, a performance made even more dramatic by its keenly-edited appearance in the Oscar-winning Woodstock film released the following year, should serve as basic training for any would-be jam band on how to build a groove with tension and dynamics. This music still astounds.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 155. Sly and the Family Stone, “Higher” (1968/1970). Posted 8/16/2020 — Woodstock weekend. For me, sitting in the comfort of my couch watching the concert film of Woodstock 51 years after it happened, the highlight of the event remains Sly and the Family Stone and its wildly combustible blend of multi-cultural funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll – a seemingly improbable blend of James Brown groove and Miles Davis (in his early ‘70s electric incarnation) musicality. Now consider what it was like when it happened – around 3:30 Sunday morning on a hill with 400,000 tripped out strangers. That’s likely more than even the boldest of imaginations can process.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 156. Les McCann and Eddie Harris, “Compared to What?” (1969). Posted 8/17/2020. — The playlist spent the weekend honoring Woodstock’s 51st anniversary. Now let’s celebrate the two American jazz stylists – pianist, vocalist and Lexington native Les (not Less, at this clip asserts) McCann and Chicago-born saxophonist Eddie Harris –tearing things up across the Atlantic during the summer of Woodstock at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The resulting live album from their performance, 1969’s “Swiss Movement,” leads off with Gene McDaniels’ “Compared to What,” a fast talking, headline ripping chronicle of cool that became a jazz/soul standard.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 157. Jimmy Cliff, “Many Rivers to Cross” (1969). Posted 8/18/2020 — “Many Rivers to Cross” is perhaps the greatest non-reggae song by a reggae artist. Written and originally recorded by the great Jimmy Cliff upon his move from Jamaica to England, the work was designed as a personal affirmation. In Cliff’s original version, it comes across as a hymn. Written by the singer at the age of 21 for his self-titled 1969 album and featured again on 1972’s “The Harder They Come” soundtrack, “Many Rivers to Cross” has been covered by such unlikely contemporaries as Cher, Joe Cocker and Linda Ronstadt. None, though match the soul and urgency of Cliff’s original take.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 158. The Band, “Stage Fright” (1970). Posted 8/19/2020. — The Band’s third album, “Stage Fright,” was released 50 years ago this week. While not quite matching the gorgeously rustic authenticity (and antiquity) of the group’s first two records, there was much to savor here. The title tune, for instance, was a cornerstone work for keyboardist Garth Hudson, whose textural orchestrations drove the entire album, and bassist/vocalist Rick Danko. In contrast to the country/soul tenor of Levon Helm, Danko’s singing revealed a more disquieting vulnerability.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 159. Derek and the Dominos, “Bell Bottom Blues” (1970). Posted 8/20/2020 — Was 1970’s “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” Eric Clapton’s magnum opus? Probably. With two previous supergroups having crashed, the guitarist pulled the keyboardist (Bobby Whitlock) from Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Joe Cocker’s rhythm section (Carl Radle and Jim Gordon) and a second guitarist whose blues/soul command equaled his own (Duane Allman) to form Derek and the Dominos. It cut “Layla,” briefly toured without Allman and dissolved. But what an astounding document of blues-saturated romantic torment it left. “Bell Bottom Blues” is indicative of the record’s scorched soulfulness.

The Social Distancing Playlist, Day 160. The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968). Posted 8/21/2020. — Underestimating the songwriting abilities of George Harrison may have been one of the very few design flaws within the Beatles’ pop reign of the 1960s. But with 1968’s “The Beatles” (the double-disc work known as the White Album) revealing the band in disarray, Harrison went for broke. In recording one of his finest works, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” he enlisted Eric Clapton to handle lead guitar duties – a bold move given Harrison’s own command of the instrument. The result: a majestic reflection on global fracture that echoed the Beatles’ own tattered state.


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