[guest post by JVW]
I hadn’t really thought to write about Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, guitarist for one of the biggest bands of my youth, who died earlier today after a long bout with mouth and throat cancer. As a kid I was a Van Halen fan, like most white boys my age, and I vividly recall being home sick from school on that day in December of 1983 when the local radio station received its demo copy of “Jump” via FedEx and played it for the first time just in time for Christmas shopping. That spring when they commenced upon their world tour I fervently negotiated with my parents to allow fourteen-year-old me and my eighth-grade buddies to go up to the big city to see the group in concert. My father, who recalled that Van Halen had caused something of a ruckus in our home town four years earlier, didn’t seem too enthralled with the idea. In any case, our failure to procure tickets for the show (there were about 400 of us in line hoping to buy and our local record store had been given probably 100 tickets to be sold in lots of four) made the point moot and I didn’t see the 1984 Tour.
Lead singer David Lee Roth would of course leave the band (or be kicked out; believe whichever version you wish) the following year, and the Van Halen brothers and bassist Michael Anthony would soldier on with new vocalist Sammy Hagar for the next decade. I never liked the Hagar version of the band as much as the original, though I still do appreciate some of the songs they made with Mr. Cabo Wabo himself. In any case, one constant that remained throughout both incarnations of the band (let’s just all agree to forget the Gary Cherone version of the band, OK?) was Eddie’s slick guitar playing, impossibly fast and sounding like nobody else in rock and roll. Most of us were stuck playing the sort of instruments that you can play in middle school band — trumpets, saxophones, trombones, etc. — but even if we couldn’t quite sling an axe ourselves we appreciated and marveled at the greatness that Eddie Van Halen so effortlessly displayed.
But what really inspired me to write this post was Kyle Smith’s tribute to Eddie at National Review Online. I hadn’t really thought of it this way, but Van Halen hearkens back to that glorious epoch in music between the transition of 70s strident leftist punk (after a dose of 60s protest music) and then later the revival of the earnestly gloomy alternative 90s hippy revival. Van Halen was the top band in America, and probably the world, at the height of Reaganism when rock and roll went back to being fun, at least when Bruce Springsteen wasn’t singing about your girl leaving you after the town’s factory closed and your VA benefits had been cut. Here’s how Mr. Smith described the scene:
The band clarified its mission at the start: “Running with the Devil,” the first song on their first album, isn’t a postcard from hell: It’s about raising hell. In contrast to Sixties doomscrolling like “Sympathy for the Devil,” it’s not a warning, it’s an invitation — to a kegger or a roadhouse. [. . .] On the album cover Roth had his shirt completely open to expose his big hairy chest, and at the end of [the band’s cover version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me“] he delivered a witty, “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” Van Halen was a laugh. In concert and in the videos, Roth did ridiculous yet awesome judo moves and Eddie never stopped smiling. This was the sound of fun, of wild and sticky Friday nights in crowded saloons, of young hormones past all control — the sound of sex.
Exactly right. Are there any present-day youth acts about whom you could say the same? Certainly there are, er, “artists” today who are happy to sing of carnal pleasures, partying, and general mayhem, but inevitably that act quickly shifts into pro forma condemnation of police brutality or a demand for immediate climate action or special pleading on behalf of this or that persecuted interest group. To my knowledge, Van Halen never told us what causes we must espouse or for which candidates we must vote; they were content with having a great time with us and then moving on to the next city.
So long, Eddie, and thanks for your part in my boyhood. I’ll close this out with my favorite Van Halen song, with a video so impossibly silly that it was clear the band never intended for us to take them seriously.