The outpouring of grief — and the celebrations of his life — following Eddie Van Halen‘s passing on October 6 at just 65 years old are certainly understandable, appropriate, and warranted. Like Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen was a monumental gamechanger who by force of his own formidable talent and creativity transformed and retooled the way other guitarists viewed technique, tone, and gear.
As the Editor in Chief of Guitar Player magazine from 1997 until 2018, common wisdom should follow that I would be one of those absolutely devastated by his death.
I am, as much as it is so brutally difficult to weather the icons of one’s youth ceasing to tread across the planet. Every death is yet another stone laid upon the spiritual gravesite of one’s link to his or her cultural past, whether the departed is a musician, an actor, a writer, a politician, a business leader, or other treasured celebrity.
But unlike so many of my guitar-playing contemporaries, I was never seduced by the soaring geek-a-tude that fervently shadowed every attack of his fingers upon his guitar neck, or his gifted facility for building/modifying his gear, or his crafting of tones, or his tapping, or, well, anything else. In fact, I remember that I made the sin of all sins for a lover of guitarcraft: I laughed when I first heard “Eruption,” because I felt it was over-the-top and rather silly.
I would also get kind of pissed during those moments when Eddie would succumb to his demons. There was the stuff I’d read about in the news and tabloids, and there was the stuff I experienced first-hand — such as truly embarrassing drunken moments at NAMM shows where his actions during booth visits and other industry events would leave people shaking their heads. Shocked. Saddened.
Obviously, we are all imperfect humanoids, and everyone (to a certain degree) should be forgiven their descents into madness. Especially in the rock world, it’s not like my heroes were always choir boys and girls. So many of them were talented “problems.” But I’d get disappointed in Eddie’s public displays from time to time, and, as a result, I’d turn off my Van Halen radar. I’d move on to focus on other players and other bands.
Happily, there were some fabulous staffers at Guitar Player during my tenure who adored Eddie, and who I could trust to keep the magazine focused on the “Van Halen Beat” that affected so many readers and advertisers.
In fact, two of those now-former GP editors — Matt Blackett and Jude Gold — are writing what I’m sure will be the penultimate tribute to Eddie’s artistry and impact in an upcoming issue of Guitar Player.
For me, the whole Van Halen thing was focused more on the songs and production strategies.
When I heard Van Halen tunes on the radio for the first time, it wasn’t the obviously impressive guitar playing that captured my attention. It was the quality of the songwriting, as well as how the tracks blasted out of a playback system — a car radio, a cassette boombox, a vinyl-record player, a CD player, and so on — to shake me down to my bones and bring a big-ass smile to my face.
The songs — and the audio production and arrangement smarts inherent within them — became part of the soundtrack of that era of my youth. They were powerful. They were unique. They made me happy. And, truth be told, Michael Anthony’s soaring vocal parts affected and inspired me as much or more than Alex’s drums, or Dave’s vocals, or, yes, Eddie’s guitar solos. Of course, you can’t really separate one element from the whole, because the blend of all that sound and talent and distinctiveness was one hell of an aural battering ram. What a noise.
There was something else at play here, as well. Again, like Hendrix, Van Halen was a breakthrough band that didn’t just appeal to guitar geeks and technique snobs and gear crazies. They were on the charts. They sold millions of records. They played countless sold-out arenas. So the impact of Eddie and the band was felt across popular culture — no less of a feat than the Camelot of JFK, or the James Bond films, or, heck, Beatlemania.
So while I could care less about brown sounds or Floyd Roses or tapping, Eddie Van Halen was absolutely part of my everyday life.
He also impacted my existence — and my career — in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated.
Thanks to those who DID geek out over every element of his craft and his gear, guitar journalism and guitar magazines absolutely benefitted. Guitarists wanted to hear more about this wizard and maybe even pick up a few secrets. And, as Eddie “upped the game” for other ambitious and talented players, the community of shred exploded, expanding the number of bands, increasing audiences, and ultimately making radio stations and major record labels very happy indeed. That’s not all. Those players needed different tools, so guitar-gear manufacturers evolved to serve the market, which triggered more business for music stores and more advertising for magazines such as Guitar Player, Guitar World, and so on.
When I got to GP in 1997, the publication was still experiencing the benefits of what Eddie and those who followed in his wake had brought to the table. It didn’t last, of course. The publishing industry’s business challenges were just a few years away. But without Eddie to lift everything up, I wonder if the crash that ultimately cost so many music journalists their jobs — and caused so many wonderful magazines to shut down — would have happened earlier.
So while I still don’t bow to all of the fabulous little details that made Eddie who he was as a player and tone warrior, I appreciate his artistry, and I will thank him until I stop breathing for helping me keep a great job for so long, allowing me to serve a beautiful community of guitar players and gear manufacturers that still resonate within my heart to this day. Rest well, maestro. You left us all with so much.