Eddie Van Halen forever: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 26
The best there ever was has gone silent. Drink up.
Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all. Today: happy trails to a legend.
There was a time in my life where I heard Eddie Van Halen’s guitar more frequently than I heard the voices of friends and family. I’ve air-guitared Van Halen songs in class, in church, at tailgates and campfires, on back decks and dive bars literally all over the planet. I don’t ever go more than a few days without cueing up “Panama” or “Unchained” or any one of four dozen other Van Halen tunes I know as well as my own heartbeat.
Eddie Van Halen’s guitar was a locomotive that jumped the tracks, barreled the wrong way down a highway, plowed right through a skyscraper, and then — just before everything went straight to hell — leaped right back onto the tracks and sped on to the next town.
And now he’s gone, dead of cancer at age 65. Literally none of that sentence makes any goddamn sense.
(As I write this, I’ve got Van Halen on shuffle and cranked up to ear-bleeding levels. Right now: “Ice Cream Man.” One of the most wicked solos Eddie ever unfurled.)
I first crossed paths with Van Halen exactly where you’re supposed to: blasting out of the juiced-subwoofer speakers of a dozen cars in a 1980s high school parking lot. Back then, David Lee Roth was our god, part party animal, part fast-talking preacher, always coming across like that friend of your older brother who could get you the best shit, guaranteed … even if you weren’t quite sure what the best shit was. Oh, and never let him even see your girlfriend. Trust me.
The bros loved Dave, but I was always an Eddie guy. He was a genius in the truest sense of the word, able to unfurl riffs like Jordan firing off jump shots, calling forth unworldly sounds from his guitar that nobody before or since has even attempted, much less matched. Ever wonder what an elephant piloting a jet would sound like breaking the sound barrier? Eddie did a damn good impression of exactly that.
(Now we’re on to “Why Can’t This Be Love.” People haaaaate this one. I don’t care. It’s dated as hell and cheesier than an old mall and I love it.)
Van Halen was the ultimate party-rock band, all noise and attitude topped off with no-way-it-flies-in-2020 misogyny. For a time, they owned the world, but their time passed. Earnest, confessional grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam didn’t obliterate Van Halen the way they did hair metal bands like Poison, but they did usher Eddie and the boys onto a cultural offramp. When the prevailing mood is whatever, never mind, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!!! doesn’t exactly sync up with the times.
Still, I dug the hell out of the band, Eddie most of all. He just looked like he was having so much damn fun playing the guitar, you know? He’d lock into a groove deep enough to show up on seismographs, then he’d cut loose like he was leaping off a bridge. He popularized tapping, a method of using both hands on the fretboard to send cascading torrents of notes out into the ether, like at the 58-second mark here:
He was constantly tinkering with his guitars, ripping them apart like some hacksaw surgeon, always looking for a new, bizarre sound to add to his repertoire. And then, just for the hell of it, he’d go and start playing some damn keyboards, like on “Jump,” just to piss everybody off.
(Hey, it’s time for “Panama,” sex and speed in verse-chorus-verse form.)
When I was in college, my more musically enlightened peers were listening to R.E.M., the Pixies, Talking Heads, Camper Van Beethoven … you know, college rock. And there I was, in Room 205 of DuPont Hall at the College of William and Mary, hunched over my blue Telecaster, clunky headphones plugged into my old Peavey amp, trying to figure out how in God’s name Eddie did … well, anything he did on the guitar. The moment that I figured out how to do a slippery “Eruption”-style tapping triplet move ranks right up there with the birth of my kids in my own personal pantheon.
I’ve got a million Van Halen anecdotes. He hung up on Michael Jackson when MJ called to ask if he’d do the solo in “Beat It,” then rolled up and banged out the whole thing in one take. He created the vrrooooooom sound in the “reach down between my legs” part in “Panama” by miking up his Lamborghini and gunning the engine. Late in his career, he brought his son Wolfgang into his band (via some pretty ugly treatment of his old bassist Michael Anthony, but we’ll let that slide now), and I can’t imagine how great it must have felt to be playing with your son at your side and your brother behind you.
(Next up: “Mean Streets.” You feel like you ought to go to confessional after hearing this one.)
I saw Van Halen five times — three with Sammy, two with Dave — and each time, I waited for the inevitable, glorious wankfest that was “3:16,” Eddie’s 10-minute-long virtuoso solo. It was self-indulgent, it was ridiculous, it was barely even musical in parts, and I loved it. Every. Damn. Time.
Time rolled on, and the distance between Van Halen albums grew longer — two years, three years, four years, 14 years … today. Music rolled on too; rock music’s more a niche fascination than a cultural touchstone now. Eddie rarely broke out of his cocoon to play with anybody other than his brother, which I always thought was a bit of a shame. It rendered him a sui generis old wizard, out of step with pretty much everything around him yet still an icon.
(Oh, now here’s a Gary Cherone tune. “Ballot or the Bullet.” Yeah … politics and Van Halen went together like peanut butter and motor oil.)
Your earliest musical touchstones never leave you. When my kids were born, I made playlists of essential listening — music they needed to know beyond TV show theme songs and “Wheels on the Bus” — and I dropped “Jump” and “Pretty Woman” in the mix. And at one of the darkest times in my life, I sat in a pitch-black room and listened to one of the then-new Van Halen songs — “Blood and Fire” — and smiled at how much, even in 2012, the familiar waves-crashing sound of Eddie’s guitar brought back memories of better times in that high school parking lot and DuPont Hall.
But that’s a downer to end on, and if there’s one thing Van Halen’s music doesn’t do, it’s bring you down. So let’s go out loud and strong. Crack a beer open on your skull and sing along to “Runnin’ With The Devil” one more time.
These days, my Gen Z kids proudly carry on the Van Halen legacy. My daughter listens to “Panama” on her runs. My son plays that old Telecaster. (He hasn’t figured out how to do the tapping yet, but I’ll show him soon enough.) And when summer rolls back around, I’ll wear my red-and-white-and-black-striped Eddie-guitar-style board shorts to the pool, and I’ll fire up “Hot For Teacher” without a hint of irony.
Wail on, Eddie. We’ll keep the party going in your wake.