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Hammers of the god: the cosmic artistry of Edward Van Halen

Aaron S. Bayley

Edward Van Halen in 1979. Photograph by Sue Arber.


Nostalgia has an air of total irreconcilability. There is the feeling the word describes, of course: a fundamentally impossible yearning, a longing to go back even as we are driven ceaselessly forward, pushed farther away from our desire even as we sit contemplating it. But it's the actual feeling, too, that ceaselessly resists any attempt to give it shape or sense. If we say we feel nostalgic, in general or about something in particular, it rarely needs an explanation, and there likely isn't a good one anyway...Why is it welling up now, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday?


- David Berry in On Nostalgia


Somewhere back in time, Edward Van Halen is on stage at The Starwood on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. He is tearing into a guitar solo, using his fingers like tiny hammers to tap frenetically on the fretboard of his Frankenstrat like a mad genius. Diminutive in his button-down shirt and bellbottoms, he is on the cusp of becoming a larger-than-life icon, imitated but never duplicated by copycats in pursuit of his style and tone.


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On Tuesday October 6, 2020, Eddie Van Halen died from cancer at age 65. Reading the headlines on social media announcing his death was and is surreal. Those of us who are diehard fans knew he had been battling throat cancer, but accessing credible information about anything relating to Eddie or his band was never an easy task in the ultra-secretive and tight-lipped Van Halen universe.


There is a cartoon meme dripping with nostalgia titled "Remember that first time...?" that depicts a young boy sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing black headphones plugged into a record player while holding and staring at the album cover of Van Halen's 1978 debut. The image transports me back to 1982, the first time I heard the first record. Much like the boy in the meme, I was sitting cross-legged in the living room of my grandparent's small house in Danbury, Connecticut, probably sipping orange pekoe tea and eating chocolate chip cookies, wearing clumsy black headphones plugged into my grandfather's stereo while staring in awe at the images of the band on the front and back album cover.


Getting a Van Halen record was an event, and I remember the purchase of every one. My grandfather bought me Van Halen and Van Halen II from Bradlees and Caldors, the local department stores in Danbury. My mother bought me Women and Children First from a long gone Sam the Record Man on the upper level of Royal York Plaza in Etobicoke. I bought Diver Down from Honest Ed's in downtown Toronto, and my sister bought 1984 from the Music World—now a Tim Horton's—on Dundas Street in Etobicoke. In 2011 I completed the six-album Roth era vinyl collection when I bought Fair Warning at a record store in Chicago.


When people describe the first time they heard Van Halen, their experiences are strikingly similar. There is always that friend who owned a copy of the first album who says, in effect: You gotta hear this band. There's the listening session in the bedroom or basement or car or living room, and the wide-eyed fascination upon hearing the reverse car horn heralding "Runnin' With the Devil." There's the excitement of the ensuing sonic assault coming from Edward's Destroyer and Marshall Plexi and, upon hearing the cascade of notes climaxing at the end of "Eruption,"the mind-blowing epiphany that Edward Van Halen was unlike any other guitar player. The communal discovery of Van Halen's unbridled creativity was practically a rite of passage; the grooves in the vinyl forging a path to musical enlightenment. Like an alien from outer space armed with the futuristic sounds of dive bombs, reverb, phaser, and flanger, Edward was the atomic punk ushering in a new era of hard rock at a time when Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were on life support, punk was in vogue, and disco was king. The ostentatious, scissor-kicking frontman David Lee Roth might have been the flag-bearer for the mighty Van Halen, but the rocket was fuelled by the band's shy Dutch-Indonesian namesake. Edward Van Halen was in an orbit all his own.


The seven-year-old version of me recognized "I'm The One" as the standout track on the debut album, and for my money it remains the greatest Van Halen song ever. The swinging, opening riff, the freewheeling spontaneity of Edward's fills, the scintillating solos, Roth's bombastic lyrics, and the barbershop quartet harmonized breakdown—everything about the song is outlandish and fun. I would go to bed at night listening to a tape of Van Halen songs in my Sony Walkman and pretend I was on stage playing "Panama" or "Little Guitars" or "Outta Love Again" or "Everybody Wants Some!!" or "Unchained" or "Hang 'Em High." Like millions of other kids, Edward Van Halen made me want to play the electric guitar, but even more, his solos, songwriting, and rhythm playing taught me what it takes to be a great guitar player. Of course, I would never be able to play like him—no one would. Many are faster and more technical, but no one will ever fill his shoes.


