I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to be Eddie Van Halen. That’s the honest truth, and it has nothing to do with my unhealthy infatuation with One Day at a Time (I’m really more of a Bonnie Franklin man).
Like a lot of people, I started playing guitar because of Eddie. I remember in the early ‘80s buying a cassette tape of Van Halen I prior to a long drive to visit family in Ohio. The simplest and most accurate way to explain my reaction is to say it blew my f**king mind. A few years later, I picked up Fair Warning – the greatest guitar album of all time – and that’s when I decided I was going to be a Guitar God.
Eddie’s status as a guitarist is unparalleled and beyond argument. I’ll toss Jimi Hendrix and Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page into the discussion regarding who is the greatest ever (that faint cry you hear is a gaggle of white guys with their shirts tucked in wailing about easy listening icon Eric Clapton, who incidentally, was one of EVH’s idols).
Ed Van Halen was about more than technical proficiency – his was a cutthroat style, full of well earned attitude and bravado. And he did it all with that million-f**king-dollar smile on his face, making what he did look so easy. Actually, I don’t think he was smiling. I think he was laughing at all of us.
His patented “brown sound” power chords were heavier than everyone not named Angus Young, and his solos often sounded like somebody tossed a sh*t ton of random notes into the air, then picked them up off the floor and Frankensteined them back together (for a great example of this, check out the solos in “So This Is Love?”).
Eddie once compared Van Halen’s sound to “Godzilla waking up,” which might be the most awesomely true description ever. If that doesn’t make sense to you, go toss on “And the Cradle Will Rock” or “Unchained” as loud as you can, and you’ll quickly figure it out.
The concept of “Godzilla waking up” has always intrigued me, and for a period of my life, it was something I aspired to. As a guitarist, I wanted to be nothing short of destructive. Have you ever stood close to a really loud amplifier and noticed what felt like a slight breeze? I wanted to be that breeze, amplified a thousand times over, mussing up your finely moussed mullet and knocking the buttons off your girlfriend’s blouse.
There was a period in high school and college which I tend to romanticize a bit, imagining myself constantly armed with a guitar over my shoulder. I further imagine entire groups of people who knew me during that time who recall me as a guitarist first, and a total dick second (unlike now where the latter is more consistent with popular opinion).
I didn’t try to copy Eddie’s playing style as much as I did his attitude. Hell, for a period of time, I would place a lit cigarette into the top of my guitar, despite the fact I’ve never been a smoker. But Ed did it and it looked brilliant.
I always got the impression that behind that goofy smile, EVH was driven by a desire to humiliate and demoralize his guitar playing “peers.” He knew no one was going to out-innovate him. There’s only one “Eruption”, one “Mean Streets”, one “Cathedral.” He was Michael Jordan and the rest of us were Craig Ehlo.
But then it all sort of faded away. I think many will say it was Nirvana and grunge that killed Van Halen. No – grunge killed hair metal. To put Van Halen in that category is simply ignorant. Van Halen was unabridged American rock and roll, made up of equal doses of volume, virtuosity, alcohol, and unprotected sex, served in three and a half minute increments.
No – what killed Van Halen was Eddie’s desire to be a legitimate songwriter. And by extension, the inclusion of Sammy Hagar.
Don’t get me wrong – Van Hagar made one pretty great album (5150), and a handful of likeable songs. But what they stopped doing was routinely whipping it out and getting into a measuring contest with everyone within a five mile radius. Mind boggling riffs gave way to beginner level keyboard tunes. Eddie became a one trick, finger tapping pony.
Here’s an interesting fact. Over seven albums with David Lee Roth, Van Halen wrote five songs with the word “love” in the title. The most famous of which was called “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, and the last one – “So This Is Love?” – clearly ends in a question mark. In between, they wrote about feeling your love, being out of love, and the silliness of women who were in love.
Over four albums with Sammy Hagar, the band crapped out five “love” songs as well, with profoundly wussy titles like “Love Walks In”, “When It’s Love” and the musical turd-in-the-punch-bowl known as “Can’t Stop Loving You.”
Is it fair to attribute this shift in perspective to Eddie? I mean, lyric writing did fall to Dave and Sammy. But make no mistake – Van Halen was Eddie’s band and he set the tone for everything that happened. And when he decided he wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter, out went Dave, in came Sammy, and the fans were left with tired guitar solos, uninspired keyboards, and whole lot of songs about aliens, baked goods, love and the need to feel so good, right now.
As I got older, I too became overly concerned with feeling good, right now, and less obsessed with being unchained. My black Les Paul Standard was sold to Mom's Music years ago and eventually replaced with a cut rate acoustic guitar, which is great for strumming chords, but not so good for magically unclasping bras. Wasn’t there a time when everybody wanted some? Yes, but that gave way to a desire to be taken seriously as a professional member of the hoi polloi.
And let it be known, there have been no guitar gods since 1984.
Van Halen is cruising in to town Saturday night to perform at the KFC Yum! Center, with David Lee Roth in tow. And although some people view Diamond Dave as the Douche-Master General of Jabroni-ville, there’s no denying he’s brought a bit of the swagger back. The new album, A Different Kind of Truth, is surprisingly not bad. Of course that might have to do with the fact that many of the songs are just reworkings of previously unreleased Van Halen songs. But it’s loud and aggressive and aint nobody talkin’ ‘bout love. At times, Eddie sounds like he’s in the market to humiliate a few people.
I don’t spend anymore time trying to be Eddie Van Halen. I’d prefer to see him start doing that again.
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