Music

The Virtuosity and Creativity of Van Halen

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen performs during a private Valen Halen show in New York January 5, 2012. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Van Halen’s oversized influence on popular music stretched well beyond hard rock.

In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a wildly popular exhibition titled “Play It Loud — Instruments of Rock & Roll.”

Spread across several rooms of the Met’s inner galleries, the exhibit was chiefly concerned with guitars: acoustic, electric, and bass, featuring one beautiful piece of custom-built playable art after another.

And yet, amongst all the painstakingly crafted, precision-built instruments made with no expense spared by the finest luthiers on the planet, one ramshackle electric guitar, cobbled together by a teenager out of spare parts and decorated with spray paint, tape, and cigarette burns stood out, attracting the longest and most adoring views.

That guitar, known to the rock world as “Frankenstein” was the creation and visual signature of Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, a Dutch immigrant to the United States who burst out of the 1970s southern California party scene to become the most celebrated guitarist of his era.

Known universally as “Eddie,” Van Halen’s eponymous hard rock band, built around the nucleus of his pyrotechnic guitar and elder brother Alex’s thunderous drums, dominated the American hard rock scene from the moment of their 1978 debut until a sudden disappearance from the charts and stage two decades later.

The rollicking course of Van Halen’s recording and performing career already fills volumes and will be much-recounted in the wake of Edward’s sudden passing this week at the age of 65. I will leave the tales of platinum-spangled debauchery and excess to others, and concern myself only with the music.

The son of a jazz and classical clarinetist, Edward Van Halen was born in Amsterdam in 1955 and consigned to piano lessons from an early age. Propelled by poverty and prejudice against their Indonesian mother, the Van Halen brothers immigrated with their parents to the United States in 1962, entertaining the passengers and crew of a trans-Atlantic liner with improvised piano performances in the dining room.

When the family settled in Pasadena, neither of the boys spoke English, and the family’s assets, according to Edward, amounted to “Fifty dollars and a piano.” Father Jan paid the bills via any menial labor he could find in between the paltry wages of an occasional clarinet gig, but like so many new Americans, the Van Halens eventually found their way.

Both natural musicians, Edward and Alex respectively settled on guitar and drums in their early teens. Edward was obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll, spending most of his evenings locked in his bedroom, meticulously learning solos by his hero Eric Clapton from albums played at half-speed.

By the time he reached high school, Van Halen was already a virtuoso on both guitar and piano. He won a Long Beach classical piano competition four years in a row as a teen, despite (as he always claimed) never being able to read music. After a few years of apprenticeship in the LA backyard party and club scene, Van Halen was discovered by Warner Brothers records in 1978, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Van Halen’s innovation, melding the power of the 1960s British Blues revival with the wide-open California rock esthetic, leavened with heavy doses of his own classical upbringing and inherent generational talent, reshaped electric guitar playing far beyond the hard rock idiom.

Start with the sound. Van Halen’s distinctive tone cut through the sludge of 1970s proto-Metal and British studio excess like a thunderbolt. At once clean and distorted, the clarity and power of his parts was like nothing anyone had heard before. Jimi Hendrix didn’t sound like that. Jimmy Page didn’t sound like that. Certainly Eric Clapton never sounded like that. This was something new.

It became known as the “Brown Sound,” a combination of Van Halen’s home-made guitar, a voltage-starved Marshall amplifier, a cobbled-together collection of effects and most importantly Eddie’s own distinctive touch — including but certainly not limited to his signature two-hand tapping solo flourishes.

When “Eruption,” an aptly named solo guitar piece, burst out of the grooves of Van Halen’s 1978 debut, it literally changed guitar playing. Combining Rock muscle, sonic clarity, technical excellence, and an exuberance unique to Edward himself, it changed the lives of untold numbers of would-be guitarists and fans who’d never dream of picking up a Fender alike.

But don’t take my word for it, listen for yourself. Then come back.

Now, see what I mean? Imagine what that minute and 42 seconds did to legions of rock-hungry teenagers who heard it for the first (and second, and 1000th) time coming out of their big brother’s boom box from 1978 on. Wouldn’t it make you want to pick up a guitar if you were in their tennis shoes?

Yes, you would. Thanks to that solo and its accompanying songs, Eddie instantly became the defining guitar hero of his generation.

Van Halen stood out among Rock guitarists not just for his virtuosity and creativity, but also for his rare ability to mesh incendiary soloing with catchy, powerful rhythm playing.

If his range had been limited simply to the blazing solos, Van Halen likely would never have crossed over from the fringes of hard rock to mega-success on pop radio. Thankfully, he was as creative and exuberant a riff writer as he was a soloist, providing the raw materiel for ten platinum albums and countless live shows that quickly became the standard for rock concerts in the late ’70s and through the 1980s.

Van Halen’s oversized influence on popular music stretched well beyond hard rock. His playing inspired guitarists from jazz to grunge. When he dropped in to a 1982 studio session at the request of Michael Jackson, Van Halen casually restructured a rock song Jackson had been working up, added an instant-classic solo, and launched Jackson’s epochal Thriller album into the stratosphere via the massive crossover hit “Beat It.”

And famously, he did so for free, never asking for a cent of Thriller’s world-record album sales.

When he returned to his musical roots with keyboard compositions in Van Halen’s 1984 album and its successors, Edward crossed over again, leading his own band to success on the Top 40 charts normally barred to hard rock acts.  The next four Van Halen albums all hit number one (although 1984 itself stalled at number 2, blocked by . . . Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

Eddie Van Halen’s appeal was not limited to his extraordinary musicianship. His ever-present smile and onstage acrobatics were almost as recognizable as his guitar playing. Not only did nobody else sound like him, nobody else moved like Eddie, and certainly nobody else looked like they were having any more fun.

I think now that when Eddie stopped looking like he was having the time of his life in the mid ’90s, when his performances began to look more like work than play, the rest of us ought to have paid more attention.

Van Halen the band fell apart and was reformed several times, usually focused around the departure, arrival, or return of lead singers David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. Van Halen the man soldiered on, but the endless soap opera must have worn on a soul who for decades followed his alcoholic father’s advice to drink and smoke away stage fright and performance jitters.

The sturm und drang those convulsions caused among Van Halen’s fanbase are not worth repeating here, but the strain eventually got to Edward himself. Somewhere along the way, stress, age, disease, and prodigious substance abuse began to erase both his joy and his abilities.

By the time of concert tour reunions in 2004 and 2007, his preternatural accuracy was nearly gone. Repeated trips to rehab and rumored cancer treatments would give him brief recoveries, but as long-time fans would grudgingly admit, Eddie was not what he used to be onstage.

Thankfully, offstage he had the support of his family. Brother Alex, ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli, son Wolfgang, and now-widow Janie Van Halen surrounded Edward with a fierce devotion in his later years, keeping the pains of recovery and cancer treatment far from the peering eyes of his fans.

Edward Van Halen passed on October 6, struck down at last by a throat cancer that had bedeviled him for nearly two decades. While his health issues were much-rumored, the sudden announcement by his son that Eddie had lost that long battle hit the music world like a thunderbolt, five years after Van Halen’s last concert and 25 years after their last hit record.

Even in an age when rock ‘n’ roll rarely registers on the charts, Eddie’s influence still looms over the genre as if one of his colossal riffs kicking off a floodlight-washed concert. As surely as today’s era of mechanical sound-alikes will one day pass, the focused, joyful lightning of Edward Van Halen’s remarkable talents will illuminate popular music for many years to come.

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