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.

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