As if 2020 didn’t have enough news, rock legend Eddie Van Halen has died of throat cancer, at age 65. For those of us who grew up on 1980s rock, this one really hurts.
I lack the musical vocabulary to quite capture what a transcendent, mind-blowing guitarist Eddie was, one of the very best there has ever been. He was the heart and soul of Van Halen, a band so solid that it kept on chugging after the departure of its charismatic frontman, David Lee Roth, at the peak of the band’s mid ’80s success. They plugged in the workmanlike but unremarkable Sammy Hagar, and kept churning out hits — indeed, some of the band’s fans will still insist that the music was better once the focus was off Diamond Dave. I would not go quite that far, but the “Van Hagar” years dispelled any doubt about who the band’s creative force was.
Maybe the most important thing about Van Halen was quite how much fun the band was. Bands built around the “guitar god” culture could be gritty, bluesy, or pretentious, but nobody before Van Halen (even early Aerosmith) had quite managed to rock so hard while having so much fun, whether on the records or onstage. Yet, unlike some of their sillier “hair-band” progeny, nobody could seriously question the rock cred of a band with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar at its center. Van Halen’s combination of musical virtuosity, panache, and longevity richly earned them a place on the very short list of the greatest American bands. It all started with their debut album, one of those rare rock records that grabs you right from the incendiary opening guitar solo and never lets up.
For all of their original songs, Van Halen’s covers in their early years were just as much a part of the band’s legacy. Eddie’s guitar theatrics alone were worth the price of admission to their version of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” and their covers of “You Really Got Me” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” helped introduce a new generation of rock fans to the Kinks (and their cover of “Pretty Woman” helped revive interest in Roy Orbison at a down moment in his remarkable career). And of course, outside the band, Eddie’s guitar solo took Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” to an entirely new level on one of the signature hits of one of the biggest blockbuster albums of the Eighties.
R.I.P., Eddie. A lot of us are out there feeling held together by tape today.