Opinion: Farewell to rock’s mischievous genius

Farewell to Van Halen

I was late to the Van Halen party.

Not gonna lie – I initially thought the shredding, the fret tapping, the whammy bar and other insane effects of Eddie Van Halen, who died this week of cancer at just 65, was more sizzle than steak. 

The clownish frontman David Lee Roth, the cheesy vocal harmonies, the schizophrenic detours, the bad-boy party shtick, turned off a kid who wanted his guitar gods to be serious, sombre deities, like Clapton or Page. 

When I came around, I fell hard for Van Halen. 

It was Diver Down, the band’s fifth record, released in 1982, that I won by being caller seven one night while doing my homework and listening to the radio, that made me a convert.

It’s a ridiculous record, with 12 songs crammed into 31 minutes, featuring five covers – three rock classics in Where Have All The Good Times Gone, Pretty Woman and Dancing In The Street and two old-school nuggets faithfully recreated in the jazzy 78-rpm of Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now (with Eddie’s dad on the clarinet) and the sweet barbershop of Happy Trails.

As my teenage musical appreciation broadened into other genres and then deepened into history, the record sounded better and better. Within a few months, I was hearing what Eddie, his equally incredible drumming brother Alex, rock-solid bassist Michael Anthony and macho man Roth wanted me to hear – a rollicking guided tour through the musical styles they adored.

I realized I had been fooled, mistaking Van Halen’s carefree style as carelessness. Instead, this was a band that took having fun seriously and prided itself on delivering short, sharp, shiny gems with smirks on their faces.

By the time 1984 came out in that same year, I still hadn’t done more than a drive-by of their existing catalogue but I was ready and waiting for new material. 1984 made them superstars on the strength of a holy trinity of smash singles – Jump, Panama and Hot For Teacher. The videos were cheap and silly but perfect MTV fodder.

There was only one album that universally loved in my high school and it was 1984 because Jump and I’ll Wait worked for the Top 40 kids, Panama and Hot For Teacher appeased the headbangers and the other tracks were party time solid rock.

Even after Roth’s departure, the Van Hagar records with Sammy Hager on lead vocals and the reunion couldn’t diminish Eddie’s unique brilliance in the guitar god sky.

If Clapton and Page are the Thor-like guitar gods of rock, then Eddie was no doubt Loki, the mischievous imp who simultaneously mastered blues-based classic rock and refused to stay within its constraints. 

For him, the guitar was far more than some clumsy hammer, it was a magical wand with which to cast dizzying musical spells, to reveal other worlds and endless possibilities. 

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