After 1982, when he played the smouldering guitar solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" for free as a favour to Quincy Jones, and after 1984, when Van Halen had mainstream hits with "Jump," "Panama," and "Hot for Teacher," Edward Van Halen was known simply as "Eddie." In the 1990s and 2000s he would cut his hair and sport a goatee, grow his hair long again, and go short, grey, and sober into his 60s. Like a true artist, he was reclusive and eccentric, but he was as authentic as they come, unconcerned with celebrity and generous to a fault. whenever I conjure him, my mind drifts back to the "Edward" era of the late '70s: the Edward with feathered hair and an impish grin, sporting his striped black and yellow "Bumblebee" Charvel or his crudely modified, sawed off "Shark" Destroyer. This is the image of Edward Van Halen that will remain burned into my memory—the image of a cool, young innovator, always tinkering and modifying; a trailblazer ready to conquer the world.



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Nostalgia welled up on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday because an American icon had died and left us with no choice but to look to the past. Asked Howard Stern on his Sirius XM radio show, "You know what kills me? This is the thing I'm hung up on...thousands and thousands of hours of guitar playing, all of that talent, all of that expertise is gone now...It drives me crazy, where does all that talent go?" I don't subscribe to the corny but harmless belief that "Eddie is jamming in heaven with Jimi Hendrix and Randy Rhoads," the sort of thing hurting people tell themselves to feel comfort in times of distress. I don't believe in heaven and hell, and I certainly don't believe that we will ever find out what happens to us, if anything, after we pass from this world. But the talent, and the man whose artistry inspired legions of admirers and musicians, is gone forever. What lives on are the studio recordings, the music videos, the YouTube clips, and the memories. The June 2015 edition of Billboard magazine featured Eddie Van Halen on the cover with the heading "The Last Guitar God"; that title probably belongs to Slash, but the point is well taken. In the age of social media, where YouTube and Instagram expose an artist's every trick and technique while leaving nothing to the imagination, the guitar player who, in the mid-70s, used to turn his back on his audience so that competitors couldn't cop his moves wouldn't stand a chance. When listening to a studio recording without any visual reference point was the only way to access music, sleight of hand trickery was still possible. Edward's two-handed tapping bewildered countless guitar players, but once they caught on, he fooled them again on subsequent albums. Dave Navarro expressed as much in a 2017 Sirius XM radio interview on Eddie Trunk's Trunk Nation:


"I would also argue that the opening to 'Mean Streets' [on Fair Warning], when you start that record and you hear that riffing? That's something we had never heard before. Ever...For me, when 'Eruption' came out I was already playing guitar, and I could grasp mentally what was happening. By the time Fair Warning came out I had been playing for years, and I had no fucking clue what was happening. And to me that was just earth-shattering."


I was lucky enough to see Van Halen perform five times, and each time my elementary school friend Rob was with me. On Friday he came over to my house to reminisce. I showed him the TC Electronic Alter Ego x 4 pedal I had recently purchased, a vintage-voiced delay pedal that features 16 classic delays, including a faithful copy of the Echoplex Eddie used on "Eruption." Then I played him the so-called "Zero Demos" from 1976, the Gene Simmons-produced raw demo of Van Halen originals, two years before Ted Templeman reshaped the songs for the debut album on Warner. But we didn't speculate about a Van Halen reunion tour with original members; Eddie's death brought that question to a full stop.


It's hard to avoid clichés and superlatives when writing about the death of a virtuoso and icon. I grew up idolizing Edward Van Halen, and his music was the soundtrack of my youth. For me, he will always be, like Wayne Gretzky, the Greatest of All Time. (When I learned that my ex-fiancé was born on January 26, the same day as Eddie and Gretzky, and that her last name is an anagram of 'Halen,' I was convinced we were meant to be. I was wrong). Even though his band had not been particularly productive in years, the void left by his death is immeasurable. Now I find solace and catharsis in watching young people discover Van Halen and Eddie's otherworldly talents. There are no more secrets for me to discover: I've heard all the songs, read all the books, seen all the shows. Nostalgia is bittersweet, yet there is no point in dwelling on the past. But for younger generations going down the Van Halen rabbit hole for the first time, there is a world of wonders to explore, a world created by a restless artist whose passion and curiosity revolutionized rock guitar and redefined the genre, an artist whose band created a soundtrack for America, an artist who become a legend by accident.


And legends never die.



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