They sounded unlike anything I’d ever listened to at that point, and something about them felt thrilling and a little bit taboo. And that was largely thanks to one Eddie Van Halen, a virtuoso who figured out how to make his guitars produce incredible, impossible sounds. We had some great rock guitarists in that era, but if they were all playing chess, Eddie was playing advanced Go, coming up with moves and patterns nobody had ever seen.
Although Van Halen was popular when I was a kid, mine was a very lonely fandom. In my snooty prep school world, there was nothing cool about liking Van Halen. The lone exception came when Eddie soloed on “Beat It,” because Michael Jackson was popular at my school.
Nice preppy Holton-Arms girls weren’t supposed to listen to tacky hair metal dudes singing sleazy songs about booze and parties and sex. Nobody I knew would admit to liking them.
And at that age, I was generally a little sheep who went along with the crowd. But on this one thing, I absolutely would not yield. I was obsessed. I loved their music, and I did not care who gave me crap about it. I doodled the VH logo all over my school notebooks. I bought a logo necklace at one of their concerts and wore it until it turned green.
My long-suffering mom had to take me to my first two Van Halen concerts (1981 and 1982) because nobody I knew would go with me, I was way too young to go alone, and she knew sitting through a show would be less of an ordeal than listening to me bitch and whine for weeks about not getting to see them. Poor Mom. I think arenas instituted “parent rooms” just for people like her.
One fine morning while I was waiting at a Ticketmaster outlet for tickets for the 1984 tour, I just so happened to see two popular Holton girls in line. Well, well, well. I kid you not—they told me they were buying tickets “for a friend.” Suuuuuuure, Jan.
My Van Halen fandom was a gateway to harder heavy metal like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. I felt somewhat let down when 1984 came out because of the synthesizers, which made Van Halen sound a lot more like everyone else. (I was a hipster way before hipsters were a thing.) “Panama” was—and still is—a total banger and Eddie’s intro to “Hot For Teacher” is legendary, but I wasn’t all that taken with the rest of the album. And then David Lee Roth left the band and so did I; Van Hagar did nothing for me. Sorry, Sammy.
Ironically, at college I was finally surrounded by people who liked Van Halen, but by then I’d moved on to punk rock, new wave, and the first strains of industrial music. I’ve always had bad timing, I guess. But I will always consider myself damn lucky that I got to see Eddie Van Halen play live three times. Thank you, teenage self, for being so uncharacteristically stubborn about liking an uncool thing, because I saw a genuine legend in his prime.
In recent years, I hadn’t thought about Van Halen much other than getting an occasional earworm for one of their older songs. A few months ago, an idiotic fight broke out on Twitter when singer Billie Eilish said she didn’t know who Van Halen was. I didn’t care, as she’s really young and VH hadn’t been active for a while so why would she know them, but I guess some fans took offense and went after her. Which was stupid. In response, just about everyone on my Twitter feed started shitting all over Van Halen. Which was also stupid. The whole thing felt like being in high school all over again. And Eddie’s son Wolfgang said the only thing that needed to be said about all of it:
Music is supposed to bring us together, not divide us. Listen to what you want and don’t shame others for not knowing what you like.
— Wolf Van Halen (@WolfVanHalen) December 2, 2019
No, a lot of Van Halen’s sleazier songs have not aged well, to put it mildly. Plenty of their videos were problematic as hell for various reasons. That was a very different time. But Eddie’s blazing, amazing talent put them far above all the other pop metal bands of that era, like them or not.
* * *
On Tuesday afternoon, I noticed “Eddie Van Halen” trending on Twitter. Very often, I’ll see a celebrity trending for what turns out to be a mundane reason, and I hoped that was the case this time. It wasn’t.
I knew Eddie had been in poor health in recent years, but 65 is still way too damn young to go. I didn’t expect the news of his death to hit me as hard as it did, but I was in a morose mood for the rest of the day. Hell, it’s been four days as of this writing and I’m still getting a little misty.
And all the rock icons on Twitter pretty much looked like this:
They knew who they’d just lost.
When I try to sum up what Van Halen meant to me, this is it: Once upon a time, something about Van Halen, and about Eddie’s guitar playing in particular, stirred up something in the otherwise timid, conformist me. And that rebellious side, the side that unapologetically liked what I liked and didn’t give two shits what other people thought, is still my favorite part of myself.
Rest in power, Eddie.