Eddie Van Halen, the most important rock guitarist of the past 45 years, died of cancer this morning at age 65.
Van Halen reinvented what the electric guitar could sound like, while his monster-selling band, also named Van Halen (his brother was on drums, and his son would much later join on bass), forged a new genre of heavy metal that stressed California technicolor over British gloom, Jack Daniels over Jack the Ripper, hair spray over hobbits.
You will recognize Van Halen’s pyrotechnic guitar technique and “brown” tone even if you have never consciously listened to a single one of his songs. This instrumental, from the band’s eponymous and still-astonishing 1978 debut album (which sold more than 10 million copies), is why:
It was the fretboard-tap that spawned a thousand imitators. (And, indirectly, one of the all-time great documentaries: The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, by Penelope Spheeris.) As Eddie—that’s what we all called him—told Billy Corgan in 1996 (recounted in an excellent L.A. Times obit), “When I used the stuff I invented, I was telling a story, while I felt that the people who were imitating me were telling a joke.”
The invention element here is a much-overlooked aspect of the band’s breakout success. Despite featuring two virtuoso musicians (Eddie and Alex’s father was a lifelong classical clarinetist and saxophone player) and one of the most outlandishly charismatic and athletic frontmen rock has ever seen in David Lee Roth, the Pasadena quartet was a strictly and impressively D.I.Y. outfit for years in the mid-1970s, putting on their own shows in the San Gabriel Valley and Sunset Strip while the music industry flocked to disco and soft rock, and critics turned to punk.
Appropriately for era and place, Eddie’s instrument itself, later to be donated to the Smithsonian, was a self-made hot-rod.
“His iconic, road-battered guitar, named Frankenstein, was pieced together to his personal specifications in 1975 from the components of other instruments—a $50 body, a $75 neck, a single Humbucker pickup and crucial tremolo bar,” writes the L.A. Times. “With a red surface crisscrossed frantically with black and white stripes (and traffic reflectors stuck to the back), it remains one of the most recognizable guitars in rock ‘n’ roll.”
Such was the ubiquity of the Van Halen influence that it made perfect sense that my dopey little Beatles-covering garage band in high school would feature a guitarist kitted out like this:
It’s hard to gaze backward from artistic and cultural success and imagine it as anything but preordained, but in fact the Van Halen kids’ immigrant work ethic (both were born in the Netherlands, coming to America in elementary school) helped give them not only world-beating chops but the kind of stubbornness to shrug off being initially turned down by every record label and shunned even after arrival by a legion of myopic rock critics. Even Creem, that critical champion of rock’s atavistic yawps, declared in June 1978 that “‘dinosaurs’ may be too harsh a term, even if Van Halen-style rockers do find their evolutionary fulfillment in a quick extinction.”
“We came here with approximately $50 and a piano, and we didn’t speak the language,” Eddie said in 2015. “If that’s not the American dream, what is?”
A crucial part of that American (and Californian!) dream is people just not giving a shit one way or the other if you’ve got a funny name like Edward Lodewijk Van Halen. Not that there’s a cauldron of anti-Dutch sentiment bubbling under the San Andreas, but what made Eddie important to his millions of fans was the same thing that drew people to the biracial Slash (and his schoolmate Lenny Kravitz), the Greek-born Tommy Lee, or the Hungarian-American Flea—he shredded, and looked dead cool (or at least very pleasantly stoned) doing it. If the East Coast is where people ask you where you went to school, the West Coast is where they instead want to know what you’re working on. And what Eddie Van Halen was working on was kicking your ass, with a goofy smile on his face.
I won’t be surprised when, if not this week then next month, the outrage archeologists will pick through the off-the-record wreckage of Eddie’s life or the on-the-record outrages of songs like, um, “Hot for Teacher” (a song that inspired a classic case for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Cock-rock, after all, was never shy about its excesses.
But in an age allergic to grace, obsessed with race, and overly anxious about “cultural appropriation,” here’s one triviality perhaps worth celebrating: Eddie Van Halen not only laid down the template for rock guitar and hair metal, he not only helped cross what was then an honest-to-God racial divide in pop music by laying down a guitar solo for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (for the cost of precisely one can of beer), he was for a while there being sampled in early rap music at a rate just below Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. If you march through the hip hop just from the year 1989, you encounter Van Halen everywhere from Tone-Loc to 2 Live Crew.
Many of those samples came from one of the all-time great guitar riffs, on “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” which on any other day would be my go-to Van Halen song (and cover). But there was something also sweet and unapologetically pop about Eddie’s playing and songwriting, which you can hear (and see!) not only in the band’s synth-pop masterpiece “Jump” but also in this blissed-out teenage trifle. May we all be dancing the night away again sometime soon.